Saturday, February 3, 2024

House of Pestilence Playtest 2 Session 1: The Road to Immortality

Last time I playtested House of Pestilence, we found that killing a pseudo-lich was not as hard as expected and that it was possible to speedrun the module. Now I have returned, running my regular party through the module from the beginning, with a new premise, which I shall replicate below. 

The world you know is an arena for powers that lie beyond mortal understanding. Each of you: hermit masters, archdruids, sorcerer-kings, and witch-queens, stand close to the peak of human power. But the more powerful you become, the clearer it is that there is an unbridgeable gulf between mortals and immortals. Between powers and principalities and your meager flesh and blood. 

Until now. 

One of the most powerful evil gods, triumvir of Hades, lord of the pestilent land of Oinos, the daemon lord Anthraxus, has a secret. Hundreds of years ago, he cut out a shard of his divine power and hid it in the material plane. There it has taken root and flowered. Anthraxus plans to consume it to bolster his own divine power once it has fully ripened, but if you were to take it for yourselves, it would pave a royal road. Deities of every plane would burst down your door offering gifts and boons in exchange for it. And if you were to consume it, you could become gods in your own right. 

Here is what you know: the prize is hidden deep underground, in the domains of the drow. It is protected by House Umil-Da, drow aristocrats who turned away from the worship of Lloth the spider-queen, were banished from the drow capital, and found new offices under Anthraxus’ wings. Their headquarters, the House of Pestilence, attracts the wealthy and powerful from the material world and the lower planes alike, bartering for the rarest and most valuable treasures the infernal realms have to offer. It is very secure, and very dangerous, but if you can infiltrate it and gain entry to the deepest part of their palace, you can steal the prize from under their noses. 

 

Are you a bad enough dude?

Thus you five, sharing neither creed, country, nor alignment, each bringing only two of your most powerful and trusted lieutenants, have allied. Whether to take it for yourselves, offer it to your patrons, or simply deny it to your enemies, this grand prize calls to all of you. How long this alliance will last is another question. You have one shot at immortality. Don’t waste it. 

The Party

Liu Feng, The Fool Drifting on the East Wind, human monk 12 played by Jackson
    Kore, the Vision of Temperance, human illusionist 11
    Vindictus, the Hand-Chopping Judge, beetlefolk fighter/thief 9/11
Stribor, the Devil of Bukosevač, human bard 11 played by Cao Linh
    Helefres, Magician of the Far Shore, human mage 11
    Tork, the Tower and Key, ratling thief 12
Shirin the Wastrel Empress, human mage 12 played by Finn
    Sisiphre, Who Has Tempted Death, elven mage/thief 10/11
    Skour, Night's Justice, human assassin 11
Celine, le Sphinx du Averoigne, elven druid 13 played by Anne
    Carter, the Hermit Underhill, ratling thief/illusionist
    Saumur, the Hangman of Orscea, goblin fighter 11
Haught Taupik the Blood Sword Emperor, elven fighter/mage 7/11 played by Ali
    Aodhan the Reborn, human druid 12
    Soo Meri, Elder of the Moonstone Sect, human monk 10

Casualties
None

Loot
Information
A treacherous ally

The Game

On the First Day...
  • The party, all of them lords upon the surface world, convened in the underground citadel of Erelhei-Cinlu, the capital of the drow, city of diabolism and debauchery. In the Greencloak Boarding House, an institution catering to surface-dwellers traveling through the underworld, they acquired information: rumors about the House of Pestilence, and secret maps showing the way. 
By Tomas Giorello
  • Several of their number indulged in moondrops, small colored pastries baked with amphetamines, and in various alcoholic concoctions with spider venom. Liu Feng established that he did not own a shirt. 
  • After purchasing supplies through the Greencloak's factor, they set out on their riding lizards under the radioactive moonlight, across the velvety purple river and out of the Vault of the Drow. 
  • They made good time down the Slaveway and then turned at a little-used intersection, crawling through caves and tunnels until they reached a great cavern, the outline of haphazard buildings and fungal farms backlit by the ghostly glow of a geothermal vent. This was Seeker's Shanty
  • A patrol of raggedy soldiers, drow and duergar and various other underworld species, met them and established they were only here to trade and then pass through. They learned that the House of Pestilence lay in the tunnels beyond, and that the shanty was populated by three groups: first, the myconids led by the Great Decomposer; second, the cultists seeking transcendence through their mind-melding spores; third, exiles, criminals, and assorted riff-raff claiming asylum and working under the auspices of the myconids. 
  • Liu Feng and Haught Taupik visited a myconid leader, High Lecturer Weoga, as it delivered awe-inspiring metaphysical lectures to an enraptured crowd. Awe-inspiring... but totally without philosophical substance, in the Blood Sword Emperor's estimation. 
Shirin: I don't care to learn what mushrooms know about life. 
  • Meanwhile, the rest of the party searched for information about the House of Pestilence, and landed at the oversized, barricaded door of Grismolt, a colossal cave troll. He was a former war-slave to House Eilserv, and fought against House Umil-Da prior to his escape. Their battle tactics followed from the drow noble playbook, but the party learned a good deal more about the path to the House, especially about great monsters with fearsome glowing eyes that still struck fear into the colossal troll. 
  • After a short delay to top up their supplies, the party pressed on, and soon reached the Singing Caves. Their maps and notes had warned them to wait until the singing had begun and ended: otherwise they might be stuck traversing the caverns when it began, and they would surely die. 

