Monday, February 21, 2011

Episode 9: Isle of Cake

Thanks to the snow it's been almost an entire month since our last session, but I'm heartened by the fact that the hiatus has made my players all the more psyched about finally getting a chance to play again. The extra time has also allowed me to embellish what I already had on paper for this adventure, so that when we finally do gather around the table I've succeeded in almost entirely reskinning the old Isle of Dread module (X1), complete with my own lovingly-constructed wandering monster tables for the island of Ryzien, aka the Isle of Cake... in "Cake or Death?"

So the crew of the Fortuna have just finished thwarting the Inquisition by burning their galley, freeing a few hundred slaves, and generally leaving the Tendyran port of Nemala in a complete state of chaos when they set sail for another island: Ryzien, a mysterious place best known to the players by the genocide that the Varonians committed here a generation ago. It seems that not only did the inhabitants of Ryzien declare war against the City of Varo, but it actually had the temerity to hold her to a virtual standoff for years before the Varonian Senate grew tired of playing fair and authorized the use of biological weapons in the form of deadly fungus spores and the drug-addled berserkers of the Black Legion. The history books say that every last man, woman, and child on Ryzien was killed, and that even to this day only those with special permission are allowed to set foot on the island.

This has made Ryzien the perfect place to hide secrets, but in truth this was always the case, as even before its "Pacification" the island was a stronghold for parties who'd rather not operate entirely under the scrutiny of others. Some came for the isolation itself; others were more concerned with the secrets left by those who'd come before, including the Aeedians of ancient times (the sorceror-kings who once ruled the Great Sea) and the even more remote Fen (otherwise known as the First Race of Mankind), but also the Varonian House Urazzio, whose archives became the spoils of their rivals following their fall from grace during the Information Wars of old. It is to one of these archives that the group is headed, as they have been contracted to retrieve a file from it of great importance to their employer's plans.

Arriving at Ryzien they find the island ringed by "stations" manned by Varo's chief data brokerage Houses: Dandolo, lo Grato, Taiapetra, Chen, Querini, and Lombardi. The Fortuna decides to resupply at Gazza Station, which is operated by House Dandolo. Here they discover several rumors about the island (most notably the fact that, contrary to what the historians say, some of the natives in fact survived the Pacifications), and also learn that there is a brisk trade in recovering antiquities from Ryzien and selling them to the City and luxury buyers elsewhere. Captain Kiin is already calculating the potential profit from filling his hold with pottery! The party departs Gazza Station on a course around the western flank of the island, en route to House Taiapetra's station on the isle's north shore. In order for the party to set foot on the island they needed the sponsorship of one of the Houses already licensed by Varo's Council of Eleven to be there, and since a couple of the players already have Taiapetra connections it seemed logical to go with them. The fact that the archive in question was only 15 miles from Taiapetra Station was also a plus.

Having been warned by the sailors at Gazza Station that pirates are on the prowl in the area, the crew is not surprised when four corsairs appear on the horizon. What ensues is a sailing game of cat and mouse, as the Fortuna tries to evade both her persuers and an oncoming storm while traveling perilously close to Ryzien's rocky shores. In a bit of inspiration the Captain has the party's runecaster Hrothgar transform himself into an osprey and lead the boat under the cover of darkness using only a cold fungus lamp, a ploy which not only helps them lose the corsairs but also prevents them from anchoring for the night in the territory of a cranky old dragon turtle! So the party is feeling particularly pleased with themselves when they arrive the following morning at Taiapetra Station to find that something terrible has happened here- there is black smoke trailing up from several of the buildings, a galley lies half-sunk in the harbor, and the players can spy dead bodies strewn about the settlement.

Captain Kiin assembles an away team, which makes for the sandy beach along the station's edge. The first character out, an eager Cebalese NPC marine named Broke, steps on a submerged mantrap that cuts off his leg and leaves him bleeding to death in shallow water. The players, roundly spooked by this, head back to the boat and try again by making for the dock, where they are shot at by a ballista for several rounds before they locate the sniper in one of the station's watchtowers and charge him. The shooter is a man named Brutus who was apparently a clerk at the station before "everyone went crazy and starting killing each other." Brutus himself is completely mad, although the players manage to keep him lucid by getting him to talk about his work, which involved cataloging the various items that his colleagues brought from the island's interior. Taiapetra's station turns out to be supporting several archaeological expeditions, apparently, and the voodoo priest Caleb learns by speaking with the dead that the madness started when one of the teams brought in one particular artifact.

The party does not find the item in question, but they do find a locked vault in the basement of the station director's house. They also locate their papers allowing them to be on the island. The only problem now is that whatever guide had been promised them is now among the dead, which means they either have to look for the lost archive on their own or try and find someone else on the island who can help them. Since no one in the group has any wilderness or tracking skills, they decide to journey to the central plateau, where a group of Nohite Priests reputedly maintain a temple (this fact was only known by one of the PCs, who was told by his contact to find them "if anything went wrong on the island"). While the Nohites are even farther away from the station than the archive, there is a road that will take them most of the way, a remnant of Ryzien when it was still a major population center.

So the road it is. After spending the night in the boat (each of the party is forced to save versus horrible nightmares of voices whispering in countless alien languages) they head back into the Taiapetra Station to find that someone has looted the settlement, taking clothes and another manufactured goods. The native inhabitants? They did get the feeling that someone was watching them from the woods. In a conciliatory gesture, Captain Kiin leaves a ton of cloth meant for trade at the outskirts of the station, hoping that this will keep his ship and sailors safe while they make the overland journey. And away they go. The party manages to lose a sailor and a marine immediately on the icy scramble up to the road, as the one sprains his ankle and the other breaks his leg, but after sending the two back down with a third as protection they eventually catch up with the Ryzienian road and head south.

