Sunday, December 16, 2018

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #10

The Brotherhood of the Golden Arrow (conclusion)

In an act of either divine grace or random chance, our heroes were washed clean by a summer storm as the approached the cave mouth that led to the demonic cult's lair. Soaking wet, they un-bundled the Cleric from the donkey he had been strapped to. In the night he had succumbed to the secondary effects of the demon's poisoned sting and was now completely paralyzed.

Reviewing their resources they considered using their three strength potions to restore him to temporary vitality; or just using one to get him mobile enough to walk and cast (though too weak to wear armor or fight) and use the other two potions on the swordsmen. After a lengthy discussion, much of which was disparaging to the Cleric's martial capabilities, someone had the clever idea of casting Delay Poison, thus temporarily negating the effects (this is not strictly according to the rules but DMs always flex a bit when players are being creative). Then the Cleric and Druid realized they could cast the Strength spell themselves, thus gaining the effects of the potions without using them up. However, in typical fashion, they delayed casting these spells until they were sure they wanted to use them. (The end result was the most typical D&D experience ever; none of the potions got used. It is a universal maxim that adventurers are penny-pinching skinflints that would put Scrooge to shame.)

Thus prepared with plans and strategies they crept into the cave mouth and were immediately confronted with... a campfire. Someone had left a small fire burning in the middle of the room. This fearsome and ingenious barrier kept our brave demon-killing adventurers hiding in the shadows for a good twenty minutes while they discussed what to do about an unexpected campfire. Eventually the Wizard summoned Dancing Lights in the fire while the Ranger used Create Water to douse it. The illusionary fire then moved slowly forward while the party followed, still hidden in darkness. This clever plan was abetted by the cultists' miserable Spot checks, and the party managed to move the illumination to cover the squad of men before they were aware anything had changed.

The Ranger, granted a clear shot for once, put an arrow straight through a cultist's head. The others scrambled to their feet as the illusionary campfire changed into a glowing humanoid figure. This would have been a clever ruse, drawing the panicked crossbowmen's fire, except that the Barbarian charged right through it and gave them something else to think about. With a mighty swing he bashed three heads together like Moe slapping the Three Stooges around, but with more blood.

Two enemy officers appeared and cast at the Barbarian, who shrugged off their paltry attempts to frighten him. The Druid, emboldened by the example, charged into melee accompanied by his faithful wolf du jour. Falling upon the surprised crossbowmen the pair made a hash of the squad, killing them all as they attempted to reload. The officers, realizing the Barbarian was fearless, transferred their attention to the Druid and his bloody-muzzled wolf, and sent both of them fleeing in terror.

The Cleric stopped the fleeing Druid with a comforting hand (and a Remove Fear spell) while the rest of the party supported the Barbarian. The enemy troops fell quickly, entirely unable to deal with the out-of-control Barbarian. But before the party could enjoy their easy victory, more troops rushed from the darkness while hordes of skeletons poured in behind them (they really should stop walking past closed doors without investigating).

Not to worry; with a word the Cleric sent a dozen undead monsters to their eternal rest. Confidently he strode forward into the hordes that remained, chanting his holy words. The Wizard, trusting to the Cleric to hold the rear, knocked out a squad of archers with Sleep; the Druid summoned his dreaded swarm and the shrieks of men being murdered by a thousand tiny razor cuts echoed through the cavern.

The enemy officers switched tactics. They stepped up to the Barbarian, reaching out with grasping hands. Every time they touched him black energy flowed from their fingertips, flaying his life-force away. He fought back, battling through their heavy bronze armor, but these were not common soldiers. As fast as he battered them they were healed by their fellow officers.

Then two dramatic developments: the Cleric stumbled over a phrase and the horde of undead pressed forward, clawing eagerly for living flesh. The Bard's music filled in the silence, preventing a total disaster (the Cleric's roll would have failed utterly if it hadn't been for the Barid Music bonus); the front wave of undead, confused, fell back for the time being. The next wave, however, reached the party's rear lines and began flaying the Wizard like ginsu knives. And in the front line the demon made its dramatic appearance from the shadows and pouncing on the Barbarian.

The Cleric recovered, though his divine authority remained shaken - he could only send the skeletal hordes fleeing now instead of reducing them to dust. The cultists, made of merely mortal flesh, soon disintegrated in the blender of intense melee, leaving only the officers and the demon as foes. Which proved to be a potent combo: supported by healing spells the demon could stand toe-to-toe with the Barbarian, slowly wearing him down. Eventually the monster figured out the Barbarian's tactics; the fight went from the Barbarian administering a beat-down to the demon landing a massive combo on the Barbarian, though the poision was only moderately effective. If not for his own healing support team that would have been the end of the Barbarian's brief but rage-filled career. The Druid stepped up, using his magic (Barkskin and Shillegleah) to fill in as a front-line fighter when the Barbarian was chased off by Fear and Doom effects - once again to be saved by the Cleric. The Ranger proved he could hit when he got a clear shot, but as the Barbarian returned to the battle the Ranger drew his sword and joined him, tired of trying to shoot past a milling crowd.

The demon had one last surprise - he waved his hand and animated the corpses of his slain soldiers, who rose up all around the party forming a confused mob of men and monsters. The Cleric chanted one last time but his power was growing weak; only half the undead fell. Yet this last gambit could not tilt the balance; with everyone swinging wildly the remaining undead were quickly destroyed, and worse, the officers had finally run out of spells. They drew maces and bravely waded into combat, but the demon finally went down to the Barbarian's mighty hammer and the officers followed scant seconds later.

Save for one, whom upon seeing the golden crossbow quarrel around the Wizard's neck, threw himself to the ground prostrate. "Spare me, oh glorious leader," he cried. In a slightly uncharacteristic act the party tamed its blood-lust while the Wizard interrogated the man. It turned out that "Z", as he was quickly nick-named (his official title being both too long and pretentious) assumed the demon's destruction had followed from the Wizard's use of the magic crossbow quarrel rather than the Barbarian's hammer. They decided that Z would be a handy source of information and spared his life - for the time being. Their first demand: a guided tour of their newly acquired property. In the leader's quarters they found two pieces of treasure: a chest full of gold and the scraps of hastily burnt correspondence.

The letter spoke to conspiracy against the Queen:
should not have told him the Queen has a demon paramour. He is beside himself with wrath – no pun intended – and moves daily closer to rebellion. He is still too weak, though; the Queen will defeat and replace him; and I will lose my grip on the spice harvest. If you do not want the money to run out you must...
While they did not understand this information they knew it had to be useful to someone.

The Cinnamon War

The party mission was to find a land-route to the spice fields, either for trade or invasion. In either case a large and comfortable cave complex well-hidden and stocked with dried supplies would be a wonderful bonus. After only a week of hard labor, transporting bodies out to the plains to bury in shallow graves, the effects of the poison wore off enough that all of their party were ready to finish the journey and finally see fabled Varsoulou. Dressing in the local costume they loaded up their donkeys with gold and set off, following their guide Z. The man had proven to be a obsequious and disgusting servant but had not otherwise given them cause to end his life.

Reaching town they tried to lay low, succeeding mostly with the help of Z, who as a local naturally fit in. Taking up residence in a cheap inn they were surprised to discover exotic cinnamon served in even common meals. They tried to arrange a meeting with the principals of the Amalgamated Spice Company though without much success, finding the corporate bureaucracy difficult to engage. Searching for more sources of information, several members decide to brave the fearsome skeletal guards and visit the local Church of the Shepard. Though, obviously, the Cleric was not among them - nor was Z, who steered well clear of the clergy on account of him being a criminal and them being able to detect lies.

Here the Druid found himself the target of the hard sell, as a junior priest offered him a divine reading and personality test for the low price of a single silver. The result of the test was a lecture on self-discipline and an offer of a long-term but affordable program designed to put the Druid on the correct path to a higher-floor apartment in the Tiered City, where all souls go after death. In the meantime the Bard had extracted some useful information from the conversation, such as the oddity that the local Curate was not part of the feudal government, that Curate Wulseth blessed the spice harvests and hence received 10% of the income, and that the local ruler and owner of the spice fields was Count Wrathfus. Or "Wrathful Wrathfus," as he was sometimes named by people who weren't afraid of having their necks stretched for insubordination.

So now the party has put together the outlines of a plot. They have a piece of paper that shows that the Count is plotting treachery against his Queen. They know that the Curate is wrapped up in it somehow. And they are sitting in the Curate's chapel, a short stroll from the Count's stone keep. Suddenly the Wizard's desire to visit the capital and see the fabled Golden Library of Arcane Arts seems like a brilliant idea.

