Saturday, March 21, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #21

The Battle of Four Bards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 9, 2020

Philosophy in Fantasy

I found something to watch with Sophie - The Dragon Prince on NetFlix. She watched it because it has dragons in it, specifically a very cute baby dragon. I watched it because it's a pastiche of every fantasy epic ever - there are direct lines and scenes swiped from Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings (including "One does not simply walk into..."), and a dozen other films. It feels like homage, but I'm worried that when Sophie's generation watches those original sources they'll think they are riffing off of The Dragon Prince.

The film is pretty clearing aimed at kids, keeping the bloodshed to a minimum, the romances to holding hands and kissing, and the logistics to entire armies showing up just when they're needed (especially in a scene that totally riffs off of Sansa showing up at the Battle of the Bastards, which of course itself riffed off of Gandalf showing up at Helm's Deep). Despite that, the jokes were well-delivered, the plot was coherent, and the characters were nuanced. In particular most of the tragedy is shown to stem from bad choices made for good reasons.

At one point, however, the show leaps ahead of all of its peers. The king explains Lady Justice has three aspects: the sword, the scales, and the blindfold. He chooses the blindfold so he can know what justice is, and in doing so expresses John Rawl's Theory of Justice in a paragraph. (For those of you who have forgotten, I essentially credit Rawl's theory as the entire underpinning of all morality).

A little research shows I wasn't the only one who noticed this, and as it turns out the author had taken a class with John Rawls. So now I'm jealous and impressed.

I whole-heartedly recommend the show. Its YA-orientation doesn't put me off like His Dark Materials does, for reasons I can't quite name but probably because TDP knows it's for kids and winks at it. And I welcome this trend of real philosophy showing up on TV. Maybe The Good Place has started something.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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