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[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #14: The Lord of the Mountains

Sun, 11/12/2017 - 20:21
Participants:
  • Drusus the Historian, 4th level human Magic-User
  • Drolhaf Haffnarskørung, 6th level human Thief/Fighter
  • Lafadriel Hundertwasser, 4th level elven Fighter
  • Armand the Scumbag, 4th level human Thief
  • Phil the Terror of Turkeys, 5thlevel hobbit Thief/Archer

 The forest was dead. The birds were silent, and the branches were like the hands of the dead, bearing funereal veils of moss and lichen. They walked in silence until Armand – who has looking in the undergrowth for something he could find useful – bid the company stop.“Ahead of us – voices!”The sounds were human moans mixed with odd, bubbling noises. Creeping forward, they spied a clearing dominated by a massive old tree, black and rotten. Around the trunk, naked, pale humans crawled in the mud like beasts, their eyes vacant and dull. They wore chains bound them to the tree, and were absorbed in fighting or sitting and wailing. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung quietly motioned for the others to keep walking, and put a distance between them and the strange vision, until they were out of the dead zone. It was growing dark by the time they reached the lower slopes of the mountains. Phil found a cave which looked abandoned and didn’t smell of wild animals, and here they rested a night.
***
The forests receded and were replaced by moraines and giant boulders. The snowy summits loomed high above them, and they were buffeted by freezing winds. There was no sign of life in this wasteland. It was Armand who discovered the road, winding around the mountainside and disappearing in a gap between two peaks. It was irregular and seemingly built of enormous stones too large to be moved by men, but it was a road all right. It lead upwards and to the east, until the two sides of a narrow gorge rose up around it. The company passed through the gloomy silence, and after a few hours, reached a branch. The main road continued eastwards, while a more narrow way, built of the same massive stones, went north, before disappearing between an enormous arch formed of two massive, fallen stones.
They passed under the stones, hurled against each other by the mighty forces of nature, and emerged on a slope overlooking a small valley dominated by the green of lush trees, and a central meadow bisected by a crystal-clear stream. The way lead down into the tiny forest, while right across them, looming high, rose the tallest peak of the mountains, snow-covered and quiet. Up high, a serpentine road seemed to climb up to a cave entrance; above, three massive arched openings, closed off by metal grilles, yawned in the sheer cliff face. On top of the peak, they could make out the snowy ruins of a tower or small keep, barely more than a collection of walls and debris piles.“Whatever this is, we have found what we were looking for,” said Phil.
***
The road melted into a forest trail surrounded by gnarled old trees. Soon, the path forked before a comfortable-looking stone bench, holding a pitcher of clear water. To the left, the path curved, crossing a stream flowing southwest. Lafadriel heard a distant sound like geese honking, while Armand studied a tree that looked a bit like its knots formed a human face... or was it just a random pattern? Phil climbed up on another tree, and sunk his hand into a bird’s nest, retrieving two eggs made of solid gold.
The Garden in the MountainsThey crossed the stream, and soon emerged in the meadow at the centre of the valley. The grass was green and wholesome, and clusters of colourful wildflowers were everywhere. Across the meadow, a gaggle of eight white swans were hunting for snails. In the middle of the clear area, a statue stood on a pedestal with some kind of writing on the base. It was a full-scale rendition of a moustached nomad standing triumphantly, raising a scimitar above his head, next to his companion, a rearing griffin. There was a living figure next to the statue: a lady in fine clothes, standing silently and looking the other way.“Let’s approach her” suggested Drolhaf, and they crossed the meadow, following the stream.
Something is wrong” Phil hissed.They were not any closer to the statue, but in the meadow’s north-eastern corner. The eight swans were peacefully grazing to their south, and as they looked back to the centre, they saw the statue, but the lady had disappeared.“We are in the opposite corner, but the statue is still looking our way!” whispered Phil.Drusus cast detect magic, confirming the valley – all around them – was magical. Lafadriel, who had stopped to collect some of the wildflowers, saw that they were like no flowers he had ever seen; their blossoms and leaves were conjoined in a blooming tangle.“Let’s try retracing our steps to the southwest.”Following Drolhaf’s suggestion, they made their way back to their starting point. The eight swans were peacefully plucking something from the grass to the northwest, and the statue was looking back in their direction.
Drolhaf spoke to no one in particular: “I have come with good intentions – I give the gift of flowers to the flowers.” He retrieved a vial filled with a rainbow liquid from his knapsack (once found by Franz Who Wasn’t Even There during a previous adventure), and poured it on the ground, burning a path through the grass towards the statue. This time, they emerged at the base of the monument. Looking around, Armand saw three swans hunting to their southwest, but no trace of the mysterious woman.“Wait, three swans?” asked Lafadriel.“I try to disbelieve the illusion” said Drolhaf, but nothing changed. “Hm. Let’s try reading the inscription – these are some really tiny letters.”The letters below the statue read: “THE SWANS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY SEEM”“The what? ... HEY!”The swans were right there next to them! They struck furiously with their bills, and Drusus almost fell to a grievous wound, while Armand and Lafadriel got smaller bites. Once he could react, Drusus recovered enough of his wits to cast burning hands, scorching the swans, while the others fought in vain to hit them. Suddenly, the angered waterfowl were gone. They were alone next to the statue, and a group of six swans were grazing peacefully in the meadow’s NW corner.“The wounds are real” said Drusus, disappointed.“Maybe it really is an illusion” said Drolhaf.“Or some sort of spatial distortion” added Phil the Terror of Turkeys. “Could be the pollen” he continued as he masked his face with a piece of cloth, followed by Armand the Scumbag.
The place we are looking for is to the north. Looking that way, you can see two paths starting from the NE corner. Let’s start with the northern one.”Following the suggestion, they approached the semi-circular narrow garden path. Halfway, there was a snow-white marble pillar with a vase on the top, both bisected by a single long crack.Drusus had an idea. “Let’s try something different.” He cast a spell, and began to levitate upwards, rising above the valley. He saw the trees below them, and a mountain path to his northeast, starting from the east of the valley. He levitated back down, and told the others of his discovery.“Let’s just see the western part first before we go east” said Drolhaf.
Back at the meadow’s NW corner, they spotted the western path starting from the SW corner. Some way into the lush woods, they found themselves next to a marble pavilion. A circle of columns stood on a half-sunken foundation overgrown with grass, and a broken white marble dome rose over the columns. Approaching the structure, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung noticed something shimmering between the columns, surrounding the interior – a slight distortion or refraction, barely visible. Inside, something seemed to stir, but it was just a hint of movement – or perhaps another trick of the light. Testing the shimmering with a rock, then a stick, it proved to be some kind of force repelling all intrusion. Meanwhile, Lafadriel, who was watching the forest, made another unpleasant discovery.“There are no snails and insects here. This place is completely barren. And those trees – look! They are identical.”Looking more closely, the ruse was obvious. The trees were completely like each other, and their green leaves were perfect imitations of a single uniform shape.“It is like someone created this place,” murmured Phil “but he was too careless or lazy to pay attention to the details.”“That’d explain the wildflowers I saw” nodded Lafadriel.
Proceeding further west, than back northeast, they saw a comfortable-looking stone bench, holding a pitcher of clear water. Drolhaf was now sure: “Yes, we have seen it before.”Back at the NW corner of the clearing, they saw a flock of five geese playing in the stream to the southeast. An elegant lady stood next to the statue in the middle with her back to them. The exit of the northern path they had emerged from a little time ago was nowhere to be seen.“Well then.”There was a way to the east from the NE corner, and they took this path through the perfect, alien forest. Halfway along the path, there was a snow-white marble pillar with a vase on the top, both bisected by a single long crack. But there was also something else: a stone path passed below an arch of two massive rocks, going steeply upwards and turning north in a bend.Lafadriel was sceptical: “This could just be the way we came in.”“Do you have any better ideas?”“Yes, go back to the road and leave this place.”“No way. We have to get to that tower.”“How much time has passed since we got here?” asked Armand, and looked up at the sun, which was still right above them. “It is noon. Just like when we got here. It could always be noon here.
***
The trail was steep and unpleasant to climb, the stairs too high for their legs and seemingly endless. After a while, they emerged somewhere above the green valley, on a ledge buffeted by cold winds. Four great stone faces in the cliff wall stared at them with empty eyes and mouths.“Are these representations of Keora? No... the goddess is female, and these are male heads” mused Drolhaf.“They resemble the giants of the old eras” spoke Drusus the Historian.“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THE REALM OF THE MOUNTAINS’ MYSTERY?” A booming sound came from one of the heads.“We have come looking for… uh… this place, oh faces!”“HE HAD STRUCK WOUNDS INTO THE STONE” the voice replied.Another head joined in: “HE HAD BUILT A HEAP FROM THE BONES OF THE CLIFFS.”The third spoke: “HE HAD BRIDGED DEPTH AND DECAPITATED HEIGHT.”And the fourth rumbled: “HE HAD ENSLAVED THE MOUNTAINS...”“We are on our way!” Drolhaf responded, and was quick on his feet to get as far away from the ledge as possible.
They climbed further up, and after what seemed like a very long time, were at the base of the final summit, snow-covered and quiet. The path ended in a vaulted entrance leading into the mountain; to either side stood two statues of the nomad warrior from the meadow down below, one headless and one with his upraised blade broken off and lost. Stepping inside, there was an abandoned watch station to the left, and a set of stairs leading upwards.
The Mountain Tower

The steps lead into a vast hall lit by three enormous archways cut into the side of the mountain, but closed off by enormous brass grilles. Giant winches to be operated by multiple men stood next to them. The hall itself consisted of three “piers” with 10’ deep “bays” between them, filled with heaps of blackened, leathery bodies and bones, the remnants of some ancient massacre. Peering down, they saw broken weapons, and something else – the bodies were entangled in rotten harnesses. There was a large archway leading deeper into the mountain, and wide stairs climbing up, flanked by the bas-reliefs of rearing griffins.“What were the bays for? Enormous swans?”“This could be related to the island’s giants in some way.”“Remember the legend of the griffin rider of this isle?” said Drusus. “This could be the same man. He was reputed to save people from peril.”“Wasn’t that man a pegasus rider?”“He had bridged depth…” said Drolhaf.“Maybe this was not the man of the legends” countered Phil the Terror of Turkeys. “Maybe you’d call for his help and he’d just appear and kill you.”There was some kind of movement from the stairs above. A group of glowing, spectral warriors appeared, coming down their way, nomads with pointed helmets and glinting phantasmal spears. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung raised his hand in a gesture of peace: “Respect for the brave! We have come with the permission of the giants!”The figures attacked wordlessly, striking wound after wound, but fortunately, they eventually fell to the company’s weapons.
Climbing further up the wide stairs, they emerged in an octagonal, vaulted chamber. There were spiral stairs further up, four doors in the diagonal corners, and passages to the east and west. Drusus was the first to investigate, opening the door to the northeast. The room was filled with a heap of discarded, mouldering clothes and rags, of all makes and sizes. Drusus rifled through them to see if they had any valuables, but suddenly, he felt something dragging him inside the pile. The rags fell on him to cover his face and suffocate him, and he was almost gone under the heaving mass, but at last the others could drag him away. Bitterly, he spoke the words of a flaming sphere, burning through the old remains and producing an oily smoke. The other rooms were also filled with similar cast-offs; there was nothing of apparent value.
Lower level
The passage to the east was flanked from the sides by several barred doors opening into small cells. Chains clinked and dragged themselves inside them, and Drusus was careful to watch them out of the corner of his eye, while also looking at a set of stairs descending downwards. At the end of the passage, a reinforced wooden door opened into a domed room filled with an unruly heap of pointy spears, resembling a large hedgehog. Tattered remains of uniforms hang on the spear shafts, punctured by numerous stab wounds. Across the room, there seemed to be spiral stairs going down, but looking at the spears, they decided to withdraw back to the octagonal room.
Drusus was the first to speak: “I am starting to believe this wasn’t the place Tomurgen was speaking of.”“Nevertheless... if we are already here, we should see what the place has in store for us” argued Drolhaf.Armand looked testy: “Maybe it just wants to kill us.”Finally, going with Drolhaf’s suggestion, they checked the western passage, which had doors to the side and at the end. The first door opened into a rectangular storeroom. Around the walls, there were disembodied, spectral things that looked like piles of something; colourful mists swirled on rotting wooden shelves. Drolhaf entered carefully, probing the clouds with the butt of his spear, experiencing something solid. Touching with his hand, he felt something smooth and rectangular, yet slowly pulsating. A handle. He pulled, and was in possession of a wooden drawer filled with old silverware.“Now that’s interesting.”“It is like things are sliding between reality and unreality?” guessed Phil.He opened another door, where a row of six misty globes stood in a row at chest height, dripping with red condensation. Then, checking the door at the end of the hallway, he entered a hexagonal room, where three larger, brighter clouds – blue, yellow and red – were pulsing at different rates, glowing with an inner light. Drolhaf reached for them, finding the yellow hot to the touch with a rapid pulse, the red warm and languid, and the blue cool and almost inert. He took the yellow globe and held it firmly…“I leave the room” declared Armand the Scumbag.“I leave the room” declared Lafadriel Hundertwasser.“I am already outside the room” declared Phil the Terror of Turkeys.“I have never even been inside the room” declared Drusus the Historian.Drolhaf reached, seizing the globe…
…and felt incredible pain exploding through his body as he was enveloped in super-bright flames and a volcanic heat. The pain was incredible, and Drolhaf suddenly realised the flasks of oil on his body weren’t helping…
...too late, as he burned, crying “Fire, walk with me!” in a desperate bid to bring it under control. “The flames are mine!” he bellowed, and collapsed naked, weak as an infant, yet somehow also stronger after surviving the incredible ordeal (+2 Strength). “I could use a little healing here” he croaked, before he lost consciousness.
***
The red one was really something” Drolhaf heard the voice of Phil the Terror of Turkeys. He was resting in one of the side rooms, meticulously cleared of the old clothes that had filled it. “He is awake, and looks better. Well, time to get going!
Taking the spiral stairs up, they found themselves in a round columned hall. Grey daylight streamed in through small windows set around the hall’s perimeter. In the centre, suspended from the domed ceiling by a thick chain, was a large iron cage holding a desiccated corpse. The features of the man were nomadic with a cruel sneer; he had been stabbed through by several spears still lodged in the mummified body. A stone scimitar lay below the cage.“That looks like something for the broken statue at the entrance!” guessed Drolhaf, and carefully crawled under the cage to retrieve the item.Drusus was not convinced about their safety: “He seems to be looking at us. Is the cage solid enough?
Looking for exits, Armand the Scumbag found a great, securely barred gate made of wood, and two hallways leading off from the domed chamber. Choosing the way to the east, they entered a long hall with its ceiling lost in darkness. A row of empty pedestals stretched all the way to the end, where they could see the triumphant statue of the griffin rider, letters inscribed on the base. Spiral stairs lead upwards, and a grand staircase started behind the statue.“Does something attack if we read the inscription? Any swans around?”“The pedestals are empty.”“Are they?” Phil pointed at faint, barely visible shapes on the twenty-six plinths. “Looks like glass or crystal... could be like the phantoms we fought, and there are 26 of them.”“What if I sent a flaming sphere along the row?” asked Drusus the Historian. Then he shrugged and walked up to the rider, reading aloud the sign: “I GAVE THE MOUNTAINS WHAT IS OF THE MOUNTAINSI GAVE THE WOODLANDS WHAT IS OF THE WOODLANDSI GAVE THE SEAS WHAT IS OF THE SEASTHE AIRS ABOVE WHAT IS OF THE AIRSRULING THEM TRIUMPHANT, THE POWER IN MY HANDS...”
Nothing here. I will scout ahead and see if there is anything dangerous.” Drusus walked up the winding grand stairs, eventually winding up on a circular gallery over a dark abyss. Cold winds wailed through empty windows, but the cold seemed to radiate from something else: a large golden heart that would fill a knapsack, suspended by a rope. He tried to grab it, and managed to dislocate the heavy metal piece, but could barely hold onto it as it seemed to freeze the marrow in his bones. He put it down on the gallery floor. Back in the hall of the statues, he told the tale and Drolhaf offered to make a try with the heart.“The power of fire will still protect me.”“But what of the crystal statues? This feels like a classic trap. If we bring it here, the statues will probably animate.”Returning to the heart, they all studied the heavy object which seemed immensely valuable.“This must be the heart of the mountains from Tomurgen’s poem. ‘Mountains’ heart, forest-hidden light / Two stone peaks and a third will show its proper site / It lies in the dreamer’s lap, secret hiding place / A deceitful flame marks it, bygone mirage lays.’”Armand didn’t believe it. “It was suspiciously easy to just find it laying here.”“But something has cursed the nomads living here. Are we sure it isn’t this heart?”“It is magical... actually, the rope is also magical.”Peering down the abyss below them, Drolhaf noted a pile of leathery corpses covered by snow carried in by the wind. “It all looks risky. Something willhappen if we take it.
Upper Levels
Deciding to leave the heart be for a while and investigate further, they pressed forward, into another tall, round gallery, this one dark save for narrow beams of light coming through small windows high above them. Six golden cages hang from the walls, filled with chirping, bouncing wisps of coloured light. At the far end of the gallery, Phil also spotted something more ominous – a heavy, lumbering shape seen from the corner of the eye, disappearing with a growl through an archway.“I am more and more sure this place is half real and half unreal” suggested Drusus.“That beast we just saw doesn’t look too scary if it is fleeing from us” said Phil.“Just don’t corner it; you may find it’ll take your head off.”Eventually, they decided to open the cages and take them for the gold value. The colourful balls scattered, twittering above their heads.“What have we unleashed on the world?!”“Tiny little pixies?
The Coastal MapInstead of pursuing the beastly apparition, they took the spiral stairs from the statue hall, arriving in a hexagonal room with two arched exits, one barred by a heavy door. In the middle of the room, an antique table held a hexagonal map with notations.“That tower in the middle of the mountains is where we are now. And look – you can see the coastal areas.”“Could this be the distant past?” ventured Lafadriel Hundertwasser. “We don’t know of this place marked ‘Bonifaces’, or ‘Catscliff’, and what is now the town of Sleepy Haven is called ‘Thanes’.”“Perhaps the Northman thanes had founded the original settlement. We should remove this parchment from the table surface; seems like there are some interesting places around.
The passage without the door lead to the bottom of the gallery where the heart had been suspended, and they took great care to avoid the browned corpses under the pile of accumulated snow. The octagonal room behind the barred door – which was locked but easy to open – seemed empty on a first look, permeated by clear white light. After a fruitless search for secret doors, they were ready to leave, when Drusus saw something out of the corner of his eyes.“Just a moment! There is something there!”“Where?”“There. Do you see it?”They could see it, too, from the odd angle: heaps of brocades embroidered with lions, rich tapestries and pearl chains on mounds of gold. The centrepiece was a marble pedestal with a winged helmet resting on a velvet cushion, decorated with the emblem of the griffin rider.“Wait!” Phil exclaimed. “Is this the same helmet we found in the hall in Haghill Gadur Yir had opened?”“I’ll be damned! It is the exact same thing... no, wait. That one had a pegasus rider.”“Are you sure it was a pegasus rider?”“But it was in ‘The Chamber of the Griffin’.”“Now that’s something.