Only a few days easy travel through civilized countryside finds them staring at the sea for the first time, the salt spray in their faces as sailors from many nations buy and sold fortunes in cinnamon and cloves on the docks. The Golden Library, a tall stone tower framed at night by neon lights of many colors, is the most exotic thing they have ever seen. They have momentous decisions to make: will they back war or peace between their home of Edersarr and the technically evil but not actually all that bad Varsoulou? Should they help the Queen against her plotters or help the coup against the possibility that the Queen is herself demon-compromised?

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Dave Duncan

I just found out Dave Duncan passed away in October.

There are three authors I collect: Jack Vance, Ursula Le Guin, and Dave Duncan. He read my first novel and provided a very nice quote for my first published novel. I almost gave up writing after reading his "Hunter's Haunt," which was such a tour de force of authorial voice that I was afraid I would never measure up.

If you have never read Duncan, I recommend starting with Reaver Road and Hunter's Haunt for fantasy, or Hero for science fiction. I also strongly recommend the series The Seventh Sword and A  Man of His Word.

Thank you, Dave, for all you did for us.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #9

I had to improvise the adventure last time; while my Sandbox World Generator told me what was in the square it didn't provide all the details. Between sessions I fleshed out the cult and discovered that it had a name, in addition to a signature calling card in the form of golden crossbow quarrels. Eventually I'll publish this adventure on DriveThruRPG like all the rest. The only reason The Lake of Ill Repute isn't up there is that they haven't finished going through it yet.

The Brotherhood of the Golden Arrow

The party (retroactively) marveled over all the golden crossbow quarrels they looted off of the bandits that had attacked their camp, until the Wizard made his Appraise check and realized they were just well-polished bronze.

The party sent in Sir Rattles, again to no effect. Now that they had two independent reports that the tunnel was empty it only took them twenty minutes to raise the courage necessary to actually enter the tunnel, and even then they only went in because the Barbarian got tired of "strategizing."

Once inside they were greeted by ten skeletons. The toad had not noticed them because they don't move, breathe, emit heat, or otherwise appear differently than dead bones, and they hadn't attacked Sir Rattles out of professional courtesy. Undead make excellent ambushers.

The Barbarian smashed one while the Cleric looked up the rules on Turn Undead. A few dice rolls later and all of the skeletons collapsed, utterly destroyed by the puissance of the Cleric's holy words. Sadly this cleansing of the unnatural also included Sir Rattles (a tip o' the hat to the Bard for pointing that out!). It turns (haha) out that the Cleric had missed the latest dungeon runs, so no one was aware of just how potent he was against low-level undead.

After that they briefly examined a closed door but decided to push further into the cavern. They didn't get very far before being greeted by a company of guards with a spell-casting senior office. Twenty cultists, fighting in formation: the ones in front knelt defensively behind their shields while the back row fired over their heads with crossbows. The Ranger cleverly pocketed his light-stone and started sniping from the dark while the Barbarian charged; the Wizard and Druid summoned acid-spitting beetles; and the Bard and Cleric went down a side tunnel hoping flank the attacking group but instead ran into a smaller group which included an junior officer of the cult.

The absence of treacherous vegetation and the presence of spell-casters turned the battle around. Expecting the relentless slaughter of the previous engagement, the party found they had a fight on their hands. Fear spells were particularly useful, sending the the Ranger, the Bard, and the Barbarian (twice!) in and out of combat like yo-yos. The Barbarian made it all the way to the front line and slew three foes in a single great blow before eating half-a-dozen quarrels and being sent running by magic. Healing also paid off as the two cult spell-casters put men who had been incapacitated but not outright killed back into the fight; when the Barbarian came back half the men he had killed were alive again.

Finally the Druid decided to unleash the swarm. Thousands of spiders crawled up out of the sandy cavern floor, biting and stinging. Fortunately their poison weakened before it killed, so the men's shrieks of horror as they were devoured alive were slightly muted. The senior officer, revealing a sophisticated understanding spellcraft, got the swarm's attention and led it away from his men. This took him out of the fight but not out of the battle as he succeeded in healing himself several times even in the midst of the swarm. It was a fair trade, as concentrating on the swarm kept the Druid busy.

The advance party came back to the main battle, having been chased off by Fear after killing all but the junior officer in the side passageway. The Wizard called up another acid beetle after the first one exploded and dissolved several men's faces in acid. Fortunately this horrific sight was only poorly illuminated by torch-light so likely the party won't have too many nightmares. The Barbarian, operating off of courage rather than intellect, charged the line once again, and this time they broke and fled. Just in time, as the side passage was once again active after the officer had healed several casualties. The Wizard, Cleric, and Bard ran to deal with that while the Ranger followed the fleeing remnants of the main group. The Druid sat in a corner and concentrated fiercely on his swarm of vicious insects, no doubt struggling with remorse over the horrible deaths he had caused.

The junior officer in the side-passage turned out to be wearing decent armor (note to self: more bronze breastplates!). Half the party beat on him while the Wizard kept him dazed and yet he remained standing. The side passage did indeed join up with the other one, as both passages opened into a vast cavern. Which contained another entire company of troops, all bearing torches and charging the swarm.

The Ranger picked off a few men while they dealt with the spiders by beating their torches against the ground and occasionally the officer in the middle of the swarm. This bought the rest of the party enough time to finally finish off the junior officer. They looked up just in time to see the retreat stemmed by demonic authority. Which is to say, a nine-foot-tall demon bit the head off of one of the retreating men, and the other two decided to go back into battle. Not the typically recommended courage-inducing rally cry but it worked. Beside the demon stood the cult's leader, a wild-haired shaggy man in bronze armor and wearing a golden crossbow quarrel around his neck.

Everything froze in that movie-style magic where the really dramatic bits seem to take forever. (Meaning we broke for pizza.) After a surprisingly lengthy discussion which included checking the side-door for a defensible position (spoiler alert: it wasn't) the party decided to retreat, having run out of spells and hit-points. The cultists, for their part, were not about to take lightly an enemy who had caused so much slaughter, and advanced with caution, allowing our heroes to escape.

Outside, under the open sky, the party set their own ambush, hoping to bottle their pursuers up in the narrow tunnel. While the Wizard was asking if there likely to be any other entrances to the lair he noticed a company of men coming out of the ground about a quarter-mile away. Again the party chose retreat, heading west (back the way they had come). The cult pursued them, but not aggressively, as the party was walking into wilderness rather than towards the nearest city. At the banks of a river the cult stopped and watched them go.

But it was not retreat, merely a strategic advance to the rear. The party camped, healed their wounds, refreshed their spells, and came creeping back under the cover of darkness.

Now they found the entrances guarded by cultists armed with gongs. The Ranger tried some diversions (oddly including throwing a desert tortoise) and sniper fire, but only succeeded in setting off the alarm. Discouraged, the party began retreating again.

The cult did not let them go so easily this time. The Druid's hawk stared nervously at the sky as they fled. This time the Druid paid attention and realized they were being followed. Trapped on the open plain under a star-lit sky (the world of Prime does not have a moon, but it does have so many stars that clear nights are as illuminated as a full moon), stalked by a flying demon, they had few options. They stood in a circle, back to back, like heroes facing the horde. Soon enough a black cloud swelled up from the ground, resolving into the fearsome visage of the demon.

The party responded quickly, with spells and arrows. The monster continued to advance and the Barbarian bravely leapt forward to strike with his temporarily magic-blessed sword. The blow passed through the creature without harm; the Barbarian realized it was merely illusion.

The party lowered their arms but the damage was done. Those spells were wasted. Tense minutes passed as the demon's allies came into position. Again, crossbow quarrels flew through the night. In the darkness accuracy was difficult and it wasn't clear whom the battle of attrition would favor. Until the demon struck from behind.

The Cleric was its chosen target. He proved hardy enough to survive the claws and fangs, but the poisoned stinger in its tail left him as weak as a baby. The fighting men turned bows and swords on the creature and it immediately fled. But as they resumed their archery contest with the cultists, the demon returned, having been fully healed by unknown powers.

This time the Bard went down in a spray of blood, and only a timely spell from the Cleric kept him from bleeding to death in the grass. Once again the warriors drove it off. The Wizard luckily caught a hint of chanting. He quickly called up some illusionary lights and sent them forth, discovering the hiding cult leader (the only time I have ever seen Dancing Lights actually used). As the demon left his side to fly back to the battle, the Wizard starting summoning apes (apparently impressed by the 1d6+5 damage roll) and sent them to attack the leader.