After passing a ruined guesthouse, the party is almost surprised by a dozen or more woolly mastodons coming right down the road at them! It seems that absent any humans to hunt them, the local fauna have rebounded with interest. Just a little further down the road they realize that extends to the local island predators as well when they are ambushed by a pare of saber-toothed tigers ("Did you guys know that the smilodon was the iconic animal of Ryzien? Well, now you do. Roll for initiative!"). One of the great cats manages to tear an NPC in half before the team kills one and sets the other to flight, and now the party is starting to wonder what else is up here in the mountains as the sun begins to hang low on the horizon. Should they press on in hopes of reaching the Nohite temple before the night closes in on them, or would they be better off seeking immediate shelter?

The question is complicated by the discovery of a small keep in the distance that seems to be inhabited. When they reach the intersection to a path that leads to the keep, they discover a legend written into the road in mosaic titles: √-1. This is the mark of the Sisterhood of the Square Root of Negative Zero, a mystic group of mathematicians, but what are they doing here? Whatever the reason, it's getting dark and growing cold, so with the help of their archivist Nolio (who has to answer their challenges in the form of mathematical proofs by drawing equations in the snow) they convince the Sisterhood to grant them hospitality for the night. We close the session with a couple of dozen marines, sailors, and adventurers about to spend the evening with a bunch of cloistered girls who probably haven't seen a man in months, if not longer.

What are the chances that the next adventure won't begin with the party being run out of the keep at the point of a pitchfork by an angry Mother Superior?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Episode 8: You say you want a revolution

With the Inquisition at the door, the party is heading for the roof of their guesthouse when they receive an animal messenger from Caleb, one of the PCs who had missed the previous run and had as a result been left in the village harbor to mind the Fortuna while the rest of the group ventured into the Tendyran port city of Nemala. When the party failed to return by sunset Caleb- a voodoo priest- decided to consult the spirits and cast Augury to see if he should find and help his friends. I had given the player the option simply to have been with the party all along (a simple retcon aided by the fact that Caleb has a Ring of Invisibility), but he decided it would be more fun to play out his reunion.

So Caleb arrives in the city just in time to catch the tail end of the torch-wielding mob of Imperials and town guardsmen heading for the party's guesthouse. He sends a message detailing the situation outside, which prompts the group to split up when they take to the roof- two players will try and create a diversion, while the rest will head uphill towards the Temple of the Oracle, which will grant them sanctuary even from the local authorities. Nemala is a city of terraces and closely-packed rowhouses, so moving from rooftop to rooftop is relatively easy, save for the occasional gaps which must be jumped or otherwise negotiated.

The only hazard is that they are attempting to do this at night, and as quickly as possible, so for each terrace I roll 2d6, compare it to 7, and ask the players to make a DEX check at whatever my roll was over or under. Simple failure means tripping and taking 1d4 damage; failure by 4 or more on the ability check means falling through the roof itself into the top floor of the building below, taking 1d6 falling damage plus an additional 1d4 damage from crashing through the roof; a critical failure results in falling off the building entirely and landing on the street for 20' or more of falling damage. Moving from terrace level to terrace level presents a different challenge each time (they will need to make 3 level changes in order to reach the temple): the first change is an actual arch, the second has one 15' jump, and the third has two jumps, of 6' and 9' respectively.

The results are amusing, but not deadly enough to deter the party from sticking to the rooftops. Meanwhile, the diversionary party gets to witness first-hand what happens when you violate the laws of hospitality on the island of Tendyra, where the ancient gods known as the Nameless Ones are venerated at every hearth. For no sooner do the Imperial soldiers break down the front door of the guesthouse than they are assaulted by Evard's Black Tentacles, which cause most of them to run screaming in every which direction until they are able to regroup. So the diversionary party, no longer needed to create a diversion, decide to make their way down to the waterfront to meet up with Caleb when they are hailed by the bookseller- a Varonian merchant named Ovidio who has been laying low in a tavern basement ever since the Inquisition came looking for him.

Back to the main party, who gets as far as the third terrace before one of the players botches a jump and ends up on the pavement, alerting a couple of Inquisitors and several Imperial auxiliaries. A pitched battle ensues and the PCs narrowly avoid having their asses handed to them by two knights of the Inquisition, both of them fourth-level fighters clad in plate mail (right now the average party level is between 2 and 3)- since they are both wielding two-handed weapons I refer to them as Rexor and Thorgrim, after the big lugs in Conan the Barbarian. Fortunately however the party prevails, and are rejoined with their comrades, who show them a secret route back down to the safety of the waterfront. Had the party decided to follow through with its plan to go to the Temple the result would have been a standoff, and probably would have required another clever plan to escape, so this has likely turned out for the better.

The reunited party then deliberates as to how to proceed. Captain Kiin feels strongly about delivering his books, which are revealed to be political propaganda printed in Varo and destined for the rebellious city of Vrolens, where Imperial authorities have shut down bookstores and confiscated all printing facilities. Is Kiin some kind of anti-Imperial, Vrolentine sympathizer? Not in the least, but it sticks in his craw that the Empire with its blockade has managed to stifle trade in this region, making Heijin Kiin a Canalsider in the truest sense of the term. So a plan is concocted to rid the port city of its Imperial presence- Kiin and his first mate Mr. Hu will sneak over to the galley and attempt to free the two hundred-odd rowing slaves, while the rest of the group will divert as much Imperial attention as possible away from the waterfront with a coordinated series of diversions.