On the Second Day...
  • So they waited, making camp amid the stones. After a time, they heard the singing: more like a colossal whistle, joined by another voice, and then another. It continued for hours, but always just slightly off-key, maddeningly incomplete. At the climax, the singing itself sounded as frustrated as they all were, and suddenly ended. 
  • They then picked their way through the caverns, many dozens of limestone pockets from the size of a cottage to a goose egg: some of the passages between the caves bore pick-marks, and all those were just wide enough for them and their riding lizards to pass through. 
  • They rushed through to the exit without delay, and continued following their notes. Along the way, they discovered a gap in the rock, apparently created by a recent earthquake, from which a gentle, soothing scent emanated. A small handful of party members squeezed through, and found a strange scene: the scent blew from a pool of water, gently glowing. Above the pool hung a stalactite, with a charred human corpse nailed to it by 22 silver spikes. 
Haught Taupik: I want them to do that to me when I die. 
  • Feeling wigged out, they left the cavern untouched, but when Vindictus (who was holding up the rear) emerged, he screamed 'Ghost!' and started running. Hearing phantasmal moans nearby, the party joined him in flight. 
  • Putting distance between themselves and the ghost, the party soon reached the entrance to a network of swiss-cheese caves riddled with fungal forests: the Undernesse. All their maps ended here: they would have to search around and find the way to the House of Pestilence by themselves. 
  • Liu Feng and Soo Meri interrogated the surrounding fungi, and learned that several kinds of two-legs wander the area: one of those are furry and stink, and come from the southeast. The party determined that these are likely bugbears, servants of the House of Pestilence. 
  • In searching them out, the party encountered a clan of pech living in an upside-down pyramid, who warned them about the rulers of the Undernesse: the Lady Tempestuous and Lord Tectonic. They also came across a camp of sycophantic deep gnomes, clearly terrified, who advised the party to follow the path and take the next cave on the right.
Source
  • Finding such a cave, Liu Feng and Vindictus sneak in, and find it scattered with offal and the bones of both rothe and humanoids. Within is a six-legged monster, somewhere between a cat and a bear, slumbering. They turn back, but find another one, even larger than the first, entering the cave behind them, but the pair are able to escape and are not pursued for long. 
  • Though distrusting the advice of the gnomes, the party pressed on, and among crumbling slate shelves did in fact find a tunnel leading away from the Undernesse. Their lizards waded through the dank secretions of luminescent algae, until they reached a steep, uneven chimney. They picked their way up slowly but surely, and reached a flat landing with a tunnel stretching forking before them. Their lizards acted strangely, yet still further they pressed. 
  • Before they knew it, they were surrounded by hulking beetle-like figures with glowing golden eyes, blocking off several tunnels! A cackling voice spoke directly into their minds 'Surrender to House Umil-Da!'
  • The party did not do this. 
  • They swung into action, meeting the monsters in melee. Several took injuries, and Haught Taupik in particular suffered a pair of nasty bites, but numbers and magic were in their favor: with one tunnel webbed up to block entry and the monks throwing stunning fists, the party eased the pressure. The hulking beasts focused their baleful gazes on several members of the party, but all managed to avert their eyes and keep fighting. The battle turned when Haught Taupik scored a critical hit on one opponent, draining its lifeforce with a single thrust.
The Bloodsword: Blood for my master! Blood and souls for my master Haught Taupik!
  • With the battle turning against them, the remaining monsters attempted to flee, but they could not outrun Liu Feng and Soo Meri, who swiftly cut them off and pounded the survivors into the dirt. Aodhan and Celine healed the most seriously wounded, and the party heard the sound of a tunnel collapse from the right fork. They searched the tunnels and found a blocked-off passage, which Vindictus, even further empowered by a spell of strength, began to clear by hand. 
  • Then the party heard a voice speak into their minds once more. "Cease! House Umil-Da will strike you down if you continue!" 
  • Vindictus did not stop. 
  • The telepathic voice began pleading, and the party opened parley. It just so happened that these were not the forces of House Umil-Da proper, but a wizard, Eastler, and his umber hulk minions contracted to guard the entrance from those who trespassed without properly declaring themselves. Just then, he had sent a telepathic message to his superiors requesting reinforcements against the party, but had been refused and left to his fate. 
  • They cleared the rubble and the two groups came face to face. Eastler offered information on the House of Pestilence, and asked the party to help him fake his death in order to escape his contract; by pretending that Eastler had exceeded his duties and attempted to extort the party, they might still be able to enter the House diplomatically. However, the drow were already preparing their defenses, and little time remained to put this scheme into action before their scouts made their way into the tunnels...
The session ended there, with the party hatching a plan with the treacherous wizard. Will they be able to deceive the drow and infiltrate the House of Pestilence, or will it go down in a storm of violence? Find out in the next session!

Takeaways

This party was pretty focused on reaching the House, and as a result missed a bunch of stuff along the way, especially in the Undernesse. Indeed, there is no loot for this session! I wonder if that will continue: the promise of immortality might be enough to get them to give up on treasure. 

I screwed up the combat a little bit: not only were all the players supposed to be mounted, part of the battlefield was a layer of sticky moss which... I totally forgot to apply. Speaking of, the combat was considerably slower than usual, with each round taking around 15 minutes: mind you, there were 15 characters on the player side and several umber hulks opposing them, but I was surprised by how much time was taken up just rolling attacks and damage. Maybe I was feeling the time more keenly than the players were. I expect combat will speed up a lot more once the players get more familiar with their characters and all the options at their fingertips. 

Alas, nobody in this group has read Elric, so everything about Haught Taupik outside of his silly name is going over their heads!

All in all, I feel that the session went well, though I wonder if I was rushing the scene in the Greencloak too much and didn't give enough description or space to act. Though maybe the party wanted to get on with the adventure. It's really striking me how different a game can be depending on the players and the overall attitude of a table: this one is generally jokey and goal driven, not prone to distraction and not too driven to roleplay. I want to run this module again for other groups and see how they interact with it differently. 

Monday, January 29, 2024

AD&D Session 9.5: Stonehenge Showdown

In the last... ish session, the party chased after the anticleric Corby, following his trail to the edge of the Roaming Forest. After making a pact with the wicked spirit of the forest, they delved into that strange otherworld, discovered a diabolic guardian and a portal to a castle suspended above Hell. Making yet more pacts, they received guidance on defeating Corby and rushed, injured and exhausted to meet him. Now standing across from the villain and his protectors, what will they do? Shall they turn tail and run? Shall they fight? Shall they win, or die? Join this week's journey to find out...

The Party

Agatha, human paladin with a smiling-masked samurai helm, played by Anne
Ingvar Duram, human cleric with an extravagant tricorn hat, played by Jackson
Nachman, human mage with an open-faced plain helm, played by Ali
    Sidonius of Willow Creek, very buff fighter
Dany Mossé, human ranger with a spike-and-plumed helm, played by Finn
Sir Hulodrin, and Sir Vertoful, knights of Chamrousse, played by Cao Linh

Casualties
None!

Loot
Map to the Tormentor
Helm of Opposite Alignment (sealed by the church)
The Joyhammer+2
Plate+1

The Game

28 High Summer 1113 (Team Holy)
  • The party stood just feet away from Corby and his gnoll minions amid the shadows of the henge. Seeing their enemy right across from them, words did not delay action. 
  • The gnolls sprang into action, launching javelins and closing with polearms, but failed to land more than a scratch on the party. Corby prepared a spell, but Dany and Agatha broke past the gnolls and reached him, injuring the anticleric and canceling his spell. 
  • Corby retaliated with his magical dancing hammer and healed himself with a potion, but the rest of the party likewise managed to reach him. Nachman smote him with lightning, and even under the gnolls' continued assault, Corby was downed, reaching exactly 0 hit points and knocked out!
  • Seeing their leader incapacitated and realizing their enemies were still combat-ready, the gnolls retreated into the woods. 
  • The party swiftly trussed Corby up, crushed the oak leaf and returned to the threshold of the Roaming Forest. 