The next place they chose to visit was the tower’s west wing, reached through the other passage from the central chamber. Fighting a group of five phantom nomads, they emerged in a side room with a looming dark ceiling above dark-curtained windows, and roaring flames in a decorative fireplace. Drusus took a long look at the fire, and his gaze was drawn to what looked like human faces in the glowing embers, forming and disappearing in slow succession. There was a low murmur, and as he saw face after face, he finally saw one that caught his attention. It was the face of an unremarkable, indolent young man, but somehow he knew this man carried a great secret truth, and that he was a lost prisoner somewhere in a faraway underground place. Drusus studied the face and memorised its features before the apparition was gone.
Spiral stairs lead up, now to an empty room with further exits upwards and to the east. Choosing the latter way, the company was assaulted by a barrage of senses: the touch of fabrics and silks, the prickly sensation of horsehair blankets, the neighing of horses and the caress of soft arms. The eastern room was a narrow closet holding a collection of clothes. What they at first thought to be an illusion proved to be some princely gear: Drusus the Historian tried on the coolest pair of green dragonskin boots in existence, and topped it off with a golden diadem that seemed to fit him perfectly. Armand the Scumbag was satisfied with an outfit of fur coat that made him look like a wealthy lord.
Back in the previous room, they had to defeat a group of phantom nomads, but they seemed to fall easily. The stairs up lead to a semi-circular gallery lit by several tall windows. It was cold and empty save for a pedestal to the side, holding a red cap with a golden tassel on top of a stone head. Forward, stairs lead further up towards the top of the tower.“The head looks like it belongs to that statue next to the entrance” said Drolhaf. He started for the pedestal, but was stopped in his tracks as his transparent mirror image appeared out of the thin air. Drolhaf held up his hand in a gesture of peace, but the apparition was going for his weapon, and as others joined Drolhaf, they were also confronted by their phantom reflections. They chose it wiser to make a strategic retreat and discuss their options. Eventually, shielded with a protection from evil spell, Drolhaf chose to enter the room again, and snatch the cap and the head while dodging the blows raining down on him.
How shall we proceed further?”“I think we have overstayed our welcome. We can come back another time, but we are exhausted and wounded. That large beast is still lurking out there, and if these passages connect, I’d rather not face it.”The remaining task was to retrieve the golden heart. Warmed within a fur coat, it was suspended from a spear haft and carefully carried down the grand stairs, but despite all expectations, no statues animated, and no forces of the weird tower would muster to thwart their progress, although a growling sound from the western wing seemed to warn of something large and ominous. They descended below the tower level, and down many stairs until they reached the exit with the two statues. Putting the scimitar in its place, a metal sword fell from the hand of one statue, clattering on the stones, and snatched up by the eager Phil the Terror of Turkeys:“This will make a nice weapon for me. Looks sharp!”Placing the head on the other statue’s neck, it emitted a bellowing battle cry that echoed through the silent mountains, filling the company with sureness and purpose (+3 to max Hp).“We may have to come back for the rest” pondered Drolhaf, but looking back on the mountain door, he saw only a bare stone surface, as if no entrance had ever been there. Looking up on the summit, where they had explored a great tower, were only the degraded remains of snow-covered walls. “Or maybe it will all stay there forever.”They walked down the serpentine path, towards the valley garden and the eastern road in the direction of Sleepy Haven.
(Session date 7 October 2017).
***
Notable quotes:Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “This is a seriously low-budget valley.
Drolhaf to Lafadriel (after Drusus tried on the expensive boots and the golden diadem): “Is your god also Robespierre?
***
Referee’s notes: This expedition into a strange place resulted in more magical gear than actual clues: only one or two secrets of the tower were found, and from the GM’s side of the screen, it felt a bit like scratching the surface. However, the party was also severely wounded and running on luck and perseverance after the initial encounters, so they were also playing careful. There was a beautiful bit of lateral thinking involved with burning a path to the statue in the centre of the meadow – nothing had been written on this possibility, but it all made complete sense when it happened. But yes, the tower had kept some of its most important secrets.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Under Tenkar’s Tavern

Sun, 11/05/2017 - 22:12
Under Tenkar’s Tavern (2017)by Thom WilsonPublished by Throwi Games
Memories of an Exalted CoverThere are always rats under the tavern. Editions come and go, gaming philosophies rise and fall, but those little fuckers are never giving it up. If your campaign starts in a tavern, you can bet there will be rats under it somewhere. So here we have this first-level adventure, and yeah right, the rats are at it again: they have dragged off the kitchen staff, and you have to follow them down into the rat dungeon to kill them. On your way down, there are captives to rescue, enough money to get rich, and a whole lot of rats. I’m not terribly surprised if that doesn’t sound very appealing. And yet, Under Tenkar’s is an adventure that almostgets it right, and that’s a very encouraging almost.
To start with, this 12-page module actually has a good content-to-page count ratio. It starts with a mercifully short one-page introduction (this could have been two longish paragraphs, but it is good enough), and follows it with a three-level mini-dungeon, featuring 37 keyed areas spread over 9 pages. A lot of small modules have a disappointingly minute amount of content (the proverbial 16 encounters in an 18-page package seems to describe most mini-module heartbreaks), or they are so minimalistic they strip out their meaningful content along with the dross. This one is just fine (and has room left over for “GM notes” if you want to add some). There is boxed text. Boxed text is usually bad news in gaming, a common warning sign for bloat or the removal of player agency. This time, it is mercifully short, functional, and mostly well written. The module could have done without it, but that’s splitting hairs: for boxed text, this is surprisingly passable.
The dungeon itself is a fairly simple beginners’ affair, following a linear structure with the odd side-branch here and there along the way. It is not bad. The encounters are mostly conventional dungeon fare, featuring living quarters, junk, and no less than three evil shrines of increasing menace. Lots of combat along the way, and a generous supply of low-profile magic items. The individual pieces are not outstanding, but it feels like a proper descent into an underground realm of dangers and mysteries. Evil idols, an underground lake, prisoners and cultists. Make this dungeon complex three or four times as big, add distractions and sidetracks, let the players get off the beaten track, explore and get lost, and it’d be very good indeed, while remaining a classic whack-a-rat deal.
Once again, as small, rat-based modules go, this one was surprisingly good for all the the low expectations. There are a lot of things which should work against it, but in the end, it is almost surprisingly decent, and has clawed its way up into a three-star rating. We are told there may be expansions, and there completely should – this is a good launching pad for something bigger – but it has to be bigger to really realise its potential.
No playtesters were listed for this adventure.

Rating: *** / *****
The Ratte Problem
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] RPGPundit Presents #1-3

Mon, 10/23/2017 - 13:41
RPGPundit Presents #1-3 (2017)by RPGPunditPublished by Precis Intermedia
The best partA recently launched series of mini-supplements, each focused on a single gaming-relevant subject, sold as PDFs. While three issues have been published so far, they are fairly tricky to review due to their brevity: the longest has 19 pages of content, one has ten, while the shortest has a mere six (and they are clearly meant for digest-sized printing, with generous font sizes). The result is less like a zine and more like buying a series of zine articles one piece at a time. Issue #1 (Dungeon Chef) covers a topic lovingly explored in Nethack, and more recently in a manga, eating monsters and general flora/fauna you find in a dungeon. Issue #2 (The Goetia) presents brief but useful demon summoning rules and a list of 72 demons taken from the Ars Goetia. Issue #3 (High-Tech Weapons) presents general old-school statistics for modern and futuristic firearms. There is some art here and there, and the cover is very cool, showing a ghostly outline of a pipe-smoking RPGpundit in his Hunter J. Thompson getup.
What makes a zine work is the variety of its content and the personal touch the different articles bring. What makes a supplement work is the in-depth treatment of a subject matter (or an even bigger, broader collection of cool stuff). Unfortunately, this series delivers neither in its current form. All three subjects are treated on the surface level, without offering added value to the game. The most original issue is Dungeon Chef, but unlike Nethack (where corpses may give you neat special abilities like telepathy, or cause food poisoning, random teleporting, or polymorphisation – and you can turn them into tins with a tinning kit), the consequences of scarfing down subterranean bushmeat are mostly handled via uninteresting random tables. There is no interesting pattern to learn, beyond elementary ideas like “eating mummies cause mummy rot”; you would be better off just reading a Nethack wiki. The most useful of the three is The Goetia. The demon-summoning rules are one of many, but they are sensible and flavourful, and if you want a list of high-ranking demons to go with them, Pundit’s familiarity with occult traditions makes this a safe bet (or you can just consult Wikipedia and/or your favourite occult tome). High-Tech Weapons is too short and basic to bring anything to the table; the weapons it describes, and the things it has to say are elementary (e.g. a shotgun can be loaded with either two bullets or buckshot; ion weapons affect robots but have no effect on humans; grenades may miss their target and explode elsewhere). This was pretty cool in the days of Arduin, but today, most of us need more to be wowed.
Altogether, it is hard to see what this series wants to bring to the table. It would work better as a series of blog posts, or perhaps in a collection, but even then, it doesn’t rise above the level of shovelware.
No playtesters were credited in these supplements.
Currently smoking: random tables

Rating: ** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #13: The Seeing Cat