I give the players a good ten or fifteen minutes to come up with some ideas for their "Project Mayhem," which each decent idea decreasing the contingent of troops on board the galley when the Captain goes all Spartacus on the Korumani. To my surprise they come up with three solid ideas: 1. Float a rumor that the contraband books are arriving after sunset via the city gate, 2. Stage a commando raid on the Inquisition's headquarters in the city, and 3. Have Caleb run around the city invisible shouting anti-Imperial slogans to appeal to the locals in the street, as regardless of whatever deals their leaders have struck with the Inquisitors Tendyrans are proudly of their neutrality and clearly resent having Raynar boots on their soil. This is good enough that I rule the ship will have but a minimal contingent of auxiliaries and its captain when Kiin and Mr. Hu come to free the galley slaves.

The rest, as they say, is history. The plan goes spectacularly for the PCs and much fun is had by all, and by the end of the session the Imperial galley has been sunk, the slaves freed, and the remaining Korumani put to flight, making the port of Nemala safe for Varonian commerce once more. The players are particularly pleased with themselves for coming up with and executing their strategy, and although at times the resistance I offered them as DM threatened to upset their hopes and fears I made sure to tread that fine line between antagonism and action. The real crux of this balance came down to the final combat of the evening, which took place between Mr. Hu and the captain of the galley, who was a Raynar knight like the other Inquisitors, and a real badass to boot. I made a point of introducing him into the fray, a big red-bearded brute who started his round of combat by running through one of his own mean for attempting to flee the burning ship. This was meant to be a real Boss Battle, pure and simple, and I was looking forward to thrashing Mr. Hu to within a hit point of his life when he announced his player's intentions:

"This guy's in plate mail, right?"

"That's right," I tell him. "Bronze plate, because that would look even cooler by firelight."

"OK," the player says. "I'm going to use my Tumbling skill to put myself in the best position to trip the Captain and push him overboard."

"Wait. What?"

Mr. Hu rolls a 1 on his Tumbling check- a critical success. Although I've decided that the Raynar Captain is by no means a fool, I have to acknowledge the player's lucky dice here, and rule that an opposed Strength check will decide whether my level Boss will quite literally sink or swim.

Full disclosure: I really wanted this fight to happen, so I could have fudged my roll and ensured that the Captain remained on his feet. But I didn't. One of the hardest lessons to learn as a Dungeon Master is that despite the fact that you are the creator of your world and its final authority on all matters earthly and cosmic, the story you're helping tell is not yours and yours alone. Epic battles are always fun, but what I allowed to transpire instead was arguably even better, because I allowed player ingenuity and lucky dice carry the day... every DM worth his salt should.

"So what happens?" the player asks, fully expecting Mr. Hu to fail, especially after he saw the look on my face when he first announced his intentions.

I look up from my dice and sigh. "You send the Captain flying headlong into the harbor, where he lands with an undignified 'ploop' and sinks like a stone."

"Really?" The table has fallen silent. Perhaps this is my idea of a joke?

"You did it. He's gone. Still sinking as we speak."


"Look, dude, are you searching for loot or what?"

There was more to the run- much more, but some of that will no doubt come into play during the next episode, when the players finally get to the Isle of Dread... I mean Ryzien. Seriously, though, the island only looks like the Isle of Dread- okay, exactly like the Isle of Dread, but I'm sure there's nothing to be worried about.

Friday, January 21, 2011

I've created a monster

Well that didn't take long at all- it appears that one of the players in my City of Varo campaign is now obsessed with Salumar chess and wants his character to collect as many variant pieces as possible. I totally lured him in by introducing a chess aficionado NPC who was willing to teach him how to play the game while they both endured a boat ride from the City to the island of Tendyra, then sealed the deal during the most recent run when his character turned up a chess set while looting one of the bad guy's hideouts... including the Beholder bishop major variant!

Another player suggested an additional mechanic for major variants which I rather liked- not only does a major variant increase your Gaming ability score by 1, but it also allows you to re-roll your skill check once for every major variant you put into play. Note however that this re-roll does not counteract the effect of rolling doubles (nor does it mitigate the effect of the opposing player rolling doubles against you), which means that it is possible for a player to win twice as many pieces from his opponent if he/she rolls two sets of doubles in a row.

Talk about unlocking the minigame...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One more idea for the Gigastructure

Dysonian Paradise- The original gated communities of the Gigastructure, Dysonian Paradises are spheres that completely surround G-type main sequence stars at a distance of 1 AU (or 93 million miles), making the entire interior surface of the sphere perfectly habitable with Earth-like gravity and limitless solar energy. As most of these places were enclosed long before the vastness of space was filled, many Dysonian Paradises are blissfully unaware of the existence of the Gigastructure, or live in reactionary isolation to it.

(Another feature for the Gigacrawler RPG)

Disco Borg zombies?

(Another idea I had for Zak S. open-source RPG project, Gigacrawler!)

