Saturday, September 21, 2019

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #16

Haggling Friends, abandoned

Mar the sea hag convinces the party to take off their metal armor and weapons and participate in a ludicrous arcane ritual (never underestimate the power of a hideous face). This does not go unchallenged; two air elementals come shrieking down out of the sky to put a stop to proceedings.

This does mean the elementals have to drop their latest victims - our missing wizard and bard! After several days of not hearing from their friends, the two ventured out to find them and were immediately snatched up by wandering elementals. Fortunately the elementals got distracted before they could carry out their plan of "drop two humans from 10,000 feet and see if the heavier one lands first."

Mar curses the elementals with her hideousness and then immediately jumps in the river. The party dashes back to their pile of weapons and begins to fight an exciting, danger-laden battle (the details of which I have forgotten since it was a month ago). A spell from the wizard blinds one of the elementals, which ultimately tilts the contest in favor of the party. The wizard also closes the portal to the elemental plane of air with an Arcane Lock spell, reasoning that it "holds portals."

When Mar returns she is upset that her portal is gone. She tries to convince the druid to sacrifice the two warriors for tael to re-open the portal. He considers the idea but ultimately rejects it. Instead, the party convinces Mar to wait until tomorrow, after they've healed and recharged their spells. The bard, true to form, strikes up a friendly conversation with the sea hag and accompanies her back to her underwater lair, where he entertains her until she falls asleep and then steals the Tome of Doors. She wakes up as he's sneaking out, but he placates her with another performance.

Meanwhile the party is attacked by a pack of rogue shadows. The cleric sends them packing easily enough. When the bard returns in the wee hours of the morning, the party has had enough. They immediately start hiking east to pick up the trail home. Along the way they are attacked by shadows every night, and eventually the cleric mispronounces one of the esoteric syllables of his protective chant. A brief battle ensues, only to end anticlimactically when the cleric properly invokes the power of his god and vaporizes most of the shadows. Heat rays from Rialto's rods finish off the last of them, but the rods are beginning to run out of charges.

This resolves the random attacks at night, but the area is still dangerous (and never mind they are trying to avoid Mar and her cousins). An air elemental shows up and is easy pickings after the wizard blinds it. Encouraged and greedy, the bard casts Summon Hostile Monster - a spell which consists of waving around a gold coin while shouting the mystical orcish phrase, "Meat's back on the menu, boys!" The spell works better than anticipated - three elementals descend from the sky in a fury. A tremendous battle ensues, with the cleric, barbarian, and ranger all going to negatives at one point or another. The ranger finally uncorks his mystic Dagger of Slaying and dissipates the last one, leaving the party severely depleted and out of spells. On the other hand they've managed to eliminate most of the wandering monsters in the area, earning enough tael to raise everyone to fourth level.

They pick up the golem's trail and evade every other potential encounter, making a beeline for home and their lost donkeys of gold. This journey is interrupted by a tower appearing out of nowhere in the middle of the plain (another random encounter provided by Sandbox World Generator). Five lamias in matching armor march out and the leader demands a toll for trespassing on their land - the party must choose one of their companions as a sacrifice. The party, however, is in no mood for this, and immediately attacks. An Entangle spell pins the foe in place, insect swarms reveal four of the lamia to be mere mirror images that are instantly destroyed, and barbarian and ranger swords put the lamia on the ground in record time (and it was supposed to be a CL 6 encounter!). The lamia begs for his life and the druid intervenes, sparing him. Unfortunately this is not due to some moral concern but rather due to the lamia's promise of hidden treasure.

The lamia almost makes it work, explaining that he knows where to acquire mass quantities of tael if only he had a few strong hands to help collect it, but the cleric thinks to ask if the collection of this treasure would be an evil act. "I guess," says the lamia, "but since you're in the business of wandering onto people's lands and beating them up, does it matter?" Realizing the moral hazard, the ranger puts an end to the lamia's tempting lies with his dagger. (Seriously, that thing should get a magical bonus by now.)

The very next day they cross the river from which they were originally kidnapped. Much to their dismay their horses and donkeys are long gone, and even the ranger can't find their tracks after the many weeks that have passed. The party decides to return to their original stomping grounds and finish exploring the dungeon under the lake, mostly because the wizard wants another skeleton to boss around.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Podcast with Beyond the Trope

I did a podcast with the lovely team over at Beyond the Trope. They were a lot of fun to talk to! Check it out if you have the time - they have a half-dozen ways to listen.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #15

Haggling Friends

(Note: this recap will be a spoiler for the adventure Haggling Friends, available at DriveThruRpg).

On their way out of town the party decides to indulge in the druid's favorite hobby, burning buildings. They work all day to pile wood inside the harpy's tower, ignoring her insults now that the burly fighting men are immune to her song. When they finally ignite the conflagration, the harpy rolls her eyes and flies away. Convincing themselves that they have won the encounter, they set out for home, following the distinctive tracks of the wheeled police golem that originally brought them here.

In the middle of the night they are (not) surprised by the return of the harpy, but the presence of Lady Night is different matter. The druid, demonstrating good instincts, offers a ransom if she will let them go. Surprised herself, the lady agrees to call off the harpy circling overhead in exchange for precious tael. Coming from the notoriously tight-fisted druid, this is a real sacrifice. But the party will have none of it; they hurled insults and then javelins and arrows when the harpy dives into an attack.

The harpy dies pretty quickly. Without her song she is no match for the barbarian and ranger. Lady Night, on the other hand, turns out to be an incredibly dangerous foe (especially considering she is only a ECL 4 encounter!). She immediately summons multiple swarms of bats, which prove to be as debilitating to the party as all the swarms they have sent against their enemies. The druid struggles to get off a spell, the barbarian can't get past her armor and damage resistance, and the ranger is almost immediately dominated by her vampiric charm. Once again deafness plays to their advantage; she can't order him to attack his companions. It all comes down to a desperate Turn Undead from the cleric (who succeeds only after adding every imaginable bonus the party could scrape together). Even so the bats she left behind might have caused a death or two but for the druid wielding summoned flame - the only effective weapon they have against swarms.