Now the cult leader was well-prepared, having certain spells of devastating effect against human foes. Which unfortunately expressly did not include animals. He soon found himself wrestling in a most undignified manner with two apes and the Druid's wolf as the spell-casters charged him (the warriors were still occupied with the demon). The cult leader called his demon back to save him; it broke off and flew threw the air, snatching up the leader on its way.

Until the mess of animals pounced on him, sinking claws and fangs into flesh and holding on for dear life. It proved too much weight; as the warriors charged, the demon shrugged its shoulders and let go. It flew off into the night while its erstwhile master screamed for mercy. "I'll let you in!" he cried, hoping to buy mercy; the Wizard and Druid, unmoved, did not call off their beasts. Consequently by the time they got to the man he had been torn limb from limb.

The remains of the cultists fled after seeing (well, hearing) their leader so savagely destroyed. The party tallied up the enemy's losses and grimly resolved to end the threat of the demon once and for all. In the morning they marched east, covering the familiar ground they had already twice retreated over, until they stood at the mouth of the entrance, with vengeance on their minds and blood on their hands.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Campaign Journal: World of Prime #6-8

So we missed several sessions of recap as Bad DM was busy meeting a book deadline. The good news is Black Harvest is with my editor; the bad news is I don't have a release date yet.

The Wet Wedding

We last left our intrepid band after they had defeated the Shadow in the orcish beer hall. Many, many days were spent crawling through the increasingly sophisticated and dangerous layers of orcish tombs. There was the eight-armed water troll that was supposed to be a fearsome foe; the party chased it into the water and mercilessly beat it to death. On the other hand a kobold skeleton in a bird-cage shooting Magic Missiles almost did for them all.

It was while they were exploring the koboldic era of the dungeon (built when the orcs had dealings with a kobold tribe) that they met Asha the water naga. She told them her tale of woe: falling for a silver-tongued bard who stole her Pearl of the Sirens. In human hands this artifact makes breathing and moving underwater easy (though you still can't smoke a pipe); in her hands it did the same for living above the surface. She was the source of the innkeeper's broken window; it was not a young couple being carried off, but rather a broken-hearted sea creature pursing her thieving paramour. Being chaotic she is unwilling to make deals or bargains, but she does give them the ability to breathe water for a few hours and accepts a present in return. The Bard got a bit of a workout coming up with a succession of interesting but different presents as they re-visited Asha several times over the next few weeks. And the Wizard discovered the joys of Command Undead; now one of the barrow's best skeletal temple guardians carries his laundry around when it's not dicing his enemies.

Eventually they passed into the clerical era, built when the orcs had adopted religion for a while. The curses and undead guardians were not much of a challenge to our intrepid band, though a well full of octopi (regular old octopi, not magical or anything) almost claimed the life of several of them. Then they discovered four locathah smoking weeds in one of the tombs. Restraining their immediate murderous impulses, they managed to get themselves invited to a party. They went home, freshened up, got more water-breathing from Asha, and went to town... well, went to the underwater village.

As they had suspected, Lars, erstwhile paramour of Asha the water naga, made an appearance. He stood on a stage and warbled incomprehensibly, which is what passes for entertainment at the bottom of a dirty lake. Apparently he had fallen for the charms of a nixie and had spent the last ten years playing house with her in an underwater graveyard of orcs. At this point he was clearly deranged but the party was more interested in the unnatural bulge in his throat. They started trying to get closer to the stage when the chieftain announced the bad news. The celebration was supposed to be a wedding between one of the locathah girls and a handsome villager from the surface. Unfortunately the human had succumbed to the horrible curse that just randomly kills people in the village. He had turned blue, waved his hands frantically, blown some bubbles, and then stopped moving. This curse, the chieftain noted, had struck the last five surface dwellers who had moved into the village over the years: two other suitors and a young family, all suddenly struck down by evil magic.

Not one to waste an opportunity, the chieftain put the poor deceased fellow on the dinner menu (literally, he was served in tiny bits as hors d'oeuvres) and continued with the gala. Then he offered the handsomest of the visitors the chance to marry into the village without going through the normal time-consuming background checks.

This, of course, meant the Bard. Much to everyone's surprise the young Bard was willing to give it a try. However, once the rather quick ceremony was concluded and events moved to the nuptial chamber, everything fell apart. It turned out the two newlywed's conceptual ideas of what occurred in said chamber were horrifically incompatible.

The Bard came swimming out in a hurry, pursued by a shrieking jilted bride. Hell hath no fury like a locathah scorned! This commotion interrupted the rest of the party, who had finally gotten into Lars' presence. Thinking quickly the Ranger performed a tracheotomy, freeing the pearl from where it had lodged in Lars' throat, and amazingly not killing him in the process. The party then beat a hasty retreat, aided by summoned dolphins. Lars, unfortunately, was suddenly struck by the village's curse despite being immune to it for all these years, and soon blew a few final bubbles and stopped moving.

The locathah were unwilling to chase the party through the barrows, so they made their way back to Asha and returned her property. She rewarded them with sacks of gold she had collected from the barrows over the years and promptly fled, returning to her distant sea-borne kingdom. Our heroes trudged back to the inn, loaded down with gold and the pleasure of doing a good deed - which was, despite their alleged alignments, a surprisingly rare occurrence.

That night the locathah struck back. The entire village swarmed up from the lake, armed with spears and supported by the nixie's magic, and attacked the inn. Unfortunately locathah are as handicapped out of the water as humans are in it, and all of them died ingloriously. The Barbarian did get a nasty scratch on his ankle while stomping the fish-men into paste but otherwise the fight was anti-clamatic.

A Business Proposition (or two)

While the party rested up and dried out, Old Bob wandered in. They had last seen him the Wild Lord's broken down keep, where he chose to stay rather than submit to civilization. He had been driven out, he said, by all the singing. The keep had new occupants, a bandit gang of some kind, and they sang all the damn time.

Before the party could respond to this appropriation of property they had abandoned, a sly fellow also appeared at the inn. He had heard of a new adventuring party and wanted to offer them a job. He purported to represent the merchants of House Tempest, who allegedly wanted to find a land route to Varsoulou. This was a dangerous proposition because technically Edersarr and Varsoulou are still at war, though active hostilities had ended twenty years ago when King Rogonar the Ambitious had gotten himself killed on one of his many invasions. His son and heir, Cardinal Ragnar, was not nearly so keen on the exhausting and impoverishing continual war, and hence peace had reigned, especially since the invasions only ever went one way, from Edersarr to Varsoulou. Now some people, such as the Cardinal, were happy with this state of affairs; and some people, notably the Earl Theodorick, were not.

The party seemed to be leaning towards the peace faction, but mostly they were so sick of crawling around in dead orcs that they decided to take the job. But first, the most exciting awesome adventure ever conceived of in any epic ballad of heroism (or D&D campaign): they made a trip up north to Pay Their Taxes.

The King, you see, gets a quarter of whatever tael you take out of the Wild. This is the price you pay for having somewhere safe to rest up and heal after your adventures. You don't have to pay the tax, but then, you don't have to come home again either. (As a DM I am obviously tickled pink to have successfully imposed taxation on my players. I am sure all the other DMs out there know exactly how I feel.) The cost left them bankrupt, though they had gotten everyone but the barbarian and ranger to third level first.

They also blew some gold on stuff like better armor and weapons but that's just boring.

So a few days later they set off to the east, with two donkeys, supplies, and a full load of adventuring gear (the seasoned players revealed themselves when they spent fifteen minutes discussing how to carry their gold so it wouldn't all get stolen at once). Quite a step up from their poverty-stricken origins only a few seasons ago. (Seriously, it's been like three or four months of game-time.)

Along the way they had a few adventures. (This is where my Sandbox World Generator app really came into its own: they picked a map direction and marched, and I just looked up what was in the way.) At first the two undead dinosaurs looked like it could be a dramatic fight, but then the Druid discovered the power of Entangle (the spell that defines OP, and at 1st level!). The Ranger destroyed one immobilized dinosaur through archery with his new strength bow; the other one successfully resisted the wizard's attempts to Command it (thus sparing the DM a heart-attack) and was destroyed by arrows and Barbarian axery.

Next they encountered a mysterious wheeled machine that drove around in circles. Dissuaded by its thick iron armor (and a few hints from the DM who hadn't finished writing up the adventure that creature leads to), they avoided it and moved on. Just when they were thinking this whole exploring thing was a piece of cake they met a couple of other people leading donkeys.