3 Reaping 1113
  • They sent a messenger pigeon to Chamrousse, and within three days, and extremely bedraggled church delegation arrived. By that time, Corby was still firmly incapacitated, and with the aid of the prelate, the helm of opposite alignment was removed from his head and secured in a sigil-carven chest. 
Finally!
  • Corby, returning to his old self after ten years of evil deeds, was both joyful and distraught. He told them many things about the inner workings of Hell, the various plots of evil, the new hiding place of the Grayl of Good and Bad Destiny, and the plot to awaken the great demon known as the Tormentor... but that must wait for another day...
  • The Cascabel campaign is briefly on hold, but during this time I am playtesting the House of Pestilence with my regular group! Expect an update soon. Until then, have an excellent week!

Takeaways

You know, I really thought I had them this time. 

For a while now, I've persistently underestimated what sort of combats are sufficient to challenge my players. I think this is at least in part because two characters have very high exceptional strength, and thus punch well above normal expectations in combat. I figured increased numebrs would do the trick, but the gnolls kept missing! 

I suppose I have to update my expectations and include large numbers of foes, each of which is more powerful individually. This needs some mulling over. 

It's also rather cathartic to have this plot thread from several years ago at least partly resolved. The story of Corby the Joyous now has a happy ending!

Saturday, January 27, 2024

AD&D Session 9: Return to Castle Xyntillan

In the last session, the party pulled a fast one on some gnolls with a fake wand, tracked them to their lair, rescued a pair of knights without facing the wicked anticleric Corby, and got a whiff of some odd happenings with their old pal Captain Fen. Now the crusade against Corby's mountain lair has gathered and is prepared to set out. Will the party join this mission? What will come of the stone giants and their forbidden zone? Join this week's journey to find out...

The Party

Agatha, human paladin with a smiling-masked samurai helm, played by Anne
    Sir Hulodrin, knight of Chamrousse
Ingvar Duram, human cleric with an extravagant tricorn hat, played by Jackson
    Sir Vertoful, knight of Chamrousse
Nachman, human mage with an open-faced plain helm, played by Ali
    Sidonius of Willow Creek, very buff fighter
Dany Mossé, human ranger with a spike-and-plumed helm, played by Finn

Casualties
None (yet)

Loot
Golden sickle and bowl, 450gp
1200gp
Golden snuff box, 400gp
Gem-encrusted silver goblet, 1000gp