The next day they hustle to put distance between themselves and Lady Night's resting place, which they assume must be somewhere in the City of Tomorrow. They know she won't risk being caught out at dawn, so if they can just get far enough away they'll be safe from her attentions. Of course this leaves Rialto to deal with the creature, but they seem remarkably unconcerned for his safety.

The plains stretch out wide and long before them, broken up by forests. In the distance they see a sphinx on the wing and decide not to head in its direction. When the golem tracks lead them into a forest, they hesitate; the dangers of the open plains and the sphinx seem less intimidating than whatever the trees are hiding. However, home, and more importantly the donkeys carrying all of their gold, lay on the other side, so in they go,

Where they are immediately attacked by what appears to be a tribe of pixies, small blue creatures that cast annoying spells on them and then disappear. They seriously consider retreating and detouring around the forest when they are saved by an attractive young woman who frightens the invisible creatures off.

Her name is Abby and she is currently engaged in some arcane magical research, hence the isolation of living in the forest. She invites them back to her humble hut for dinner and offers to brew up a potion to cure the two warrior's deafness - if they can provide her with the necessary ingredients of tael and an owlbear feather. The druid is carrying a bag full of various monster parts like a demented kind of trophy case, but Abby turns her nose up at the feather he produces. She says it must be fresh; and as luck would have it, she can give them directions to an owlbear's lair not too far away.

The party is pretty confident of their owlbear hunting skills, and as usual this one barely puts up a fight before the ranger kills it with his dagger. Seriously, that guy is just showboating now. The potion is successful and the party enjoys a nice dinner cooked over the fireplace outside her hut. The wizard engages her in interesting arcane discussions and the bard engages her in his usual ribaldry, both of which seem well-received.

In the morning Abby asks them for a favor in return. It turns out that she is not completely alone here; she has two sisters, one to the north and one to the south, who used to live with her. However, they had a falling out and not spoken for a few years. Her sister Bella accused her of stealing a precious unicorn horn and a set of wereboar teeth. While she maintains her innocence, she is ready to bury the hatchet, and the party can help. If they could rustle up a horn or some teeth, and take them to Bella with a note of contrition from Abby, perhaps the two sisters could repair their relationship. And as luck would have it, she can give them directions...

The druid and the cleric put their foot down at hunting unicorns. They are Good, after all. Most of the party sets out in search of the wereboars, leaving behind the wizard and bard who seem otherwise occupied (and whose player's missed this session). After a long day's hike they find the were-brothers digging for truffles in the dirt like a pair of half-naked savages (which, in fact, they are). Like any meeting in the wild, far from the influence of law and order, the situation is tense. The brothers are wary but are not overtly hostile. The druid becomes slightly uneasy and opens a discussion with the brothers to determine if they are evil enough to be murdered. Within a few minutes both sides are exchanging foodstuffs (mushrooms for ale) and in general having a good time.

So that puts that murder-for-hire contract off the table. The party decides to go off-script and search out the third sister (since they happen to be close to her territory) and see what she wants. (Again, this is both the danger and glory of the sandbox approach. Even when the rails are plainly marked - like three sisters named A, B, and C - the players can get themselves completely lost.) They find Crissy, a beautiful red-headed woman who frankly looks nothing like the younger black-haired Abby, and introduce themselves. She tells them a similar tale of woe, suggesting that they fetch a Dire Lion skin for their cousin, Mar, who lives to the west. And as luck would have it...

The Dire Lions, despite being huge carnivorous bags of teeth and claws, are no match for the dreaded Entangle spell coupled with the ranger's bow. Finally equipped with a suitable gift, the party heads for Mar's place. Along the way they get assaulted by a rogue air elemental, which gives them a serious beating and would have carried the cleric off to be murdered if the barbarian hadn't rescued him from the whirlwind with a well-timed grab.

Mar does not look like her cousins. She is a hideously ugly creature with yellowed, leathery skin and rotting seaweed for hair. She is also obviously deranged. The lion skin prompts a confession out of her; she was the one who stole all of the sister's missing components. But she had a good reason; she is trying to open a portal to the plane of water so as to flood the area and create a new sea. Apparently a band of Dark Naga had driven her away from the ocean far to the west, and living in a river just wasn't good enough. Mar has had some success, due to ancient text on gate magic called the Tome of Doors. Unfortunately her spellcraft is abysmal and what she accomplished was to open a portal to the plane of air, which accounts for all the rogue air elementals roaming around. She swears she knows how to fix it; if the party will help her in a new ritual she will convert the portal to water and reward them with as many pearls as they can carry.

The party is dubious but they agree to help her, secretly planning to wait until she goes through the portal to collect the pearls and then smash the portal, trapping her on the other side. She casts Water Breathing on all of them and leads them up-river to where the portal is located. They travel underwater so as to avoid the detection of the air elementals, who will surely view any attack on their doorway home as provocative. This, at last, is properly heroic - sacrificing their promised treasure to shut down a gateway to a hostile plane of monsters. But will they be able to pull it off? And what will they tell cousin Abby, when they go back to recover their mates?

Monday, June 10, 2019

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #14

The City of Tomorrow, Cont.

(Note: this recap will be a spoiler for the adventure The City of Tomorrow, available at DriveThruRpg).

The last few days have had a musical accompaniment from the bell tower as the bard and harpy sang duets. But this morning the bard finds himself alone and finally shrugs off the harpy's magically-induced fascination.

He calls out for help and soon the rest of the party is at the foot of the tower. There are a few words of recrimination, but as the bard was not being attacked by hordes of cannibalistic lizardfolk, and as the party agrees never to discuss the events of the last few days (in the same way they have agreed never to discuss the unfortunate affair of his fish-wife marriage), he quickly moves on to the problem of getting back on the ground. (In true D&D fashion he considers just jumping; it's only a five-story fall, after all. What's 5D6 damage among friends? As it turns out, quite a lot for a bard who only has 4D6 hit points.) Considerable discussion is had as the party attempts to find the most convoluted magical method for resolving the problem because why not? Eventually the bard decides to take his chances; he leaps from the window, trusting the wizard to time his Levitate spell to catch him halfway down (the spell's range doesn't reach to the top of tower). One dramatic Spellcraft roll later the bard executes a perfect landing. Now that's an entrance!