The Rhythm of the Layers- Sprawling across gravity wells, dimensional rifts, and who knows what else, as it is pushed and pulled by cosmic tidal forces the entire Gigastructure resonates on a subsonic frequency that is commonly known as the 'Rhythm of the Layers.' Although some entities are immune to this phenomenon, the Rhythm can have a baleful effect on sentient creatures, especially with abnormally-long lifespans (such as elves and genetically altered human immortals)- for every hundred years a Crawler has lived, he/she should make a Sanity check with a cumulative -1 to the die roll for each successive century. Failure means that the Crawler will spent the rest of its existence dancing throughout the Gigastructure in a trance-like state, roaming with other affected Crawlers in great capering hordes like the Bacchae of ancient Greece, deranged and deadly.

It is said that some Crawlers worship the Rhythm as a kind of deity and use technology to amplify and/or internalize it with cybernetic implants. If the mental image of some kind of Disco Borg entity doesn't chill you to the marrow, I don't know what will!

Monday, January 10, 2011


I decided to take a stab at contributing some material to Zak S's crowdsourced Gigacrawler RPG. Here it is...

Wyrmholes- In ancient times it is said that the Great Wyrms coiled themselves around the geological faultlines of the heavenly spheres, burrowed deep beneath the tectonics plates. When the Gigastructure filled the spaces between celestial bodies the wyrms were free to roam, their tunnels trailing for millions of miles in seemingly random directions. Wyrmholes are perfectly smooth, their tunnel walls perfectly frictionless- enterprising Crawlers can ride these tubes from region to region at maximum falling speed, although such a means of travel is not without its hazards. Upon encountering an unfamiliar wyrmhole, roll 2d6:

2. Dead End- Aeons ago a Great Wyrm perished here in the midst of the Gigastructure. Unless they have some means to brake themselves suddenly, Crawlers will take maximum possible falling damage when they reach the end.

3. Non-Euclidean Wyrmhole- the Great Wyrm which carved this tunnel blundered across an interdimensional faultline, causing the Crawlers to teleport to a random location in the Gigastructure (with a possibility of reappearing in solid matter).

4. Relativistic Wyrmhole- the track of the Great Wyrm transits the gravity well of a supermassive object, such as a neutron star or a black hole. Crawlers will suffer the effects of time dilation, arriving d100 years later than they had started

5. Quantum Wyrmhole. A tunnel which forks 1d4 times, each branch representing a different quantum state. At each juncture there is a 50% chance of taking the wrong path.

6. Unstable Wyrmhole- Due to the nature of the local Gigastructure matrix, the tunnel bored by the Great Wyrm is not entirely smooth. Unless the Crawlers take special precautions they will take 1d6 points of damage per round due to friction and minor abrasions.

7. Stable Wyrmhole- A perfectly traversable tunnel from start to finish, though be sure to check for wandering monsters and other Crawlers .

8. Unstable Wyrmhole (II)- The Great Wyrm's tunnel traverses a pocket of inherently unstable matrix in the Gigastructure (d6): 1. Mud, 2. Silt, 3. Water, 4. Air, 5. Steam, 6. Magma. Crawlers must find means to traverse the hazard or become stranded.

9. False Wyrmhole- This tunnel, despite its appearances, was not carved by a Great Wyrm but something else entirely of the DM's devising. Roleplay accordingly.

10. Möbius' Wyrmhole- Somehow the Great Wyrm who carved this tunnel bent back upon itself in an infinitely recursive track. Crawlers must find an ingenious way to break the cycle or ride this loop forever.

11. Wyrmhole to Nowhere- This tunnel empties out into the Void itself, the space between spaces in which the Gigastructure itself is situated.

12. Live End- Crawlers have stumbled upon a wyrmhole that is still in the process of being carved... by a live Great Wyrm!

Crowdsourcing the RPG

Zak S. is attempting something very cool over at his blog (warning for occasional NSFWish content):

Playing D&D With Porn Stars: Open Call: Gigacrawler: "I'm thinking we could make a whole RPG via Gygaxian Democracy... Here's how it'll work: I provide the basic setting idea and the basic mech..."

The concept of the entire universe/multiverse as dungeon has a very Planescape feel to it- I like it!

Friday, January 07, 2011

Episode One: Introductions and intersections

PLEASE NOTE: This is the original synopsis of the inaugural run of the City of Varo campaign. I will do my best to fill in Episodes 2-6 when time permits!

We started with Tillam (Matt's character), who was awoken in the
middle of the night by three people breaking into his shop. One of
them ended up getting crushed by one of the traps in the store, which
pretty much dropped a piano on anyone who didn't detect a pressure
plate on his staircase, and another was incapacitated. Unfortunately
the one who was left was the Big Bad, who grabbed the halfling by the
throat and demanded to know the whereabouts of his father. That's
when Tillam noticed that this very strong man in black was ticking.
Not actually knowing where his father was, Tillam confused the
intruder by answering as helpfully as he could, which only seemed to
further annoy his mysterious assailant, although in between the
punches and kicks Tillam did learn that his father had apparently
stolen something that this guy very desperately wanted back. That's
when Tillam's Aunt Fiore came charging in with a trident. The
clockwork man slapped her aside and ended up leaving in a huff.

Tillam interrogated the remaining live thug, who identified the man in
black as one Brother Malikus, who had hired him and his compatriot as
muscle; he then left the crippled thug go and scraped the remains of
the other one off his floor, looting what was left of the body for
good measure and chopping up the flesh for Xan (Schiavo's character),
who is always looking for cheap bait for his rat traps. Xan had been
returning from a hard night's work when he saw three men breaking into
Tillam's shop, but Schiavo being Schiavo he decided not to get
involved, although since he had broken one of his favorite traps he
did swing by the next morning.