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 19:31
With Armand the Scumbag cooped up within a wardrobe in the safe room of The Murk, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung and Drusus the Historian guarded his life from the side of the bay, and Lafadriel Hundertwasser from the side of the streets. There was considerable boat traffic that night, but after a while, Drolhaf spotted a skiff that didn’t move much, and kept an exact distance from their position. Drolhaf yawned, stretched, sauntered over to Drusus, who confirmed the vessel was immobile, and while someone in the back was paddling to keep position, something that at first looked like a piece of tarp was in fact a man lying prone, looking their way. Half an hour passed uneasily, and at last the skiff turned back towards the other side of the harbour.“This is our chance,” whispered the Northman. “They are not suspecting us. Call down Armand and let’s follow them fast.
Hopping into one of the boats moored to the pier, they rowed in quiet determination, Drolhaf trusting his Northman instincts to keep their direction. It was at this point that they realised the boat was leaking, and while this was negligible with one person inside, it was taking water considerably faster with the three of them on board. Just then, there was a *whoosh* as a crossbow bolt flew by them.“Damnit!” Armand cursed silently as a second projectile missed them. Drolhaf cranked up his own weapon, fired, and missed. The enemy skiff was getting out of range, and their own boat was caught in a treacherous current drifting towards the open sea. They decided to return to shore while they could, but the boat was sinking faster, and went down a stone’s throw from the Fish Market. Drusus cast a spell, levitating straight up into the air. Drolhaf and Armand both jumped to make a grab, pulling down poor Drusus into the water. They swam out to shore, spitting water and coughing. Drolhaf had to cut off his suit of armour to avoid sinking, while Drusus got his spellbook wet, erasing two spells. Tired and in a foul mood, they returned to the Murk.
***
The next day, with Armand in disguise as Yil the Mysterious, they returned to The Inn. The common room was mostly empty; the bull-necked man they had interrogated yesterday calmly eating his soup at a corner table.“He is either a spymaster or we were chasing a big fucking shadow yesterday” noted Drolhaf as they asked Redragon for breakfast – after he tasted it before them, of course. Things seemed much more pleasant in a short while, and they got better when Hector the Peddler came in to pay a visit.“I have something new for you, great sirs, but it is not in your hands yet...” the ragged fellow whispered. “It is called The Seeing Cat, and it would be a shame if it got lost in all this confusion. I thought you might appreciate it more than the others.”“What is this ‘Seeing Cat’ you speak of?” “Oh, it is another statuette, Sirs, but even more precious than the last one.”“Precious, eh?” Drolhaf slipped him five gold pieces.“As I just said... It was the property of the Bard Tomurgen, the gods rest his soul, and indeed, I saw it during my visits, for he was always kind to a poor peddler. There he kept it in his room, and the cat, it is said, would see and remember. Wouldn’t it be a shame if it was lost when poor Tomurgen’s room is emptied and his things sold off?
I see your point. It is a very interesting story. But we also have another question.” Drolhaf extended another gold coin across the table. “Suppose we were looking for someone. An old man, probably a wizard. Conical hat, grey beard --”“That describes half the wizards out there” grumbled Hector.“This man, though, also smells of mint.”“Mint? That’s...” the peddler’s eyes lit up. “Of course! I have seen him. Your man is named Filodont. He smokes that mint-flavoured tobacco he always buys at the Masters’ Guild, and he is a familiar face in town, along with the others.”“Others?”“Yes, there are others – his companions. Let’s see… there was Lizadorn, a tiny little lass--"“A hobbit?”“You could say so. Anyways, Lizadorn was last seen with one Boffo Badgervest, sailing out of town. Then: Brondur the Dwarf, a pretty violent sort; Zelmaron, who is someone from the wilderness – quiet, wears leather clothes – a barbarian maybe... and Raglak. Raglak the Voracious [Raglak, a Beles], half orc and half man. He’s from town.”“Do you know him?”“A little. He usually drank at the Skinned Cur, where the other orcs gather. Last time, he was bragging he would soon be rich, something about an abandoned villa. Come to think of it, it’s been a while. Definitely been a while.”Two more gold pieces changed hands, and Hector left, happy with the money he has just earned, while the company was left to ponder the conundrums he has left for them.
***
Day 35 in BaklinOrtrag’s Tobacco Box was a tiny little store under the arches of the decaying Masters’ Guild. A shield with a green water goblin hung from a hook, and an official-looking sign identified the place as a city-wide monopoly [q.v. “Városi Dohánybolt”]. While the others waited otherside, Drusus the Historian entered to ask a few questions. Ortrag, the hobbit proprietor was barely taller than the counter, but he explained his wares from the top of a stool with animated enthusiasm.“Filodont? He is a good friend, and what a good customer!” he exclaimed when Drusus casually mentioned him. “I have sold many pipes to him, many pipes! He is prone to lose them wherever he goes.”“I heard him mention he travels a lot. Just last time, he told me he was going... hm, I just can’t recall it.”“The Singing Caverns!” came Ortrag’s cheery response. “And before that, the coast, and now he is gone again!”“That’s what I just meant to say! Anyway, if you meet him, tell him that Rowen the Kassadian sends his greetings to the great Filodont. Rowen would be me.”“Certainly!He has his own blend, you know – I create the perfect combination for every customer to suit their tastes and temperaments. Would you like one for yourself? Perhaps a pipe to go with it?”Ortrag showed multiple pipes to Drusus, including a specially carved, exclusive piece with a carved bowl shaped like a goblin’s head for 15 gp, but Drusus – who barely had a few coins – opted for a simple travelling model. Armand was more ready to spend money in his predicament, and after Drusus left, he bought the pipe and ordered a coffee-flavoured blend for the time he would return.
***
It was early afternoon, and since the place was nearby, they visited the dog pound to see how things have developed. This time, the dogs were tied and the hole in the ground was guarded by a glum contingent of guards. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung entered to ask Tarbus Rolf about the newcomers.“There is a regular army down there! This morning, the knights came and told me to tie me dogs; then they went down there while they left those fellows” the massive brute shook his head.“How many?”“Six armoured knights, five more guards, and there was a bald man wearing a robe.”“Didn’t that last one have a minty smell?”“Damned if I know... mighty ominous fellow, though.”One of the guards noticed the conversation and stepped closer.“Move along now! This is no place for you. Move along!”“Excuse me, Sir--" Drolhaf interjected. “I am the person who will pay for the building to be erected on his site. I would like to inspect the grounds if I may.”“You may not. This place is now under the supervision of Sir Boron of the Cliffs, and only he may allow anyone entrance. Please depart, Sir.”“Just one moment – where would Sir Boron be if I wanted to speak to him?”“Can’t do – he’s the one leading the men down there.”Without further options, Drolhaf returned to his companions.
“­Dooom! Dooom! Dooom!” cried a dishevelled, crazy-looking man on the street corner as they were returning through the streets. “Undead! The undead are coming! I know it – the time of Brazak Bragoth is at hand! Orcs! The orcs are at the walls! The faerie princes...”“We should stop for a moment,” suggested Armand. “The Skinned Cur. It is right here nearby, and we could learn more about this Raglak the Voracious... and I might just hit up an old contact or two.”The pub was quiet in the afternoon, and only the sounds of snoring orcs sleeping on the wooden benches and the buzzing of lazy flies broke the silence. Armand looked around and gestured silently as his eyes scanned the place, pointing at a suspicious section of the floor before the bar, and a concealed lever on a beam behind it.“Hey Gulmag, you gots guests!” someone bellowed upstairs, and down came a pair of shuffling feet, followed by an enormous potbelly, and a porcine face. Gulmag the Gab looked over the company with suspicion. Some of the orcs shifted in their sleep, and a dirty, unkempt old man joined Gulmag with an incredulous look on his face. Gulmag spat.“A pointy-ear. Well I never!”“I am not drinking anything!” Lafadriel declared.Armand quickly produced a gold piece for the orc, taking care to avoid the suspicious floor section. “So this is where they don’t bark anymore.”Gulmag shrugged. “No, not here they don’t. Try the soup? Or want to hear about our specials? We ain’t got any.” He smiled triumphantly.“Maybe later. Roglag’s gone missing. Do you know him?”“Hope he’s okay. He still owes me money.”“Well, let’s hope this settles the bill.” Armand drew another gold piece from his purse. “Have you seen someone from Kassadia? Say, someone who has had a black mark on his honour?”“Kassadians? There are a lot of ‘em if you’re asking. Why, the...”“Where do you think you are going, miscreant?!” Armand hissed, and lunged for the old man, who was trying to sneak out of the pub. “Get him!”Lafadriel and Drolhaf started for the old codger, and tackled him outside the Skinned Cur. Armand grinned darkly.“Later, Gulmag. I think we will meet again.”
Cornered in a back alley, the scrawny old fool’s resolve crumbled in an instant.“Release me! Release me, I didn’t do you any harm!”“Speak! What do you know?” Armand grabbed him by the clothes and shook him.“I am in grave danger just by speaking to you! I am being watched!”“If you don’t speak, you will be dead right here and right now.”“Oh... oh my... I don’t know what is what anymore. The whole combination has been betrayed. It is all gone.”“Betrayed, huh? By you, perhaps?”“No, I swear! I really didn’t mean it! It was all covered by the Amiable Pact – we operate here in a limited matter, they operate in Kassadia, do the basic business. Then it all went wrong!”“Who were the others? Does Harrgon Torsk control this?”“Oh no! He is just a mid-level guy.”“Who then? Speak!”“Hyacintho! It is Hyacintho Eskumar the Fisherman! In this city, you see – there were two other parties to the Pact, one in Gont and one to the west.”“Hm. And what is this about the others? Your companions. What happened to them?”“Oh, they were all – first, Dark Elsa [Sötét Elza] was found, having taken her own poisons. Then, Rogold the Billygoat Beater [Rogold, a Zergeverő] – he went to investigate in Tirwas to the west after he discovered something real dark over there, and he never came back. All gone, like Korgan the Rummaging Death [Korgan, a Matató Halál]. It was me and little Boffo Badgervest, and he just got up and left on a ship with one of his kind – he’s an ‘obbit, you see.
Armand looked carefully at the shaking wretch and finally said “Very well. You have said enough. You are free to go.”The man fell to his knees, sobbing. “Why don’t you just kill me? I will not walk two corners alive! Please! Take me with you, get me out of here!”“All right, old man. I’ll do you one better.” Armand held up the ticket to the Sea Puffs. “This is your ticket out of this place. We’ll bring you to the docks and you can go home to Kassadia safe and sound, with this --” he showed a handful of gold pieces. “Just remember to tell anyone who will ask that it was Arianus who has saved you.”The old man was beside himself with joy, kissing Armand’s hands in relief. “I will be happy to leave behind this cursed city. So small, yet it is the worst I’ve been to. I can go die in Kassadia, and that’s all I want from life now. Listen... I must leave behind my things, but you may find them useful. There is a hiding place in a courtyard below the southern tower, a walled up niche and a protruding brick. Remember this.
They got going through Baklin’s alleyways and plazas, towards the harbour, and it was as if a hundred eyes were following every step. The coast was clear; but then, in the dark, windowless street between the Lockhouse and the Nine Doors Tavern, the trap was sprung.“Hand over the old man! We got no quarrel with you” snarled one of the burly man who had emerged to hastily block both ends of the alley with pushcarts.“Come and get him!”A dozen burly men came running, but the melee was brutal and one-sided, and weapons were drawn. Soon, four of the assailants were lying dead in a pool of their own blood, four were knocked out, and the remaining four had fled for their lives. But there was no time to enjoy victory, as guards poured into the street, demanding all to drop their weapons and put their hands up.“The Captains’ Council will deal with you, troublemakers!” the sergeant spit, his face red from the exertion of running. “Most of you will be in the sack soon, you can bet on that!
***
It all went surprisingly easy” someone mused on the steps outside the gaudy council building.“Yeah, and they accepted our defence without further questioning.”“Perhaps it was a good idea to mention we were under the patronage of both Fantagor and Lady Callodric. Not to mention my spirited defence of you lot” considered Drolhaf.“Couldn’t it be that we were just innocent?”“Don’t be an idiot.”“At least that old guy is on his way.”“Yes! Let’s not forget his treasures. The southern tower? We have to go pay it a visit.”“And at night, it is Tomurgen’s place – and the Seeing Cat!
***
The southern tower, located in the south-eastern corner of the city, rose high above the old houses that clustered around it. The way in was through a gate, but for some reason, it seemed to be too suspicious. Drusus hazarded a guess: “What if we go around on the city wall?”“After what we just did? That’s daft!”“They probably don’t know a thing. And besides – we will give them money.”So it happened that soon, a delegation of three knocked on a wooden door, and when a guard checked to see the racket, offered a generous ten gold pieces to see the sights.“This is a very special piece of architecture” explained Armand. “In Kassadia, it is considered one of the supreme examples of military architecture, a reference to all architects like my companions.”The guard seemed doubtful, but the gold pieces were real, and there were ten of them.“I guess you – you can come in. Just stick with me, and don’t go off on your own.”They checked out the arches and vaults amidst a lot of oohs and aahs, until the guard was bored.“This – this is my favourite column!” enthused Lafadriel. “See the weight. The proportions. The exquisite segmentation.”Finally, the bored fellow let them descend into the courtyard at the base of the tower, and asked them to call if they needed anything. Seeing that the coast was clear, Armand removed the brick from the wall niche they were looking for, and retrieved a small package.“Let’s get going” nodded Armand, hiding the contents under his clothes before they called for the guard to let them out.
***
Day 35 at nightIn the waning hours of the day, Drolhaf went to visit the small plaza just below Hightowne to case Tomurgen’s house. There he found a cheerful two-story house with a peaked roof. A cobbler’s shop, Vilmor’s Boots occupied the lower floor, and two guards barred the way leading to the upper one. Drolhaf entered the store, greeting the cobbler.“I wasn’t looking for boots right now, my good man, although I plan to buy a pair some day. I left something at Tomurgen’s, and can’t retrieve it due to the guards.Vilmor shook his head. “You are out of luck. Since Tomurgen died without a known heir, his place has been sealed up until further notice. His belongings will be moved to the palace, and there you may requisition your property if it can be proven to be yours.”“That’s horrible! It was a precious object, the statuette of a cat.”“A cat? That’s strange; I remember it well, but I remember when it was already in Tomurgen’s possession when I was a tot, and just learning the first things about boots.”“Oh... that’s right. It was my father’s gift to the gentle soul, before he was slain by Skarlog Thane.”The cobbler studied Drolhaf with a look of suspicion. “Still, it can’t be helped – you will have to wait your turn and ask at the palace.”The Northman left the dim shop deep in thought, taking a good look at the guards’ position and the building’s layout before he turned and made for the Inn where the rest of the company was waiting.
Meanwhile, Armand laid out the tools found in the package. There was a good pouchful of coarse dust, multiple sawblades, and a strong, neatly coiled leather string. They discussed a few plans for breaking into Tomurgen’s, considering whether they should involve Harrgon Torsk or not. In the end, they chose to go their separate ways and meet at the appointed hour after midnight.
***
The marketplace was mostly empty this time of the night, except for the beggars huddled around the column with the statue. As Lafadriel Hundertwasser sat down to play a slow tune, and act as a lookout, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung, Drusus the Historian and Armand the Scumbag converged on the house from three directions. They stopped in the shadows, looking around to see if anyone was following them. They could hear drunken singing, and they withdrew, only Armand staying in sight. It was the cobbler, obviously wasted, pointing at the silent figure before him.“H-heeeyyy! Wh-what’s with you there, in the shadows? What are ya tailing me for? Cat got your tongue? Come out, come out, whoever you are!”Armand pretended to stumble forward, and greeted the man jovially: “Oh, it is you! I’m going back down for a little more of the fun – care to come? Ah, going to sleep already? This is your house, can’t miss it. Ask the guards.
When Vilmor was gone, and had finished quarrelling with the sentries before the house and slamming the lower door behind himself, Armand looked around and gestured. Drolhaf stepped close to the wall while Drusus spoke magical words, and soon, the Northman noiselessly levitated up on the roof. He slowly crept over the shingles, finding the hatch he was looking for. Carefully, he lifted it, and noiselessly hopped inside an attic filled with junk and bales of dusty old cloth. He looked around, and quickly found a trapdoor further down. Descending slowly, he heard a wooden board creak noisily before his feet, and he froze in cold sweat.“Did you hear something?” the guard’s noise in the street was as if it had come from right next to him.“Nah... musta been the cobbler, tossing in his sleep.”“If I could have a good stiff drink...”“Me too, mee too.”Drolhaf exhaled sharply, and went to work on Tomurgen’s door. He snapped off the seal impressed with the prince’s crown, opened up the lock with a few twists of his tools, and took a step into the lonely room that had been the bard’s apartment. A collection of musical instruments next to a mirror, a heart-shaped silver box, a wardrobe, and the brass statuette of a cat, sitting on a mantelpiece across Tomurgen’s cushioned chair. Drolhaf quickly checked the writing desk, finding no papers, just an open inkwell with dry ink in it, and a quill tossed to the side. The wardrobe held old-fashioned clothes, some male and some female, while there was nothing under the bed. The Northman thought for a while. Was he missing something? Unable to think of anything else, he grabbed the Seeing Cat, and left very, very carefully, avoiding every suspicious board and step.
***
Back in their rented room, the Seeing Cat was laid on a table, a heavy brass statuette whose making betrayed origins in the southern lands beyond Kassadia and its empire.“How do we make it speak?” asked Armand. “What if... Cat! Show us what we have to see, show us your master’s demise!”The statuette remained silent. They looked it, and finally, without a clue, they ventured out into the night again, to visit Zaloxen’s store of curiosities, hoping he’d be of help.
The Seeing CatZaloxen, stooped and seemingly irritated by their intrusion, finally agreed to examine the piece for 200 gold pieces. He bid them wait while he carried it off to a curtained-off room, but soon returned smiling, suspiciously quickly.“Your donation is very much appreciated. You have to look into the statuette’s eyes. You are welcome.”As Zaloxen shuffled off to work on one of his nightly experiments, they could at last dig into the secrets of the strange witness. They looked deep into the crystalline orbs, seeing a scene unfold in complete silence within the old bard’s rented room. Tomurgen was sitting in his cushioned chair, listening intently to a man before him.“Filodont!” Armand hissed as the wizard straightened his weather-worn hat. “And that’s Zelmaron next to him?”“Looks like the description. And look – Lizadorn the hobbitess.”Tomurgen’s silent lips said something, and his gestures indicated something he didn’t know, or didn’t want to tell. Filodont drew back in an accusatory manner. There was a sudden movement in the room, barely possible to make out what exactly happened, and another figure stepped forward from behind the plush chair as Tomurgen’s body slumped forward, bleeding profusely with a stab wound. A crazed-looking dwarf wiped his sword on one of the curtains.“And that – that’s Brondur the Dwarf.”“No mistaking him.
The eyes went dark, but just as they were ready to put them back in their equipment, another scene unfolded in the crystalline gaze. This time, the room was empty save for Tomurgen himself, light streaming through the gaps of the window shutters. The bard was lost in deep thought, pacing up and down in the room. He walked over to the writing desk, and quickly jotted down a few lines on a piece of paper. Suddenly, he spun around, peering in the door’s direction. He mouthed two words, and tiptoed over to the wall mirror, pushing it aside to reveal a hidden cavity. He placed the folded note inside, replaced the mirror where it was, and made for the door.“And what is this scene?”Under the Seeing Cat’s gaze, they could barely make out a darkened room. All was motionless for a while, then someone indistinct came into view, and carefully looked around the room before he started methodologically searching around.Drolhaf was the first to break the silence: “We already know that story. The cat has told us what we need.” “Go back there? That’s pushing it!” warned Lafadriel Hundertwasser.But Drolhaf was adamant. “Nevertheless, something is in there, and it is important. They will remove the mirror, find the hiding place, and we will never know what’s on it. Come on. This is our one chance, and the night is still not over.
***
This time, the night was completely silent, even the guards before Tomurgen’s had run out of things to talk about. Now, it was Armand who climbed the rooftop (without a levitation spell), and silently tiptoed downstairs. He almost stepped into the dead minstrel’s room, but halted and listened. The door was open a little. Had Drolhaf left it that way to make less noise? No, no… Drolhaf was no idiot. He lifted his crossbow and pushed open the door, stepping forward to catch his invisible opponent by surprise. He felt a shove, and a tight string winding around his neck, a dark cloaked form struggling to suffocate him. He felt faint, and fought as he could, but the man was stronger, and slowly squeezing the air out of his lungs. He kicked in vain, but only managed to kick over a hooded lantern, lighting the carpets on fire. In desperation, Armand reached for the pouch of dust from the old man’s stash, and pushed it into his attacker’s face. There was coughing, spitting and cursing, while Armand used the element of surprise, and threw his attacker off balance, winding his own garrotte around the neck. They fought, Armand going for the kill and the man trying to escape, but Armand proved stronger, and the assassin’s struggles ceased.
The apartment was starting to burn now, and outside, the guards were fully alerted.“Something’s up there!”“Guards! Guards!” Drolhaf called out from the side street. “Some people are fighting down in the marketplace!”The two guards, recognising the obvious lie, snarled and ran for Drolhaf, as Drusus the Historian stepped forward and spoke the syllables of a spell. A cone of rainbow colours shot from his fingers, hitting the guards and Drolhaf alike straight in the face and putting them to sleep. Meanwhile, in the house, taking advantage of the distraction, Armand swiftly retrieved the note from behind the mirror, quickly dropped a small harp for Lafadriel inside his sack, picked up the heart-shaped silver box on his way out, and finally pulled the string from around the dead man’s neck before stepping back out of the smoke-filled room.
***
Some harp you brought!” complained Lafadriel Hundertwasser. “It has the Prince’s dedication carved into it – ‘To my valued friend, Tomurgen: Lodovico’. If I start playing this one, I’ll soon be in prison.”“You can go back if you like,” grumbled Armand, but he was much more interested in the piece of paper. It was a folded scrap. On one side, a simple phrase, written in obvious haste: “The black dog runs at night.” On the reverse, a short poem: “Mountains’ heart, forest-hidden light / Two stone peaks and a third will show its proper site / It lies in the dreamer’s lap, secret hiding place / A deceitful flame marks it, bygone mirage lays.”“Mountains, huh?” Drolhaf pondered the text. “That cluster of peaks next to Sleepy Haven looks very suspicious on our map. But first, we should take this to Lady Callodric.”
In the dawn, the company was awakened by Grindragon’s knocking. The dwarf was panting, and visibly disturbed.“You must go at once. A house has been lit on fire and the guards are looking for you, Drolhaf. They will be here any minute. Get out while you still can.”“Quick!” snapped Armand, asking for a pair of shears. He cut Drolhaf’s beard as quickly and neatly as he could under the circumstances, and asked Lafadriel Hundertwasser for his cloak. “Now, walk with a stoop, like an old man – like that!”They snuck down the stairs, slipping out through the kitchen just as a contingent of watchmen showed up at the Inn’s front door. The streets were still mostly empty in the early morning, but this did not make the way to Lady Callodric’s mansion any more pleasant. Were strangers watching them? Waiting for the chance to run for the guards and make a report? It was a relief when they got to the mansion door and Harkell the Butler let them in.
Day 36 - Leaving BaklinThe lady joined them in a minute, and listened intently as they described the developments.“We have brought you something important, but not the cargo you were looking for.”“So the paintings on the wooden panels are still missing?”Armand nodded: “We are afraid so. It seems that Gamandor, the captain of the guard has them.”“Gamandor?!”“More than that. We have reason to believe he is controlling the assassins who have attacked us again and again in town. Last night, I had to kill one of them with his own strangling chord, after a dreadful struggle.”It was Drolhaf’s turn to speak, and he outlined the similarities between Tomurgen’s message and the cluster of mountains to the south. “Maybe we should go seek it out and see what we find. This could be the key to many mysteries.”“Those mountains have a mysterious reputation” agreed Lady Callodric. “And it is better if you are gone from Baklin for a while. I will help you get out. But we will also have to figure a way to relay messages. Where can we make contact?”“Send your messages to Haghill, addressed to The Friends of Gadur Yir, at the Dancing Basilisk. That will be the best.”“Very well. I wish you good luck on your quest. Harkell will take you to the harbour now.
The way down to the piers was tortuous. Every fisherman and housewife looked like a lurking spy, every drunken sailor a snitch. Their best fears were confirmed when Drolhaf felt a tug on his pants, and saw a dirty little ragamuffin with his hand outstretched.“Uncle! Uncle! Give me two gold pieces!”“I will give you something worse if you don’t scram.”“If you give me two gold pieces, I won’t cry out, and won’t tell the other Uncles.”Drolhaf, white with rage at the nerve, reached into his pocket and handed the kid the gold pieces in humiliation. “If only I’m going to meet him again, I’ll split him from the neck to the gullet!”Relax, Drolhaf. He is just a kid with a good line.”“If he wants to play the adults’ game, he should play the adults’ game.”They continued down to the dock, avoiding a group of guards strolling on the waterfront. Harkell pointed towards a large sailing boat, ready to sail out: “That is your vessel. Fresh horses will be waiting for you down the coast.
Thanking Harkell, they walked down the pier, and greeted the fisherman and his son, who helped them onboard. Drolhaf sighed in relief as they pulled up the sails and uncoupled the rope.“Tell me,” he asked the older man, “What is down the coast? Here, on this map – next to this group of mountains.”“That coast has a bad repute,” the fellow puffed on his pipe. “There be a lighthouse, but still many ships have been lost to the reefs.”“A lighthouse, huh. A tower, that’s almost like a third stone peak. Very interesting. You look like a man who knows the sea. Will you take us down to this place?”“I was told to put you on shore near the forests, not far from Baklin.”“Never you mind that, the plans have changed. We will pay you handsomely.”“As you’d like, Sir. The reefs are bad, but I’ll manage, during the day.”Baklin’s white walls and red rooftops receded, and Drolhaf leaned against the cabin to enjoy the sun, but he was rudely awakened by an unpleasant call.“Uncle! Uncle! Give me two more gold pieces!”Drolhaf’s eyes popped open, and he found himself face to face with the dirty kid, grinning ear to ear.“Why, you little-- “ he snarled. Phil the Terror of Turkeys bowed before Drolhaf.“Thank you for your gracious donation. I had to work hard to keep you safe on the way, so I’ll accept it with gratitude. I must say... you weren’t very stealthy at the old minstrel’s house. Not to mention that thing in the alley. Also...”Drolhaf just spat sourly, and returned to his rest.“Also, what about the heart-shaped box? Open it! Open it!”Armand opened his knapsack and retrieved the silver container. There was no key, but it opened to a little manipulation. Inside, it contained a lock of blond hair, a medallion depicting a smiling, middle-aged noblewoman and inscribed with the name “Arkella”, and a small bundle. Opening the package, Armand unfolded a pair of silk panties.“Arkella...”“That must be Princess Arkella, Prince Lodovic’s wife!”“Is Arkella a common name in this area?”There was no answer to the question.
***
Towards the mountainsA day passed, followed by a restless night on board the fishing boat. The next morning, they sailed into a maw-shaped bay surrounded by walls of natural rock. Waves broke on massive, teeth-shaped shoals. High above, a massive stone tower jutted out from above the escarpment.“Yup, I see a path up there... narrow and treacherous, but it leads up there all right. Put us ashore here.”The fisherman obeyed, and they said farewell before climbing up the steep path. The tower, a bare structure with a fortified out-building attached to it, rose lonely on the heath. They approached the metal door, and called for someone, then, when no answer came, banged on the entrance. At last, there were shuffling steps, and heavy bolts slid aside. Peering out of the doorway’s gap was a dishevelled-looking old man, all stubble and bloodshot eyes, with liquor on his breath. “Sorry for disturbing. We are looking for directions. Do you know this area?”“Eh, I was just getting up. Come on in if you’d like,” the man gestured inside, showing a bare room with a cot, a table, a stove and some rough chairs. “My name be Skeg the Keeper, caretaker at this lighthouse.”“Nice to meet you, Skeg.”“I don’t have much to give ya. The supplies always be late, but I got some meat, beer and tobacco.”“Try this,” Armand handed some of his tobacco to the man. “Straight from Baklin.
They lit a pipe, and Skeg, now a little less gloomy, told them about the tower, an old structure once used as a garrison, and now as a ships’ guide. He was retired here, not the best way of living, but better than many in Baklin. He had little knowledge of the mountains except that they had an ill reputation. He led them up to the beacon, passing by massive, locked iron doors that looked like they have not been opened since those garrison days, and let them around a small gallery.“Those to the south are the Hills of Sibirk. Strange fellows there, but they pass by here now and then when they go sell their furs in town. The Wulhaf homestead, they call themselves.”“Have you seen anything interesting around here?”“One time, I think I saw a rock move on that distant mountainside over there. But I could never make out any of it.”“What about a deceitful flame?”“Nah. ...are you talking about this here lighthouse? Now listen, just because some idiots sink when they come close to shore despite the warning light, that’s not the keeper’s fault! Sure, the catch is good, but what good is it if you go down with it into the drink?”“We weren’t accusing you.”Skeg shrugged, and they went downstairs. Lacking food for the road, they gave him a generous ten gold pieces for ten food rations and some wine, parting to head towards the dense forests at the base of the mountains.
(Session date 27 August 2017).
***
Notable quotes:Drusus the Historian, dripping with water: “The grand master of sailing found us a leaky boat.
Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “My whole wealth amounts to 25 gold pieces, but at least the light of the stars is mine.
Someone: “Have the mugs been cleaned?”Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “When the world was young...
My god is Erdogan... no, Edoran!
We could have at least found some treasure.”“We have a pair of silk panties!***
Referee’s notes: This session (an extra-long one on the terrace of my weekend house) was pretty successful, all things considered. The characters were clearly running out of time and the net was slowly closing around them, which made for a choice between pursuing Lady Callodric’s lost cargo, or making a grab for the secrets in Tomurgen’s sealed apartment, which the characters got to, even if a little clumsily. (But silly mistakes are part and parcel in a game where everyone is talking simultaneously, and some clues inevitably fail to reach the players.)
Hector the Peddler’s appearance looks a feels a lot like a targeted info-dump, but actually, he appeared on a random 1:6 roll, and when the players grilled him, he just happened to meet that 1:6 chance of actually knowing a lot about Filodont and his companions. Sometimes, even real life feels like the GM is handing out plot hooks. Sometimes, you are lucky. And nothing proves that better than the trial before the Captain’s Council (jumped over here), which went surprisingly well. Or suspiciously well?