Their practiced eye recognized them as bandits, or perhaps it was just the dirty clothes and heavy weaponry. These bandits, however, were incredibly welcoming. Recognizing the party as heroes by the simple expedient of noting that they came from the west and thus had passed through un-tracked, monster-infested wilderness, the bandits invited them to a free dinner. All they would have to do is attend a short lecture on an exciting multi-level marketing business opportunity.

For some inexplicable reason the party politely declined. The bandits shook their head in dismay, but offered helpful traveler's advice, pointing out a good camping spot just a short way ahead. Again, the party behaved unreasonably, setting camp in the suggested spot but stuffing their bedrolls with hay and hiding on the hill above while wearing their armor. In the middle of the night the Druid's hawk started staring at the sky while emitting small, terrified sounds; but the Druid was preoccupied with the company of bandits sneaking up on their campfire.

Once again Entangle struck, trapping half the bandits in its grasp. They fired their crossbows but in the dark it was completely ineffective. The Wizard sent his killing machine Sir Rattles to intercept one of the two remaining squads; the Ranger started exchanging fire with the other and winning handily. Then the Druid decided to summon a swarm of bats and sent them after the helplessly immobilized bandits, an act that will go down in the annals of unnecessary force and over-kill. Swarms are one of the more dangerous foes as they require area-effect damage to destroy them, and this is not easily come by in a medieval world. The bandits, unarmored and defenseless, were stripped to the bones in a bloody cloud of screaming horror. The Druid was thinking about maybe feeling bad when he was distracted by his own screaming horror.

A skeletal, winged demon with a scorpion's tail dropped out of the sky. It bellowed a magically terrifying sonic attack and lashed into the Ranger with claws, fangs, and poisoned tail. Well... it was supposed to. What actually happened is that the party uniformly shrugged off the fear, dodged most of the attacks, cast Magic Weapon on their swords and axes, and chopped the thing into bits.

Two of the cultists managed to slip away in the dark. The party moved its camp to a different location and tried to sleep, the sounds of men being flayed alive by tiny sharp bat teeth still ringing in their ears. In the morning they tracked the bandits back to their cleverly concealed cavern complex (cursed Ranger!).

The Wizard bravely sent his toad in to scout. It reported nothing of interest, save for a brief sound that let them know the cave was in fact occupied. Now they stand on the precipice of danger, preparing to march yet again under the earth.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The New Aristocracy

The new aristocracy is the 9.9%. They have convinced themselves that they deserve to be at the top because of their superior intelligence, talent, and work ethic. And yet, somehow, those traits get passed on to their kids... but not through genetics. More through legacy college admissions and other mechanisms of privilege.

Here in Australia college really is meritocratic. You need good scores to get into good schools, and all the schools are free (you have to pay them back after you graduate, but only if you earn enough money. The point is if you are accepted to a good school you can afford to go). So what's a wealthy family to do? Private high school. Many of which charge over $12,000 a year.

Elite colleges don't have better instruction, they have better research projects. Go to an elite college and your Teaching Assistant is doing Nobel prize work as his day job. That has obvious advantages, but the point is that the advantage isn't so much from teaching skill as other factors. Factors that don't apply to high schools. The education isn't that much better at a private high school than at a public one.

What does apply, though, is sending your children to school with the children of the rich. Not just because all of the kids there are studying all of the time (so your kid does it through peer pressure) but because the connections they make will keep them in the aristocratic class more than any education they get.

Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary.” - The Birth of the New American Aristocracy

And in one of the enduring absurdities that always makes me crazy:
You see, when educated people with excellent credentials band together to advance their collective interest, it’s all part of serving the public good by ensuring a high quality of service, establishing fair working conditions, and giving merit its due. That’s why we do it through “associations,” and with the assistance of fellow professionals wearing white shoes. When working-class people do it—through unions—it’s a violation of the sacred principles of the free market. It’s thuggish and anti-modern. Imagine if workers hired consultants and “compensation committees,” consisting of their peers at other companies, to recommend how much they should be paid. The result would be—well, we know what it would be, because that’s what CEOs do.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

In Memoriam: Dennis Creasy

My father-in-law passed away today, after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was at home and at peace. Dennis was a good man and I was privileged to know him. He welcomed me to his home and his family. We made gunpowder together, and he shot my author photo. We played cards every Friday, and my house is full of things he fixed.

I will be lucky to live as full of a life as his.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Verdict on Crimson Fields published

Apparently in-between running D&D games I had time to write a book, and it's out now. Verdict on Crimson Fields is for sale!

I am two chapters into the 5th and final book, Black Harvest. Time to get cracking!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Campaign Journal: World of Prime #5

The Lake of Ill Repute

(The lazy, bad DM didn't get around to posting the last recap until the day of the next session, so now you get two in one day.)

The Cleric and the Druid are heavily involved in religious observances, or perhaps just having a religious argument (their players missed this session). The rest of the party sneaks out the back of the inn and heads off for some real adventure. The Wizard, who was still recovering from his many illnesses last time (i.e. he missed the last session), is keen to revisit the site of the infection - the mysterious hole in the ground.

The Ranger sensibly loads up on adventuring gear: tools, rope, and torches. He makes sure everyone has food and water, since you never know how long you'll be trapped underground surrounded by ravenous undead monsters. And off they go, singing hi-ho, hi-ho.

They quickly pass through the rooms they had already explored and immediately come to a fork. Now they have a choice: carefully and methodically empty every room, or charge heedlessly into the lair, taking turns at random. Obviously, they choose caution. Just kidding! Headlong rush into danger it is.

Passing through a half-collapsed meeting hall, they loot the corpse of some previous hapless adventurer. The Shadow hanging around in the rubble at the back of the room avoids their lights, but otherwise gives them no trouble. They let it be and press on. But not before picking up a brass jug with three ounces of mysterious liquid.

Another room with a pair of skeletons wearing silver crowns gives them little trouble, mostly inflicting Fatigue on the Barbarian. They wander through a large natural cavern with a pool of water that appears to connect to the lake through some underground channel. A dozen dead fish are laid out neatly on the bank; the party considers this unappetizing treasure and leaves them undisturbed.

Continuing on they finally encounter some trouble. In the hall of a larger and more elaborate barrow, a skeletal huntsman summons a Fiendish Wolf with a magic whistle. The wolf knocks the Bard to the ground (yay Improved Trip!) and the huntsman is heavily armored in bronze. It looks to be a good fight... until Wizard happens. Color Spray shuts down the wolf while the melee team stalls the huntsman. The Ranger continues to be nigh-worthless at melee, while the Wizard deploys his staff to surprisingly good effect. The wolf actually survives through the first few phases of the spell, but the Bard and Wizard beat it down before it recovers enough to act again. Then they all surround the skeletal huntsman and bash it. It never even lands a blow.

The Wizard turns out to be the only one who can pick locks; he opens a large wooden chest to find three ancient scrolls. Those will go straight into his spell-book.

(A nice find, as I had just finished explaining how wizards get their spells to the Wizard's player.)

The Barbarian, always willing to take a risk, tries the magic whistle but nothing happens. The Bard realizes it needs to recharge and drops it in his pocket for another day.

Next up is a room shrouded in magical darkness and a floor covered in spikes. The Wizard tears up the wooden biers and gets the team to lay planks over the spikes, building a bridge through the room. Halfway through they are jumped by skeletal wolves lunging out of the dark, which have a nice scare factor but get crushed without too much effort.

A bit of a change of scenery; the tunnel connecting the next barrow is lower than the rest and infested with vines, mold, and fleshy pink flowers. The party notices its one torch guttering (their other light is a magical lightstone, a torch that never goes out) but presses on. Another pair of skeletal wolves is even less trouble, as their room has no magical or mundane defenses. 

(This room inflicts a secret status condition which goes completely unnoticed in this particular game - though, if they had done different actions, it would have mattered! This the nature of sandbox worlds vs narrative worlds. Narrative games are perfectly efficient: nothing is wasted or lost, everything affects the story. In sandbox games the players can walk past a door and leave it unopened. The DM's preparation for that door then ceases to matter. While this is expensive, in terms of DM effort, it is also rewarding, in that the DM doesn't know what's going to happen either. The game is truly driven by the player's choices, even when they don't know they are making them.)

The next room gives them some difficulty. A skeletal Adept stands at the back of the hall, casting Fear spells. It is flanked by a pair of skeletons with suspicious silver claws. The Barbarian shrugs off the Fear effect - he's nothing if not brave - and then lobs a javelin across the room. The Ranger joins him in this game of darts. Needless to say, these attacks have no impact, and the next round the Barbarian fails his Will save. He turns and flees in utter terror back through the room of vines and flowers.