So much so that it elicits a round of applause from everyone, including the lizardfolk ambush party that has crept up during all the shouting back and forth. Quickly remembering their true purpose, they hurl a round of javelins and then charge. The wizard casts Sleep, knocking out four of the five attackers, and the fifth one is tripped by the druid's wolf. A comedy ensues as the lizardfolk manages to awaken one of his fellows before succumbing to the assault, and each lizardfolk does the same in turn. Eventually, though, all of them are accounted for.

The party then fills in the bard on the exciting events he's missed, including introducing Rialto and a quick re-telling of the ranger's epic duel with two owlbears armed only with a dagger while the rest of the party watches from behind cover, unable to assist. (The tale might have grown a bit in the telling). This discussion is interrupted by another lizardfolk ambush apparently armed with a plethora of luck. Not only have they crept past the druid's hawk undetected (no mean feat), they manage to land three critical hits from their opening salvo. The barbarian suddenly finds himself with a face-full of javelins. Nonetheless he bravely charges into battle, only to eat another critical. Now the bard has to sneak in and heal the barbarian before he bleeds out while the rest of the party beats down the foe, slinging spells with abandon.

They have gained another audience; the harpy has returned from hunting only to discover the party has stolen her bard. When they reasonably point out that the bard was theirs in the first place, she reminds them that the sack of jewels they took from her nest was hers in the first place. A mutually satisfying deal is struck with the return of each party's property, though the bard is somewhat disappointed to discover that apparently the harpy valued her jewels more than his company. They do try recruit the harpy to attack the lizardfolk, but she is totally unwilling - after some verbal sparring they discover that she is wary of the witch-doctors in the lizardfolk camp.

The only real sticking point in the negotiations is the harpy's insistence that they clear away all the dead lizardfolk from the base of her tower. The wizard takes umbrage at being harangued to take out the garbage by a (literal) harpy, perhaps reflecting some past-life trauma. In the end they leave with only one corpse and a vague promise to "take care of it."

The party has hatched a plan to recruit the lions to their lizard war (the things players come up with while the DM is fetching the pizza) and are taking one dead lizardfolk as an offering. Along the way they are jumped by yet another lizardfolk ambush; this time they rely on the rods of Scorching Ray Rialto armed them with and make short work of the enemy. The ranger uses his magic to talk to the lions and negotiates an alliance; at dawn the lions will attack the lizardfolk camp from the rear while the party charges from the front. As always an alliance with cats is a tenuous thing, assuming as it does that they will remember to show up and also remember whose side they are on, but the party leaves with a good feeling about their chances the next day. They retire to the library for the night, dispatching yet another lizardfolk ambush on the way.

As they are cooking dinner in the library they hear scratching on the walls outside. The ranger puts his stealth skill to use and creeps out to see what is going on. Turns out a squad of lizardfolk are scaling the walls, while an indeterminate number of additional squads are hiding in the forest. The party waits until the lizardfolk reach the top of the walls of the roofless ruin and engage in a missile duel. Though the lizardfolk receive a significant bonus by use the wall as a cover, their javelins are still no match for magic and they inflict only minor damage before being shot off the walls.

Several of the party then lay out their bed-rolls, planning to get a good night's sleep so they can refresh their spells. Their nap is rudely interrupted when a squad of lizardfolk bust down the doors and charge in to the attack. This fight ends like all the others, of course, but several members of the party are out of spells and the warriors are low on hit points.

So they are gratified that their next visitor, just after the sun goes down, is merely Lady Night rather than a squad of angry lizards. She compliments them on their success so far, but assures them the night has only just begun. Once more she tries to make an alliance that would see the Censer of Animation in her hands, but the party balks at her terms since she is unwilling to tell them to what purpose she would put that powerful artifact. Also, it would mean screwing over Rialto, who is right there in the library with them, and hasn't cast any of his spells yet (during the ambushes he mostly hung back, only employing his rod occasionally). She takes her leave with regret.

Only minutes go by before the next assault. A flood of wolves charges through the open doorway. The druid tries to defuse the situation with Animal Empathy, only to discover these are not real wolves but summoned creatures. He calculates how much magic would be required to summon so many animals and starts to slightly freak out. Not for long, though, as yet another squad of lizardfolk follow the wolves in. Now the library is a chaotic swirling mess of dogs, lizards, and men. The party struggles to end the battle; while none of the threats are terribly overwhelming, there are a lot of them.

Inevitably, there are even more. Next two squads charge through the door. No worries, mate; Rialto fireballs the library entrance, destroying the reinforcements of lizardfolk before they can engage. Two more squads immediately follow, but these are different; they are clearly ranked warriors, not merely common soldiers. They are also crap at saving throws and succumb ingloriously to Rialto's second fireball.

But even the puissant Rialto has limits; when the chieftain and his four witch-doctors appear in the entrance, the warlock is out of spells and distracted by wolves. The bard, recently having discovered a way to engage in combat without fearing instant death, summons up five copies of himself and leaps into battle (Mirror Image is one of the stronger low-level spells in the game). The cleric shoots the chieftain with a Scorching Ray; the witch-doctors respond with Magic Missiles until the cleric takes a dirt nap. Then the witch-doctors turn their attention to the bard, slowly chipping away at his defenses. The druid and wizard summon help, in the form of wolves and a swarm of bats, to attack the witch-doctors from behind.

Meanwhile the chieftain proves to be a formidable foe. Even toe to toe with all of the martial prowess  of the party - the barbarian, ranger, and bard - he keeps standing. Worse, he hits like a ton of bricks (by sheer luck all of his damage rolls come up at the maximum). The barbarian takes a hit and goes down in a jangle of metal, his full plate armor no match for the chieftain's brutal strikes. Then the ranger gets slammed, taking him as close to death as any of the party has ever been. Three members of the party are now on the ground, the druid and bard are completely out of spells, and things look quite dire - until the druid's wolf manages to trip the chieftain and the wizard Dazes him. In that moment of opportunity the bard draws a bead and scorches the chieftain, ending his reign of terror in a gruesome, smoking barbecue.

A few healing potions later, every is at least awake and mobile. They quickly harvest the dead, dredging up the last of their cantrips to extract the tael from the corpses rather than going through the grisly and time-consuming process of boiling their heads. They barely have time for this before the return of Lady Night.