In any case, this was it in Baklin for a while. Next time, we will see what lies up those mountains.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] OSR Module O3: Good Vanilla

Sun, 10/01/2017 - 10:00
Tangent regarding [two well-regarded adventure modules]: it really reads well, but it strengthens my desire to GM so called "vanilla" fantasy to unknown heights. Not quite sure why that exactly is.” -- Settembrini
TL;DR:  This post makes the case for taking a new look at vanilla fantasy, and considers how we should go about it. It is, at this point, more a thought experiment than a practical guide.
***
VanillaVanilla fantasy often has a bad reputation, and nothing makes this clearer than the fact that even its fans tend to make apologies for enjoying it. Although its definition is as vague as porn’s “I know it when I see it”, it is easy to find criticism directed at it. Vanilla is commonly derided as boring, “still locked in a post-Tolkienian mode with a fairly standard (and stagnant) array of racial/cultural types and environments”, so predictable “everyone knows the main tropes of the setting before you even tell them of the background”, heavily reliant on “stock fantasy features” and “done to death” (random snippets from a random forum topic discussing the subgenre).
Although much of the damage to vanilla was already done by countless bad novel trilogies in the 1970s and 1980s, TSR deserves special mention for turning bad fantasy into a fine art. They actually accomplished the impossible by taking a literary genre rooted in wonder and human imagination, and turned it into something safe, banal, and aggressively devoid of the otherworldly. It is not the only way of turning fantasy into the mundane (the gritty realism school has much to answer for), but it is a very potent one. Many of us still have an allergic reaction to the poncy bards, gnome illusionists and wise old wizards populating this peculiar corner of hell, and ever since, we have wanted one thing: out.
Also vanillaSince much of old school gaming as we know it emerged in response to things old-schoolers didn’t like, vanilla fantasy was among the first to be viewed with suspicion. Did vanilla contaminate the more pure and more authentic Appendix N tradition? Were communists nefariously fluoridating the adventure supply? In the discussions that have formed the old school aesthetic as we know it, the rediscovery of sword&sorcery influences, Lovecraft’s cosmic pessimism, and pulps on the boundary of science fiction and fantasy felt like finding precious treasures, nefariously locked away for decades. Newfound respect for (and the increased accessibility of) gaming relics like Dark Tower, Arduin, Empire of the Petal Throneand Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and the more out there TSR modules like Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and pre-Drizzt Vault of the Drow pointed towards further explorations of weird fantasy. The resulting old-school supplements have embraced these source materials, and built upon them in many useful and interesting ways. Yoon-Suin, Carcosa, Anomalous Subsurface Environment and Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom all come from this reappraisal, but it has also left its mark on smaller thing like the re-emergence of GP for XP as a valid game mechanic, or the interest in petty gods with base motivations and limited power. It has been good for a host of GMs and players, because there was now a generous amount of good new and rediscovered source material to serve as example and inspiration.
***
There are many who have accused old-school gaming of being essentially revisionistic, and while they inevitably miss the point about why people enjoy these games, they are not entirely wrong. Those old-school materials have a whole lot more vanilla in them than some would admit. Nowadays we tend to fixate on the more exotic parts of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, but at its heart, it is as much about castles, hobbits, dragons and nazgûls as it is about fallen starships and barbarous gods lording over isolated city states. Greyhawk is half the out there fantastic fantasy of White Plume Mountain and the GDQ series, and half a set of pseudo-mediaeval realms with the texture of The Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands.
Vanilla with extra sugar on the topNot only was A/D&D deeply rooted in this tradition, it actively moved away from the rest as it shed much of its pulp and sword&sorcery heritage over the early 1980s. This came as much from a new generation of fans brought up on vanilla fantasy and wanting to make sense of a game that contained altogether too much off-colour weirdness for their comfort, as a publisher that was also interested in filing off those rougher edges – the naked woman on the ritual altar? That didn’t happen. (Actually, try putting that on your cover today and watch as your business is set on fire by a bunch of angry people with blue hair, and you become a nonperson on social media. Fun times.) In those years, A/D&D consolidated its self-image by focusing on its more harmless mediaevalisms and clearer good-versus-evil themes, and exchanged Erol Otus for the likes of Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. That is, sword&sorcery and weird fantasy lost, and high fantasy won out. This was no mere TSR ploy, since many of the fans also wanted it that way – they wanted Dragonlance, Elminster and failed attempts at Tolkien, not half-forgotten pulp fiction from the 1920s or a sentient amoeba zapping away a bunch of adventurers with a blaster.
***
Is vanilla fantasy being done in old school gaming? Yes; actually, there is a fairly large quantity of it if you look at RPGNow releases, and there probably isn’t a week without a new goblin cave module coming out that fits the description. But the reason they get little attention is not just because of terrible hipsters who hate mom’s apple pie, the second amendment, and Gary Gygax (as the theory goes at the K&KA), but also because most of them are just plain bad or uninteresting. In addition to structural problems (like the “16 rooms in 24 pages” issue, the most reliable indicator of a disappointing adventure beside lengthy chunks of boxed text), they often work from an exhausted set of standard building blocks which have been overused to the point where they are bleached of their challenge, imagination and wonder. Their set of influences is often limited to two or three modules (but really, mostly just Keep on the Borderlands without the extra effort). Even today, the bad reputation of vanilla is not entirely undeserved.
Damn fine vanillaFurthermore, people who have a good eye for vanilla fantasy, and may have a thing or two to say about applying its lessons to gaming, have been asleep at the wheel. I have read many complaints about the lack of good, honest adventure modules you could import into Greyhawk or your homemade pseudo-mediaeval fantasy land, but much fewer active offers to step up and remedy the problem by writing and sharing a few actually good adventures along those lines. Complain about the hipsters all you want, but at least they are doing something – I could list numerous memorable old school products from the recent years which had some kind of hyper-exotic premise, but it is much harder to recall what vanilla fantasy has done for me lately (Secrets of the Wyrwoode was a good recent exception). For various reasons, the people who write good stuff tend to avoid vanilla; the people who could write good vanilla don’t; and without the creative tide that would lift all ships, the field is left to stagnate. (There is an enormous library of Pathfinder and 5e products I know very little about, and which may fit the bill, but frankly, nothing so far has made want to take a closer look.)
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is nothing inherently wrong with vanilla. Unlike the imitations, dilutions and substitutes, real vanilla has a rich and complex flavour. A bite of vanilla ice cream is a small scoop of heaven, and vanilla goes a long way in a lot of recipes. There is a good reason people grew to like vanilla in the first place. If we realise this, we can make it right. We can make vanilla great again!
***
Damn fine vanilla with wizards in conical hatsTo restore vanilla fantasy to its proper place, we have to go back to its origins, the pure ingredients which have established it as interesting and alluring. That’s where all things start, just like it did with the restoration of sword&sorcery to D&D’s heart. We have to know its sources, from the early 20th century writers who had given it form, to Tolkien, and perhaps particularly to those who have successfully reinvented it at a time when it was already undergoing stagnation. Vance’s Lyonesse, an outsider’s take on high fantasy, is an excellent example, with its take on myth and legend, the way it handles good and evil, its range from dynastic struggles to smaller adventures, and its enormous cast of characters from characteristic Vancian oddballs to others drawn from a more romantic sensibility (Lyonesse features a clash of widely different aesthetics, making for a very enjoyable dissonance).
We have to take a new look at the motifs vanilla fantasy builds from to appreciate their beauty and clarity – the landscapes, characters and plots which appeal to the imagination. We have to give them back their meaning, fill them with content. If we do, there is power in the tales of knights who try to do good and represent a heroic ideal even if (and perhaps especially if) it is not easy and not convenient. There is value in preserving bucolic rural lands if they embody a worthy way of living. There is nothing banal or trite about the wonders of natural beauty, or the mystery of a dense woodland landscape dotted by the ruins of a better age brought down by an evil empire. Imbued with their original allure, the faerie can be mysterious and creepy again, and we can similarly appreciate magic in its rightful place – as something whimsical, wondrous, but fundamentally unsafe. Beauty (although often dangerous and corrupted beauty) is one hallmark of this subgenre, just like inhospitable wastelands are the domain of sword&sorcery. The landscape itself often has a certain moral dimension – Tolkien’s points of light such as Beorn’s homestead or Lothlórien have healing power, while places corrupted by Sauron are actively hostile and degrading.
Damn fine vanilla with killer squirrelWe also need to rediscover a moral complexity which is usually missing in the second-rate imitations. Vanilla fantasy deals with relatively clean-cut concepts of good and evil, and this element can be the hardest to pull off without milquetoast moralising, Saturday morning cartoon villainy, or something where “good” just ends up corrupted and creepy. To leave a mark on the game, evil ought to be more than “looks evil” or “belongs to a group which is evil”, and be present on the level of “does evil things”. Vance (again) once gave an excellent definition: “What is an evil man? The man is evil who coerces obedience to his private ends, destroys beauty, produces pain, extinguishes life.” This is fine for a working definition. Likewise, good should not be a convenient label, nor a manifestation of Lawful Stupid, nor even a rubric which is satisfied by adventuring and defeating evil monsters. Good takes an effort – in acts of generosity, going out of the way to do the right thing, and resisting the lure of evil. Moral conundrums have a place in this kind of fantasy; in fact, similar dilemmas give a true meaning to good and evil (although teenage dickhead GMs who try their darnedest to make the virtuous fall through placing them in impossible situations is a fair warning about where not to go with this element).
There is one stumbling block where the task of running a properly heroic campaign is always going to be hard. D&D’s rules and assumed style of play do not make for a very heroic game, since the bold and the foolish tend to die quick, ignoble deaths in dank hellholes instead of going on to great things. This is probably one area where genre logic should take a backseat. Heroic destinies and characters fated to be heroes may not be entirely hopeless ideas, but these features need to be adapted to D&D’s specific style to avoid losing player agency and the thrill of risk. That is, we need to make it all work in a game, the spot where Dragonlance stumbled and never got up again, and where various narrative games pushing for genre emulation end up dissatisfying because the players are cushioned from the consequences of their actions. Ironically, the monomyth, that popular old chestnut trying to explain every epic from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and Harry Potter, is precisely the thing we should be cautious about: not only does it tend to degrade the scope of heroic fantasy to one standard plotline, it is full of hidden pitfalls which make it hazardous to good gaming.
***

Of course, it need not all be dramatic to the extremes. A good vanilla fantasy campaign can simply be one which can find a way to present traditional fantasy motifs in a fresh way, where the pseudo-mediaeval background has a proper sense of wonder, and where the game has an interesting moral dimension. That’s what it takes, but it is probably much harder to do nowadays than even a proper “Appendix N” campaign – avoiding the corruption of the bad stuff (and some of it is pretty dire), or the temptation to drown the campaign in cynicism and post-modern irony (omnipresent, but on the wane in The Age of Earnestness). But how do we achieve this, and where do we go from there?
Damn fine vanilla with heroines and crystals and valkyries
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Crypt of the Lilac High Priest (2017)

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 19:05
[REVIEW] Crypt of the Lilac High Priest (2017)by Geoffrey McKinneySelf-published
Crypt of the Lilac High PriestGeoffrey McKinney and his products are not affiliated with Wizards of the Coast. I know this because it says so right on the cover of this module, the latest in a series of several old school modules which do their darnedest to look like something TSR might have done in its heydays. This one is a mono-era knockoff with David Sutherland knockoff cover art, although it doesn’t quite go all the way with the trade dress fetishism – which becomes clear once you look inside and notice the homemade production values (unruly two-column text without even mono-era TSR’s concessions to modern deviltry like “layout”, “accessibility”, or “page numbers”). This is not always a good thing, but the module is as honest about its homespun simplicity as its sources of inspiration.
What you get inside is a two-level dungeon which keeps the cover’s promise by presenting a no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes dungeon adventure inspired by the likes of the Giants/Drow series. It is actually even more specific in its influences: it combines the “cavern rooms” inhabited by creepies and crawlies you find in G1 and D1, and the various weird evil temples you find through the series, and builds a full 35-room dungeon out of them for beginning characters. If you liked those rooms, you will probably find this module agreeable. The premise revolves around obtaining one of the teeth of Dahlver-Nar, here the prophet of the worm cult, an unpleasant society of purple worm-worshippers. Dahlver-Nar had enough magical teeth to fill a 16-module series (of which this is the first part), or it can be used as a one-off – it should work as well alone as in a series.
The encounters put a high emphasis on monster lairs (a combination of cave dwellers and intruders who have come here following their agendas) with general oddities and magical enigmas, and the remains of a temple complex constructed within the cavern system, but apparently being reclaimed by it (there is a river running right through the cultists’ abandoned temple). The overall style has the sense of exotic oddness the author has been known for, without Carcosa’s gruesomeness or the generic blandness of Dungeon of the Unknown. This module has a fairly good balance of the different sensibilities it draws on – the familiarity of mediaeval knights and wizards in conical hats combined with odd-coloured otherworlds set in underground caverns. The worm cult’s traces in the dungeon complex are likewise a mixture of the mundane and the alien. There is even a beholder encounter (spoiler: it is right on the cover) which will surely encourage panicky guessing among seasoned players – is the GM using a gas spore or a real beholder, and can we afford to test it? – although I believe it does the wrong thing in the end.
Sometimes, things feel randomly generated without being sufficiently thought through afterwards (a hard to find piece of treasure is talked up as a beautiful historical rarity, and then valued at 95 gp), and sometimes, this randomness feels justified as a weird underearth thing (a place where the characters can experiment with a cavern of varicoloured magical nodules, each producing a different magical effect). The dungeon’s layout is tricky at first glance due to all the twisting and turning corridors, but it is more linear than you would expect, and there is altogether less content than you could fit in here if the text was a bit more leanly written, and the maps had more stuff going on – minor things, but you notice them.
Then there is that layout again, and I say this as someone who is usually satisfied with simple two-column text. Most encounters are presented as ungodly long blocks of text without breaks, bolded text or highlighting that would help sort out the information and draw the GM’s eyes to the important details. Important information is sometimes presented out of the logical order (e.g. room 10, where the probability of an important encounter occurring is given dead last), or thrown into the middle of a wall of text. Monster statistics are usually embedded into the flowing text… ironically, I swear there is an instance where they are omitted altogether, but I am not finding it. This is not good, and Tomb of the Sea Kings, another module wearing its love for mono-era TSR on its sleeve shows that it can be done while keeping that iconic look. However, the maps are fine, legible and mostly unambiguous: they do their job and don’t get in the way.
Crypt of the Lilac High Priest, as stated before, is a fundamentally honest take on mono era AD&D with a light weird touch. It is not a real standout, but “better than average” describes it suitably. When OSRIC opened the gates before small-press old school adventures, this is about what I was expecting (and sadly, wasn’t getting) as the standard. If the forthcoming parts of the series solve the layout and presentation issues, they will be a solid addition to a GM’s module library.No playtesters were listed for this adventure. Geoffrey McKinney and his products are not affiliated with Wizards of the Coast. Wizards of the Coast and their products are not affiliated with Geoffrey McKinney.

Rating: *** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[STUFF] Zuard Castle: Domains of the Faerie Princes (LVL 1)

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 15:06
Beware the bucket! This dungeon level was created in response to Jon Salway's challenge to reimagine the Dungeon of the Ground Goblins with a minimal OD&D key. There will no doubt be many entries, but this is mine, created in a quiet hour on a rainy afternoon. The main challenge was to make it all fit in a typewriter font, and with a little nudging, it worked out. There are traces of both the original and Paul Cook's revision in there, and references to dungeon levels and puzzles you will never see (probably). It is probably a bit heavier on flavoured encounters than a real OD&D megadungeon would be, and way more densely packed, but them's the breaks.Download (400k)
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] Don’t Nick the Bucket: Further Zine Insights into Early D&D

Tue, 09/19/2017 - 20:38
The buckets are not what they seem.” The well-known proverb has never been so right as in the following case of doppelgängers, endless corridors, and wooden buckets. Actually, I stole the topic of this post from a G+ discussion, where Jon Salway posted the front page of a flyer Games Workshop used to promote OD&D in 1976, and Zach H followed it up with the reverse, displaying an example mini-dungeon called The Dungeons of the Ground Goblins, penned by none other but Steve Jackson (the Fighting Fantasy author, not the GURPS designer). Apologies in advance to everyone involved, but theft is a small price to pay for reposting this tiny piece of D&D history – and this is a story about theft anyway.
Readers of this blog might remember a post from March discussing the early days of D&D fandom in Britain, as seen through the scanned issues of Chimaera, one of the country’s many Diplomacy zines. The pièce de résistance is found in issue #18, with an introductory article penned by one Paul Cook, a resident of the Isle of Wight, and containing a sample dungeon level offering a selection of the tricks and encounters you might find in your typical D&D game. I praised the level for its simple ingenuity, complexity and varied challenges, an obscure but cool example of early game design. Was it one of Paul Cook’s levels from Castle Hope, his personal megadungeon? Or was this a one-off to showcase the game for zine readers? Could there be more to it hidden away in an ancient campaign folder? Was Paul Cook still around somewhere to share it? Material like that invites a lot of speculation. Then I came across the post linked above, and it turned my theories right on my head.
Doppelgänger!
Doppelgänger!
Looking at the two sample levels reveals an uncanny resemblance. The first thing I noticed was the endless corridor – “Great! A common trope circulating in British D&D fandom,” I thought. This was followed by another discovery: there was that bucket again. Yes, like the one from Chimaera, this sample level also contains a bucket encounter, its “no special significance” once again sure to terrorise and frustrate the players. Then I started to pay proper attention and look closer, and noted all the other ways the two dungeons mirror each other.
  • The way the level is laid out and the rooms are clustered isn’t identical, but it is eerily similar, with a southern axis connecting two downwards stairs along a linear corridor, and two main branches/room groups to the north. That room complex to the southeast is fairly blatant – you just can’t miss how similar the two versions are. There is something similar going on with a looped corridor to the east, although it leads to different rooms, and has different surroundings.
  • There is something mysteriously described as a “space room” in Cook’s level, dropping the players down to Level 5. It is a fuzzy, irregular kind of place, although not a full-blown cavern – a small grotto off one of the corridors. The explanation is found in Jackson’s level: the transport mechanism is a “space warp”, and it leads to Level 4.
  • The level connections are similar: there is the entrance (from a “house in the village” in Cook’s version, and the “base of a hollow trunk” in Jackson’s), two stairs down to level 2 on opposite sides of Level 1 (this struck me as a really cool feature), a sloping passage to Level 3, the “space room” to Level 5/4, and a trap door/pit to Level 7/5. The only thing that doesn’t map across the levels is a sliding door to Level 3 found in Cook’s version, and there only.
  • The monster encounters are less straightforward to compare, but both levels have a room with a zillion goblins – in Cook’s version, there are 40 of them in room 17, guarding 100 gp and a ring of tree wishes (yikes!), and in Jackson’s, they have a force of 30 in the large room 14, only carrying a measly 150 gp among the lot, and having some information to share. Five orcs guarding 50 gp and a +1 sword become five berserkers carrying 25 gp each, and the leader wielding a +1 sword. A powerful Wizard disguised as a harmless old man in Cook’s version crops up as a “dungeon caretaker” who can answer questions in room 10. Cook’s version has a minotaur guarding 20 gp and a curse scroll, Jackson’s has a gorgon with a pretty damn good treasure horde.