The party takes this very calmly - apparently they consider the Barbarian to be nigh-indestructible. They let him go and continue chucking odd bits of stone at the skeletons. The Bard fails next, running off in terror, and finally the remaining two (Ranger and Wizard) decide to retreat. They catch the Bard just in time; he's trying to open a new door in his panicked flight. The Wizard wrestles him to the ground until he recovers, and then they go in search of the Barbarian, who sensibly (i.e. randomly) retraced their old path. Fortunately they left nothing dangerous behind them, so the Barbarian is also safe and sound once the Fear wears off, though not exactly thrilled with his companion's lack of concern for his well-being.

Back to the room they go. The Ranger has come up with a plan. Their Cleric had cast a blessing on three vials of water (an ad hoc ruling that allows the party to use his Turn Undead ability even though he isn't present for the adventure, as it's a bit much to send them into a dungeon of undead without it). The Bard, famous for his throwing ability, steps into the room and lobs a vial at the enemy. It's a simple attack, so naturally he completely muffs it, dropping the vial at his feet and immediately falling victim to the Adept's magic. Off the Bard runs in utter terror with the Wizard in hot pursuit.

The Ranger realizes that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. He tosses a second vial; the skeletons shudder and go inert. The two warriors wait, but when the Wizard and Bard don't return after a few rounds, they enter the room, take careful aim, and obliterate the skeletal adept in a single murderous round.

They know the skeletons will only be inactive for a few more rounds, so they quickly move on to the next one. This turns out to be a different proposition. The creature is not nearly so easily defeated, and a general melee ensues.

The Wizard had caught the Bard opening the same door, and this time had failed to stop him, his grappling attack simply shrugged off by the panicked Bard. The Bard thus charges into a new and uncleared room. Fortunately it's a court full of dead bodies; the Wizard keeps tackling the Bard and succeeds this time as he's struggling with the next door. This one would lead to a new Hall, almost certainly containing some deadly new foe, so it's good that the Wizard holds the Bard down until the spell lapses. Together they race back to the sounds of combat just in time to see the Turn Undead wearing off and the other skeleton moving to join the fight.

The Wizard takes a blow from the silver-tipped skeletons, but easily makes his saving throw - he's developing some resistance to various diseases and poisons, it seems. However, the damage is enough to knock him out. The skeletons fall to the rest of the party quickly, and they spend all the rest of their magic healing the Wizard back up to disabled (0 HPs).

Robbed of their pretend rogue - the Wizard is too injured to concentrate on lock-picking - the Barbarian simply smashes down the door to the court. The roof shakes alarmingly, but nothing worse than a temporary trickle of water occurs. Searching this room yields a pair of potions in clay vials. Wounded, tired, and out of spells, they decide to rest, in a room full of corpses, stealing their shrouds for pillows. Now that's chutzpah. If there were a roll for "bad dreams," surely they would fail it; but these are heroes now, and sleeping the sleep of the dead literally with the dead doesn't bother them.

This is a classic D&D trope: out of spells and low on health, the party simply camps in the middle of the dungeon. I'm actually proud of this, because it means I've recreated the classic D&D experience even while I've adhered to World of Prime rules.

In the morning they have enough minor magic to get the Wizard up to 1 HP. He can cast and fight now (though with a house-ruled -2 for his lingering injuries). They press on, drawn by the lure of treasure - so far they've filled their pockets with silver, gold, and tael, without ever once feeling like they were all going to die.

A curious sight greets them in the next room: a large iron bird-cage hanging from the ceiling, containing a small kobold skeleton. The kobold emits a thin green ray which the Barbarian easily dodges. The party charges into the room and begins battering the bird cage and the kobold inside. The Wizard ignores the fight and starts trying to pick the lock on the next door.

The kobold is hard to hit, protected as it is by the iron cage. The Barbarian breaks out his pick and starts trying to batter open the bird cage; the Ranger and Bard attack through the bars with sword and halberd. (This means piercing damage only, which is reduced by the skeleton's DR, but this is no new handicap to the Ranger - he has simply refused to acknowledge this unpleasant fact and used his sword throughout. Everyone else switched to hammers or halberds, but apparently Rangers are very traditional and make up for Damage Resistance by just hitting harder). The Ranger gets in a glancing blow, knocking a few chips off the skeleton. It responds by finally scoring a hit with its Enfeebling Ray, and the Ranger loses a point of strength .

The Bard finally stops his ineffective attacks and switches to Inspire Courage, boosting the rest of the party's efforts. The Wizard almost picks the lock; the Barbarian inflicts minor damage on the bird cage; the Ranger misses; and the kobold lands a good roll, knocking the Ranger's strength down to 7 - roughly equivalent to a strong child.

At the other end of the room, a delayed trap goes off, dropping a heavy iron portcullis over the entrance. They're trapped!

Now the party is concerned. Fortunately the Wizard gets the next door open; they all dash through and slam it shut behind them. Wisely, they are on their guard and prepared for a new attack, but this room is merely storage for bodies. A careful search turns up a locked iron chest, two gold bracelets, and some unharvested tael - but for the first time, no hidden exit. During the search the Ranger recovers his strength. Realizing the damage is only temporary, they charge out, surround the bird-cage, and prepare to administer a savage beat-down. Instead the Ranger destroys the kobold on his first attack.

The Barbarian vents his rage by smashing open the cage and then demonstrates his wisdom by searching it. He turns up a gold key, which opens the iron chest, which yields three more potions in clay vials. The party then attempts to open the portcullis, as it is the only way out. The Ranger heaves to, but it's too heavy, even with help from all the rest of the party; the Barbarian tries and fails. Now things are bit worrying; they take a second try (with an increasing penalty) and the Barbarian just barely forces it open. The Wizard cleverly props it open with the Ranger's crowbar, and the entire party slips out to safety.

Oddly, this final challenge is the last straw, despite inflicting no damage. The party decides to retreat and collect the rest of their team. The Wizard claims to remember the way out, but the issue is moot as the Ranger can easily track their own footsteps in the undisturbed dust of the ancient tunnels.

As they are re-entering the collapsed meeting hall, the Shadow attacks them. Apparently it was fine with them entering the barrow complex, but has a problem with them leaving.

The Ranger wants to ignore its clumsy, incorporeal lunges, and simply rush on through the tunnels, but the Wizard is curious about this strange yet hostile unlife-form. He enchants the Ranger's sword and convinces him to give battle. The Barbarian needs no encouragement, of course, and the Bard is equally willing.

The enchantment turns out to be necessary. Mundane attacks pass through the Shadow with no effect. The Bard tries a basic energy attack (i.e. a burning torch) to no avail; only the Ranger's enchanted sword has a chance of hurting the Shadow, and even it fails half the time. The party's fate hangs on the Ranger's swordsmanship, sheer luck, and the durability of the Wizard's enchantment.

Since one of those is a proven non-starter (i.e. the Ranger's combat skills), the Bard pulls out the magic whistle, reasoning that a summoned creature might count as a magical attack. It's not bad logic, just poor judgment, because the magically summoned Fiendish Wolf immediately attacks every non-Orc in the room, starting with the Bard.

The wolf hits hard, dropping the Bard in a single bite. Now the Barbarian has something useful to do - wolf-fighting! The Ranger is actually doing surprisingly well, landing a serious blow on the Shadow, but it's a CR 3 Undead creature, which means a lot of HPs. The Wizard has finally worked through his spell list and discovered the cantrip Disrupt Undead - that's 1d6 damage to an undead creature with no chance of failure, three times a day. Nice to discover this on the way out!

The Shadow strikes, weakening the Ranger. He lands another solid hit, inflicting plenty of damage, and the Wizard's cantrips add up. The Shadow is looking ragged but it strikes again. The danger here is not the slow loss of strength, but the expiration of the enchantment. Without it, the Shadow can pick them off at its leisure.

The Ranger is finally rolling well, but his third hit is negated by the Shadow's incorporeality. The Barbarian gets a face-full of Fiendish Wolf, dropping him to a single hit-point. The Bard heroically rolls to stabilize, stopping his own bleeding by sheer force of will despite being unconscious.

On the last round of enchantment, the Ranger lands another hit and sticks it. The Shadow evaporates in a shower of purple dust, releasing all of the tael it has gathered for its next spawn. This is a fortune - half again of everything they've won so far! A comical battle of misses ensues with the Fiendish Wolf, until suddenly everyone hits at once, obliterating it. The Barbarian shoulders the incapacitated Bard and they trudge back to the inn, bleeding, battered, and spell-less - and this all from merely trying to leave the dungeon.

