Thursday, May 23, 2019

Black Harvest

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

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

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

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Spoiler: How Game of Thrones ends

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

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

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


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

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

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #13

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

The City of Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #12

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

A new mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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