A Noh Play in One Act
The party decides to go with their traveling merchant disguise again, purchasing a thousand gold pieces of silk (the Ranger tries to write it off as an expense but the Queen’s accountants deny him). They sail into Isiequerr and are immediately discomfited… by the orderliness and cleanliness of the realm.
Isiequerr is a place where everyone knows their place. Peasants rush out of the way of lords; civil servants without rank wear placards and wield authority without meeting the gaze of nobles. The absence of hunger and violence makes the party begin to question their allegiance to the wily and wild beauty of Queen Rian.
Checking into an inn, they once again inquire as to how best to approach the royal castle with their rare goods. Market day is only a few days out, so the party prepares to run the same play they had success with in Arkoommeamn. But the locals have a different idea.
After a day of sight-seeing, weapon-shopping, and watching the local theater (and being discreetly tailed by commoners), they retire to the inn for dinner. The waitress brings them a message as she clears the table: they should check on their horses in the stable. This is an intriguing message because they don’t have horses. After a mercifully brief discussion of the possible dangers, the party finally decides to go out to the barn. There they find the waitress waiting for them.
“Not everyone is of the same mind,” she explains. There are those who would like to see a change of rule in the realm. The Bard is of course suspicious but the waitress knows enough catch-phrases to sound convincingly like a member of the shadowy network that the party has encountered in both other kingdoms (the rogue Esyllt in Flef and the bard Gizela in Arko). For 5,000 gp she offers them the same deal Gizela did: to turn aside the low ranked knights and let the party contest against the king’s retinue directly. Again the Ranger tries to haggle, but the waitress just rolls her eyes. The Druid pays her fee in tael; she instructs them to be return to the barn the same time tomorrow night.
The next day they wander the town attempting to purchase healing potions, but the temple is closed for a local holiday. That evening they gather in the barn and ready themselves for battle.
The waitress appears and calmly leads them through the dark, silent streets. She pauses at a street corner and informs them that battle is but a minute away; they should cast whatever long-term spells they desire. The party is only 7th level; at this stage they only have one or two preparations to make. The waitress then leads them directly to the castle gates.
The guards at the gate stare out into the street, apparently unaware of the party’s existence. When someone inquires, the waitress explains they have been blinded by the oldest spell in the book: gold. The Bard observes that is actually the second oldest spell, but his wit is not appreciated.
The party walks unopposed through the gates and into the courtyard. As they approach the steps up to the central palace a troop of men form a line behind them: knights armed with a long sword, a short sword, and a bow. The waitress calms the party and explains. “They will allow you to leave uncontested if you provide them with proof of the king’s defeat.” Then she pushes open the heavy door and steps inside.
They follow, eager to get to the heart of the matter without having to slaughter dozens or hundreds of men of little account. Inside they are greeted by an unexpected sight: King Tsuneuji and his Minister of Divinity, Vicar Masamori, sit alone at the far end of a long table in a dark hall. The only light in the hall is the lantern on table in front of the two men. The King has obviously been expecting them; he uses the initiative to stand up and monologue.
First, a single candle is lit in the balcony that surrounds the room. A man sits behind the candle and begins to strum a lyre, casting Bardic Inspiration. The observant members of the party realize there are a number of people around him, armed with musical instruments.
Second, the king stands up and places an ivory mask on his face. He declaims a ritual piece of dialogue from a classic play: “A noble ruler contemplates the vicissitudes of fate.”
Third, Vicar Masamori stands up beside the king, also placing an ivory mask over his face, and reciting “The favor of the gods stand with him.” The Cleric identifies this as the Prayer spell, though the party is too far away to suffer the negative effects.
Fourth, stagehands in the balcony then turn spotlights onto six knights kneeling on either side of the table, between the party and the king. These men are in a staggered line, so that there are four in front with dual swords ready and two behind them with bows ready. They recite in unison, “His loyal retainers stand with him,” and stand up. All of them are clearly wearing ivory masks.
Finally, spotlights illuminate each member of the part. The king fires two arrows, one at the Ranger and one at the Barbarian, clearly testing their defenses. And then initiative passes to the party.
This is clearly a set-up; on the other hand, it’s a set-up the party wanted. The party is higher-rank than the defenders, and only out-numbered by the addition of a half-dozen 3rd rank fighters. This is a fairer fight than they could have hoped for, and they leap into battle.
The Barbarian charges up the left side of the room, engaging the knights. They are hardy enough to slow him down, though clearly outmatched. The Ranger engages shoots an arrow into the bard in the balcony; the entire room hisses in disapproval. Fortunately the arrow is not enough to kill a man of rank; the bard ignores it and continues the show. The rest of the party begins casting their short-term combat spells: mirror images, magic hammers, and the like.
And things immediately go south. A spotlight illuminates an elaborately dressed man on the left side of the room as he recites a terrible joke. "A barbarian walks into a tavern. Ouch! says the tavern; why don't you use the door like normal people?" A drum roll from the orchestra accompanies the punch line. The Barbarian chuckles, then laughs, then collapses to the ground under a gale of guffaws. The king begins shooting spell-casters, and his arrows hit like guided missiles.
The Bard tries to advance on the right side. These knights are only 3rd rank but they are still dangerous. The Cleric tries to cast a spell, and suddenly spotlights illuminate a woman on the right side of the room. She cries out, “Denied!” punctuated by a crash of cymbals, and the Cleric’s spell is countered.