"Anything I should be worried about?" the innkeeper asks as they stumble in.

"Just... bandits," they reply. Dungeons are precious resources, and they don't want to share this one with any other Free Companies (like the ones they saw hanging around in the city). Of course, that also means that if they fail to come home next time, no one will know where to send the rescue party to, or even that they should send a rescue.

But that's an adventurer's life. Thankless toiling in dark tunnels fighting undead monsters, and nothing to show for it but fistfuls of bright purple tael. And silver. And gold. And magic items. But mostly tael - surely by now they have enough to purchase the most valuable prize in the world - another rank!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Campaign Journal: World of Prime #4

The Devil's Handmaiden (cont.)

The party struggles into town, bleeding, sick, and poisoned. Nonetheless they know their duty and charge into battle. Well, first they scout around the house a lot and break in through a second floor window - turns out the Ranger rolls great dice when it's not combat related. None of it matters, though, since the action is all in the basement.

They charge down the stairs. The Barbarian wipes out a fistful of guards, leaking hit points like a sieve; the rest of the party is following his lead and forming a decent battle line. Finally, they've learned some tactics... but the wrong ones. Pro tip: always, always, always take out the spell caster first. The party discovers the power of area-effect spells when they eat a Flaming Hands spell. For max damage. And no one saves.

Now most of the party is inches from death and in no shape for combat. The Ranger grabs the unconscious Barbarian and they all retreat up the stairs. There's some last minute healing from the Bard, getting everyone at least back to functional and enchanting a sword. The guards decide to interrupt the chanting and counter-charge up the stairs but get creamed in a tight corridor face to face with the Barbarian and Ranger.

The party counter-counter-charges downstairs again. They play hot potato with the only sword capable of hurting the imp as one by one their front-line combatants fall, and eventually the Ranger brings the demon down.

Lord Grayson promptly surrenders. A fair number of the party votes for summary execution, but he talks them into delivering him to justice in the city.

Another pro tip: never let the sorcerer get a word in edge-wise. They have a high CHA stat for a reason.

The dead guards yield up some decent chainmail armor and shields. The party also loots the house, stealing the silver and cracking open a safe with a few pounds of gold. Only the lack of a wagon stops them from hauling off the furniture. On the way out, the Druid somehow convinces the rest of them to burn down the mansion, in case the sorcerer gets let off by the law and wants to return to his demon-summoning ways, I guess? I don't know, but mad props to the Druid for striking a blow against conspicuous consumption.

An uneventful trip to the city ensues. They deliver their prisoner to the castle and find an inn to rest in, still suffering from disease and poison. In the morning they meet Count Kird, paladin and Minister of War. He has a not unfavorable impression; after all, they've done for a fair number of monsters on their own initiative with relatively little damage to the realm. He cures their various ailments and pays them the tael value of the sorcerer as a reward. Sadly, as the more cynical ones had feared, the sorcerer will be facing a court trial rather than an immediate execution. This is going to come back to haunt them, and they all know it.

Kird wants to keep these guys on-side, since adventurers are always an asset to the realm, and having them on the border is a double-plus. He offers them the sorcerer's house as a base of operations. A few sheepish mumbles later, they confess the place was rendered collateral damage. Kird is not overly put off, but he does remark on how the house was essentially worth the price of a first-rank.

After only a day in the big city, perusing the markets and walking the streets, the party is eager to get away. Partly because they are village kids, but also because their Cleric is a heretic, their caster is a Wizard (instead of the nationally approved practice of fire sorcery), and their Barbarian is a loaded crossbow with a hair trigger. And also because the city is expensive.

They return to the village, where the innkeeper offers them a free room for as long as they like. After all, these kids just saved everybody... well, most everybody from a horrific death and the enslavement of their souls to a demon. They could have been a little quicker on the whole interrupt-the-demon-summoning ritual and reduced the body count, but nobody is impolite enough to mention it.

(And thus concludes The Devil's Handmaiden, a free adventure available on DriveThruRPG).

Now they are free to investigate the mysterious cave. Their first challenge is a rickety old ladder and a Cleric in armor with no Climb skill. He makes it down, but not without taking some of the ladder with him.

They follow a dark, damp, low tunnel under the lake and into a barrow. While investigating the decaying skeletons laid out on the biers, one sits up and bites the Druid in the face. A brief combat ensues with several animated but legless skeletons. The Barbarian very quickly figures out what Damage Reduction 5/Blunt means, and switches from sword work to shield-bashing.

This was a great moment where the rules really worked to drive a creative solution - and by our youngest player.

After this, they actually sit down and rest while two of them go back to town for more supplies. Rope and torches, mostly, but also a few spare hammers. How... heroic.

After three more rooms of increasingly functional skeletons and traps, they are low on health and spells, and decide to call a retreat. Wisely, they bring the Cleric up the ladder last; it does not survive the attempt (and he almost doesn't - at first level you can still die from a simple fall). The Ranger was prepared with a rope, so they winch their metal-clad mate out of the hole and troop back to the inn. Just another hard day of dungeon delving - such is the life of an adventurer.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Campaign Journal: World of Prime #3

The Devil's Handmaiden

The party decides to investigate this local legend. Ancient history claims a high rank priest tried to baptize an idol in the river, but it was not deep enough to submerge the ten foot tall statue of pure gold, so he called an earthquake to damn up the river and create the lake. Rumor insists the statue is still there, under the lake, an affront to the god and therefore the source of the curse upon the lake. The locals will not fish from the lake or even enter it.

The druid goes fishing, hoping to find some physical evidence; the bard is chatting up the inhabitants; and the rest of the gang heads out into the woods to do some old-fashioned legwork - save for the cleric who holes up in the inn to study his new-found religion (the player couldn't make it to this session).

Naturally they find the secret dungeon entrance on the first day, because fate! (And because players always roll 20's when it's least convenient.) The ranger casts a light spell (possibly the first time I've ever seen that spell used) and he, the barbarian, and the wizard push aside the hanging vines to enter a small cave.

There are suspicious looking lumps on the ground and an iron grate in the middle of the floor. The ranger carefully investigates and determines that the lumps are the remains of bodies, decayed and grown over with mold and fungus. He finds the tael still in the skull; these men (women? humanoids?) died of something other than violence, as their souls have not been harvested.

The barbarian immediately trashes the rest of the lumps, kicking up more tael, several silver bracelets, and a cloud of dust. Of course the barbarian makes his Fortitude save (despite having no CON bonus - this is a very slender barbarian), but the other two are not so lucky. They develop a nasty hacking cough.

Peering through the grate they can see a ladder descending into darkness. As the day is getting late, they return back to the inn, just in time to find the druid trying to give away fresh grilled trout. He's getting no takers, and the bard is explaining why: another local legend tells of a man whose entire family turned into fish-people after eating from the cursed lake. Their house still stands abandoned and empty.

The new arrivals are trying to break into this fascinating discussion about provincial mythology to reveal their discovery, communicated around a series of coughs. While this impromptu conference is occurring at the edge of the lake, the bard witnesses an epic battle: an old homeless woman has crept up on a raven helping itself to discarded fish guts and ambushed it.

The old lady is losing, because ravens are actually pretty tough (it is a staple of D&D that the average housecat can beat a commoner in a straight fight). The druid intervenes, mostly to rescue the raven, and the bard extracts her story.

She claims that the raven murdered her husband, a beekeeper who used to live three miles outside of town. The druid, concerned, asks if she means this particular raven, to which she confesses she can't actually tell one raven from another, but they're all in on it anyway. She also happily devours the trout, which should question her sanity but only endears her to the druid.

The party nobly invites the woman back to the inn, where they argue with the innkeeper about adding her to their bill without increasing it. Yes, our heroes are quibbling over silver pieces. They are now faced with several options: pursue the cave entrance, investigate the abandoned house, hike out to the beekeeper's cottage, or spy on the haughty Grayson Palek, a fire sorcerer with a summer mansion in the village.

(Always give them too many options. It keeps them from doing anything clever.)

Pity moves their hearts and they decide to help the old woman. She gives them clear directions to her cottage and stays behind in the inn with the cleric - the ranger was leery of leaving her on her own, in case she developed a sudden case of gills and fins.