It is almost certain Jackson’s dungeon level was first – the corruption of the “space room” seems to confirm it, and the dates match: it was first published in the May 1976 issue of the UK Games and Puzzles, in September 1976 in the US People’s Computers, and in February 1977 on the promo fliers seen in Jon’s G+ post. Interestingly, if Paul Cook copied his dungeon from Steve Jackson, he must have done it very quickly, as a first impression: Chimaera #18 is dated June 1976, a mere one month after the dungeon’s original appearance – but not on promo material; rather, in a general gaming magazine. Considering zine production times, it is not impossible (Chimaera had a brisk publication schedule with up to two issues a month), but it is still impressive in its own way.
All in all, it is almost surely Steve’s dungeon. And yet, in an odd way, Paul Cook’s much rougher revision comes out not as a degradation, but as an improvement. Beyond the elements already discussed, Jackson’s dungeon mostly consists of monster lairs with treasure. Cook’s dungeon, on the other hand, has a shrinking room that crushes careless players, an acid fountain, the wizard-as-old-man thing, and unbalanced monster/treasure combinations which are likely the results of random generation, but are bound to be interesting precisely because they raise interesting questions. This time, the goblin lair is not to the side, but it is chock in the middle of the southern section, potentially blocking descent to Level 2 in both directions. The goblins are just numerous enough to pose a genuine risk for low-level parties, but they have an attractive prize in the form of the ring of three wishes. That’s an interesting dilemma right there. The treasures are more random, but they are also more interesting – the minotaur’s curse scroll? The orcs’ fear wand? There is something there that’s not there in the less unbalanced, but more pedestrian Jackson version. I am more interested in learning what lies under Cook’s Level 1 than Jackson’s (granted, there was probably nothing).
It is also odd how this thing happened at all. What was Cook thinking when he appropriated and republished Jackson’s much better circulated dungeon level instead of building a similar one from sketch? Was it because it had the aura of semi-official status since it was published in a real magazine? And then what about the changes he had made to the original design? It is one of the uncanny little mysteries we will probably never learn the answer to, and yet it remains fascinating over 40 years later. It is one story among many, and it is – my sincere apologies – more than just a drop in the bucket.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] Deep Carbon Observatory

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 17:03
[REVIEW] Deep Carbon Observatory (2015)by Patrick Stuart and Scrap PrincessSelf-published
Deep, dark, carboniferousDeep Carbon Observatory describes a journey through a land flooded and devastated by a natural and magical catastrophe, progressing from the human fallout in a coastal town and the surrounding countryside to the catastrophe site, then even stranger landscapes leading to a very old, very alien place revealed by the receding waters of a massive, ancient reservoir built by an extinct civilisation. Half Lovecraft, half Nausicaa and half Apocalypse Now, it delves into the heart of darkness, first within humans, then within increasingly more inhuman realms.
The module is a guaranteed campaign changer. The themes and revelations – which are very Lovecraftian without actually reusing Lovecraft’s stories or the Mythos – would upend any mediaeval fantasy campaign world, and aside from having severe consequences even beyond the cataclysmic destruction of the adventure area, put everything known about the setting in a new perspective. Suddenly, everything is different, and a lot of things you thought significant or personally important has been revealed to matter very little. Like Death Frost Doom, Deep Carbon Observatory would end as many campaigns as it would launch. Is this a bug or a feature? You will have to decide, and you’d better do it in advance. But if you go in, it will be memorable, although not necessarily in a way you’ll like.
Let’s make this abundantly clear: it is misery tourism pure and simple. Everything and everyone in the module is dead, dying, or at the very least going through a seriously bad phase. There is nothing the characters or the players can do to undo the catastrophe, very little to make the local situation measurably better, and absolutely categorically firmly nothing to alter whatever they discover about their world at the eponymous Observatory. Everything is relentlessly negative and depressive, sometimes to the extent it feels petty on the “unbelievably ancient man kept hideously alive by a dark device” level (or my personal favourite, “3d6 women lounge here, made of spikes”, which, to its credit, made me laugh). Sometimes it is funny in a wry way (“A Biopsy of the Tarresque [sic] – It didn’t go well”), but more often than not, it is just negative negative.
I don’t want to dwell too long on the ethics of fictional worlds, but there is something about this which bothers me on a personal level. It bothered me in the otherwise excellent Carcosa, and it bothers me in the premise and details of this module too. So many evils are visited on the hapless residents of this little corner of this fantasy world I don’t even know about that it somehow feels unjust. Of course, the existence of evil is the wellspring of adventure, but can you really make a difference at all? And are you in the wrong for exploiting their suffering for vicarious entertainment? Running the adventure, the players (and their characters) are faced with choices which test their morality to the limits. They can’t save and help everyone, and their actions are liable to result in even more evil than they started with – with inaction perhaps even worse. They will dirty their hands whether they become involved with the area’s kill-or-be-killed struggles, or leave it to burn and focus on their personal interests. Some will find that interesting. I’d probably just throw up my hands and find a good, stiff drink. This is personal, unenforced opinion: I don’t really want to play or run this adventure, but you might.
Then again...
(found on the Ten Foot Polemic blog)Then again, this is also an imaginative, fantastic adventure, one of the best about going into a strange and forbidding place full of things which will eat your face. You get to feel properly out of your depth, and that’s a rare feeling in RPGs (again, Carcosa did it, although in a completely different way). It is a proper, epic journey “up the river” (you could also say up shit creek), encountering weirder and weirder things as you progress. From disaster-struck human lands, you venture into a forbidden place governed by the dead, insects and fish, the fungal and the mineral realm, and things beyond the ken of humanity. Things get less and less recognisable, and by the time you are at your destination, it is like that expedition into the heart of R’lyeh, with Great Cthulhu looming somewherearound the edges. There are odd technology-as-magic things to encounter; grandiose remains of destroyed or extinct cultures; and an underground storehouse of strange wonders that drives home how utterly alien this past is, and how little they had scratched the world’s surface. It is Lovecraft’s cosmic imagination without the overused and increasingly tiresome Cthulhu chicpolluting the Internet, and that is a welcome sight.
This imagination is also in evidence in the individual pieces that make up the module. There is probably not one encounter, NPC or item that doesn’t have a twist of some kind. It is all new – some sort of D&D in new clothes, or perhaps D&D visited by Geoffrey McKinney’s vision of Gamma World (see the post at Sep 22, 2006 5:50 pm or this one on human insignificance). They are little vignettes, but they fit together into a coherent whole. There is an evident interest in geology and natural sciences; a rarity in adventure design, which is used to develop rather imaginative encounters. If you like geology and think that book on minerals would make for a good Monster Manual, this is your module. I loved the geo-samples room, which is ridiculous, bizarre, and hilariously funny.
Deep Carbon Observatory is also fairly interactive (with slight problems): you can experiment with things, learn a little bit about them, and taken together, they work well as an adventure (which not all visionary products do). Although the nature of the upriver journey makes the affair mostly linear, there are enough decision points and dynamic elements (like a rival band of adventurers/assassins, and a “what happens if the PCs do nothing” section) to allow for variation and player engagement (although the decisions don’t truly make much of a difference in the long term). And of course, the Observatory is a very interesting dungeon on its own, presented from a cross-section cutout perspective, and describing 44 rooms filled with wondrous, sometimes incredibly dangerous junk (it is the rare example of the cabinet contents dungeon which actually works). Together with the 40 overland encounter areas, you have a lot of things to play with.
The text is mostly very well written. It never over-elaborates on superfluous details, and often manages to capture the gist of things with excellently chosen phrases. A formerly flooded valley, now revealed by the breakage of a monumental dam, has a floor like “one blue-grey bacterial mat”, or “rough-textured semi-flesh”. The spike women, actually a group of salt dryads have “hearts of black diamond”, “set within the chest like jewels”. The module crams a generous amount of material into a 86-page digest-sized booklet, sometimes communicating its ideas through terse descriptions, sometimes the implications which may develop from the encounter, and the occasional random table (these are uniformly excellent). The sketchlike art by Scrap Princess is a good accompaniment to the text. It works as illustration, and it works as something evoking a certain mood. It is good art in much the same way Erol Otus is good art.
I like the way the adventure is presented. Although it practically invites endless blather about which-ancient-civilisation-did-what-and-why, it doesn’t beat around the bush, and doesn’t even have the obligatory wasted pages on the “adventure background” (something dreadful has happened, now do something about it) or the “adventure hooks” (something dreadful has happened, now do something about it) – it starts in medias res, and proceeds with the action until it is over. Everything is in the context of an adventure, and almost everything gets as much detail as it needs to make sense of it. For dealing in such esoteric subjects, Deep Carbon Observatory is surprisingly straightforward, and its brevity makes it very GM-friendly.
It doesn’t always work. Beyond the misery tourism aspect, I have the suspicion a lot of the content and the tangents will never see the light of actual play; not in a campaign, and certainly not in a one-shot, where a lot of the module will amount to a weird inscrutable dungeon with weird inscrutable treasure. It is a classic, although not severe example of “hidden depth”. Hidden depth is not entirely wasted content, since it informs the GM’s perspective, and makes for something which exists and operates by its own logic, but probably cannot be fully comprehended by the players. But in the observatory proper, there is sometimes too much of it.
And that’s Deep Carbon Observatory. You can probably run a very good, very miserable, very odd adventure with it if your players are into that sort of thing, or at the very least, you can annoy them with random interjections of “But is it art?
No playtesters were listed for this adventure.

Rating: **** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #12: Arghul the Demented