The Game

17 High Summer 1113 (Team Holy)
  • Where last we left off, the party spent a week resting in Chamrousse while Count Claude Malevol gathered a force to assault Corby's hidden lair. At last, joined by the Count's inner circle, two rangers of the Order of the Swan, and two dozen experienced knights, including the recently return Sirs Hulodrin and Vertoful, the party set out into the mountains. 
22 High Summer 1113
  • They arrived, weathering unseasonably cold rain and hail, at the illusory mountain spring. The party showed them the way through and the force burst into the grove... but found it deserted. In the deepest part of the lair, they found a rune-convered menhir and golden implements, a scythe and bowl. These, they determined, were the ingredients in a druidic ritual, likely one being perverted to sap the land of vitality. 
Arrest that rock, officer!
  • The rangers determined that Corby and his gnolls decamped a couple of days prior, and found the tracks led in many directions. However, Dany found that many were illusions and fakes strewn with shreds of goat fur. The true tracks led northeast, further into the mountains. 
  • The assault force disbanded, returning to Chamrousse, but the party, including Hulodrin and Vertoful, determined to follow the tracks and find out where Corby had gone. 
27 High Summer 1113
  • They followed the tracks for five days, delving deep into the mountains. As evening came on, they heard a familiar loud stomping, but this time there were many pairs of footfalls. 
  • Agatha stepped out to greet the new arrivals: five stone giants dressed in reds and browns, the colors of the Stoneclaw clan. Though wary, the two groups conversed civilly, and the party learned that they were quite close to the Roaming Forest: a mysterious pocket dimension that periodically relocated throughout the region, trapping anyone who crossed its threshold. It first appeared within the last decade, and the Stoneclaw giants, led by their elder Granny Elm-Walker, a powerful druid, had come to make an offering to the Roaming Forest's genius loci to prevent it from approaching closer to their territory. 
  • Realizing that Corby and his gnolls must have gone into the Roaming Forest, and showing Granny Elm-Walker the ritual implements from the hidden grove, she became convinced that Corby wanted to slay the spirit of the Roaming Forest and take control of it himself. 
  • The giants were not wholly opposed to this: it was an evil and avaricious spirit, but hearing the party's description of Corby, they figured he would be no better a neighbor.
  • That night, the two groups camped together. The stone giants allowed the party to join their ritual and confer with the spirit, in exchange for the party bringing Count Malevol to the bargaining table to set up a treaty between the Stoneclaw giants and Chamrousse. 
  • It also turned out that Sinead's ex-lover, Kethlîn, was with this group, and Agatha got to hear her side of their (not so) sordid breakup. This had little impact on the wider session, but the players were very enthused. 
28 High Summer 1113
  • As midnight fell, Granny Elm-Walker lit the bonfire, buried a pouch of jewels in the earth, and called up the spirit of the Roaming Forest. The flames burned high, and an angular face topped with a crown of thorns and holly appeared in the fire as Granny invoked the spirit of Runcius Malevol
WHO SUMMONS THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRUNCIUS?
  • The party spoke with the druidic spirit, and informed it that the anticleric Corby had entered its domain. To their surprise, the spirit knew Corby, and had a great deal of enmity for him. The spirit confirmed that Corby was within, and declared that it would slay him for his impudence and past offenses. 
  • The party was happy to hear that, but still wanted to make sure of this death themselves; in addition, of course, to leaving the Roaming Forest alive. Runcius offered them a deal: he would allow them entry and exit once, and permit them to aid in hunting down and slaying Corby. In exchange, they would spread the name and glory of Runcius Malevol upon their return. The party agreed, and the pact was writ in fire upon oak leaves. 
  • So the party walked down the forest path, the intertwining canopy making it as dark as a subterranean tunnel. Then they stepped out into the light: the sun shone high, illuminating the colors of early autumn as they stood in the middle of a great clearing. A flock of sheep grazed nearby and a shepherd dozed under a lonely tree. 
  • On closer inspection some of those sheep were literal wolves in sheep's clothing, and the party was certain not all was right within this realm. They determined to get through it and find Corby as swiftly as possible. 
  • Along the way, they encountered creepy lawn gnomes, a gazebo (this completely went over the players' heads) and a river that appeared to wind through itself without regard for physics. They despaired of finding anything in this wilderness, until the sun suddenly dipped in the sky and the scent of sulphur filled the air. 
  • The party followed the scent to a hermit's cave, a dead end. Within, a hermit in haircloth rags welcomed them... but this hermit was too large, with a strange, bulbous head and the suggestion of metallic wings sprouting from its back. The scent of sulphur was strong here, and the back of the cave was like a muddy shadow obscuring something beyond. 
  • This fiend set upon the party, raking Sir Hulodrin with life-draining claws and deflecting Ingvar's spells with a word. Nachman smote it with lightning and Agatha and Dany cut it down, and it turned to foul smoke, promising to see them in Hell. 
  • The cave beyond was bare, but the muddy shadow on the far wall intrigued them. The sulphurous scent emanated from it, and, with Agatha leading the way, they stepped through.
????????
  • They felt as though they were moving through quicksand, and then all of a sudden thye felt fabric rustling against their faces. They emerged out of black curtains and onto a stage, with a packed audience of skeletons facing them. 
  • Luckily, the skeletons didn't animate. They all appeared to have been watching a performance when they were struck dead. Nachman pilfered their valuables, including a golden snuff box from which he took a sniff. Whatever was within was dramatically more potent than expected, and for a few moments he felt that a great weight was lifted from his shoulders... but then it was back, and he was suddenly keenly aware that he was experiencing an acute, subtle pain with every moment he remained in this place. 
  • The party left the auditorium, exploring and looting storage chambers and a tap room, all abandoned. Soon, they found a stairway leading up, and followed it.
  • As they crested the top of the stairs, they felt an ominous presence behind them, that cried out pitifully, 'I didn't kill them! Not... technically...'They bolted, running far from the stairs and bursting outdoors. 
  • A great castle surrounded them, ancient stones under a red sky. A well-cultivated garden of blooming, gigantic thorny roses, sharp-toothed gargoyles, and an ornate banner over two great double doors: THE GREAT DOMAIN OF SERPENTINA. 
  • At that moment, sparkling clouds manifested around them and started draining their blood! The battle was over swiftly, but several members of the party were injured. Then the great doors creaked open, and a beautiful, pale woman in an ornate wedding dress stepped out, followed by a swarm of dozens of black cats. As she went over to water the rose garden, Agatha stepped out of hiding to make contact. 
  • This woman was Adelaide Malevol, and she was most interested to see a newcomer to the castle. Agatha learned that this was none other than Castle Xyntillan, the same castle which Corby had cast down into hell a decade prior. In reality, it had gotten stuck, sandwiched between the planes, a little slice of nowhere which the Malevol family was unable to leave. 
  • When Adelaide learned that Corby was nearby, she grew furious. She too, apparently, had beef with him. She promised to help Agatha hunt him down, if she did a favor for her first. Cautiously, Agatha agreed, and Dany went with her while the rest of the party remained behind to catch their breath. 
  • Adelaide led the two deeper into the castle, past a torture chamber, clambering up the side of a crumbling tower, and into a cramped chamber with a crystalline coffin. 
  • Within the coffin rested a woman in an elegant gown, like an older, nobler Adelaide. This was her elder sister Aurora Malevol, once among the most powerful members of the family, until she was imprisoned by their uncle, the former Count of Chamrousse, for her defiance. She made a pact with Agatha and Nachman: only one pure of heart could break open the coffin, and both of them qualified (and were very, very strong). If they broke it open, she would aid them in finding Corby and provide them with his weakness. 
  • Though conflicted, they agreed. Agatha shattered the coffin, and Aurora awoke, the stench of undeath filling the air. She tore at Adelaide and only narrowly restrained herself from attacking Agatha and Dany. In accordance with the pact, Adelaide summoned the Beast: a hulking wall of fur and muscle in a velvet doublet, crowned with a halo of hellfire: he showed them a vision of what might come to pass: Runcius Malevol and his anti-druids slain, sacrificed upon a altar amid a circle of stones, as Corby took control of the Roaming Forest and used it to cast the castle further into Hell. Along with instructions for reaching that stone circle, they provided an opportunity: Corby received his magical powers from Serpentina, the current ruler of the castle. With Aurora awakened, they had the strength to fight back. During their fight, Corby's magic would be greatly weakened, so if they wanted to fight him head on, he would soon be more vulnerable than ever. Then with a snap of his fingers, the Beast sent the whole party back to the stage. 
Ariccia Sunset, JMW Turner

28 High Summer 1113
  • The party emerged from the muddy shadow in the sulphurous cave. Following the Beast's directions, they rushed along forest paths to reach a circle of great moss-covered menhirs. 
  • And at the circle, they found Corby, heavily armed and armored and bearing the ram-horned helm of opposite alignment, a dozen gnolls stepping out from behind the menhirs. 
  • That was where session ended. The party is greatly weakened, Ingvar wholly out of spells and many are injured. Can they defeat Corby? Will they run and leave the Roaming Forest and the castle to his machinations? Will I have my first real TPK? Join us for next week's session of Cascabel!
Takeaways

This session was, at once, very unexpected and deeply nostalgic. 

For those unaware, the events of this campaign, especially the events of the last few sessions, follow from my Castle Xyntillan campaign back in 2020-21. My current batch of players are dealing with the fallout from the end of that campaign. 

My plan for this session was that the players would find the abandoned grove, loot it, and return to civilization, where I had some hooks waiting for them down the river. Rather foolishly, I did not consider what would happen if the players just decided to leave behind the rest of the force and follow after Corby. 

As a result, the last three quarters of the session was swiftly improvised. I first considered using the Wandering Glade, a module by Melan (the last two dungeons have also been adapted from Melan modules published in Echoes from Fomalhaut, namely Temple of Polyphema and Gorge of the Unmortal Hermit), but right before the players got there I realized that I really, really didn't know what was in there and hadn't read past the opening page. 

At that moment, I realized I was being stupid, because my setting already had a strange, druidic pocket dimension wandering around the surface of this exact region: the Indoornesse from Castle Xyntillan. 