In the morning they pool their skills and spells very resourcefully to give the two infected characters the best possible saves against disease, and both make it. Only two more successful saves and they will have beaten the disease. There's been a discussion about how they are nobles now, subject to the Law of Arms, and the villagers are treating them differently now. While they are still very young men, the old innkeeper calls them "sir" and the farmers smile and hide their daughters. Everybody likes having nobles around, because they kill monsters, but nobody wants to get too close to dangerous men who do danger for a living. So they set off for the beehives full of vim and vigor. And then, of course, everything goes south.

The cottage is ransacked and contains nothing interesting. The beehives themselves seem normal, until the druid's hawk alerts them to the presence of a raven in a very large tree. Once again fate favors their die rolls and they all instantly realize this raven is behaving in completely unnatural ways. The ranger takes a shot at it, but misses (as expected - he really does have terrible luck with dice).

The raven flies into the tree and caws; a half-dozen giant bees fly out of the tree and attack. Now we're talking about really giant bees here; three feet long, in fact. On top of that, the ordinary bees are forming themselves into a huge swarm. The party falls out into battle formation.

It turns out the party really doesn't understand battle formation yet. The ranger is on one flank, the barbarian on another, both too far to help the center, where the wizard is holding the fort. He casts a Sleep spell and chooses to target the natural bee swarm (a mercy on two fronts, as he rolls incredibly low, not even enough to knock out one giant bee but just enough to subdue the swarm, which makes the DM happy because now we don't have to look up the Swarm rules).

The giant bees descend to battle; one stings the wizard right in the chest. He fails his pretty easy Fortitude save (which of course is already diminished because he's sick) and the bee's poison rips through his system. Now his CON score is even lower.

The barbarian gets stung, but as usual seems immune to poison. The ranger is doing his typically ineffective thing. The druid has discovered the joy of the Shillelagh spell and wades into battle. The bard rushes up to help the wizard.

By the end of the fight almost everyone in the party is half (or worse) dead and poisoned. Only the bard is untouched; at this point we realize the bard has never actually suffered any damage, in any battle. Apparently his face really is too pretty to hit. While the druid and bard try to collect more poison, which is futile because all of bee's poison currently resides in the party, the barbarian saws off the heads of the bees and makes his knowledge roll to realize that none of these are queens. The druid sends his hawk up to see if there are still more in the tree, and when the answer is yes, the party beats a hasty retreat.

They boil the heads down in the cottage and are gratified to discover a substantial amount of tael. Under cover of darkness they retreat to the inn, where the cleric mostly heals them. In the morning, the wizard fails his Fortitude save; so while he recovers a bit from the bee's poison, he gets worse from the disease. (This is a man with a CON of 10, so he didn't have a lot of room from the start.)

They talk about going back and finishing off the bees, but instead wind up searching through the woods for a herb that will give their sick guys a better chance to beat the disease. While there out there, they get the drop on a band of ruffians with a pair of pack mules - yes, the same two mules they had sold before. Being good guys, they decide to parley rather than commit unprovoked homicide.

There happens to be a raven sitting on one of the pack mules, so the bard, in his charming way, calls out, "Nice bird you've got there." Surprisingly, this results in immediate hostilities. The raven points them out to the men, who form up into a line and charge.

Our heroes are concerned about this fight for all of six seconds. The very first round shows how far they've come. These mooks are essentially the same quality of troop that the Wild Lord Boros had intimidated them with, but our heroes are no longer common farmboys. They drop three of enemy with fatal injuries, and the remaining two immediately surrender. The raven caws in disgust and flies off.

Bluster and intimidation can't get the survivors to explain the significance of the raven. "It's worth my life to tell you," says one. The prisoners want to be taken to town and handed over to local law enforcement, which at this point seems like a better option than summary execution in the woods. The party plies them with the beer the mules are carrying on the way back to town, and eventually one warms up enough to the bard to offer him some advice. "Join us - I'll put in a good word with the boss, and you guys are so tough you can probably sign in at the second level." Turns out he's a member of a secret demonic cult that is patterned off a good multi-level marketing scheme.

In town they decide to dump the prisoners on Grayson Palek, because he's the closest representative of the crown (outside of themselves) and because they think it might clarify the man's relationship to the matter. He radiates suspicion every time they talk to him. It doesn't help that they saw a raven on top of his mansion.

That night the bard is awakened by his dear mule's annoyed snort. The party peeks out the window and sees ruffians making off with their animals. They sensibly take a few rounds to armor up before sneaking down the hall to the main room. Just as they start to open the door, it opens from the outside: a whole squad of thugs is staring them in the face.

The ranger sensibly fights them from the doorway, where they can't overwhelm him. The barbarian takes up a position against the wall, so that if the enemy does charge into the room, he can attack them from the flank. (He's already picked up on Attacks of Opportunity, which is neat because he is the youngest player.) The bard and druid head out the back, and then he wizard casts a Sleep spell, knocking out the entire enemy squad. (Too bad he acts last every round.)

The ranger and the wizard charge out to start murdering helpless men before they can wake. Except there's a second squad out there, and the back door has a squad too. There are lot more thugs this time, and they are fighting in formation, so they don't fold quite so quickly; but the party chews through them, with only one dramatic moment: the bard actually gets hit! And almost dies. But he doesn't, and a song of healing later, he's heading for the front door.

Where some excitement finally occurs. The wizard chases down a straggler and clubs him from behind, only to be surprised himself when a demonic imp plunges its poisoned tail into his back. Now he's suffering CON damage from sickness and bee poison, and also suffering DEX damage from Quasit poison. The barbarian finishes off the last squad - his Cleave feat is turning out to be the perfect counter to squads of mooks - and both he and the ranger leap into battle against the imp.

Only to discover their swords don't seem to hurt it.

The imp spends a few rounds murdering the merely wounded on the ground - making sure the party won't have any prisoners who can talk. Everyone else sensibly retreats into the inn, but the barbarian won't fall back, and finally lands a solid blow on the imp, injuring it slightly. That's enough to scare it off and it flees.

Lord Grayson finally shows up with his half-dozen bodyguards, long after the fight is over. He doesn't really have satisfactory answers for the party, but they're in no shape to press the issue. Their cleric heals them all again (save for the various poisons, which are beyond his power) and in the morning, after long discussion and many covetous glances cast toward the city where they could buy healing, they head into the bush to find the rest of the bandits and their mule.

They find a cave with thugs lounging around outside, and despite being out-numbered three to one, decide to give battle. This time the bard and barbarian flank, the wizard prepares Magic Weapon spells, and the ranger sneaks into position where he can fire on the imp when it appears. The wizard realizes he hasn't enchanted the ranger's bow yet, so he sneaks up to the ranger... and of course gives their position away.

More men come out of the cave and form up squads. Now they're facing twenty armed men and a imp hovering just behind the battle line. The ranger shoots but as usual can't hit the broad side of a barn while the line advances. Still, once melee is joined, the barbarian springs out and gets a flanking attack which decimates a squad, and the bard remembers to sing Inspire Courage, giving everyone a better fighting chance.

The plan works; the barbarian and druid bring down the imp with their magic weapons. This inspires  the remaining thugs to a berserk fury, as they've just seen their promised hopes of power and glory brought low. They lay into the barbarian, cutting him to an inch of his life, and he retreats behind the wizard and the druid.

Two men with sticks is not tenable defense against two squads. The wizard goes down, bleeding to death; the ranger is back to being useless, and the bard is tanking an entire squad by himself on the other side of the field. The party starts seriously discussing how to retreat, until the barbarian throws caution to the wind and leaps back into battle. He makes short work of another squad, even though a single hit will take him out; the druid gets the wizard back on his feet with some healing spells; and the remaining two squads see the writing on the wall. They break off and flee; the party retreats into the cave.

They find their mules, a bunch of useless junk, and a receipt for six kegs of beer made out to... Grayson Palek.

Battered, bruised, out of spells, and many still sick and poisoned, they limp back to town again, planning to give it a wide berth and head on into the city for healing and possibly reinforcements. The ranger sneaks into the village to get the cleric, and of course muffs his die roll. But it doesn't matter, because the town is deserted. The cleric comes out of hiding to tell them that Palek's soldiers forced the villagers into the mansion, where even now a scream of agony can be heard. Palek appears to be trying to summon another, possibly larger demon.

Tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion... but hopefully only to The Devils' Handmaiden, not the entire campaign. Those imps are pretty tough, and they are out of spells. Only true heroes would wade into such a dangerous battle in such poor shape. Are they true heroes? Will they risk a TPK in only the fourth session? Can the ranger finally roll some decent dice? Find out next month!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Campaign Journal: World of Prime #2

Humble Beginnings (Continued)

The party decides to deal with the hobgoblins first, as a stepping stone to the rank necessary to take on the Wild Lord. They track the horde through the grass while the trail is still (relatively) fresh and find a dilapidated village, taking their new bestest buddy Par the Archer with them because they don't trust leaving him behind with the mules and the food. And this despite the fact the ghost Tyvek now heals Par. If that's not a stamp of approval/alignment change, what is?

Hiding in the grass on a rise about 500 yards away, they spend an inordinate amount of time discussing tactics, torn between a full frontal assault during the day while the hobbos are Dazzled, or waiting to ambush their hunting parties at night. Finally they decide on the latter, or perhaps they just argue so long the sun goes down and they don't have a choice.

And thus we see a D&D trope seamlessly blended into the narrative. The Side Quest is a staple of the DM's art, but in this case the players chose it themselves. Making XP a concrete quantity that the players control puts them in charge of the pacing.

The party is a bit disconcerted to discover that the hobgoblins, who sleep during the day and hunt during the night, use no light. It's hard to spy on a village at 500 yards at night when the village doesn't so much as strike a match. Still, they hold their course, and eventually a hunting group wanders out to their position.

The ranger and barbarian move to flank; the ranger (who has the worst luck with the dice) totally gives away their position. Par stands up and shoots a hobbo with his longbow, the group's only missile weapon. Most everybody else throws rocks and javelins, save for the wizard who lights a couple of torches. As usual, the bard is the only one who inflicts any real damage, killing another hobbo with a rock. Why does this guy even want a weapon?

The hobgoblins respond with a shower of javelins, knocking Par out of the fight. Melee is joined; the hobbos lose, of course, but give a good accounting of themselves. After three or four rounds it's all over, and the party belatedly realizes that lighting torches in the plains in the middle of the night gives your location away to everything within ten miles. They snuff the torches, and after only a lengthy discussion, decide to retreat.

The next day they head back to the village, simultaneously emboldened by their victory and worried over how much damage they had suffered. They notice that the central fire pit of the village contains a large chunk of roasted meat. While trying to get close enough to determine what it is, they are discovered; the hobbos marshal for war, forming into four squads, and advance at a measured pace.

The party falls back slowly, letting Par fire into the oncoming formations. Because the hobbos move slower than the party, the archer gets off all 19 remaining arrows, killing ten hobbos. The rest charge through the party's final javelin assault (again, only the bard does any real damage) and melee is joined.

My squad rules makes the hobbos less dangerous, in that I don't have to roll thirty attacks per turn, but also frustrates the players a bit as the hobbo squads are harder to hit now that they are helping each other out. A classic battle line is formed, with the players strategically retreating their wounded to prevent fatalities, but then the wounded step back up, realizing that if they get knocked out the party can probably save them with a Cure Minor Wounds spell - but only if the party wins. Things could have gone either way, but the party is sporting several short-swords now, and Par's arrows hurt a lot more than I realized. One of the hobbo squads is reduced to two figures; they break out of squad formation and attack as individuals, only to get immediately murderized, and the party rolls up the hobbo line from the flank in true battlefield style.

To their credit the party had carried on a long discussion of whether or not to murder the hobgoblin's children. To their relief, there are none; the village had fallen on hard times and was not capable of spawning (goblins lay eggs, which they treat more as commodities than as children, not that the party knows that). The village yields little treasure, just ten rabbit skins and a wicker basket full of throwing rocks. The meat on the spit turns out to be the remains of the hobgoblins they killed the night before. Meat is definitely not back on the menu.

The next day they are lounging around outside their cave when three bandits come out of the woods, shouting for Par. They have been sent to rescue Par and his fellow, who had been sent out hunting a few days ago. Par suggests turning the men to their side; the bard comes up with the perfect line to open negotiations: "Are you hungry, boys?" An easy die roll later, three more hirelings are stuffing their faces with salted pork and porridge, made extra delicious by a Prestidigitation spell.

Now they have more information about their foe. Boros is down to a few days of supplies; he will soon lead a raid on a village for more. Some members of the party (you know who you are!) think this is an excellent opportunity; they'll wait for Boros to leave, occupy the keep, and surprise him on his return. Other members note that this will allow innocent villagers to suffer, which is not really acceptable for Team Good. The druid appropriates the wicker basket of rocks, turning it into a rattan shield with his Survival skills, and then gives it to the barbarian. Hey, it's a +1 to AC, so you know, that's something.

They give it another day to see if they can catch anymore of Boros' men out of the keep. My module calls for the remaining five to show up in force, which seemed like a good idea when I wrote it, but doesn't work out now. All five come marching through the woods; they are met by the entire party plus their bandit turncoats armed with pork sandwiches; and now the entire enemy team (save the one unfortunate slain by Tyvek) is working for the party.

They take their new lads back to the cave, feed and rest them, and return the next day to beard the Wild Lord in his den. Boros is not completely stupid; he tries to make use of his fortifications, but most of the party goes around behind the keep to climb in the back window while the bard, the druid, and bandits hang out in front. Boros then makes an extremely poor choice: he charges out to fight.

The bandits are fighting in squads, Par can't get a clear shot, and the rest of the party is still in back of the keep. Things look decent for a whole round. Boros targets his turncoats first, because he's mad at them, and besides they're the ones who look dangerous (some of the party is still fighting with stone weapons). The bandits do some pathetic stabbing, Boros kills one of them, and then everything goes south.

Boros, scourge of the Wild, muffs his rather easy Will save against the druid's Daze spell. He loses a round while the party flanks him. Suddenly the party has figured out how to roll dice; they are flanking, aiding each other, and throwing sixteens all over the place. Boros gets hit hard by the barbarian, among a few other successful attacks.

Next round Boros hits the barbarian, rolls a bit low, and leaves him with one hit point. Then he muffs another easy Will save. More important than the unanswered attacks is the fact that Boros keeps losing his chance to retreat to the keep, where he can at least be protected from flankers.

Combat continues; Boris swings again at the person who hurt him the most, the barbarian, and misses by exactly one. The rattan shield saves the barbarian's life! The party responds with a flurry of attacks and Boros goes down, another BBEG brought low by the action economy.

They cut off his head rather quickly, concerned that he might spring back up again. The tales of how dangerous he was seemed to have stuck with them, despite his poor showing at the end. They are now wealthy beyond their dreams, with enough tael to get everyone to first rank. Much to my surprise, they spend a lot of time talking about how much to share with their new bandit army, even though this would leave one of them below first rank. Unfortunately, they do this out of the hearing of said bandit army, having sent them with Par back to the cave to fetch the mules and supplies to their new headquarters, the keep.

The bandits are not at all impressed with Par's new-found outlook on life. Once at the cave, surrounded by food, and free of any influence by the party, they murder Par, steal everything (except the sword, assuming its curse is what messed up their ex-buddy's head), and run for their lives. The party comes looking for them the next morning, only to find Par's stripped corpse.

Now they face a moral decision: chase the bandits, or go back and take care of the handful of women that Boros had kept imprisoned in the keep to do the bandit's laundry (hey now, we have a pre-teen in our player group). Ultimately they choose justice over mercy and set out after the murderers. The druid's hawk does invaluable service here, telling the party which way to go. The bandits, realizing they are being tracked and that they have no Animal Handling skill, abandon the mules so they can move faster.

The trick works; the party, retrieving their valuable mules and supplies, suddenly loses the appetite for justice (funny how that works). They return to the keep and the prisoners. Old Bob, the crazy hermit who sewed up the bandit's clothes and wounds, says he'll stay in the keep and take his chances in the wild. The three women are escorted to the nearest village on the edge of the county of Edersarr and released with a gold piece each to find their way back to their homes. Not exactly the triumphant return of paladins, but the party is trying to lay low at the moment, still adapting to their new-found identities as nobles.

They spend the night in the local inn, living it up. A whole gold piece for food, drink, and board! This is the high life, at least as peasants conceive it. While they're partying, the bard ferrets out an interesting story about a lake monster snatching a young couple out of the very room they will be sleeping in

You know you've succeeded when a roast chicken and several pints of cheap ale excites your players. 

Despite being ennobled, they are still quite poor, down to their last three gold pieces. They sell off the mules and spend the money on shields, staves, and a spear and a warhammer. Only the barbarian looks the part, wearing the chainmail and masterwork longsword they looted from Boros. Now they're trying to figure out how to make money for equipment, and their finely tuned senses smell an adventure opportunity in the lake. Tune in next time, when we discover that only the barbarian thought to take Swimming as a skill.