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 07:14
The Sea Puffs [Tengeri Puffancs] had just pulled into the port of Baklin, carrying a cargo of oil, Kassadian wine, and passengers bound for the island and perhaps beyond to the Twelve Kingdoms. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung immediately noticed a group of twenty or thirty men wearing worn white robes, and still looking lost in the Baklin harbour. Sensing an opportunity, he approached one of them, a bearded, middle-aged fellow and inquired of their purpose.“We are a group of pilgrims, kind stranger. We are looking for affordable food and lodgings before we press onwards into the wilds” came the answer.“I would recommend The Inn: the rooms are clean and the rates are reasonable. And what would be your ultimate destination?”“Oh --” the pilgrim smiled, “it is a long way, through many travails and hazards. We are making a pilgrimage to a sanctuary of wise and kind mystics, where we might find enlightment.”Drolhaf continued to press the matter: “I and my companions would gladly accompany you through the dangers of the wilderness. There is strength in numbers, and maybe we, too, could gain from wisdom.”“I shall tell our leader, Brother Runcius” – the man pointed at one of his companions, a stern fellow with a decorative wooden staff. “If only such helpful and kind-hearted strangers would receive travellers in every port, instead of the usual cheats and reprobates!”“Have you never had to be disappointed in your fellow men?” interjected Lafadriel Hundertwasser.The pilgrim laughed before rejoining his companions. “You can bet I have.
Where is Harrgon Torsk when we need him?!” fumed Armand the Scumbag.They had tried the Golden Plate and The Inn, but he was nowhere to be seen. At last, they returned to the Murk, the cathouse where they had spent the previous night, now full of off-duty sailors and fishermen returning from the fish market. However, their man wasn’t here either.“All right, if you see him, just tell him to look for us at the Inn” an exasperated Armand explained to the barman.The fat slob scratched his bald pate. “I’ll try to remember that.”Armand sighed. “Here is an electrum coin.”The fellow seemed much more interested. “I will immediately chisel the message on the surface, Sir!
I love this!” enthused Phil the Terror of Turkeys as they returned to the darkening street. “Everyone is so corrupt you can just buy their favours. It is so... honest.”“Let’s think about our current opportunities first. Let’s go to that houndmonger whose beasts have dug up that crawlway. With a bit of luck, it is still undiscovered, and whatever is down there will be ours.”“Yeah, but let’s not attack the owner if we can help it” suggested Drolhaf.“Give him money, you mean?” blurted Gadur Yir.“You are getting too civilised for your own good” laughed Phil.“But first, dinner!”“That’s a good idea” nodded Gadur Yir. “I need to rest, I still feel very weak from that poison.”“What a little ----“ giggled Phil. “We need to do it now. You are strong enough, and we have Gunnar the Beheader with us as a backup fighter.
***
The City of BaklinAccepting the plan, they rounded the harbour and made their way to the eastern part of town. Beggars and shady fellows squatted in the doorways, and sounds of merriment came from a night dive where a bunch of orcs were dancing to the tunes of a fiddle, while two were outside, one supporting the other as he disgorged his former meal on the cobblestones. Then there was quiet again; the crumbling towers of the Masters’ Guild squatting over arcades with boarded-up storefronts, and side streets disappearing into dark dead ends.
The dagger came without a warning from above, missing Armand the Scumbag by an inch and clattering noisily on the cobbles. Phil the Terror of Turkeys spotted a dark shape on a rooftop above them, but the apparition disappeared and they could hear sounds of clattering footsteps over the shingles.“Son of a ---“ Armand swore, and started climbing the balconies and sagging timbers of the precarious building, followed by Drolhaf, who soon found himself unable to progress after the much more nimble Kassadian. Gadur Yir, Gunnar the Beheader, Lafadriel and Phil quickly looked around for traces of other assailants, but there were none in evidence. Meanwhile, Armand mantled up on the roof, and saw the cloaked figure from behind a thick chimneypot, just in time to see another dagger pass him by and fall down to street level. He lunged forward to catch the assassin, but the man was quicker, descending a rope and beating a hasty retreat through a crooked street. Armand cocked his crossbow, fired a bolt, but by the time the missile could have connected, his quarry was far away.“Darling?! There is someone outside on the balcony!” came a woman’s whimpering voice from behind a door where Drolhaf was still looking for a way up to the top.“Shhhh. Just keep quiet, honey – maybe he’ll go away – just keep quiet” someone answered, not entirely convinced of his own argument. Drolhaf sighed, spat, and climbed down the way he came, followed by a morose Armand.
The daggers were freshly treated with poison” Phil showed a greasy sheen on one of the recovered blades. “This was no chance ambush.““It is out of the question it was meant for me!” protested Armand. “What have I done? What happened in Kassadia, stayed in Kassadia. There is no way the fathers of those fine ladies would still be angry at me!”“I know this sort of thing and it was for you, rest assured” countered the hobbit.“’Who could have done it?!’ I ask the cruel stars – but they don’t answer!” declaimed Lafadriel Hundertwasser.Armand, it may be may be time for you to change your name” explained Phil.“How so? I am not a creative soul!”Lafadriel mused: “Perhaps you could be Armand the Knave.”Finding no solution to the mystery of the sudden attack, they continued to the houndmonger.
***
The dog pound was a vacant lot by the city walls where a house had once stood, closed off by a fence of tall wooden poles driven into the ground. Inside, a pack of ugly-looking curs were fighting over a few measly scraps among piles of debris and rubbish. The only building stood in the northeast corner, a wooden shack with a smoking stovepipe chimney.“But how do we get in? I don’t fancy dealing with those mutts.”“Easy” Drolhaf grabbed a handful of stones, and hurled them at the shack. Exclamations came from inside, the door flew open, and a group of burly, bad-mannered chaps with sticks and clubs came to investigate, led by a colossus wearing furs and a spiked flail. They looked ready for a brawl, but the Northman quickly calmed them with a handful of coins, explaining them their problem with the crawlway leading below the city.“As you well know, the undead may be lurking down there, and we both know what that means. The knights of Yolanthus Kar will be over to seal off the passage, and you gain nothing. With this arrangement, we both stand to profit.”Tarbus Rolf, the leader of the gang, seemed to like the proposition.“And how about the dogs? Do you eat them?” asked Gadur Yir.“Now just a minute!” spat the bearded giant. “I respect these filthy beasts. Just because I catch ‘em and sell ‘em, don’t mean I’m doing that.”“Indeed!” mused Lafadriel aloud. “These are the noble monsters of the urban wilderness.”For an instant, everybody froze. Tarbus Rolf’s eyes went wide, and at last he muttered “What the fuck?!” The situation was awkward as everyone was searching for something appropriate to say, but at last, Armand broke the silence.“So this is where they don’t bark anymore?”“What?! ...no... they still bark here. Ask your orc pals at the Skinned Curtowards the harbour. I sell ‘em the mangy curs, and they cook ‘em in their soup – can’t say I like it, but money’s money.”That’s the pub we passed on our way here. Very interesting” noted Armand.
Tarbus Rolf ordered his men, and his young assistant Bipkin to bring lanterns and a table where they would illuminate the opening while the company was down there, and watch for trouble coming. The dogs had dug a deep pit into the rubble of the yard, revealing a tight passage westwards. Drolhaf and Phil descended first, followed by Gadur Yir and Armand the Scumbag, and finally Lafadriel Hundertwasser and Gunnar the Beheader as the rear guard. The irregular crawlway travelled some 20’, where it opened into the ceiling of a deeper and larger cavity. Peering down, the light of a thrown torch revealed an irregular chamber, half-filled with a cave-in. A quick underground stream rushed through the room to their east, a rough set of stairs descended to the north, and there was a fairly wide, rubble-choked passage to the west. As Drolhaf looked, a stone below his hand gave way and clattered down the side of a tall rubble pile, but he kept his balance and avoided the fall.
They descended with a rope left in place to cover their escape if something happened. The place was cool and damp, colourful stalactites hanging from the ceiling, particularly thick where the stream flowed through the passage and disappeared down a natural drain. The floor was strewn with stones, some natural and some chiselled, as well as odds and ends like broken pottery, bones, corroded metal scraps and various animal skulls. Phil picked up a few pieces of junk – “We will show these to the dupes and tell them this was all we found.”Gadur Yir examined the eastern, natural part of the cavern. On careful examination, he felt a slight draft coming from the north, and discovered the rock formations were concealing another chamber.
The Midden under BaklinThe fragile limestones broke easily under their blows, revealing an extension of the cave. They entered, Gunnar hanging back to watch the northern passage. The petrified remains of what might have been a fire pit stood in the northwest corner, laden with charred wood turned into stone and crystal. Around the ancient fire, four hunched figures stood frozen in limestone, already covered with creamy lime deposits. Their low brows, deep-set eyes and crude rags betrayed them as the inhabitants of a previous age; and the petrified chords around their necks as the victims of violence, probably human sacrifice. Drolhaf collected a handful of dark, indigo crystals from the ashes of the fire pit.“Something is coming” came Gunnar’s whispered warning.“Something?!”Three small shapes emerged from the darkness and floated into view. They were round, disembodied eyes, the size of a large apple, scrutinising the cavern. Although everyone was hidden, they identified their targets without trouble, shooting paralysis rays, magic projectiles, and life-draining rays until they were at last dispatched.“Well done, Gunnar! We are lucky to have you protecting our back” said Armand.
Continuing the search of the cavern revealed another set of stalactites blocking the way to the south. Breaking them with a warhammer and creating an opening, the company peered into a larger cavern, dimly illuminated by glowing mushrooms on the muddy floor. More dark figures were slumped against the walls, another row of the petrified primitives. They wore what looked like vests woven from bark, their mouths frozen in terrible grimaces.“There are about two dozen of them, give or take” whispered Phil.A little further to the east, they discovered something even more ominous. A crude throne of hewn stone rested against the wall, occupied by a massive, brutal figure of the same people as the dead around him. He was caked over with layers of limestone, but his empty eye sockets seemed to peer forward with malevolent intensity, and around his neck hung a crudely chiselled crystal glowing with a deep crimson hellfire. Recalling the abandoned mines, Gadur Yir shuddered and raised his shield in a defensive position as he passed by the throne, ready for anything...
...the brute stood up as pieces of limestone broke off from the mummified flesh, making a horrible crunching sound. The crystal on his chest burned vindictively, and all around, the dead broke from their limestone shells and lurched forward. The unnatural apparition’s voice came like from the depths of the grave:“I am Arghul the Demented! Before me are heaped meat and blood, for I am famished and need gorge myself!”“Run!” cried Gadur Yir, and, still defending himself from stray blows, bolted forward into a southern side passage.Drolhaf turned and fled back the way he came. “After Drolhaf! Don’t bother with Gadur Yir!” cried Armand the Scumbag, and the rest of the company followed.Shambling corpses pursued them both, but Arghul the Demented went for Gadur Yir... who had found himself in a dead end room where he could only made out the ancient remains of what looked like decaying sacks. Gulping, he turned to face the coming horde of flesh-hungry undead, and his stomach turned as he felt the charnel stench of the prehistoric warlord. Arghul came at him and the half-orc raised his weapon to counter-attack. Two sets of sharp claws caught him square in his breast, and he froze, unable to move. There were horrible gnawing and rending noises and the cracking of bones in the cavern as Arghul the Demented and his followers feasted for the first time in many years.
The other half of the company found themselves back in the cavern with the campfire and the four inanimate corpses.“This is a small opening – we can defend it!” exclaimed Drolhaf, readying his weapon to brace for the incoming horde. They fought, as the dead lunged at them and tried to push through or drag them back into their cavern. One corpse managed to take advantage of Armand’s weakness, and entered the cavern, but Gunnar the Beheader struck it down before the others could follow, and took the place of the wounded Armand. The dead retreated a little, and stood with hateful empty eyes.“Now what?!”“Arghuuuul... Arghuuuul...” the corpses howled as they gave way to their warlord. Arghul the Demented came, followed by undead carrying the torn-off, bloody limbs of poor Gadur Yir. The crystal was almost burning on Arghul’s massive chest, a dreadful eye of fire in the darkness. The cold stench of the grave filled everyone’s nostrils, and Lafadriel almost dropped his weapon as he started retching. Drolhaf quickly quaffed down his potion of heroism, but was caught by Arghul’s sudden attack, and froze as the triumphant dark form towered above him...
...desperately, Phil threw the burning lantern at the undead, while the others yanked Drolhaf’s passive body back into the cave, and turned to flee. Arghul howled triumphantly, and the wave surged forward. Gunnar the Beheader held them back as he was retreating as well as he could, but he miscalculated. Arghul’s claws tore him limb from limb [he received two critical hits for a total of 34 Hp damage, bringing him down to -24 Hp], and once again, the hungry undead fell upon their prey to satiate their terrible appetites. The company – what remained of it – quickly clambered up the rope to the crawlway, emerging shaking and chalk-white from the pit before Tarbus Rolf and his surprised companions. As if they had sensed something, the dogs were baying and howling in maddened fear.“What – what about the half-orc? And that other guy?” asked the houndmonger.“They... stayed behind.”“What of this one? He seems... he doesn’t move none.”“Do you know a good pathologist?” asked Lafadriel.“A what? Shouldn’t we... shouldn’t we just call the knights of Yolanthus Kar?”“We will take care of that” responded Phil the Terror of Turkeys.
***
The next morning at The Inn, a morose group of adventurers were eating their breakfast in sullen silence. Redragon and Grindragon brought cold meats, resin-flavoured beer, cheese and sausages, and a bottle of Kassadian red especially for Armand.“Let’s think about Lady Callodric’s stolen shipment” recommended Drolhaf Haffnarskørung. “Where will the valuable pieces turn up? That’s our clue. They will never sell the things we are really looking for, but the rest will lead us to our target.”Someone stepped up to the table. He was olive-skinned, with curled hair, simple clothes and a mace hanging on his belt. He introduced himself as Drusus the Historian, and mentioned how Harrgon Torsk had sent him here to find a company of like-minded adventurers. “We could use a man like you” nodded Armand. “We have just lost two good fellows in an unfortunate series of events. It concerns the living dead.”“In the Valley of Barzak Bragoth? I have heard of them” inquired Drusus.“No, they are below our feet.”The Historian jumped. “You mean the Inn!”“No... in the poetic sense of the expression” Lafadriel Hundertwasser interjected to correct Armand.
But Armand wasn’t listening. He was clutching at his throat, wracked with terrible pain. He fell whimpering on the floor, his eyes bulging, but at last he forced his fingers into his mouth, and he vomited profusely.“Treachery!” cried Phil, and everyone in the common room jumped to action. Redragon and Grindragon came running, and a group of off-duty guardsmen ran up to Armand to see what was up.“Poison... I have been poisoned...” Armand muttered, too frail to even stand up.“Poison!” hollered one of the guards.“Everyone has been poisoned! It is a mass poisoning! Help!” cried a terrified merchant, then shrunk back disappointedly when it turned out it was just that one person.“The wine! The only thing he has touched we haven’t was the wine! It was Grindragon who had brought a bottle of wine… especially for him! Arrest the dwarf at once!”Grindragon’s ruddy face went white, and he broke down sobbing as the guards seized him and tied his hands behind his back. Redragon was close to breaking down.“Why have... you done this?” asked Armand, still reeling from the venom.Grindragon fell on his knees to plead for his life. “It was not me, Sir! I just brought up the bottle in the morning to warm it for you, just as you ordered. Please, Sir! I did not do anything!”“It is the Sacker for you, knave!” snapped a guard, preparing to lead him away, but Armand bid him stay a moment.“But I didn’t order anything, Grindragon. Explain yourself – now!”“It was – it was right there on this slip of paper, you see, Sir? The one you left under our door” stammered the confused dwarf, producing a brief written message.Armand examined the paper carefully, trying to focus his eyes. Then, rising to his knees and supporting himself by the counter, he said: “You can release him. He is telling the truth. But this is not my writing.
As the two dwarves were beside themselves with relief, and the guards released Grindragon on Armand’s word, Greg examined the bottle.“As I have guessed. The wax seal has been tampered with” he nodded. “This is a strong poison, and expensive. Someone wasn’t looking at saving his money when he tried to kill you. You are a very valuable man, my friend.
Excuse me? Is there a certain Drolhaf – ah, here you are, gentlemen!” came a voice from behind them. The newcomer was Harkell the Butler, Lady Callodric’s manservant. “I would have word with you in private – and quickly.”They went up to their room, where Harkell explained the reason for his visit. In the morning, a dreadful discovery had been made in Hightowne: Tomurgen the Bard, who had spoken of the enchanted flower to Lady Callodric, and who promised to say more once it was retrieved, was found murdered in his own home. He had not come out in days, and there was no answer when the lady’s messengers were looking for him. Finally, the watch opened his apartment to discover the corpse, which was now in the House of the Dead maintained by the knights of Yolanthus Kar, awaiting transportation to the Valley of Barzak Bragoth. For now, the watch resealed the apartment, and posted a guard at the entrance.“We will seek out Lady Callodric in a few hours, Harkell. Thank you for your warning.”To make sure, Armand tried to conceal his features as well as he could under the circumstances; changing clothes, altering features and cutting some of his hair.“But what could be the reason?” he protested. “Because I had asked after Sarbit the Gravedigger?”Phil shook his head. “Harrgon Torks could be in it, though. He has underworld connections – anything for money, no?”“I must have gone somewhere where I shouldn’t have” grumbled Armand. “For now, please call me Yil the Mysterious. It is not much, but every little counts.
***
The company’s first visit went to Hightowne, to visit the knights of Yolanthus Kar. The House of the Dead was an austere building next to Fantagor the Kassadian’s gaudy palace. Stepping inside, they found themselves in a cool antechamber, guarded by stern-looking knights in black full plate armour. Drolhaf approached one of the older-looking ones to ask for one of the superiors. The knight bid them wait while he fetched a man, tall of stature and valiant of step. He had piercing eyes and dark hanging moustaches, introducing himself as Sir Boron of the Cliffs [Vitéz Sziklay Boron]. Sir Boron took the report about undead beneath the city very seriously.“I will consult the venerable Chrisostom the Reedy [Kákos Krizosztom], the eldest knight in this house. Alas, our order is stretched thin over the island, so that we cannot draw sword to dispatch these foul monsters at once. For the nonce, I recommend that the opening should be blockaded and any entry strictly forbidden.”“I would gladly contribute to the cause, Sir Knight” suggested Drolhaf. “To contribute to the safety of the place, I would gladly commission a small, securely locked crypt in the name of Gladuor, my patron god.”“A crypt! Surely you know that no crypt or grave might be raised on the island, and no dead may rest elsewhere but the Valley of Barzak Bragoth.”“Let’s call it a ‘protective structure’, then. I would gladly do it, in memory of our companions, who now rest there... well, were eaten there, but that’s beside the point. And there is another matter, Sir Boron” he probed further. “It has come to our attention that Tomurgen the Bard has been found murdered.”Sir Boron’s expression darkened. “Verily, it is so! This old and beloved man, whose song had lifted the hearts of so many before he withdrew after his wife’s death, was slain by treachery, by a swordstrike to the back. Cowardly and shameful conduct, and an ignoble end to a long and distinguished life.”“Do you believe there are assassins lurking in this town?” asked Armand. “Are they known to exist here?”“No, not here...” the knight pondered. “But aye, in Gont, they say their evil lurks.”“If it was a sword, it need not have been an assassin. But the slayer is out – and may he be brought to justice” said Drolhaf.
***
Well, that was interesting. Shall we go down again before they get involved?”“Maybe we ought to check on Harrgon Torsk to determine if he is innocent.”“And I would like to seek out the Skinned Cur” said Armand. “An old acquaintance from Kassadia who could help me can be found there.”“I know what I’m doing – will be right back” said Drusus the Historian, leaving behind the company, and heading for the tower of Slarkeron the Wizard. Peering into the garden filled with tall hedgerows and twisted statues, he wrote a quick letter of introduction to the mage, where he listed his skills and requested that he learn from his better. Finding no mailbox, he opened the iron gate and took a step into the garden. A leering gargoyle seemed to watch him with its dead stone eyes. Drusus held up the rolled-up parchment.“Give it to your master. I am of the guild myself, and would like to learn.”The stone monstrosity came alive, and hissed malevolently. “If you are of the guild, just step forward.”“...but truthfully, I have not yet taken my Master Exam. I’ll be back.”Drusus left the message before the statue, and quickly backed out of the peaceful but sinister garden.
To their luck, they found the cheerful Harrgon Torsk at the Inn, and at once, invited him up to their room.“I have received your message. How may I be of service?”After listening to the company’s theories, his eyes narrowed and he bluntly stated “No. The painting wasn’t taken by local professionals. This is the work of outsiders... and if that they be, these professionals will see that they leave town one way or another.”“There is the wizard who smells of mint. What of him?”“Ah, yes, I have discovered his identity for you. You are dealing with Filodont the wizard. He has been seen in Baklin multiple times. He comes and goes with his adventuring companions. The last time, he met a pretty hobbit girl named Lizadorn.”“What of her?” asked Phil, his interest piqued.“She left town with another of her kind named Boffo Badgervest [Borzbekecses Boffó].”“You may have more trouble on your hands than these adventurers” said Armand. “There was Tomurgen’s recent murder, and two attempts on my life. Assassinations seem to be getting awfully common around here.”The roguish Harrgon seemed none too happy when he heard the news, but at last he came up with a plan. “We... let’s say we can offer you a safe place to hide. Go back to the Murk and tell the bartender the phrase ‘yellow ribbon’. A safe room and a means of escape will be at your disposal.
Harrgon left, but as soon as he did, something else turned up. A messenger boy came, calling for “Armand”. Armand – now Yil the Mysterious – concealed himself in a corner while the others took the letter for him. Nervously, Armand put on gloves, and took every precaution known to man to avoid a trick with poison as he opened up the envelope. It contained a slip of parchment, a pre-paid, one-way ticket to Kassadia on board the Sea Puffs.“If I show up, they might as well kill me there and then” Armand protested.“They really want to see you in the Valley of Barzak Bragoth” agreed Drusus the Historian.They considered who might want Armand dead, and who might have put the hit on him. Bella, the prostitute at the cathouse, for asking too eagerly about the local thieves? Someone from Baklin’s ruling circles? Was it just Harrgon Torsk, trying to milk them for easy money?
Just a moment” Phil hissed. “Hear that? Footsteps!”He snuck out, and returned at once. “I saw a nondescript man. Maybe too nondescript. Bull’s neck, balding, baggy pants. He was loitering in the corridor before our room, and is now climbing up to the next floor.”They looked at each other, and everyone went their way. Phil quickly looked out their window, seeing two porters involved in an argument next to a broken down cart carrying newly made shingles. One of the porters was balding, and the other looked similar to the first one. Phil and Lafadriel went downstairs to check them out, while Armand and Drolhaf followed the bull-necked man upstairs, seeing him disappear behind a door. They briefly hesitated, then followed inside, where they spotted their surprised quarry resting on his back, enjoying the air coming in through the open window.“What the???” the man asked.“Stop! We were following a thief” snapped Drolhaf as he scanned the area, and looked through the window. His worst assumptions seemed to be confirmed as he spotted a red handkerchief tied to the windowsill. Was the man signalling someone?“I wish you would explain...”“Now, make no mistake. We have no quarrel with the guild.”“The – guild?”“None else.”“Uh-huh... I think the guild is fine. Very fine.”“Don’t play the innocent” growled Armand, as Drolhaf climbed out the window to check the rooftop above them. “And... what is that there? Come back, Drolhaf!”“What is what?!” the man acted genuinely confused as Drolhaf Haffnarskørung climbed back in.“He was writing a message. Come on. Read it, Drolhaf.”“With pleasure! It is unfinished. Let’s see – ‘Dear Arhalia. I am involved in a risky venture. The cargo has safely arrived at the discussed location. Also...’ That’s all he wrote” he put down the piece of paper.“Hm. I can’t make sense of it. Still...”“Er... could you please explain me what’s going on?”“Nothing. You carry on with your business. We could have made a mistake” said Drolhaf as he took one long, last look at the fellow before leaving the room. The man sighed, sauntered to the window, still looking at them incredulously. Just as they left, Armand saw out of the corner of his eye that he had taken off the red handkerchief, and shaken it vigorously before wiping his forehead.“The handkerchief! It is too late... it was the handkerchief all along! He has given the signal, Drolhaf. Now they know I am in here. We must leave at once.
Down in their room, they recounted the story to the others, who had come to a similar dead end with the porters. “They said their cart broke down. Didn’t react when we told them about a ship ticket, but that could have been their sheer professionalism. Said they were potters from some coastal dump” recalled Phil.“We have to get going.”Disguising Armand as well as they could, they quickly left The Inn through a back door, passing through a street with only a few passers-by. There was a pervasive, almost nauseating feeling of being watched; seemingly respectable citizens and strolling servants appeared to take an unhealthy interest in their group. Every rooftop looked like a potential hive of assassins. Then, a little boy walked up to the company.“Have you brought the milk?” he asked.“It will be done” answered Lafadriel, and they left the spot as fast as possible.
After a while, they emerged at the Murk, mostly empty in the afternoon save for a bored group of girls chatting over tea in one of the booths.Armand walked up to the counter and whispered “yellow ribbon” to the barkeep, who nodded and ushered him up the stairs.“Remember, second door to the left. There’s a bell – one ring means ‘okay’, two is for ‘company’, three for ‘boat’.”Armand took stock of his safe room. He quickly discovered a wardrobe outfitted with peeping holes, a comfortable couch, and a second door opening to nothingness – he could see the bay below him, and a pier with an anchored boat close by. Finally, he collapsed on the couch, and tried to get some rest. The others took a good look at their surroundings. Phil the Terror of Turkeys was quickly discovered by the bored prostitutes, who immediately dragged their little darling into their booth for some tea and pastries. Drolhaf examined the bayside front of the Murk, while Lafadriel called for a girl.“The thing is, I have tastes which may be called... peculiar. I am attracted to the rooftops. Take me to a spot where we can look over the tavern without being seen.”“How romantic!”She did, in fact, know a spot. They climbed up on a crooked roof, where Lafadriel settled himself next to a chimney pot before shooing away the girl.“Now be off with you. No; bring me some tea while you’re gone. I need to think.
***
There was only one among them who did not stay at the cathouse. Drusus the Historian, more interested in his own endeavours, parted ways with his newfound companions, and made for Hightowne. Approaching Slarkeron’s garden gate, he examined the garden carefully. All seemed peaceful, but the letter was gone. He opened the gate, walked forward among the torsos decorating the carefully tended hedges. Slarkeron’s tower rose like a crooked finger in the background. Drusus looked around, and cast an inquiring look at the gargoyle, but it was silent and unmoving. Shrugging, he continued, passing by a narrow path leading deeper into the hedge maze. A wide, straight path lead up to the tower door, flanked by marble benches. There was a sweet, coying smell in the air that was almost maddeningly intoxicating. Drusus stepped forward, and almost plunged headfirst into a deep pit. Pit? There was no pit before him, just the garden path, and the sweet smell. He withdrew, thought. He felt something in the pit of his stomach, and spoke the words of a protection from evil spell – just in case. Turning back, he made for the exit, which now seemed much, much further than it was the way in. Space was strangely crooked and it seemed to have treacherous gaps and discontinuities. The open gate beckoned. Concentrating on stepping through the opening, he walked through the arch, and found himself in a cool, dark hall.
Colourful panes of glass illuminated this chamber of the tower. Glass apparatuses and weird instruments stood around; astronomical symbols decorated the walls and ceiling.“You have come to me?”Drusus spun around, finding himself face to face with an ancient man with white hair and milky white eyes shot with something looking like spiderweb.“You have the nerve, to come here and lie about yourself. You are no guildsman!”“I just wanted your attention, great Slarkeron” bowed Drusus. “I would like to learn from one such as you.”“Mmhmmm. I see the spark of talent within your insolence. I will take you for an apprentice – after you do something for me. You see -- ”and he pointed at thin glass panes fastened together with metal clamps, containing the cross-sections of brains. “I have long been seeking the secrets of cognition. Where does it stem from? How does it work? The secret of brain fluids must be innumerable! I will take you in if you fulfil just one of the tasks I set before you.”“And these would be?”“First, bring me the brain of a mind-scanner. Second, bring me proof whether transcendental meditation, this new fad I have been hearing about, is fraud or reality. Third, go to the Valley of Barzak Bragoth, and descend to the catacombs there to seek the stone statue’s brain and Nibel’s tablets. Then, and only then, my apprentice you will be.”“I surmise these are hard tasks” responded Drusus. “But I will embark to complete them.”“Very good. I promise that ere you return with one of these tasks completed, I will use your excellent brain for noble purposes.”Slarkeron drew a rectangle in the air, and where his fingers traced its sides, a silvery light spread, until it emerged into a fully formed shimmering rectangle. Drusus bowed again, walked through the portal, and found himself back in the street, before the gates to Slarkeron’s garden.
(Session date 6 August 2017).
***
Notable quotes:
Marvin, offtopic: “One day, I’d like to be as manly as him.” (referring to another player stirring his raspberry syrup with a hunting knife)
***
Referee’s notes: This was a long game, starting early and concluding in the evening with a steak dinner, so the writeup is also lengthier than usual. In this adventure, the last of the original characters died, and with that, the campaign will inevitably go in new, perhaps entirely unforeseen directions (although the current group doesknow about the Inheritance, even if they have not pursued it). By now, the number of possible plot threads to follow has grown considerably, so we should be fine in that area.
It was very much a fun session (Arghul the Demented was particularly great, for which I must express my thanks to my Gamescience dice), but some admonishment is in order. For all they did (and they did a lot), the players did not do very well this time. In the first half of the adventure, they pursued a side plot that was much less urgent than the others they were involved in, and even managed to walk into clearly telegraphed danger right after finding a way below Baklin. Sure, the battle could have gone another way (as the players assumed in our post-game chat), but this was carelessness, and they had to pay for it dearly.
If the first half was about rash and foolhardy action, the second half seemed to involve more than the proper share of inaction and indecisiveness. I had a lot of fun cranking up the paranoia to the point of absurdity, but the action did not really move forward. If the players have powerful enemies who want them fail, then they surely succeeded at stalling them while they advanced whatever schemes they had in mind. Or to put it this way: there is a reason D&D is an adventure game where resourceful and decisive action tends to save the day. If you do something, even if you fail, things keep moving and you will get to try something else or at least pick up the pieces and move on. If you stay put, you may be safe, but you get nowhere. Pick your battles carefully, but fight them when you can. Things are inevitably more complicated, but this is the gist of it.