So after rolling up the stone giant encounter and working it into the running plot, I called back my knowledge of Castle Xyntillan to run the invocation of Runcius and exploration of the forest. The metaphysics wound up being important, but luckily I had already thought those through. 

And then the players wound up in the hermitage, the same place where a recently turned-evil Corby was given a suspicious silver coin ten years ago in-game (and almost exactly three years ago in real life, just a day off!). That was the dwelling place of the sinister Father Chlodowig, who had been turned into a Styx Devil. Now, I also knew that this location was a portal to Castle Xyntillan in the original, and so put a sulphur-spewing portal at the back of the cave. 

I did not consider that the players would try to go through it. 

I had to take a few minutes to figure out what to do, and it soon became obvious. The players, entirely by accident, were going to go into Castle Xyntillan. And by even greater coincidence, they wound up making their way up to the western entrance. At that point, I couldn't help but replicate the first encounter with a Malevol my party had, with Adelaide, which occurred in the same location. 

From there, half-remembered strands from three years ago and plans which never same to fruition appeared clear as day. Of course Adelaide would try to use the party to free Aurora. Of course they would rebel against Serpentina. If course this would weaken Corby temporarily. 

By the time they reached him, everyone was eager for a fight and the energy at the table was high. But we also hit our usual stopping point at that exact moment, and I needed some time to prepare that confrontation.

The battle with (or possible flight from) Corby will come at the beginning of the coming session. Whatever comes of it, we will drop this campaign, and start playtesting House of Pestilence. In the event of PC deaths, I expect being able to play new, high level characters will cushion the blow, as we still haven't had any, despite billing this to my players as a deadly game!

I suppose we'll see what happens soon, so expect a Session 9.5 report. Until next time, have an excellent week!

Friday, January 26, 2024

Draft: Simpler AD&D Psionics Rules

Previously on this blog, I've expressed some fascination with the AD&D psionics rules. They're an unintuitive mess, technically playable, but doing so in practice requires automated spreadsheet technology not available in the 1980s. It's a side of the rules that the system seems not to want you to use, and it makes you go through a whole lotta hoops in order to even have psionics in the first place. 

Yet it calls to me. The evocative ability names, the implication of a weirder, sci-fi edge to what has become an ossified fantasy genre, this strange, lopsided addition of a whole new subsystem to characters nearly at random. Even though I haven't used psionics in my AD&D campaign yet, they're deep in the bedrock of my worldbuilding, and the House of Pestilence, which is gearing up for another round of playtesting, has multiple psionic-capable encounters in strict adherence to the AD&D rules. There's even a psionic pregen!

I managed to get through the playtest one shot without having to use the psionics rules, but this next round is going to (hopefully) run through the module from the beginning, so I can't be as confident that this will remain the case. Plus, I'm running this for my home group, which does not have prior AD&D experience, and I'm not prepared to saddle one or more of the players with this subsystem on top of learning how to run high level characters. 

So after dragging my feet for... Jesus, four years... I have to figure out how I'm actually implementing psionics in my campaign. 

So I threw basically all my prior notes and made something up on the spot. Here goes.


So You Want To Be Psionic?

Any character that rolled a 15 or higher (before species or age modification) on any one of Int, Wis, or Cha has a chance to be a psionic. 

If they meet this minimum threshold, they have a 5% chance to be psionic. 

For every point in each ability above 15 (not including 15), add another 5%. Thus, a character with all 18s in Int, Wis, and Cha would have a 50% chance to be psionic. 

 If the percentile roll succeeds, this PC is now psionic. Players may elect to forgo this roll. 

Next, we calculate psionic power and abilities. This section is unchanged from AD&D (not because the rules are good, just because they're not the objectionable parts I prioritize changing). You'll get some amount of psionic points between 1 and 172, probably on the lower end. You will also get some number of minor and major abilities. 

Note: the psionic points are calculated using current ability scores, not those originally rolled. The number of psionic points can thus grow or drop as ability scores change, including thanks to magical effects. A feebleminded psionic isn't going to do much, and a circlet of intelligence is going to help! 

Do not roll for attack and defense modes: these no longer exist. There is, consequently, no longer a distinction between psionic ability and psionic strength. You only have to track one new number. 

A psionic character now has: Their mental ability scores (which already existed), their psionic ability points (the new number) and their minor and major abilities (new toys).  

Citadel Mentalist, by Psycha Durmont

Psionic Conflict

What is psionics, really? I think psionics is the development of an inner world. 

We all have inner worlds. At least, that's a term we use to describe our subjective experiences. For psionics, this is a much more literal expression. 

In my setting, every sentient being is connected to a subjective world, located in the astral realm. The comparatively larger subjectivities of humans and other sapients roll across the astral sea, the foam of which is comprised of the innumerable micro-subjectivities of animals, plants, and even microbes. But even the most creative, intelligent human only has a really, really tiny one: if you were sailing across the astral sea and picked one up, it would be smaller than your fingernail. 

Psionics are the exception. While regular sentiences visit these worlds in their dreams, psionics can do so at will: moreover, they can mold and change them, and expand them. The lifetime work of a psionic is to develop this inner world, transforming an ethereal and ghostly existence into a solid and pliable one. A psionic's ability points are a numeric expression of this world's mass. At will, a psionic can change its appearance and form, spread it out into a landscape or crush it into a dense core, and back again. 

But the key ability of a psionic is to make their inner world influence the outside. Whenever a psionic uses any of their abilities (devotions and sciences, in AD&D parlance), this is what they are doing: they are reshaping their inner world and using it like a tool, to manipulate the outside. 

At the same time, a psionic can interact with the inner worlds of other psionics. This is a great way to learn about another person, but it requires a great deal of trust: it's a two way street. 

Psionic conflict involves one psionic using their subtle, miraculous subjectivity in much the same way they might use an especially sharp rock. By overlapping their worlds, a psionic can:
  • destroy another's inner world, by leveraging the inconsistencies and flaws in its construction to tear it apart at the seams
  • dominate another's inner world, by forcing it into submission through fear and intimidation
  • change another's inner world, by molding it oneself into a form that seems more real
These three modes of interaction are associated with Int, Wis, and Cha respectively. 


A psionic can declare a psychic battle with another psionic at any time. These occur in regular combat rounds, though always on segment 0 regardless of rolled initiative. 

Each round, the psionic may choose to attack with one of their attributes. They must roll 1d20 equal to or under that attribute, and if they succeed, they may deal 1d6 psionic damage to their target. 

Psionic damage can be soaked up on a 5:1 basis by psionic ability points. If I deal 2 psionic damage to you, you lose 10 psionic ability points. These are regained over time, more quickly by resting or meditating, as in AD&D. 