Next up was Hrothgar (Mike's character), who had just completed his
epic journey from the Horn of Baeleraan back to Varo. Hrothgar had
been one of Arlix's favorite bodyguards, so when the old chieftain
went back to free Skraelingia there was no question that he would
accompany his boss and mentor. By the time they had arrived in
Rahker's Point, however, the Empire had already all but written off
its Far Eastern holdings as the Korumani succession war intensified,
so the remaining token garrison of Imperial troops was easily
overwhelmed even by a bunch of paunchy Skraeling expats. It is said
that more Skrae choked on their own vomit during the revelry which
followed the liberation of their homeland than died in the actual
fighting! Once the fun and games were over, though, a lot of
Varonized Skraelings suddenly felt very much homesick for the canals
of the City, especially once the Skraeling chieftains began squabbling
over who would rule what in the newly-independent Horn.

Disillusioned to say the least, Hrothgar caught the last Talanese beef run of the
season and found himself in Terminalia just after sunset, where he
made the mistake of opting for the Number One to get him back up to
Marilia, where he hoped to touch base with those countrymen who had
never left- Arlix, mindful that not all of his gang necessarily wanted
to return to Baeleraan, had also left a cache of goods in the basement
of the old Guild Hall and Hrothgar hoped that if nothing else he could
sell some stuff to start anew in Varo. After being reminded of why
everyone hates public transit in the City, Hrothgar finally gets to
Marilia, where he is harassed by a bunch of punk kids until the local
beat cop intervenes. Hrothgar inquires as to what happened to
Petrarch, and learns that he's now commissioner in Stabientia. Andre
walks him over to the Wyvern's Sting, cautioning him that there is
currently a gang war going on in adjacent Orsilia parish-- now that
Francesco Sabatini has gone to Egg Rock for twenty years, his
lieutenants are carving up his empire, and ever since Arlix's guild
left Marilia has been part of that domain, despite the local VPD's
efforts to maintain some semblance of law and order.

At the tavern Hrothgar meets some old comrades, but is stunned to find Arlix's
lieutenant Ingrid when he goes to check on the guild hall's cache.
Ingrid had also tired of the Horn quickly, and was one of the first
Skrae to return to Varo, and now that she's back she wants to put the
guild back together. Does Hrothgar want in? Of course he does.
Great, says Ingrid, but until we're on our feet again we may need to
do a little freelancing with the locals...

Caleb (Jamez' character) was hanging out at the local magicke shoppe
with his good dreadlocked rasta Laker voodoo friend Shamus, who was
telling him about the bizarre Cult of the Seven and why it's bad for
business- save for selling the rubes fertility drugs- when a Varonized
Salumar man comes to hire Caleb for his corpse whispering services.
Okay, he says, and after negotiating the price "Mister X" conducts
Caleb to the boat of a Shan-li fisherman named Hu (Derek's character),
who from time to time disposes of dead bodies for the local enforcers
by hanging them under his keel until the local fish make short order
of them.

Mister X tells Hu to haul up the body currently underneath
his boat and has Caleb ask the corpse: "Where is she?" The dead man
answers: "Fortuna." Then Mister X tells Caleb to ask a question in a
language that he doesn't understand; the corpse replies in the same
language, which prompts Mister X to draw his sword and attempt to kill
Caleb right there on the spot. Thinking quick, Caleb commands Mister
X to "swim," prompting him to drop his weapon and throw himself into
the canal, whereupon Hu fishes him out with his net (on a natural 20,
no less). Trying to keep his cool, Caleb demands the rest of his
payment and an explanation- all that Mister X says is that he is "an
investigator," and that the voodoo priest really doesn't want to know
any more than he already does. Caleb tells him to get the fuck out of
his sight, lest he bring down the wrath of the ancestors on his sorry
ass, and Mister X flees, leaving Caleb and Hu on the canalside.

Hu is about to go to Shan Li Town for a night of Three-Man betting and binge
drinking, and invites Caleb to come with. Not being much of a
partier, Caleb is about to say no, but then he senses that there is
something very unusual about this semi-retarded Shan-li fisherman (I'm
calling him the Shan-li Forrest Gump- "Life is like a box of
codfish!")... in fact, Derek chose as his Big Cookie that he was a
Man of Destiny, so this isn't even a DM kludge. Caleb says, what the
hell, sure, and a night of debauchery ensues.

Enter the sixth and final PC- Aleksi Petrovic (Larry's character),
young Bruuthalese gangsta wannabe. Son of a whore, Aleksi grew up on
the mean canals of Norollo, running with a crew of Bruuthalese kids
who did their best to try and impress the local powers that be,
usually getting themselves killed or sent off to Egg Rock for their
antics. Aleksi's best friend Giovanni Banacek- yes, his uncle was one
of the Banaceks involved in that whole white slavery debacle down in
the Southlands, why do you ask?- had been tapped a few months ago by
House Taiapetra, one of the oldest families on Stabientia that made
their fortune as stonecutters back when the Hill was three times
larger than it is now and the parish was still called Stabien's Town,
and Aleksi was just beginning to worry that he'd never see him again
when one night while drinking at Jasper's, one of the more popular
Oguntak dance halls, Giovanni comes up to him out of the blue looking
like your stereotypical made man.