She looks over the broken and burnt party and makes one more offer: surrender the censer or have it taken. The party, in no mood for provocation, responds with a fusillade of Scorching Rays, and Lady Night disintegrates into a cloud of black smoke. Curiously, the same kind of smoke that the summoned wolves gave off when they were destroyed. The cleric finally makes his Knowledge: Religion check and deduces that Lady Night is a vampire. The fact that she left behind neither corpse nor tael when reduced to smoke tells the party that she is not done with them yet.

Rialto suggests retreating to the Cave of Refuge for the night, as the library is on fire, full of corpses, and no longer even remotely defensible. The party has a rare moment of disunion when half vote to stay, fearing the trek through the woods in darkness, and half vote to leave, fearing what might come to the library next. They let Rialto's vote swing the balance and set off into the night, carrying the heads of the chieftain and his witch-doctors as trophies.

Only to be met by the harpy. She congratulates them on dispatching the witch-doctors, whose spells were longer range than her song. As she clearly mulls whether or not the party is weak enough to attack, the druid, out of patience for threats pretending to be diplomacy, snaps off a quick shot from his rod. (Some people just can't be trusted with assault rifles.) He misses and the harpy flees into the darkness. Now music comes drifting out of the darkness, captivating half the party - the bard, ranger, and barbarian. The charmed characters begin trudging back to the harpy's tower, bemused looks on their faces. Rialto offers his profoundest sympathies, but now that the censer is in his hands, his duty is to his people. He continues on to the Cave of Refuge, leaving the party with the magic items he had lent them for the fight, and a standing invitation to return at any time.

The three spell-casters follow their friends through the night, trying to come up with a plan that doesn't involve magic (which they are virtually out of) or melee (which they are no good at). At the foot of the tower, watching their friends begin the dangerous climb, knowing that in their current state even one fall might kill them, to say nothing of the harpy that waits at the top, the wizard casts his last two spells: he Deafens both the barbarian and ranger. This is a brilliant defense, save for the minor fact that it is permanent.

This immediately breaks the harpy's control. The ranger easily plucks the bard from the wall and holds him down. The harpy soon realizes that she's lost; she stops singing so she can hurl insults and curses at them. The party trudges back to the Cave of Refuge, reaching it as the sun comes up. Rialto greets them warmly, offering a stew coated in enough magic to disguise its actual contents.

When they finally emerge from the cave a few days later, with spells and hit-points fully refreshed, they return to the lizardfolk camp, only to find a pride of lions lounging around and gnawing on bones. The lions kept to their agreement and attacked the camp at dawn, several days ago. Finding only womenfolk and hatchlings, the lions rampaged unopposed, exterminating the tribe and incidentally acquiring enough tael to promote the leader of the pride to a Dire Lion. Fortunately the creature remembers the profitable alliance with the party and greets them with reserve, issuing only a low warning growl when they get too close.

Rialto has reanimated half a dozen of his people now, men and women armed with swords and armor and steely glares, and his own spells are renewed, so the cave is a safe place to rest; but for the journey home he has little to offer the party beyond a few day's worth of boiled lizard meat. He can do nothing about their loss of hearing; for that they need to return to civilization and a priest of sufficient rank. It is a long trek through unknown wilderness, with an angry air-borne harpy and a vampire at their back, but at least the barbarian doesn't have to listen to any of the bard's songs.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Black Harvest

Got my author copies today - they look great! I am very excited about the conclusion of this series. I hope everybody enjoys reading it as much as I did writing it. And thanks so much to Rene and Pyr for seeing the series to the end.

There is one rather egregious typographical error, however. On page 33, when it says, "Then Christopher noticed the queen was coming," it's supposed to say, "Then Christopher noticed the ants were coming," I am mortally embarrassed that this slipped through our editing process, but even more so at how utterly confused anyone who reads that line will be. Please, tell your friends - or if you see a copy in a bookstore, take out a pen and scribble "ants" over the word "queen." You'll be doing everyone a favor. :)

EDIT: An astute reader points out another mysterious typo. On page 43 a character introduces herself as "Jenny" and in the very next sentence is referred to as "Claire." I must have changed her name at some point and missed that one, but I can't even remember it - she's always been Jenny to me.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Spoiler: How Game of Thrones ends

First, of course, lots of murder: Jon, Dany, and Gendry all have to die, as all of them have clear and obvious claims to the throne. Tyrion needs to die because he's useless now and selling out Varys was just sad. Arya isn't even human (who feeds a man his own children?) and as the second most powerful weapon after Drogon (she can wipe out whole noble houses!), she has to go or it just becomes "Game of Arya." Sansa is disqualified from the Iron Throne because she's a woman and far too smart to be sucked into that maelstrom of doom.

That leaves Bran. The perfect ruler, in that he has no desires, already knows everything, and is megachill to boot. As they lift him out of his wheelchair on to the Iron Throne, his eyes turn blue... and gives that little smirk we know so well. The camera pans outside, where the snow begins to fall heavier and heavier, until all of King's Landing is buried under a white shroud. Because Bran WAS THE NIGHT KING ALL ALONG, which is why Jon's stupid plan worked and why Arya could get so close and stop him. His "death" was just the termination of one of his incarnations. And now that he sits on the Iron Throne the winter will never end.

The moral is clear: as long as we fight among ourselves, climate change wins. And it holds to the theme of Martin's book: humans suck. All of his characters compromise themselves, sabotaging their noblest goals for their fears and desires. It's the only ending that makes sense and I trust Dan & Dave will deliver it, as they must.


I was half right. But for all the wrong reasons. The best analysis I've seen points out that Westeros started out with a king who was not interested in ruling and had no legitimate heirs while being run from the shadows by a Lannister, thus leaving a power vacuum that ignited civil war. And now, Westeros is... ruled by a king who has no interest in ruling and cannot produce heirs while a Lannister runs the kingdom from the shadows.

So in other words, everything we watched, all the struggle and suffering, just made things worse. Which would be a fine commentary on human futility, but along the way we also saw legit miracles - people coming back from the dead, dragons being born, spells being cast - all to no purpose. What would be different if Jon had stayed dead and Dany had burned up in a fire? A lot of people would still be alive. Other than that... ? So apparently it's a commentary on divine futility too?

