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.