He gives Aleksi a big hug, orders some expensive Salumar brandy, and informs his friend that he's been
talking him up with the Damin every since he started work for
Taiapetra, and now they want to give him a chance to prove himself by
pulling off a heist. The job is to extract a particular black box from
one Signore Septimo Ferrante, a young upstart daminolo with a villa on
the Lower Terrace. The pay is 250 minar per crew members (maximum 6
on the team), plus an additional 250 for information gathering and
expesnes. Oh, and they already have a security expert lined up for
him- it seems that one of the local locksmith businesses took out a
"House loan" with Taiapetra once they'd maxxed out their finances with
the cittadini...

Back to Tillam, who gets an early morning visit from one Inspector Ren
ibn Qom of the SQPVs. Strangely enough he's not interested in
inspecting licenses or anything like that, but instead he is
investigating the whereabouts of Tillam's adoptive father, who
apparently was involved in some shady dealings regarding a ship named
the Punchline, which was attacked on the high seas by privateers.
Tillam remembers seeing the name in his dad's books, and tells
Inspector Ren that he may be able to produce some information; Ren
gives him three days, and then tells him that while his father may not
have been the pirate responsible for the raid on the Punchline, that
he should be considered a very dangerous man nevertheless, and that
Tillam should exercise extreme caution if he should come back into
contact with him.

Back to Caleb, who falls asleep after nursing a very intoxicated Hu
back from Shan-Li Town and has
a wacky dream involving the unfamiliar language that Mister X used to
ask his second question from the corpse. In the dream he feels like
he is getting closer and closer to understanding the words, and then
when they finally make sense Caleb awakens to find himself bound and
immobile in some kind of airless closed container. He panics, then
wakes up for real with a start. What did the dream mean?
Frustratingly, all he can remember is that in the dream he knew what
those words meant, and that in that dream the words were being spoken
by a girl.

Back to Hrothgar, who after dusting off his brewing equipment starts
making a fresh batch of beer for the Wyvern's Sting (where he's being
allowed to stay for free), when Ingrid calls on him again and informs
him that she has a potential line on a job- it seems that she's
somewhat chummy with Giovanni Banacek, and had learned that House
Taiapetra has contracted a troubleshooting team that could use some
extra muscle. Hrothgar takes the lead and is instructed to meet up
with Aleksi in Norollo.

Back to Tillam, who at the end of a very long work day at the shop is
visited by Giovanni Banacek, who reminds him of his father's "House
loan" and its astronomically compounding interest. Taiapetra is
willing to waive all of said interest and reset the original loan to
the principal if Tillam agrees to do the heist; Tillam agrees and is
subsequently visited by Aleksi, and they begin talking over the nature
of the job. Since the sewers are probably the most expeditious way
into the villa, Tillam suggests they tap Xan, as he knows the
Stabientia sewage system better than anyone else he knows. At some
point Aleksi meets up with Hrothgar as well, and hey look at that-
it's 10pm and we've finally got four of the six PCs together!

Back to Caleb, who upon returning to the Magick Shoppe learns that his
regular contact (Tivoli) in the Stabientia Greenheads is in need of
his corpse whispering services- turns out the VPD found a body
floating along the Primo in the easternmost reaches of Stabientia,
near Anzo parish. Something gives Caleb a bad feeling about this, and
lo and behold, when they get to the crime scene whose body does he
recognize but that of Mister X! He speaks with dead, asking him two
questions: "Who killed you?" Answer: "Giovanni Banacek." And then,
the second question: "Translate in Varonian what you had me ask the
other corpse."

I'm not at liberty to share what the dead man responded, but boy, it's
a doozy! So Tivoli wants to know what's going on here, and Caleb
comes clean 100% with what's happened so far, including the tidbit
about the Fortuna; for some reason that name rings a bell with
Tivoli, who remembers that there's a captain putting up in the parish
for the winter whose boat is named the Fortuna: Heijun Kiin. He asks
Caleb to accompany him on his visit to Captain Kiin, as since Caleb is
Cebalese maybe his questioning will go a little more smoothly...

This was an exhausting but enjoyable session. As I wanted each player to get his own personal introduction to the City of Varo setting I ended up doing a lot of jumping around to try and get the plotlines to intersect. In fact we wouldn't have the entire group together on the same team until the end of Episode 3!

Episode 7: Tuna hunts, wild boars, and a hot tub

(Wait! What happened to Episodes 1-6? Is this some kind of George Lucas thing?)

The party is on the far trader Fortuna, leaving the City for the first time on a mission to the haunted island of Ryzien in order to retrieve a key piece of data for one of their benefactors. On the way there they stop to resupply at Tendyra, a Cuba-sized island just off the Imperial mainland which is fabled for its hot springs and its oracular priestesses. When the Fortuna nears its intended destination- a port city named Namala on Tendyra's westernmost shore- the players learn that Empire is blockading the harbor and searching any incoming vessels. This presents a slight problem for Captain Heijun Kiin, for not only is he carrying normal trade goods in the hold of his ship but some politically-sensitive cargo as well in the form of a shipment of books that he is trying to deliver at his mother's behest. Without getting too spoilery, the books are actually political propaganda bound for the Imperial city of Vrolens, which is currently in the middle of a revolt against the Korumani Empire, so the Imperial authorities have clamped down any books going in and out of the area- especially any books coming from Varo, which has a well funded and politically active Vrolentine exile community.