The next round sees the Ranger targeted with a joke. "Two rangers are walking in the woods when they discover a set of tracks. One says it is bear tracks; the other says it is wolf tracks. They are still arguing when the wagon train runs over them." He also collapses in helpless amusement. This is cruel pay-back for when the party crippled the master spy of Varsoulou with Tasha’s Hideous Laughter.
Faced with a line of advancing knights, the Druid decides its bear time. He easily takes out the remaining knights on the left side, saving the Barbarian from being stabbed to death while helpless, but is in turn devastated by the waitress back-stabbing him with dual daggers. They notice the waitress is now wearing an ivory mask. No one saw her put it on; in fact, no one saw her since the battle started.
Unfortunately Lady Senko, like all rogues, is a one-hit wonder: the ursine druid smashes her into the wall, killing her in a single brutal attack.
Somehow the party remains fighting until the Barbarian’s spell wears off. Each turn Baron Kane the jokester targets another party member, but these jokes all fail and hence are too lame to repeat. (Ironically, the only failed saving throws accompanied the only jokes the table laughed at. Obviously I needed to work on the jokes more.) The king does great work with arrows, but mostly succeeds in stripping the Bard of images and reducing the Cleric to single digits.
Once the Barbarian is back on his feet things start looking up. He charges the joking sorcerer… only to run face-first into both an invisible set of iron bars and a Glyph of Warding. The explosion knocks him down again. The bear charges forward and uses its reach to reach inside the invisible cage, taking Baron Kane out of the battle in an instant. The Ranger stands up, finally recovered, and the Cleric runs up to heal the Barbarian.
Meanwhile the Cleric’s hammer has been beating on Lady Tome, forcing her to leave off counter-spelling to drink a healing potion. More importantly, Vicar Masamori has to run to her side and heal her as well. The Bard is still duelling a line of knights and slowly winning, but not without cost.
The king turns his arrows to the bear. Already wounded from the backstab, the bear falls to negative. The Cleric, having just healed the Barbarian, quickly turns to healing the Druid.
The Barbarian knows it is time to end this. He puts one foot on the table, prepared to charge over it to get to the king, but then his innate sense of decorum convinces him to run around the table instead (ha! What actually happened is the DM told him to make a reflex save, and he changed his mind. The DM wrote this off to the barbarian class’s innate trap sense ability). This results in more sonic glyphs, leaving him on the ground unconscious a second time.
Meanwhile, the Cleric’s Spiritual Hammer does more good than it ever has, knocking Lady Tome out. The Ranger has finished off the last of the knights, and the Bard, seeing that the fight is now moving to the king, decides to evade the Vicar and charge up the table.
He fails his reflex save; the table collapses under his weight, dropping him forty feet into a spiked pit. (No do-overs for the Bard – he should have been paying attention!). Much wailing ensues, but the Ranger has a rope, of course. He wraps it around his leg and tosses one end down, leaving his hands free to continue the archery battle.
Which is good, because the next round sees the king put the Ranger on the floor. Those arrows really hurt!
The Bard climbs out of the pit, anchored by the unconscious Ranger’s body. He uses his magic to heal the Ranger, while the Cleric is healing the Druid. Then the Bard heroically charges Vicar Masomori. The Glyphs of Warding are not enough to stop him (on account of his hardly taking any damage so far, thanks to the Mirror Images). The Druid crawls forward to heal the Barbarian before throwing fire around heedless of the risk of arson, and the Cleric leaps the table to double-team Masomori.
The party is in dire straights. Half of them have been knocked out, one of them twice; they are almost out of spells, and all of them are low on vitality. But the king is only 7th rank, and his retinue are lower. To the extent they have focused on offense, they have sacrificed defense.
Masomori goes down to the combined assault. The Barbarian lays into the king, reducing him to single hit points. However, the Barbarian is equally low and the king draws his two swords, preparing to deal out a fatal response. The Ranger dramatically ends the encounter with a single arrow, killing the king just in time to save the Barbarian’s life.
The orchestra wails once in deafening grief and then goes silent. The spotlights wink out, replaced by the gentle illumination of house lights. A brief pause while the party deals out mercy to the not yet dead, rather than waiting for them to bleed out (though it must be said the Druid was not inclined to mercy). The party finds a small box with 10,000 tael on the table next to the king;s lantern. A search of the bodies reveals a bunch of minor magic items and the most precious gift of all: a scroll of Raise Dead!
Then servants file into the room with mops and brooms. Two junior clerics offer to heal the party, and a servant shows them to the guest rooms, explaining that the master suites will not be safe for the party until they clear out the many glyphs surrounding every part of the castle that should never be entered by mere visitors.
The party has passed the test. They are both powerful enough to rule (as demonstrated by their destruction of the king’s retinue) and civilized enough to be tolerated (shown by their adherence to the rules of the battle designed to minimize the collateral damage). In the morning they find themselves addressed as Lords. A temporary position, as they make it clear that they intend to turn the realm over to Queen Rian. Yet the staff are eager to change their minds; the barons and counts will soon make their journey to the capital to swear to their new lieges, and the life of the realm can continue much as before but with different rulers. After all, better the devil you have than a mad sorceress who they already know can never be tamed to their idea of civilization.
(This was their closest battle yet, despite the clear imbalance of levels, and the players were genuinely concerned at several points. I think their sense of danger was also fueled by the fact that I had a plan for if they lost that would not result in a TPK. Due to that, I probably seemed far more sanguine about their difficulties than they are used to.)