However, if there are no psionic ability points remaining, or if the target has used one of their psionic abilities this round, that damage instead goes directly to the same ability score used to make the attack. If I used Int and dealt 4 points of psychic damage, you lose 4 points of Intelligence. 

If an ability score drops to 3 or lower, the target experiences an effect depending on which method was used:
Intelligence puts the target in a coma for 1d4 hours
Wisdom dominates the target for 1d4 days
Charisma charms the target for 1d4 weeks

If any ability score drops to 0 or lower, the target dies. 

Note that whenever a psionic engages in combat, the target psionic may retaliate as well. Reduction in power points and ability scores occurs at the end of segment 0, and their turns occur simultaneously. 


Psionic Advancement

Each level, the psionic can improve one minor ability by 1 level. Every 2 levels, they can improve one major ability by 1 level. A level 1 psionic can choose one minor ability to start with at first level, and the others are at level 0. 

It should probably be possible to increase psionic power points, but I don't know how to do this yet. 

A psionic can choose to suppress their psionics, becoming, for all intents and purposes, a non-psionic. However, this comes at a cost. So long as their psionics are suppressed, they act as if they are 1 level lower than actual, for all purposes including hit points, class abilities, spells, etc. They can continue to advance, but will always be a level lower than they would otherwise be. 

They can undo the suppression to unleash their abilities and regain their lost level at any time, but the lost level takes a week to come back (though psionics are back online immediately). 

Design Notes

Why did I make things this way?

For one, I want the rules to be simpler, the sort of system you can hold 100% in your head, without needing to reference tiered cross-tables. 

I also want to minimize the number of new mechanics a psionic PC has to deal with. We're adding just one new 'ability score' and a few spell-like abilities, everything else runs through existing mechanics. 

This is super hacky and simple, and yet untested. Some problems with the system as written include:

Why would a psionic not just spam their highest ability score in combat? Wouldn't this get extremely boring very quickly?
Why is damage always 1d6? Is there no way to change this, on either end?
What happens if the relevant ability gets so high they can't miss? Is there no way for a target to resist?

I don't have good answers for these right now. Maybe, since psionic combat occurs in tandem with regular combat, this super-simple system is actually fine and we don't want to make it more complex. Anyway, there's no substitute for playtesting. 

Until next time, have an excellent week. 

Saturday, January 20, 2024

AD&D Session 8: Ye Olde Switcheroo

In the last session, the party ventured into the mountains, befriended a lovelorn stone giant, plundered a ruined temple beset by gnolls, and got a lead on the schemes of the anticleric Corby. Now having made a great ruckus in the temple, how will they get away? Will they track down the anticleric, or will they let this opportunity slip out of their grasp? Join this week's journey to find out...

The Party

Agatha, human paladin with a smiling-masked samurai helm, played by Anne
Ingvar Duram, human cleric with an extravagant tricorn hat, played by Jackson
Nachman, human mage with an open-faced plain helm, played by Ali
    Sidonius of Willow Creek, very buff fighter
Dany Mossé, human ranger with a spike-and-plumed helm, played by Finn
Dra'kon Deznitsz, beetlefolk cleric with a spiked, tasseled helmet, played by Felix

Casualties
None

Loot
Ancient grave goods, 375gp
Two brothers-in-arms
Some suspicions

The Game

24 Mid Summer 1113 (Team Holy)
Where last we left off, the party had just acquired the Wand of Circe, but the destruction of the marble statue in which it was hidden created a whole lot of noise. They swiftly climbed back onto the roof, and narrowly avoided detection by a group of gnolls also coming onto the roof. As they snuck away, however, they were discovered by a trio of gnoll guards. 
Putting two and two together, the gnolls realized the party were responsible for slaying their fellows within the temple (but did not yet know the party had found what they were looking for), but were unwilling to fight in that moment, with numbers against them. They instead demanded a weregild of 100gp per dead gnoll. 
The party feigned acceptance, but instead launched a surprise attack, with Dany's great skill in defeating humanoid enemies coming in great help. They tossed the dead gnolls in a nearby hole and scampered off to their camp, split ways with Sinead the stone giant, and made the three day journey back to Chamrousse without gnoll pursuit or dangerous encounters. 

27 Mid Summer 1113
Back at Chamrousse, they decided to hand the Wand of Circe over to Inquisitor Michel for identification and safekeeping. It turned out to be a variant wand of polymorph: it could transform humans into animals or bestial creatures (like gnolls) and vice versa, and could do so for large groups with a single casting, but only until the time of the next new moon. The party speculated that the gnolls, and through them the anticleric Corby, was trying to infiltrate human society. 
Nachman jokingly suggested making a fake wand and planting it in the temple so that the gnolls would leave and lead them back to their lair; this quickly stopped being a joking matter, and with a loaned scroll of Nystul's magic aura from Idred's library, they set out for the temple the next morning, once again arriving without hazard. 

And then we'll switch it out for a fake one!


2 High Summer 1113
Coming back to the temple, they noticed the gnolls had tightened security: there were now more lookouts, including several on the roof. Nevertheless, when nightfall came, Dany was able to take the 'Wand of Circe' (a falsely enchanted willow switch) and hide it just under an existing dig. 

3 High Summer 1113
By noon the next day, one of the gnolls found it, and recognized it as a magical item. Within a handful of hours, the gnolls had packed up and left, carrying a great big chest of loot with them. The party decided to follow a couple of hours after them, and so had a couple hours to burn exploring what remained on the temple. 
They discovered a group of armored skeletons in a sealed, secret room, which Ingvar's turning revealed were animated. The skeletons, being outnumbered and likely outmatched, begged clemency, asking that the party take their grave goods, but not their weapons and armor. 
This led to a lot of discussion about metaphysics and the afterlife, but the party eventually agreed to the skeletons' request, and sealed the room behind them, feeling vaguely guilty about the whole affair. 

5 High Summer 1113
After a rainstorm on the 4th which nearly washed away the tracks (though Dany once again came in handy), the party followed the gnoll party's distinct, muddy trail through a cool, misty day along a tributary river ... and right into the side of a mountain. The tracks seemed to disappear right into the sheer stone right where the river welled up from an underground spring. 
The party debated how to break the suspected illusion, and Agatha cut the debate short by flinging a rock through the illusory cliff. 
On the other side was a tight pass through which the river ran, and beyond that a waterfall and a craggy grove. They passed statues of knights with gemstones for eyes, trapped in horrified expressions, and grew suspicious of the colorful butterflies and verdant garden ahead of them. Ingvar's augury confirmed their suspicions, they decided to instead climb up a steep rock face. They noticed several gnoll corpses in the nearby waterfall, and suspected that the gnolls' master had realized their deception in the short time since they arrived.