Unwilling to test the Imperial blockade at Namala without learning more about the situation, Captain Kiin avoids the city and looks for a smaller port up the coast, finding a small fishing village that is nestled amid the ruins of what was clearly once a much larger community. The natives are cautious but hospitable, and the players end up joining the fishermen in a feast on the beach of the inner harbor, where everyone consumes ridiculous quantities of food and drink (most of the food is eaten by the halfling Tillam and then subsequently vomited after he attempts to consume the local rotten shark dish that is the Tendyran form of lutefisk) and the ship's first mate, Mr. Weylu Hu, ends up agreeing to join the menfolk on their tuna hunt at dawn. This irks the Captain, who was planning to take the longboat down to Namala the next morning to try and figure out exactly what's going on. Meanwhile the party can't help but wonder something: where are all of the women in this village? When asked the natives seem evasive. Apparently this community is what the locals call an "orphaned city," which means that long ago it lost its ruling family and never recovered, so girls of a marry-able age are betrothed to men elsewhere, giving the girl's family a chance to leave the village as the adoptive members of a new city. But that still doesn't account for why the elder women are nowhere to be found, and what was that strange ululation coming from somewhere deeper in the ruins? Hrothgar he resident runecaster investigates by turning himself into a bird and finds evidence of some kind of all-woman ritual happening in one of the ancient temples, but withdraws when he hears the sound of human screams.

Hrothgar reports all of this back to the Captain, who is less concerned for the sacrifice on the altar than he is for the safety of his ship and its crew should he leave them here in the harbor while he goes to Namala in the longboat. Will they be OK? He puts the question to Nolio, the archivist on board who seems unusually familiar in Tendyran culture (he even speaks the language and all of its complex honorifics fluently, which is almost unheard of among outsiders), and the chef Segal, a local whom they rescued from a sinking ship in the previous episode. Both of his informants suggest to the Captain that he leave the women up in the city to their own devices, as they serve the community's long-abandoned but still living oracle. Although there are established protocols for propitiating the oracles of Tendyra, these are for cities that customarily receive pilgrims every winter, not orphaned villages. As these priestesses have been left to their own devices for more than 200 years, who knows how they would receive even the most well-intentioned of gifts?

In the end the Captain decides to leave the women alone and trust that his crew will not do anything stupid in his absence (as the crew left on the ship includes two PCs who couldn't make the night's run, that very much remains to be seen) and sets out in his longship just as Mr. Hu goes on his fabulous tuna fishing expedition, the latter sent off with the men of the village by the womenfolk, who have come down from their temple in a torchlit processing, spattered in blood in chanting some Cthonic blessing for the impending hunt. I've decided that the Tendyrans hunt the migrating bands of tuna in the same manner of the ancient Mediterraneans, a method still practiced today in a few Sicilian villages called the mattanza whereby the tuna are corralled in a series of nets that are drawn progressively tighter until the final net- known as the "chamber of death" is raised so that the tuna can be gaffed and landed by the men, who actually wade out atop the net into the bloody carnage. I've created a 2d6 chart for Mr. Hu to roll on every time he walks out into the chamber of death:

2- Monster Tuna
3- 2d6 Large Tuna
4- 1d6 Large Tuna
5- 2d6 Medium Tuna
6- 1d6 Medium Tuna
7- 1 Medium Tuna or 2d6 Small Tuna
8- 1d6 Small Tuna
9- 1 Small Tuna
10- Bunyips and Sharks and Rays (oh, my!)
11- Bunyups and Sharks and Rays (oh, my!)
12- Sea Monster- probably a rogue pleisosaur

No sooner does he get out into the fray than Mr. Hu rolls an 11, and I randomly determine that he is beset by a manta ray- an 8 HD monster that he is only able to dispatch with the assistance of one of the village elders (who brandishes a badass spear). Immediately going back into the chamber of death he then proceeds to roll a 10, so this time I throw a bunyip at him. Bunyips are giant seal-like creatures with a fear-inducing roar and the ability to sever a limb on a natural 20 attack roll. Originally from the Fiend Folio, I was always somewhat terrified of these creatures, and was delighted to torment my player with one of them during this session. It started with a roar, which sent Mr. Hu scrambling back to the safety of his boat. The player returned in the company of six other fishermen, who were immediately engaged by sharks (another '11' on the roll!), as well as the bunyip, which carried one of the villagers to a watery doom.

Chalking this up as an acceptable loss, the fishing continued, and after the sharks were dispatched the player settled into a nice little tuna-hunting streak, catching various medium and small sized tuna before deciding he'll make one more sally into the killing zone... where the bunyip of course is lying in wait. Spotting a massive tuna, Mr. Hu gives chase only to be attacked by the giant seal, and an epic battle ensues, with the other fishermen standing along the length of the netting and watching the two. The player started off by trying to score a called shot to the bunyip's face, a tactic which worked when fighting the sharks but one that is failing him consistently here, and before he knows it he's down to 2 hit points while the bunyip still has 13. And still the old fishermen stand and watch. I so wanted the player to win this one, but alas, the bunyip lands one last nip for exactly two hit points and Mr. Hu goes down, only to awake back in the village and hailed as a hero for standing his ground and not running away (not to mention keeping the bunyip occupied while they landed the monster tuna). For his bravery Mr. Hu is given the elder's badass spear and a killer tattoo of him riding a bunyip on his back.