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #13

Two entries in one day because bad DM didn't do the first one when he should have. 

The City of Tomorrow

(Note: this recap will be a spoiler for the adventure The City of Tomorrow, available at DriveThruRpg).

The Bard steps outside to answer a call of nature, only to be ambushed by a harpy that snatches him up and carries him away. It's not a total loss, as the harpy drops its previous victim, preferring the handsome bard to the scrawny Wizard it had snatched off the streets of Varsoulou in the middle of the night. He doesn't remember a thing, having been dazed by the harpy's song through the long flight. The party is thrilled to welcome him back, heroically overlooking the sheer unlikeliness of the event and also the fact that their friend is now trapped in the untracked wilderness just like they are. (This was my clever DM trick to bring the Wizard back in and take the Bard out, as their respective players had missed the previous and current sessions.)

The party sets out to rescue their mate and are immediately jumped by hungry owlbears (yay for random encounter tables!). Once again they retreat behind library doors, the warriors bravely taking up a front battle line with the casters far behind. This works wonderfully for about twelve seconds. Then one of the owlbears gets a claw into the Ranger, pulls him into its deadly embrace, and flays him like a fish fillet.

The Wizard had been futilely casting spells, running up against the twin problems of magic being all-or-nothing (known as save-or-die, as in the target either shrugs off your spell with no effect or is wholly incapacitated by it) and infinitely finicky (i.e., he was targeting the owlbear's Fortitude saves, which is a poor choice against twelve-hundred pound beasties). Now he gets creative; he casts Grease on the Ranger, giving the poor man a fighting chance against the owlbear's deadly embrace. A spot late, however, as the Ranger is already unconscious and bleeding out by the end of the round.

The Ranger slips from the owlbear's grasp and it steps over him to attack the Cleric. Meanwhile the Druid bravely ducks in and heals the Ranger. Only the smallest of spells, but enough to bring him back to the waking world. The Ranger, apparently channeling the Barbarian, draws his dagger and stabs the owlbear standing above him, despite the near-certain knowledge that it could stomp him to death without even trying. As it happens he finds a vein and the beast collapses in a howl of dying agony (i.e. he delivered the killing blow - a trivial amount of damage and yet just enough to finish off the monster. This is the same way the wolf got the credit for the ogre kills and one of the more amusing quirks of the rules). He's till in danger of smothering under the corpse, so the Druid pulls him free. While being dragged to safety the Ranger throws his dagger at the other owlbear, still battling the Barbarian, and pierces its brain right through an eye-socket, killing it instantly. (Again with the last point of damage - a joke that never gets old.)

After cleaning off and healing up a bit they go to the owlbear's lair, but can make nothing out of the old stone dais the creatures had been circling. Traveling slowly and stealthily they make their way to the far end of the city to examine what turns out to be a graveyard. As it's night they choose to camp here rather than returning to the stinky library. The weather changes unpredictably as the temperature drops to freezing. Of course, this turns out to be the effect of a ghost haunting. Natch!

The Barbarian is on watch when the ghost arrives, and he chooses to wake the Wizard. They let everyone else sleep, on account of they want a fresh set of spells the next day. Apparently the Wizard has a calming effect on the Barbarian, because he doesn't try to attack the ghost. Instead they listen to its complaint and debate what they can do to help it.

In the morning they fill everyone in on the ghost's quest. They recite its monologue from memory (and the Wizard decides that from now on his character will be writing things down, since the wicked DM made him actually recite the monologue from memory). They dig up its grave, looking for a body, but that is long lost to dust. The Cleric assures them a handful of grave-soil will serve well enough, and they set off to the north to deliver the remains to the Hall of Refuge, thus releasing the ghost from its unfinished task.

The Hall of Refuge starts out as a small tunnel in a cliff face which leads to a marble and iron grate, long since broken open. Behind it is a vast cavern the size of a large football stadium, shrouded in darkness. Upon the ground are row after row of empty stone circles, each about three feet across. A huge iron pot and a load of firewood clearly don't belong here, but there they are, right behind the gate. A path leads back into the darkness; after finding the two sides of the cavern hundreds of feet to either side, they follow the path.

The last quarter or so of the cave reveals a change; now the stone circles are occupied by statues of men on one side and women on the other. At the very end of the path is a statue in the middle; a regal  man with the scepter of a king. While the party debates what this all means, lizardfolk begin coming in through the gate.

At this point they are half a mile from the entrance, so they extinguish their lights and hide. The lizardfolk seem to be having an argument; after a while several dozen of them come walking down the path. Eventually they reach the kingly statue. The lizard chief rolls his eyes and assures his fellow tribesmen that all men taste the same, but they are adamant. They want a special treat for dinner tonight. The chieftain lifts a silver censer that hangs around his neck, mutters a mysterious word, and suddenly the statue is a living and breathing man again.

Before the king can speak the lizard warriors leap on him and bind and gag him. The party is understandably distraught and ready to intervene. However, they are scattered in the darkness, heavily outnumbered, and concerned that the lizards might just retreat and seal them in the cave; the confusion (and a little nudging from the DM to make sure his cut-scene went off as planned) result in the lizards reaching the entrance, where they leave the helpless man in the hands of a group of lizard women clearly preparing to cook dinner. Listening to the squirming man, one says, "There, there, it'll all be over in a few minutes," while another one observes, "As long as he's been standing up, you'd think he'd appreciate a bit of a lie-down."

Now that the enemy is reduced to scullions and kitchen drudges, our party feels confident enough to attack. A quick spell and few slit throats later they release the man. His first question - "Does Theronius the Doge still rule?" When the answer is confusion - the party has never heard of such a person, and in any case the ruins outside are ruled by no one, the man relaxes.

He introduces himself as Rialto, a noble of a long dead civilization. Having come to an impasse with the rulers of his day, he and his followers chose retreat rather than civil war. Specifically, they retreated to the cavern, turned themselves to stone, and set a timer for a thousand years. They would then come forth into a world which had never heard of their foes, let alone bowed to their rule. With the equipment they had set by they would issue forth and build a new kingdom.