What could it be?!

Picking their way through the rocks in the thick mist, the party came across an altar and statue dedicated to the ancient goblin king Agak, who once ground many kingdoms beneath the heel of evil. A nearby cave of forboding appearance was just asking for Ingvar's find traps, and they learned to hail Agak lest a rockfall land on their heads. 
Deep within the cave, following the gnolls fresh tracks, they found a pair of enchanted statues which Ingvar realized would sound an alarm when unauthorized persons passed through. They decided not to call attention to themselves, and instead turned back down a fork. At a dead end, they found a shimmering mirror in which they appeared as grey silhouettes... and yet more silhouettes appeared, not corresponding to any of the party. 
They sought to communicate with the ghostly figures, which denounced the party as demons and tricksters. After some negotiation and presenting their holy symbols, they learned that the two figures were the knights Hulodrin and Vertoful, of Claude Malevol's court at Chamrousse. According to Marshal Boroth, these knights had gone out questing to bring back Corby's head some months before, and then disappeared. 
The party persuaded the knights to step through the mirror, beyond which lay an amnesiac realm of shadows. The pair were haggard and half-starved, but very happy to be back among the living and out of that ghastly trap. Though the knights wanted to storm the cave and take Corby's head, the party urged caution. 
Thus the party, with two new friends, departed the hidden mountain grove, learning all about the deadly garden from the knights, and began their journey back to Chamrousse to make a full report. 
That night, they spotted torchlight on the mountain not far from their camp; unusual for night-hunting gnolls. In fact, these were a group of beetlefolk, led by Septen Broadhsell, whom Ingvar had met back in Stonehell. 
These architect/engineers had quite a tale of woe: they were contracted via the Cobblers' Guild (a politically powerful organization in Cascabel, and a major front for organized crime) to survey this region of the alps and possibly do some demolitions in one area. But once their identified their (metaphorical) quarry, the beetlefolk were set upon by stone giants! These creatures expelled the beetlefolk by force, insisting that it was a 'forbidden zone', and blew up all their stores of smokepowder, along with the rest of their supplies! They had been wandering, hungry and lost, through the mountains since the 27th, a full week. 

7 High Summer 1113
The two groups shared their campfire and some supplies, and continued on their way back to Chamrousse. The party split off to seek out Sinead, whom they found camping beneath the stars. They inquired about the stone giants, and learned that those were Kethlîn's family; her grandmother was a great leader among the druids, and her line had guarded that mountain for centuries stretching out of memory. Underneath that mountain, Sinead was told, an ancient demon named the Tormentor had been trapped in ancient times, and would awaken if its resting place was ever disturbed. 

Hmmm, what could that be?

At first the party thought this was another of the shadowy demons they had encountered in Clifton, with letters and numbers on its body; but Sinead quickly disconfirmed. This was a much different beast, a creature the size of a mountain which tore up the earth with metal hands. 

10 High Summer 1113
The party returned to Chamrousse not long after Septen's group did, and cross-referenced what they knew. The beetlefolk were horrified to learn they had almost awakened a demon, and redoubled their insistence on collecting hazard pay from their employer: according to the Cobblers' Guild contract, this had to be collected from the original employer, not the middleman. 
The party was not happy to learn that the contract bore the name of Dragoon Captain Fen, who had so genially engaged the party to 'befuddle' the Ultraviolet Flame cultists just a few sessions ago. 
After waving the beetlefolk goodbye down the river, the party made their full report to the Count's inner circle. They resolved to gather a crack team of crusaders to scale the mountains and assault the grove. Whether the party wanted to join in or not, they had some downtime while the team got summoned. 
Dra'kon built rapport with Inquisitor Michel, Agatha gained a great local reputation for her generous donations and work feeding the poor, and Ingvar spent time going to the local cathedral and getting into theological arguments with the priests. 
Unexpectedly, a noble popped up a few days in and also got involved in these discussions, and afterwards went out feasting and drinking with Ingvar. This turned out to be none other than Count Claude Malevol, ruler of Chamrousse, who offered Ingvar a boon of his choice, which Ingvar elected to think over. 

17 High Summer 1113
With the party rested and recently leveled (as well as being much, much lighter on coin), and the crusade team formed up, we broke for the week. 
Will the party return to the grove and join the assault? What's going on with Fen and the demon? Join us for next week's session of Cascabel!

Takeaways

The weather tables are working just as I wanted them to: this session we had rain interfering with tracking, and atmospheric mist as they explored the grove. The players were surprised to hear that the latter wasn't a location feature, but a pre-rolled weather event. That, plus the players wound up asking lots of questions and discussing the setting's metaphysics after interacting with the skeletons. There's curiosity about the world and how it affects them, and some respect for it as something existing outside of the players. I really feel that the campaign is starting to come into itself, and I feel really good about this session in general. 

Also, if the exploration of the grove seemed a bit uneventful, that's because I failed to roll a single random encounter. Must have rolled at least ten times, not a single 1 on a d6!

I also feel that the campaign is coming into itself in another way. Thus far, it's been a lot of largely unconnected threads, but now they've begun to cross in largely organic ways (if not for a wilderness encounter, the party wouldn't have met Septen again and learned about this demon business!). Things are looking up, and I feel very vindicated in making this campaign the way I have!

That's all I have for today. Until next time, have a great week!

Saturday, January 13, 2024

AD&D Session 7: The Cyclopean Temple

In the last session, the party was assaulted by a shadowy demon, learned about the dreadful Thirty silver coins, and split: half has traveled up river to embark on a holy quest, while the other half has remained in the city. Will they every reunite? Will Team Holy survive their mission? Join this week's journey to find out...

