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?

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