And that should be the lesson for our next game session this Sunday.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[REVIEW] The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad

Fri, 08/18/2017 - 15:24
The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad (2016)by Carl Bussler and Eric HoffmanPublished by Stormlord Publishing
The Treasure Vaults of ZadabadSometimes, the title alone sells it. If we thought about modules whose titles scream “Look at me! I offer riches, danger, and exotic adventure!”, The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad would be among my top contenders. It captures something essential about swords & sorcery, and wherever Zadabad is, you could easily imagine Conan trampling its crumbling cupolas under his sandaled feet. Of course, not all promises like this have been kept. I have mentioned before how swords & sorcery modules often end up disappointing, heavy on the mood and setup, and light on the actual content (this is a separate issue from my general complaint about under-ambitious modules). Fortunately, Treasure Vaults is both better and more substantial than the previously reviewed contenders.
The module, available for the DCC RPG and Swords & Wizardry (44 and 64 pages, respectively), describes a tropical island inhabited by native tribes, dangerous beasts, pirates and castaways, and dotted by natural hazards as well as the decaying tombs of an ancient civilisation. Island adventures are a rewarding candidate for sandbox gaming: they combine freedom of movement with the natural limitations of the surrounding seas, and offer a modularity that lets you place them in any corner of your game world. They tend to work very well by letting the players instigate all sorts of trouble, with the understanding that “what goes on the island, stays on the island” – you don’t need to consider the impacts of a small war on six different kingdoms and city-states.
Treasure Vaults is a mini-sandbox with 22 detailed encounters, including settlements, standalone lairs, ruins and five smallish dungeons (from 7 to 14 keyed areas each). It has a heavy, reasonably well-developed exploration focus. Hardship is a constant element that reinforces the feeling of venturing into the unknown: scarce equipment, environmental challenges and custom-made encounter charts with megafauna, tribesmen and man-eating crocodiles make getting around a hazardous undertaking, without turning the experience into a brutal and fruitless slog. Some locales are reasonably safe, but even the best of them have their hidden threats and complications. The most probable “home base” of the adventurers, a former plague colony is a particularly good launching pad for expeditions into the dense jungles, offering just enough intrigue to keep the players watching their back (or regret not watching it). The island’s tribes can be a source of hospitality and mortal danger (or both), and the same can be said of the eccentric loners who have made this place their home. This works very well.
The fixed encounters (and three sample tombs which can be placed freely on the hex map) are about the right combination of brevity and detail, and heavy on adventuring potential. They are successful at conjuring the spirit of the adventure pulps they draw on, and translating them into game challenges (the major stumbling block for S&S modules). They are at their best when they deal with the human element, where the authors’ imagination really shines: communities with their own bizarre customs, interests and sets of behaviour are always interesting to explore, and Treasure Vaults delivers this in spades. Perhaps more could have been said about the ways conflicts between various groups might develop, but this will probably be remedied in play: there are many ways hostilities may break out or new alliances get forged, all thanks to the actions of the characters. Likewise, some of the more weird encounters are quite ingenious, requiring resourceful problem-solving. Sometimes, the module feels too much like a low-level sandbox, lacking the “oh shit!” moments offered by a few really vicious or formidable challenges, but that’s a minor complaint about an otherwise very good work.
The mini-dungeons are slightly less impressive. They have striking architectural features, a strong sense of place, and some of the encounters are good, but they also come with the customary problems of old school mini-dungeons. They are small, linear, and do not have the same degree of invention that made it into the wilderness encounters. This is a pity because the rest is so good. More could have been written about Zadabad proper, which is left underdeveloped along with the whole Valley of Shubba Nil. Nothing much is happing there aside from random encounters and random ruin finds. For that matter, the fabled treasure vaults also feel a tad anti-climactic, no larger than and no different from the linear mini-dungeons which had preceded them. A few traps, a boss-fight and some treasure is what we get instead of something genuinely complex and fascinating. These are “modules within a module”, so one does not expect something on the scale of Dwellers of the Forbidden City (or my personal gold standard, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan), but I could not help but feel just a little cheated.
That being said, The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad is an interesting, well-realised sandbox module – it is the quality other sandbox modules should aspire to. The DCC elements shine through a bit in the S&W version (which I purchased), but there is nothing in there that wouldn’t work in a Swords & Wizardry or D&D campaign.
No playtesters were listed for this adventure.

Rating: **** / *****
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[BLOG] One Year On

Sat, 08/05/2017 - 22:11
I started Beyond Fomalhaut one year ago, and slowly but surely, it has been lumbering on ever since. Most people seem to do their “this year in gaming”-style posts around Christmas or New Year’s Eve, but I will henceforth be doing them this time of the year, as long as the blog lasts.
Fair warning: since this post is inevitably personal, there will be a lot of “I”s in there.
Thus,
The State of the Blog
Blogger tells me I have 55 published posts including this one (and eight reviews reposted from TheRPGSite), which is not bad. It could have been more, and I have a lot of respect for people who can keep up a steady stream of good posts month after month, year after year, but I am not one of those people. I also do my shitposting elsewhere on the Internet, which cuts down on the dross a little.
Among all those posts were 24 reviews, 8 old and 16 new. I did some counting in a spreadsheet, and it turns out I’m a fairly consistent reviewer, since both my old reviews (from 2012-2013) and the new have hovered around a 3.0-3.1 average. The ratings went out like this:
  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence () to Anomalous Subsurface Environment #1 (but that’s from 2011, and the review was a repost). So far, the only other products I’d put in this category have been The Tome of Adventure Design and Yoon-Suin.
  • 5 went to one new product, Secrets of the Wyrwoode. There is another one that looks like a candidate, but it’ll need more reading to decide.
  • 4 went to one old product and four new ones: Yngarr #1, Dispatches from Raven Crowking, Sunken City, and The Tomb of the Sea Kings. Along with the previous rank, these were the supplements to impress me this year.
  • 3 went to nine adventures, ranging from the evenly good (like The Phoenix Barony) to the uneven with good spots (like The Fall of Whitecliff). These are goodish, and you would be having a good time if you ran them at your table.
  • 2 went to seven adventures. I’ll be honest: this would include a lot more titles, but a lot of small adventures I picked up from RPGNow this year were bad in such uninteresting ways that I couldn’t be bothered (and mean enough) to tear them up in public. I feel there is a real problem with the “20 pages, overlong intro that doesn’t affect gameplay, dungeon with 10-20 rooms” adventure module.
  • 1 went to no new adventures, because I filtered out the real stinkers before I bought them this time.
Reviews have turned out to be fairly easy and fun to write, so I’ll be keeping up the habit, and I’ll keep focusing on the rough gems and dodgy homemade materials. There are only so many reviews the world needs about the high-profile releases, so unless I feel like I have something interesting to say about them, or they are really relevant to my interests, I’ll pass. Sometimes it feels like reviews are a cop-out from real blogging, and I’ll try to look into that.
Got this thing outThrough the year, I kept a campaign journal going, now at its 11th instalment. This has proven to be a tremendous amount of work, something I already learned with the City of Vultures campaign. It seems to get rather few readers, and ironically, they might come more from Hungary than the English blogosphere, but I have a soft spot for it. It is a way of sharing and documenting our collective memories of a fun game (with occasional missteps and frustrations), and I’d like to look back on it twenty years from now and say this is what we were doing. I will keep going while I can – so far, entries have been late, but never more than by one session, and that’s what I’m aiming for.
And I also had a bunch of discussion posts; fewer than I thought I would have as I was setting out. One reason I have always liked forums is that I prefer adding to existing conversations rather than coming up with a detailed OP – and half-assing it doesn’t feel right. That has carried over to my blogging, where you don’t really have a way to be reactive, so you just don’t say anything. There is another reason, too; I tend to feel I have mostly said what I had to say with regards to game theory, and would rather focus on the practical side.
One additional lesson that bears repeating here: flamebait sells, bigly.
The State of my Projects
One of the many reasons I dropped out of the old school gaming scene around 2013 was that I was starting to focus on gaming projects with a larger scope than it could be summed up properly in small chunks. It was also around this time that both of the big old school fanzines I was writing for, Fight On! and Knockspell ceased publication (and the two founding fathers of old school gaming who had been running them, Calithena and Mythmere both seem to have vanished). I didn’t have much to say in small form, and the places where I was saying it were gone. Therefore, I turned my attention elsewhere.
Got this thing out, tooOne of the results has been Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG. Helvéczia is about looking at D&Dish gameplay and aesthetics through the lens of swashbuckling romances, 17thcentury novels about lowlifes and scoundrels, local legends and the works of the Brothers Grimm. It started as a slightly out there campaign idea and quickly decided to grow into its own system, a mixture of the strange and the familiar. We published a great-looking boxed set and a short range of adventures with a printer friend of mine (the game is in part a love letter to the typography and cheap pamphlets of the 16th and 17thcenturies), and I’d like to bring it to a larger audience. I believe I have something worth saying with Helvéczia, a new look at historical fantasy gaming – even in context of the other stuff out there – and the updated, expanded English edition is the product of that. I have the rulebooks ready, and want to translate the adventures before I start thinking about moving it into publication. Not much progress through the year, but it is picking up again.
The second large project is Castle Xyntillan, which I have covered elsewhere. Xyntillan is the successor to my unplublished Tegel Manor manuscript; what started as an update of the legendary Judges Guild adventure has become a whimsical homage to it. Work here is still ongoing, but it is getting there.
In the meantime, I have published less via my blog than I meant to when setting out. Here is what I did: 
  • The Technological Table, a collection of vaguely sinister high-tech items.
  • The Smugglers of Cliff Point, a small lair dungeon from the remains of a never completed sandbox supplement.
  • The Ruined City, a transcript of my first dungeon module (very RJK of me).
  • In the Name of the Principle!, probably my favourite adventure I have ever written. Predictably, almost nobody gave a fuck.
  • And the manuscript for the German version of Cloister of the Frog God (including the grotesque and hilarious, never-seen-before wilderness segment), to be published in the fanzine Abenteuer.

I am mostly thinking a blog is not a good venue for publication. Stuff gets plussed on Google, a few comments come in, but posts sink like a stone and never resurface. This is one more reason to start a fanzine (homemade? POD? stone tablets?), which I am more and more eager to finally do, and will start thinking about seriously after at least one of the two big projects come close to completion – close enough to safely free up thinking capacity.
Still working on this oneRight, and then there are the two books whose covers I used to illustrate this article. This Spring, I published my long-delayed monograph, Reindustrialisation in Central Europe, a work surveying the regional transformation processes, outcomes and current challenges of industrial development in post-socialist Central Europe. This is something I have worked on for the better part of ten years; over successes, setbacks, reorganisations and personal losses. Sometimes writing it was a joy, and sometimes a burden I am happy (if a bit wary) to have finally put down. I put my heart and soul into it, and it simply feels right to hold it in my hands.
The second book, The Routledge Handbook to Regional Development in Central and Eastern Europe collects the results of a large research project on the various transformation processes of the macro-region, and where it all leads to. This one was a work of a large team, mostly from our research institute, and some abroad, and took a lot of fiddly work to coordinate and massage into a cohesive, unified whole. I took the first steps on this journey with my late mentor and boss, who died the same day I could tell him our book proposal got accepted; and the final ones with the help of my colleagues who had supported me along the way. The people at Routledge have done a tremendous job through the publication process (I was very much impressed by their professionalism and attention to fine detail), and I think the end result is solid, honest scholarship in a seriously good-looking, crisp package. I feel good about it, and that's how I hope it will go down with the readers. (As a matter of personal pride, I selected the cover images for both volumes, and think they came out very well.)
The State of the Old School
Slowly declining.
Roleplaying games are as strong as the creative networks around them, and you can see it in the various communities that there is less going on than it used to, either in discussion, publishing or actual play. It can be spun as “things have settled down to a normal level”, or “there is less but it is generally better”, but it is there. This is not a bad time to be – it is pretty good for those who are a part of the action – but look three years ahead, or five years ahead, and there are some mighty dark clouds on the horizon.
Very much a work-in-progress versionSometimes I think there are a few prestige products too many in this corner of the hobby. Coffee table books, bookshelf books, don’t mark them up books, Kickstarter perks, gold foil special editions. It doesn’t beat the asinine hobby of collecting original shrinkwrap in its ridiculousness, but seriously, folks, you do remember why so many of us got away from the gaming mainstream, right? Right? Are we still on the same page? Actually, is there anyone still out there? Helloooo?
Ahem. Sorry.
You can’t eat production values, is what I’m saying. I don’t mind if you have good art, but there is form, and there is function, function and function. Game-relevant content. Things that come right from some guy’s game table and it is so hot it’ll burn your hands when you slap it down your game table. Certainly, I have been guilty of it – sitting too long on something, overthinking, missing opportunities to just do it and publish, all of it – and all I can promise is that I’ll try. That’s why I want to do that fanzine.
Something I am seeing reflected in the reviews (mine and others’) is how few good generic AD&D modules get released. Something is missing. Whatever’s out there mostly turns out disappointing or just lacking the spirit. For all the old school scene’s roots in rediscovering older editions, I really haven’t found anything decently AD&Dish outside The Tomb of the Sea Kings (from the crazy tournament dungeon tradition) and maybe Sunken City (from the “I was actually there” tradition). I will keep looking, including checking out some older titles I missed out on, but this lack of good material is worth examining more deeply. What makes them hard to do? Why can’t people do them well? (Or, as an alternative explanation, why aren’t the people who know their stuff putting their skills to good use?) Has the Gygaxian spirit departed from gaming, if it was ever there in the last years? It also feels like a challenge, and yes, I’ll try my hand at it.
As it is, the most significant old school accomplishment of the year comes from unlikely quarters, and right at the last possible moment: Next Friday has come, ITZ has happened, Hell has frozen over, a golden baby can fly, and
Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is finally finished and available for purchase(for one week only, there is a five-dollar discount that will not be offered ever again).
This blog will dedicate more detailed posts to the most highly anticipated Wizardry-like of 1997 (and 1998, 2001, 2004, 2013, Next Friday, and so on), but for now, let it suffice to say that it is authentic, enchanting, Gygaxian (by way of that other giant of the age, D.W. Bradley), a little crazy, and yes, sometimes rough around the edges. It is rough and idiosyncratic because it is the real deal. For all the setbacks and vexations, the time of tremendous Incline is at hand!
Howdy!
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #11: The Stolen Shipment