Unfortunately, at some point the lizardfolk chieftain had discovered them and figured out how to activate the magic item that restored them to flesh. He and his tribe had consequently been eating a few people a day for the last several decades. Rialto is beside himself with rage and the need to save what remains of his people. The party quickly convinces him that they can be trusted to help. He opens a secret door and arms them with potions of Healing and rods of Scorching Ray.

Issuing forth from the tunnel, they find the lizards on their way to dinner. A huge battle ensues, or tries to ensue; most of the lizardfolk get trapped by the Druid's Entangle spell (still the most OP first level spell ever) and are slowly consumed by various swarms of vicious vermin, as the Wizard has now joined the Druid in inflicting the most horrifying death imaginable.

Several squads of lizardfolk do break free and give the Barbarian and Ranger a tough time. Turns out these guys are no mooks; they are hard to hurt and hit like pros (though still not as hard as ogres or owlbears). Another Entangle from the Ranger (who has graduated to real magic now) and a couple of spells from Rialto (who is apparently a high-level wizard), plus some blasts from the rods, finishes them off. But reinforcements are spotted in the distance.

And finally, the unintended consequences of magic: they can't harvest the souls of most of the fallen, because they're still trapped inside the writhing grasses of the Entangle spell, which would trap the party as effectively as it did their foes. Frustrated, they loot what they can, and flee the oncoming horde which looks to be even stronger than the one they just defeated.

Retreating to the library for lack of a better fortification, with the druid covering their tracks, they buy a night of relief. Rialto gives them a bit of history, revealing their actual location on the map of the continent they gained several months ago. In the middle of the night they receive a knock on what remains of the library doors (mostly destroyed by several battles). An attractive and refined young woman, by all appearances unarmed and harmless, wants to make an alliance against the lizardfolk. She desires the Censor of Animation, the item that turns stone to flesh, and is willing to let them have all the rest of the treasure in exchange for their help in destroying the chieftain. Much to everyone's surprise it is the Ranger who coldly rebuffs her in favor of helping Rialto. (By the way, this is perfect Chaotic Good behavior - the Ranger is fair and just with people he has a personal relationship with. Selling out random Edersarrian nobles doesn't bother him because he doesn't consider them part of his peer group. But Rialto is a brother-in-arms, the closest personal relationship a professional murder can form.) The Wizard stalls, asking her to come back the next day after they've had a chance to discuss things. She is dubious, but leaves with a warning that she doubts they can deal with the lizards on their own - it appears she has mistaken Rialto for merely one more of their merry band, rather than the kingly figure (and dispenser of powerful magic items) that he is.

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #12

A minor detail from the previous entry; the players assured me the reward was 10,000 gold pieces, not 5,000. Trust players to remember a little thing like that.

A new mission

The party continues traveling west through new territory. This is the stuff of adventuring! Even if it is occurring in the relatively safe area between two major kingdoms.

And rendered safer by a dose of extreme caution. They discover a beast most foul, a huge lizard  surrounded by broken statues, and like heroes of old they... bravely fled. A minor encounter with a ghost of a woman trapped by an ancient tragedy - she lacks the strength to close the valve that is drowning her husband - is resolved by the Barbarian's rage against injustice. (This was supposed to be the start of a quest for a minor magic item but I didn't have it properly planned out, the party brute-forced the solution, and they already have too many open threads anyway.) After a few more uneventful days they reach civilized lands again, finding a stone tower commanding the plain.

The tower is aware of their approach, sending out a herald to greet them. People don't normally come out of the west, after all, other than invading Varsoulouean armies. Their native Edersarrian accents establish their right to be there; meanwhile, the platoon of knights that have formed up in front of the tower establishes the the balance of power. Our brave party looks upon its quest target, encased in steel, mounted on a massive warhorse, and surrounded by a dozen other such figures, and... bravely flees. "Just passing through," they assure the herald, and quickly head to the village behind the tower to have a drink in a tavern full of pictures and stories about how totally awesome the Order of the Tower is. After much consideration they decide their true duty lies in finishing their first quest, i.e. to find a safe path to Varsoulou (safe being defined as the absence of monsters). Thus they head back east on their original path, deciding that the mysterious wheeled creature would be easier to resolve than the petrifying lizard.

They find the machine's tracks and discover a blockage: a log is preventing it from crossing a ford in the river. The machine keeps driving around in a huge loop, always returning to this spot. Curious, they remove the log and wait in hiding for the machine to come around again. The machine detects them, however, and provokes a confrontation (I had to fudge it a bit here as the party was being pretty cautious), eventually resulting in one of them being caught by its huge stone fist and pinned against its side by dozens of stone clamps. The rest ride to the rescue and are soon captured as well. Only the Druid is safe, for mysterious reasons, and yet as he watches the machine begin to trundle away with his companions to some unknown destination, he attacks it, knowing it means his own capture. Sadly he watches as the machine carries him away from the party's two mules, treasured pets and companions and not incidentally carrying all of the party's gold.

The machine trundles south at incredible speed, never tiring and never stopping, for an entire day an night. Our heroes begin to fear they will die of exposure or thirst before the fiendish journey ends, until it turns down into a shallow valley that houses the ruins of a once-great city. The machine delivers them to center of town, where automated prisoner processing in the form of stone tubes and hands strips them of their weapons and armor and deposits them in an ancient stone prison.

But they are proper adventurers now and not to be undone by simple traps; one Soften Stone spell later they are free. They find their equipment on roof in an old stone box full of rusted metal. A careful search reveals that a mace and a dozen arrows are buried under the detritus but still in perfect shape - certain proof that they are magical. Re-armed and armored, they quickly work out how to avoid the wandering patrol cars (there are two other machines already patrolling the city, and their new one returns to its duties without any fanfare) and set out to explore the ruins.