Meanwhile the rest of the team is headed down to Namala by longship. Finding a small stony beach just around a promontory from the city, they scramble up some rocks in search of the road into town and find a grassy knoll with some sea caves... out of which charge several wild boars! The lead character is actually overrun by one of the beasts, which scores a critical hit on its attack, and when another PC follows suit I'm starting to worry that this random encounter might result in a TPK. Fortunately the Captain is thinking on his feet and tosses Tillam his matches so that the halfling can rig an incendiary device, which he uses to scatter half of the wild pigs and send them screaming for the ocean as they fill the salty air with the scent of burning bacon. The party tries to pull itself back together, rests up, then finds the track, where they run into a group of farmers headed to Namala to sell their produce. The farmers agree to let the players accompany them into town, and they slip past the city guards without incident.

Namala is like any shore town a month before the high season begins- everything is open but nobody is there yet, which means the players have no trouble finding a guesthouse (complete with its own healing hot spring, no less!) and renting it for the next few days. Captain Kiin tries to locate the bookseller his mother had instructed him to find, but his shop is closed and the door is barred. What's worse, when Nolio and Tillam venture out to get some information about the blockade they discover that agents of the Inquisition are in the city! A chase ensues, and the players are only barely able to lose the Imperials and return to the guesthouse. Why is the Inquisition here in the city? Although Tendyra is situated just off the Imperial Main, it is an independent island, and in the past the Tendyrans has never tolerated their neighbors meddling in their internal affairs. The session ends for the night with the Imperial Inquisition pounding on the door of the guesthouse, demanding that they be allowed in.

This was a good run. Even though the party was effectively split for the evening between Mr. Hu and the rest of the crew, there was enough going on for both narratives that everyone seemed entertained even when it wasn't their turn. The players loved the tuna hunt mechanic, and I almost killed the party with several tons of pork bellies. Now the Captain has a big decision to make- honor his mother's business deal and potentially jeopardize the mission to Ryzien, or dump the offending books and hightail it out of Tendyra before losing any additional blood and treasure towards fomenting someone else's revolution? Should be an interesting time when we assemble again in two weeks!

Monday, January 03, 2011

Inside man

So one of my players is also blogging about our current D&D campaign- Matt Maranda, over at Monsters, Mazes, and Magic. Not only does call attention to some of the more unusual aspects of the game I'm running (including cultural elements, rules variants, and other additional mechanics that I've either adapted or ripped bleeding from elsewhere), but he also has many keen observations about the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons and their relative merits.

Now all we need is a podcast!

How to play Salumar chess

Note: In the spirit of RPG gaming blogs such as Monsters and Manuals or Playing D&D With Porn Stars I'm starting a new feature here where I will include some unusual features from my current 2nd Edition D&D campaign world- the City of Varo (or Varo for short). I also intend to post summaries of our biweekly game when time permits. Enjoy!

(And if you'd like to read some Varo-inspired fantasy fiction, check out Confessions of a Gourmand and/or Varonian Nights!)

While there are many versions of the game of chess played on the Three Continents, none rise to the level of complexity and obsession of Salumar chess, a game which has been played continuously in the Great Basin for more than fifty centuries, from the times of the Old Salumar Empire all the way down to the present day. The game is similar to conventional chess, except that players are permitted to substitute the standard pieces-- or variants-- on the board (king, queen, knights, bishop, rook, pawn) with special pieces which permit different or enhanced moves on the board. For example, the knight can be replaced with a Winged Horseman, which has the ability to move twice as many squares as its conventional analogue.

The existence of these special pieces in Salumar chess is regulated by the Chessmasters' Guild, which alone has the authority to create and disseminate such variants. Per the ancient rules of the game, special pieces become the rightful property of the player who captures them, which means that chess players must take great care when deciding whether or not to deploy their variants when facing an opponent. Most serious Salumar chess players keep their rarest special pieces under lock and key, bringing them out only for tournaments or other high-level matches, while relying on a "friendly set" containing relatively common minor variants for their day to day gaming.

To simulate a game of Salumar chess, players should roll an opposed Gaming check as normal, but using 2d10 instead of 1d20, adding a +1 to the skill level for each variant piece the player deploys on the board. If a player should roll doubles, they have captured an opponent's variant piece, regardless of whether or not they actually won the individual match or not. On a roll of double 1's, the player rolls a 1d4 to determine how many variants they have captured (if available). The DM can randomly-generate the pieces of a Salumar chess opponent by rolling 2d6 and consulting the following chart:

2- 2d4 minor variants, 1d3 major variants
3,4,5- 1d4 minor variants, 1 major variant
6,7,8- 1 minor variant
9,10,11- no variants (opponent receives a standard Piece of Quality instead; see below)
12- unusual variant, roll d6: 1,2 counterfeit; 3,4 stolen; 5,6 magical

If an opposing player does not have any minor or major variant pieces available for capture, a player rolling doubles on their Gaming skill check will receive a Piece of Quality instead. These are not variant chess pieces, but standard pieces which have been painstakingly crafted. Every individual Piece of Quality owned increases the value of a chess set by 25%. An entire standard Salumar chess set composed of Pieces of Quality is worth 20 times the base cost of an ordinary set. Standard Pieces of Quality do not confer any Gaming skill check bonuses.

Examples of Variant Pieces:

Winged Horse (Minor Variant), travel 2x the amount of squares as a standard knight
Jongleur (Minor Variant), pawn that can move sideways as well as forward
Fortified Castle (Minor Variant), rook that will reappear on the board after 1st capture

Emperor (Major Variant), king with ability to move 3 squares at a time
Gorgon Queen (Major Variant), a variant queen that can "freeze" other players' pieces on the board
Preacher (Major Variant), a bishop that can convert the pieces it captures to its own side