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 08:45
On the other hand,” noted Phil the Terror of Turkeys, “someone who names his inn ‘The Inn’ must know what he is doing. Let’s skip The Golden Plate for now.”The Inn was a colourful, sprawling building next to the western gate, with red roofs and sagging balconies. In the common room, a few travellers were looking into their cups, and a group of guardsmen were just getting up to leave. As soon as they entered, a dwarf wearing a dirty apron hurried forward to greet them. Introducing himself as Redragon, he ushered them upstairs to suggest a room for six – a steal at 25 silver for a night.“We really like this place” Phil grinned. “It has the best name. It has a certain something. Simple, yet expressive.”Grindragon looked embarrassed and scratched his beard. “It hasn’t got a name yet. Me and me brother Grindragon couldn’t decide over a good one no matter how we tried. The ideas just aren’t coming.”“I am sure they will. But for now, we’d rest a little, then see the dinner.”“One more thing...Armand the Scumbag pulled the man aside. “Are there any prostitutes around here you would recommend?”Redragon looked taken aback. “This is not that kind of establishment, Sir. I am afraid you are on your own in this matter.
They feasted on roast while downing the Inn’s resin-flavoured beer, except Armand, who ordered an expensive bottle of Kassadian wine, sharing it with Lafadriel Hundertwasser.“Oh, the women we have in my homeland! Will I see them again?” he mused.“Kassadia is the land of opportunities!Drolhaf Haffnarskørung nodded. “I arrived there as a penniless barbarian, and left – as a penniless civilised man.”As they continued drinking, a badly dressed, hunched over fellow with hanging black moustaches sauntered up to their table.“Let me introduce myself. My name is Harrgon Torsk, and I am at your disposal. I have heard you would like to meet some pretty girls?”Armand lit up. “Now we are talking! Speak, and you will be well rewarded.”The man grinned. “Let’s meet at midnight before the Golden Plate. I may have a mutually beneficial deal to discuss with you. You scratch my back, I scratch mine, I think we understand each other.
Are they trying to lure us into an ambush? And if yes, who are ‘they’?” mused Armand when their new friend left, but there was no answer. He continued. “We should hire someone to protect us – someone strong and loyal. I will ask the innkeeper.”“There are other things we should consider,” interjected Drolhaf. “Let’s recall Lady Callodric’s lost items. Where did they go? I have asked some questions, and it seems all shipments in Baklin go through the Lockhouse and its warehouses where they are inventoried and tracked before they go out to their intended destination. The night is still young. Let’s take a look on the waterfront.
***
They approached the tall tower building, now silent and dark save for the lanterns of the guard patrols passing behind the barred windows and massive portcullises. Drolhaf hailed a beggar and threw him a coin.“Suppose someone wanted to steal something from the Lockhouse. How might a fellow like that go at his job?”The vagrant looked around before answering. “A honest fellow wouldn’t – and I have seen many times what happens to the others. Look at that...” he pointed towards the grim scaffold with the leather sacks and chained maces. “That’s the widow Vilnia, mourning her husband. He worked as a porter, and tried to steal some box from the Lockhouse. Sad story – now she is alone with their only child to care for.”Taking the man’s advice, they approached the grieving Vilnia, and reassured her they meant no harm.The City of Baklin“I know my Hemlar was innocent, I just know!” the young woman sobbed. “Oh, he always needed the money, for the three of us, but he would never lift an apple! He wanted to sign up as a sailor and go on adventures, but he never stole!”“I am sure we could help you clear up his name. If he didn’t commit the crime, he must have been executed without evidence.”Vilnia was distraught. “But there was... there was evidence!”“Wellllll...”“Please hear me out! It was so strange… it happened at night that he was arrested, right in our little rented room... that’s when the Gamandors bashed down the door...”The Gamandors?”“Oh, I forget you are not locals. The Gamandors – Prince Lodovic’s elite guard. They are so fearsome... clad in black garbs, black gloves and black masks, always coming at night... they came for my poor Hemlar, and they went right for our wardrobe – they found a fox fur scarf on the shelf!”“That’s starting to make sense.”“Oh, it is horrible! Who would marry the widow of an executed rogue? What will become of myself and my little boy now?”Lafadriel tried to lift Vilnia’s spirits without much success: “It all depends on spiritual beautyand he looked, melancholic, towards the West.Drolhaf decided to help her out with a staggering 10 gold pieces. “Help is the groundwork of civilisation. Go home now, and we will try to find out more. We may come visit you tomorrow.”“Where we live, there is no help, only birdsong” remarked Lafadriel.
***
It was after nightfall, and flame stands were being lit all around the harbour. Following a tip from Haghill, Phil led his companions through winding, badly lit streets populated by the dregs of humanity. Finally, they halted before a squat little house in a back alley. Lights flickered behind the windows, and a sign above the door advertised the place as “The Blue Bottle”. The door had both a knocker and a bell, and after some vacillation, Lafadriel decided to knock.“I’m coming!” a shuffling sound came from behind the door, and a gnomic individual with mismatched, bulging eyes and hairy limbs appeared in the doorframe. “You should have been ringing! Don’t you know your manners?”“We would like to sample your wares, wise Zaloxen. We received news of your store from Gelath the Spry of Haghill. We also have a few things which may interest you.
Zaloxen’s basement store was smelling of odd sour and musty smells coming from cluttered shelves and worn bags hanging from the ceiling. Phil sold the magical berries for 120 gp, and the antique helm of Kazzodoric, the barbarian chieftain, for another 20 – along with a sketch map of the Singing Caverns.“Consider also this silver sceptre, and these daggers found in the accursed stone circle of the Entity” suggested Lafadriel to the doubtful antique dealer, finally agreeing to a total of 100 gp for the lot. Zaloxen also told them a few interesting stories. He was particularly interested in opening up the sealed Maze of Gnidax, located in the mountains some way to the west, and now closed off by a magic word of power. He also mentioned the cruel fate of Ralkas Ral, an acquaintance he had sent to the town of Tirwas on an errand, and who got captured and imprisoned for some reason. Agrreing to investigate these issues, the parted their ways for the night.
***
By the time they returned to the waterfront, it was getting close to midnight. The time for the meeting at the Golden Plate was fast approaching. To make sure there was no foul play, Phil the Terror of Turkeys scouted ahead to see if anyone was looking for the company. The arcades below the Golden Plate were crowded with diners, while a colourful rabble drunk and made merry in the harbour. Phil immediately noticed Harrgon Torsk, waiting patiently in a dark doorway, but nobody else seemed to pose a major threat. Signalling to the others that the coast was clear, he ducked behind a row of barrels to provide backup if necessary… just in time to notice two half-orcs, clad in the liveries of the city watch, go straight for the group. He tried to throw a pebble to warn them, but missed. “Halt! This is an inspection!” bellowed the potbellied goon as the more practiced harbour scum quickly disappeared down the alleys. “I be here Kelpdick, and this is my good pal, Talltow.” Talltow was a good head taller than anyone present.“I am sure this is unlawful weapon display here, and what do I see here? That must be against the law, too.”“Excuse us, we are peaceful…”“...and I don’t want to meet you again. That will be two pieces of gold from each one of you.”They paid up, except for Armand, who had just melted back into the crowd while the half-orcs weren’t watching. Talltow guwaffed at some private joke, while Kelpdick collected the money.
Harrgon Tork was apologetic about the shakedown, but quickly changed the subject.“I can lead you to the place you were looking for now. Except…”“Except?”“If you don’t mind lending me a hand in a delicate affair, I may ask for your discrete assistance. You see, just this day, I was visiting Lorfin, a wineseller at the Old Fortress to pick up a good vintage, and I must have dropped my handkerchief somewhere in his shop. Imagine my surprise! It is embroidered with my initials, and I would very much like it back... and nobody needs to tell the wineseller. The night is still young... there would be plenty of time for fun afterwards.
Following the man, they walked along the quays until they arrived at the fish market, now empty and deserted in the moonlight. The place was surrounded by a decaying sea fortress, once constructed to guard the bay, but now decommissioned and converted into shops and slummy residences. There was not a soul in sight.“There is the wineseller. I will stay back... they’d better not see me here” whispered Harrgon Torsk as he melted back into the shadows. Armand snuck forward with the practice of an accomplished adulterer, and examined the lock, a poor contraption if there ever was one. The windows on the second floor were dim – Lorfin seemed to be asleep. Armand beckoned to the others, who made much more noise crossing the plaza.“You sodden pigs! Quiet down there!” a piercing sound came from above, but nobody really minded. Lafadriel stayed behind to watch for trouble.
At last, Armand sighed, and snapped the lock open. The way was clear to a vaulted room full of stacked barrels. A spiral staircase led upwards, and a barred door guarded some room in the back. Closing the door and lighting a lantern, they quickly examined a table of weights and measures where Lorfin was carrying out his trade, then the gaps between the barrels. Their efforts were rewarded with a small bundle, containing the handkerchief, a set of locksmith’s tools, and two keys. Drolhaf quickly pressed them into one of the blocks of soap he was carrying, then they beat a retreat to the fish market, where Lafadriel was absent-mindedly playing a sad tune on his harp.“We are not interested!” shrieked a voice from one of the windows.
Harrgon Torsk was very impressed with the returned goods, and said he’d raise the money to repay them by the next day. For now, he escorted them to a ramshackle establishment overlooking the western harbour. Wine and good spirits were in generous supply, but true to his word, he led them upstairs behind the counter to a cathouse decorated with red carpets and lush curtains. “Alas, for me, only the starlight holds interest” Lafadriel bid the company good night.Armand also had more in mind than a pleasant evening. Leaving a generous 5 gp tip, he asked a few discreet but pointed questions about the local thieves. Bella, his companion didn’t seem to know much about them; after all, the punishments were harsh, and she didn’t mix with bad company.“To think I am no worse than the ladies up in the palace, but I am doing the same thing for much less money! I would go far in polite society, if only I had the chance.”Armand pressed her for more information, and Bella seemed to remember something: Sarbit the Gravedigger, an old scoundrel who frequented the lowest taverns of the east side, had a map tattooed on his back. She had once seen part of it under his shirt, but couldn’t make out the whole design, and didn’t want to push her luck.“Now then, darling, let’s talk about your reward…
***
The next day, Gadur Yir the half-orc left the bathhouse of Baklin, crawling on a pair of crutches. He was weak like a child, and his head swam, but the leeches and purges of the local bathhouse had done their job, and the poison of the wyverns was gone from his blood. He walked down from the hill, listening to the chatter of the lackeys and servants who had filled the streets of the noble quarter at this time. In time, he arrived at The Inn, finding his comrades around the breakfast table. After settling down and ordering the mother of all meals, the others immediately got to the subject.“It is time you told me where my brother lies” asked Lafadriel.“More than that, you have a secret you are supposed to tell us” added Drolhaf.“A secret? What is my secret?”“We want to know why exactly you came to the isle of Erillion. We learned this on a secret meeting, and want to know the truth.”“Well, that is a long story. Many of my companions have fallen along the way. It is about an inheritance of great value! And its key seems to be the lawyer we had met in Haghill, who was interested in that land dispute. We were making progress to learn its secret, too, but we ran into a trap and got sidetracked. Not to mention, we gained a powerful and influential enemy in Gont.”“An enemy you say?”The half-orc nodded. “The Feranolt family! He is in cahoots with Grave-Wight, the head of a crime syndicate in town. Well, we followed the trail to a small fortress, but it had already been attacked and its inhabitants slaughtered. If only I could have Grave-Wight’s neck in my hands, I would snap his neck!”“Oh? I may have some bad news for you.”“Bad news?”“If I’m not mistaken, our rented room is right below Feranolt Manor – look out the window and you will see their banners flying from their parapets.”They returned to their meal, in a worse mood.
***
On Drolhaf Haffnarskørung’s suggestion, they paid a visit to the noble quarter. They took a good look at the ominous garden entrance of Slarkeron the Wizard’s tower, noticing no bell or knocker, only a sign reading “Entry by invitation only”. Although there was no mailbox, Phil quickly penned an introduction suggesting they would be happy to share valuable information, and come any time Slarkeron would suggest. Then, they continued to their real goal, the house of Fantagor the Kassadian. Drolhaf was pleasantly surprised to see the front decorated with a statue of Gladuor, his patron god, pointing northeast towards the distant mountains. Large letters on the wall read: “Conquer the forests and mountains”. He beckoned to the guards by the entrance, and presenting his holy symbol, requested an audience with Fantagor.
The Kassadian merchant, one of the richest men in the city, received them in his spacious tower room lit by large glass panes, in a garden of beautifully kept flowers. An austere man with a short, cropped beard wearing a simple habit, he was enthusiastic to see a fellow follower of the god of aqueducts, particularly one lifted from the darkness of barbarism.“The sign of Gladuor points towards the north, and already, some heed his call! Maybe one day this whole island shall be conquered from the wild beasts and monsters which now despoil its northern lands; and we might see the reconstruction of the city of Silhanosh and other great works.”He told us of the dangerous wonders of untamed nature in the heart of the island: trees which grew downwards with upturned roots, lakes reflecting something else than reality, the memories of Queen Arxenia and her undead hosts. Drolhaf, with the others’ help, recounted the story of their travels; the werewolves, the opening of the Chamber of the Griffon, the attack on the Feranolts’ sea fort, and more.“And what of me? I would gladly assist in your great work here on this island, but I would request your guidance in where to start” asked Drolhaf.Fantagor looked him up and down. “I will provide all assistance you need.”“May I give a contribution to your chapel?”“What use would that be? I am rich far beyond your means! No, your path leads elsewhere, into the island’s wild regions where I may not travel with all my duties.”“I may have plans – there could be new mines and settlements in the wilderness, with settlers to populate them.”“Indeed!” Fantagor was smiling. “And if the superstitious lot here are afraid to follow you there, we will set an example – with men and women of Kassadia, who will build and populate those colonies.
***
As the others were selling various pieces of treasure, Gadur Yir rented a cart, and rode out to a tall cliff on the scarp overlooking Baklin. He observed the bay, then, leaving his crutches behind, disembarked and painfully climbed up on the rocks. He could barely make it, and was close to dropping from exhaustion, but he continued. Gathering large rocks, he formed them into the symbol of an encircled sword, and performed a sacrifice to Haldor, god of heroism. He cast his 300 gp ring and 200 gp into the sacrificial pyre, and prayed for guidance and a quest. At last, his wish was granted.“IN THE PEAT-BOG OF UMLARK, YOU CAN FIND YOUR VENGEANCE!” came a booming voice from the sky. Or was it just his ears ringing from the exertion? He hoped it was really his god speaking.
***
They gathered at the Inn, Phil wearing his brand new wyvernskin armour, lightweight and resilient. Harrgon Torsk arrived, beaming. He placed a bag of money on the table, and ordered a round of drinks for everyone.“Suppose someone was looking for someone to break into the Lockhouse – could it be done?” mused Drolhaf. The cloaked man’s eyes narrowed. “There wouldn’t be anyone in this town... you’d need a foreigner, or a fool.”“And what of the Gamandors? Could they be bribed or infiltrated?”“Not a chance! They are tightly organised and very distrustful. I am not even comfortable considering these questions.”“I was just thinking about something. Never mind.
The widow Vilnia lived on the east side, in a tiny rented apartment. Her young boy, Grodik looked scared when he saw armed men enter, but was reassured when Vilnia told him these were the good people who had given them money to survive on. There was not much else to the place than a bed, some basic furniture, a spinning wheel where Vilnia was working, and a decrepit old wardrobe.“This is where the Gamandors found the fox fur scarf? Were you present through the day before your husband got arrested?”“I was spinning at home after my poor Hemlar went to work in the morning. I left to buy some goods on the market around noon, but it was only for a short while.”And you, Grodik? Were you home?”Grodik was reluctant to answer, but at her mother’s urging, finally looked up. “I didn’t want to tell, but I was sleeping. In my dream, I saw a man. He spoke to me but I don’t remember what. He smelled of mint...”“A-ha!” exclaimed Armand. “This is an illusionist!”Vilnia broked down. “Oh, my poor, poor Hemlar! He wanted to be a sailor so bad. He wanted to go to far lands and bring home precious clothes and beautiful trinkets!”“Please collect yourself. You say you were at the market. Could someone from around here have seen someone enter the apartment during this time?”“Oh, it could be! We are a poor people, but there are many honest folks on this street. We always look out for each other.”“Let’s see your neighbours, then.
The man in the workshop next door was a lard-churner. Even as they spoke, he worked on the wooden churn before his stool.“Have you seen anything suspicious from your window last noon?”“Well, I am a humble lard churner who has churned his share of lard, Sir, so I didn’t pay it much mind. Besides, one doesn’t see much from this tiny barred window.”“Did you smell mint at any time?”“Only lard, Sir, and th’ grease. It was all a dirty kind, hard to work.”“Never mind the mint. Did you see any stranger who might have entered Vilnia’s apartment?”“Now that you say, Sir... there was someone I saw from the window, an old bearded man in a pointy hat. He looked like he has travelled a lot, what with the dusty and worn clothes. Maybe churning lard ain’s so bad after all.”“We see. You have been very helpful.
***
That description only narrows it down to half the wizards in the world” grumbled Lafadriel, back at the inn table.“Maybe we ought to ask Redragon if he had stayed here or any of the other local places” recommended Phil. “We should also ask Lady Callodric what her trunks contained. It could help track them down better.”“Excuse me, Sirs?” a voice came from next to the table. They saw a ragged, dirty varant clutching a large sack, just before Grindragon could drag him out of the common room. The Mysterious Statuette“Pardon me for the interruption. Very sorry to call on you.”“And what is your business?”“Oh... I am Hector the Peddler. I pick up this and that, little things.”“Innkeeper? Bring this man a drink. Sit down and tell us what you have.”“Yes... you see, Sirs, I mostly pick up things in the garbage, but sometimes, you find something interesting. One of these days, I found this...”He produced a heavy, carved piece of stone from his patched sack. It was the statuette of a bird of prey, chipped and scratched, and of a rather primitive make. “I see you are refined folks who might be interested.”Gadur Yir considered the carving. It was a familiar design. Was it close to the small wolf idol he had picked up in the Gwyddions’ homestead? There was an uncanny similarity.Drolhaf answered. “Very good, Hector. You have done well to come to us. How much are you asking for it?”“I’d surmise it’s worth a good 15 gold pieces. But that’s my low price to you, Sirs.”“Where did you find it?”“I don’t want to burned you with all those details.”“Let’s make it 18.”“It’s a deal, then, and my humblest thanks. You see – my walks take me all over time, and I notice things. Now, as I was passing the houndmonger’s yard, across the Masters’ Guild, I noticed the curs fighting over some bones or such. They had dug them out of the ground, Sirs, and with it some rubbish. I waited until they went away and snuck in, to see they have dug a big pit in the middle, with broken stuff at the bottom, even a crawlway. I got me the statuette from there, and some broken pots... very old, but probably I can still have them mended.”“That tale’s worth the money. There may be more for you later.”“How so, Sirs?”“We are interested in antique documents... maps, particularly. If you find any, we may be buying.”“I will keep my eyes open.
Grindragon was sullen that he couldn’t throw Hector out with his dirty baggage, but he was pacified with a generous tip. Lafadriel and Drolhaf asked him about the old man in the pointy hat, and he seemed to recall something.“I have seen a man like that recently. I think Cassandra went with him when she passed through town. They must have left two or three days ago.”“Who is Cassandra?”“A very beautiful elven lass. She is, as they call it, an adventurer – she has been all over the island looking for things. She has stayed at this place before.”“Thanks, Grindragon. Notify us if there is anything else.”“There is, Sir. Your friend, Sir Armand was looking for a sellsword. A man looking for that kind of work has come to this place. He is a Northman, but...” he cast a glance at Drolhaf Haffnarskørung. “...I know he is loyal and reliable.
Gunnar the Beheader was sleeping late after a night of heavy drinking, but he was reasonably awake and sober when he came down from his room. Him and Armand spoke, and they drank to their future cooperation as Armand counted out his advance of one platinum coin.“Well, where now?”“We could go to the Peat Bog of Umlark” recommended Gadur Yir. “I have something to accomplish there.”“Or we could descend into the catacombs through that dirty burrow!” snapped Lafadriel sarcastically.“Gentlemen, gentlemen... we have to solve the case of that mage.”“Yeah!” cried Phil. “He is a... he is a how do you call it, a brain scanner! It is said they will suck out your brain if you aren’t careful enough.”“Those don’t exist, Phil! And get off the table.”“How about the peat bog, Gunnar?” asked Armand.“Ha! I am up for anything, just give me the heads I should chop” responded the Northman.
***
After some deliberation, they paid a visit to Lady Callodric, and sat down in her garden to tell the news.“Who could mobilise forces like that?” pondered the lady. “It is mostly over personal effects, valuable but mostly of personal significance.”“Was there anything else in that shipment, Lady Callodric? It would be important to know.”“I don’t know. Well – yes. Maybe. There were two paintings on wooden panels, the remaining parts of a triptych. The Count Tullomarg – who has been gracious enough to lend me his residence here while I am here, and look after my holdings back home – had written he would send them to me.”Gadur Yir’s interest was piqued. “Did the Count mention anything about them? He should know what’s on them.”“He wrote they would be very interesting for my investigation into this island’s mysteries, but nothing more.”“Perhaps they will turn up on the market” guessed the half-orc. “Who would trade with antique paintings in Baklin?”“No...” Drolhaf shook his head. “Whoever has the paintings will keep them. It is the other items which will turn up on the black market. We will have to look into it through our sources.”Lady Callodric collected her thoughts before bidding them farewell. “Meanwhile, I will look into your story about the mage smelling of mint. There can’t be too many accomplished magic-users in town, and they tend to move in high circles. And of course, I’ve got the enchanted flower. As Tomurgen the Bard had said, ‘the flower will provide the answer’. I will ask him as soon as he responds to my message.
(Session date 8 July 2017).
***
Notable quotes:
Phil, the Terror of Turkeys: “I squander my money by slipping her a coin.”GM: “It doesn’t count as squandering since you have an interest in helping her.”Phil: “No way! If that’s the way it is, she doesn’t get anything.
Lafadriel: “I’ll have the gelatinous cube jelly... and then, the black pudding.
***

Referee’s notes: Cities are the places where plot threads multiply, cross and eventually radiate out in new directions. Such was the case this time, as both the investigation into the Lady’s belongings and personal tangents have revealed new directions to follow. Next stop, this Sunday!
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