Whereupon they stumble upon many and various beasties and... bravely flee. They climb a tower and rob a harpy's nest of her gems but don't wait around for her to return. They spot some owlbears engaged in a mysterious ritual but decide not to interfere. The Barbarian does attempt to play with a pride of lions, but after they begin to flay him the Druid turns the party invisible to animals and they creep away. They find an old library inhabited by ogres and politely decline to stay for dinner. (This is entirely my fault for creating a sandbox world. The players know that there is no plot and thus no plot armor; if they pick a fight with a dragon they'll have no one to blame for their deaths but themselves. So they keep looking for the easy marks, like any professional criminal gang would.) When they spot some lizardfolk in a grove of trees it looks like there might be a little action, but the lizardfolk run away from the bard's opening chords and the party runs the other way. Eventually the lizardfolk return in force and the party has the brilliant idea of setting the lizards against the ogres. They lead their pursuers to the ogre's door, only to find the ogres and lizardfolk are apparently old friends. Trapped between two sets of monsters, they choose to charge the ogres and seal the doorway behind them with magical mist, hoping it will dissuade the lizardfolk for a least a little while.

A pair of ogres proves to be an engaging but short fight, made more exciting when another pair of ogres joins in. The Druid's wolf pet rips out the throat of all four ogres, which is just as well as the Barbarian takes a tree branch to the face and almost dies. (The party has discovered one of the major weaknesses of D&D as a game system: an attack that can credibly threaten one of the martial classes would extirpate one of the casters. This is a flaw I'm not even attempting to mediate; it's on them to adapt to the nature of the world as created by the rules.) When the mist expires they are relieved to see that the sounds of combat (and their victory) have apparently convinced the lizardfolk to retreat. Obviously they search the library for treasure, turning up a set of arcane scrolls only the Wizard can use (but he's still back in the Golden Library in Varsoulou, where he has plenty of scrolls without ogre stench all over them). They spend the night being bitten by tiny poisonous spiders and wake up in the morning cranky, hungry, and surrounded by rotting giant corpses.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #11

The Company of Glorious Destiny

The lure of the city lights proves too strong for some - the Wizard disappears into the bowels of the Golden Library with a sack of gold, hoping to be inducted into the secret mysteries. Meanwhile the rest of the party wanders the docks, trying to appear as merely some of the many travelers from distant lands.

Laying low is hard, though, when your tour guide is a border-line sociopath. Z, the sole remaining member of the Brotherhood of the Golden Arrow and now reluctant (on both sides) party minion, is bumped into by a distracted townsmen hurrying to an appointment. Z reacts with immediate offense, back-handing the poor man and absentmindedly including a Cause Wounds spell along with it. The man's face turns grey and rots instantly as he collapses to the ground, dead.

A cry goes up for the watch as Z, belatedly realizing what he's done, bolts for the alleyway. The party decides that the man knows far too much to fall into the hands of the authorities, in addition to being a cold-blooded murderer. They give chase and a very brief battle ensues. The Cleric and Druid keep guard in mouth of the alley, trying to keep their hands clean or least keep the blood off of their boots. Just as Z goes down two local guardsmen come around the corner. One of the party (we can't say who) discreetly shivs the unconscious Z, ensuring he's beyond healing.

The guardsmen recognize that these are adventurers, aka nobles, and thus out of their league. They do claim the body and its tael for the family of the slain. The party chips in a few gold, too, out of "charity," and get off with no more than an admonition to not leave town for a few days.

Later that night they are hanging out in a seedy tavern, as adventurers are wont to do, mostly because reputable establishments would rather have nothing to do with them, when they get a visit from the cool-as-a-cucumber and obviously well-fed Erligil the Dealer. Nobody knows what he deals in but it's clear he makes deals. In fact, after he leaves the bartender pretends not to have seen him, despite having served him a mug of ale.

Erligil chats them up and establishes that they are available for hire. He lets them know he'll get back to them later with a job. It won't be pretty or clean but then, neither are they. He also helpfully suggests a few tourist attractions - for instance, there will be an open training session of the Varsoulou cavalry the next day. The townspeople love to watch a few friendly jousting matches in the same way townspeople love to watch young men batter their heads together while chasing a leather ball. Even better, one of the vaunted members of the Hammer of the Desert will be there. This is a troop of ten knights, all of whom are Baronets or higher, and all clad in the best armor money can buy.

The party is justifiably impressed when the knights take to the lists. They may be third ranked heroes but just one of those lance charges could kill them immediately. The desert knights ride fast, nimble coursers instead of the huge plodding destriers of Edersarr but that doesn't seem to lessen their effectiveness. Erligil meets them in the crowd, appraising their appraisal of the military prowess of Varsoulou.

He takes them back to a tavern and fills them in on the job he's lined up for them. The Castle (meaning the national government), he says, has gotten word of Edersarrian spies hanging around the city, evaluating the defenses, and otherwise scoping out the lay of the land. Given that Varsoulou is still technically at war with Edersarr, this is obviously a problem. Erligil suggests that if the party could round up these spies before the Castle does, they could sell them to the Castle for a pretty penny.

Now this is a sticky wicket for our team! Much to my surprise, they go for it. The Ranger convinces the Bard to eavesdrop around town, looking for the kind of Edersarrian give-a ways that only an Edersarrian would catch. (DM's note: I had not actually intended for there to be another group of Edersarrians - Erligil was clearly just messing with them. But when they readily agreed I changed plans and whipped out one of my pre-generated adventuring parties from Edersarr to play the role - that is, the aforementioned Company of Glorious Destiny.) And lo and behold, after a few days they come across hints of a man who likes pickles with his breakfast - a uniquely Edersarrian preference.

They track the rumors down to an inn and confront the fellow at his table. He's accompanied by a sturdy warrior in heavy armor, and since he is a bard of rank himself he quickly realizes that he is dealing with fellow countrymen. "Not so loud," he says, "You'll give us all away. Why did you even try to make contact? Do you have new orders?"

The Druid, who doesn't like being indoors in the best of times and is also the only party member who is appropriately paranoid, goes outside to see if they are being followed, only to discover an entire squad of knights just hanging around on the other side of the street. In full armor. Quickly he passes back through the building, past the deep discussion in the corner of the room, and out the back, only to find an entire company of halberdiers slowly filling up the back garden.

He returns to the barroom and warns the others. "We're surrounded!" Now the party faces a difficult choice: fight their way out past the ranked knights in front, the common but numerous soldiers out back, or find some way to slip out the side unnoticed. The warrior, Branford, charges out the back to check it out, followed by the Barbarian who recognizes a fellow hot-head.

The Ranger, thinking well outside of the box, decides they are in the soup and they have no choice but to fulfill their commission. He attacks the leader of the other group (Dacey, though I'm not sure anyone bothered to learn his name). A confused fight follows, during which many members of the party are not entirely sure which side they are on. The Druid is holding the front door against the knights hammering on it, the Barbarian is out back mixing it up with the halberdiers along with Branford, and the Ranger and Bard are trying to murderize Dacey. The enemy bard cries out for help; Branford comes charging back in, laying waste with his massive two-handed sword, forcing the Cleric to get involved before his people start dying. In the middle of the fight the enemy party's servant turns out to be a master assassin and almost brings down the Ranger with a surprise double-knife attack. The Barbarian abandons the losing battle out back and rejoins the party just in time to watch the Bard chop Branford to the ground.

Then the knights force open the door and the fighting stops as Varsoulouean soldiers swarm the room from fore and aft. The last one in the room is Erligil, and the party has the pleasure of discovering that first, he is in fact the Queen's Minister of Coin (a position that traditionally encompasses spy-master and head torturer, among other duties), and second, that they have managed to surprise and disappoint him at the same time. He reveals that he knew they were Edersarrian all along, of course; he just wanted to see what color of cloth they wore. Now that he knows, he's not particularly happy (since they're clearly willing to be traitors) but at the same time he's got an even bigger job for them.

This is no penny-ante step-and-fetch it quest; this is the real deal. Erligil knows there is a faction in Edersarr agitating for restarting the war. He wants the party to terminate their influence with extreme prejudice. The Order of the Tower is a small knightly order on the edge of Edersarr (with, of course, their own tower). Their commander, Godard, is a Viscount but most of them are only first rank knights, If the party can kill Godard, either by assassination, siege, or duel, they can keep his tael and Erligil will pay them 10,000 gold pieces. Each. Whatever other members of the Order they kill are just a bonus.

The Ranger readily agrees to the deal. The rest of the party is perhaps less enthusiastic but once Erligil throws open the Castle armory and outfits the Barbarian in full plate armor he's won over the swords, and the spell-casters come along for the ride. After only a few more days they set off again, this time heading west. The Ranger decides to lead them on a different path than the one they've already cleared, just for the sake of adventure.

The Black Knight

Only three days into the wilderness they discover a bridge, a ferry, and a challenge. A knight has a small wooden keep (really more of a manor house) with a working village. He is a foreigner from far away who had come to fight in the Edersarr-Varsoulou war, only to discover it had effectively ended. Annoyed, he set up his own domain and intends to become a new state, profiting as a power-broker between the two nations.

In the meantime he challenges passer-byes to jousting tournaments, both for excitement and to relieve them of the excess coin in their pockets.

The Barbarian almost goes for it, especially once the Knight offers to lend him a horse and lance. But wiser heads (i.e. the Druid) prevail and they convince the Barbarian that it's obviously a trap. More to the point, a potentially fatal trap despite his fancy new armor, as they have already seen how deadly lances can be. (DM's note: they were right.) The Knight won't take no for an answer, though, and summons his company of glaivemen to a general attack.

The Druid launches the cursed Entangle spell followed up by the horrifying Swarm spell, thus condemning half the common men to a screaming death as they are pinned to the ground while their flesh is slowly ripped away by thousands of vicious insects. He also calms the Knight's horse, taking it out of the battle. The Knight is nonetheless a fearsome foe and he drives the Barbarian back with furious sword fighting from atop his immobile but still advantageous mount. The rest of the party is engaged with the remaining soldiers which is going pretty well for them. Until the Black Knight swaps horses, mounting the spare he'd brought out to lend to his challenger. One sword-charge later the Barbarian is looking death in the face close at hand.

The Druid shuts down the new horse, and worse, the Bard shuts down the Knight with a magically induced laughing fit. Even so the man is hard to kill, having plenty of HP and good armor. As he crawls across the ground trying to avoid the blows the Cleric summons an acid beetle. The Knight cleverly provokes the beetle into spraying acid on him... and splashing his horse.

The attack breaks the spell and beast reacts with fury, stomping the beetle into paste. It then proceeds to put the fear of hooves into the party, dishing out plenty of damage. It buys the Knight enough time to get to his feet; but before he can start killing people, the Bard chases the horse off with a Fear spell and Barbarian and Ranger cut the Knight into pieces.

Somehow during the battle literally every other common soldier was also killed. This leaves the small village with only women and children, since the soldiers were also the farmers. The party takes possession of the keep and spend a few days recovering from their battle. They also loot the vault, collecting a thousand gold pieces of treasure, and doling out a handful of gold to each woman to sustain the village until they return. Then they set off to the west again on their murderous quest, promising to return in due time to protect their new holdings. The women of the village are oddly eager to see them go, even though it leaves them alone and undefended in the wilderness. Perhaps they did not consider a pack of sixteen-year-old bravos to be a suitable replacement for the men they had lost.

(DM's note: The Black Knight can be found in Brigands of the Stinging Sea at DriveThruRPG. It's on sale for 99 cents right now, mostly because I know my players are too cheap to cheat even at that low price. I'll make it free once they've dealt with or out-leveled all the encounters in that book.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The case of the vanishing e-books

My publisher switched distribution chains and as a result all of my e-books temporarily ceased to exist. Including pre-orders for Black Harvest, which apparently have been cancelled and refunded.

This should be resolved in a day or two and the e-books should reappear, although I'm guessing the pre-orders will still be cancelled. I extend my publisher's apologies.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Bookbub Affair

My new publisher, Start Media, sprung for a Bookbub promotion. They send out emails to their subscribers, alerting them to deals and sales on e-books. It's apparently not easy to get on the Bookbub list; they're selective about which books they will feature. I signed up (it's free) and I have to admit, getting a notice once a day that a different book is on sale is pretty neat. I can see myself buying two-dollar e-books faster than I can read them. Note to self: tell my brother about this. He's going to love it.

The results of the marketing are pretty good too. Sword of the Bright Lady is the highest it's ever been on Amazon, as you can see:

This is awesome, if a bit mystifying. There aren't any dragons in this book, and I personally would not have classified it as Romance, no matter how romantic it is to have a guy pining worlds away for his wife.

But as they say, the artist cannot control their work once it leaves their hands. What the audience makes of it is up to them. I'm just glad they're reading!