The Party

Agatha, human paladin with a smiling-masked samurai helm, played by Anne
Innus Entus, goblin cleric/fighter with a bishop's mitre, played by Cao Linh
Nachman, human mage with an open-faced plain helm, played by Ali
    Sidonius of Willow Creek, very buff fighter
Dany Mossé, human ranger with a spike-and-plumed helm, played by Finn
Dra'kon Deznitsz, beetlefolk cleric with a spiked, tasseled helmet, played by Felix

Casualties
Sidonius (heart stopped, recovered)

Loot
300gp
4*1000gp sun disks
Potion of ethereality (consumed)
Scroll of raise dead
Wand of magnetic attraction (not identified)
Wand of Circe (not identified)

The Game

15 Mid Summer 1113 (Team Holy)
  • After arriving in Chamrousse, the religious arm of the Order of the Perfect Circle settled in and reequipped for the coming challenges. Agatha and Innus Entus recruited a warrior of exceptional strength named Sidonius, whom they ultimately assigned to Nachman: the mage spent a week learning find familiar, but ultimately failed to summon a familiar by a hair's breadth! Dany attempted to get closer to Inquisitor Michel, but crashed against the paladin's stony facade. 
22 Mid Summer 1113 
  • After a week of rest, the Order headed west, following up a lead on an abandoned pagan temple; the anticleric Corby's bestial servants came down from the mountains in the summer, and rumor had it they were infesting the temple and even digging around it. 
23 Mid Summer 1113
  • As they picked their way through alpine crags in the morning light, the party heard great footsteps coming from around a ridge. They hid, and spotted a gigantic figure in green and black silks hefting a huge sack over its shoulder; a stone giant. 
Agatha: Is the sack shaped like a friend?
  • Nachman instructed Sidonius to hail the giant while the rest of the party waited in the shadows. Charismatic and strong, but not especially bright, Sidonius did just that, and his brash approach caught the giant's attention. 
  • In no time at all, the two were communicating, as the giant spoke the rudiments of the common tongue. Seeing it wasn't hostile, the Order stepped out of hiding and introduced themselves. The giant's name was Sinead, and he had recently fallen out with his partner, Kethlîn, and was off finding a new place to live.
  • Building on Sidonius' rapport, the Order convinced Sinead to travel with them for a short time and enjoy camping under the summer sky. The giant was not willing to fight alongside them, but was happy for the company. 
  • That afternoon, they arrived at the ruined temple, making good time with Sinead's knowledge of the area. Watching from behind a crag, they spotted several beastly creatures, like huge bipedal hyenas wearing armor and bearing polearms. They were guarding the entrance, and there were doubtless more inside. 
  • The party made a plan: Nachman, Dany, and Sidonius slipped around the side and scaled the wall while Agatha, Innus Entus, and Dra'kon made their presence known, masquerading once again as 'architecture enthusiasts'. Innus Entus spoke the tongue of dogs with a spell, and they gained entry with insistence and a good bribe. 
  • While the 'face' group got a sense of the internal layout and estimated the gnolls' numbers (several dozen at the least, too many to fight up front), the stealthy group made its way onto the roof and found an open-air pool and courtyard, into which they descended. The courtyard featured a secret door which had been forced open, and beyond it was a great idol to the temple's old cycloptic goddess, flanked by fruiting trees and holding a golden apple aloft. 
  • They got quite close before noticing the bodies of dead gnolls at the feet of the statue, which rose from the grave to attack!
Not what you want to meet in the pale moonlight
Source
  • The two smaller gnoll zombies were dispatched swiftly, but the largest, a great beast still wearing plate armor, gave them far more trouble, and in a moment of ill luck, Nachman's shocking grasp missed and hit Sidonius by accident, dealing maximum damage and stopping his heart!
  • Luckily, Dany was able to fend off the beast while Nachman restarted his henchman's heart (and took advantage of the confusion to pretend the injury had nothing to do with him). Having made a great deal of noise, the stealthy party hid in a secluded tomb, and were passed over by investigating gnolls, who shunned the area beyond the secret door. 
  • Through that commotion, the face group was pushed out of the temple, and everyone reconvened that night to coordinate and let Sidonius recover. 
24 Mid Summer 1113
  • Among the treasures Dany recovered from the body of the huge gnoll was a letter, written by none other than the anticleric Corby! The instructions within were vague, but confirmed that the gnolls were searching the temple for an item called the Wand of Circe. 
  • The party returned to the temple the following evening, taking the stealthy route over the walls. They confirmed that the zombies had killed one another, and the party decided to avoid the golden apple. Elsewhere in the temple, beyond the reach of gnoll patrols, they discovered a strange sphere of magnetic clay and claimed a strange magnetic wand. An inscription on the roof of the idol chamber led them to investigate the area more closely, and they recovered various golden sun disks.
  • Using a potion which seemed to make things phase in and out of reality, Innus Entus scouted around the temple ethereally, and led the party (after ambushing and silently destroying a gnoll patrol) to a chamber wherein the disks condensed sunlight into a bowl of golden liquid, which they fed to the cyclopean idol. As the marble cracked open, they found their quarry within: a thin but sturdy willow switch, likely the Wand of Circe.
  • The session concluded there. Will the Order flee the temple or fight their way out? What does the Wand of Circe do, and why was the anticleric searching for it? Join us for next week's session of Cascabel!
Takeaways

This was my first session in a long while, and I felt a little bit rusty. The initial section, in which the party did a week of downtime in Chamrousse, went by slowly and awkwardly, in large part because the party wasn't fully acquainted with the downtime rules. Hopefully that will be remedied soon. 

Improvised NPCs continue to be my players' favorite part of sessions: the party is now very invested in Sinead and his romantic entanglements. 

I've tried to make this session report a bit shorter and more abstract: these take quite a while to write, and as a result I end up waiting right up until the next session to put them together, even though writing them is a big part of preparing for the next session. Hopefully I can build better habits around this. 

That's all I have for today. Until next time, have a great week, and keep warm!

Saturday, January 6, 2024

AD&D Session 6: A Blast from the Past

In the last session, the party aided a selkie clan against the evil, eel-like Maylorites, discovered, but did not wholly recover, the treasure of the last count of Clifton, acquired a tavern, and received a visit from a dangerous-seeming dragoon captain. What shall follow from these events? What hidden dangers wait in ambush? Join this week's journey to find out...

The Party

Norbeth Yelfiel, elf mage/thief with a periwinkle wide-brimmed floppy hat, played by Finn
    Heathcliff, black cat familiar
Akiva ben Moshe, beetlefolk fighter with a short ponytail, played by Ali
    Ermi, ratling thief
Agatha, human paladin with a smiling-masked samurai helm, played by Anne
Innus Entus, goblin cleric/fighter with a bishop's mitre, played by Cao Linh
Ingvar Duram, human cleric with an extravagant tricorn hat, played by Jackson
Nachman, human mage with an open-faced plain helm, played by Ali
Dany Mossé, human ranger with a spike-and-plumed helm, played by Finn
Precious, domesticated rat

Casualties
Party unity
Nachman (knocked out, recovered)

Loot
A deal with the dragoons
Scroll of invisibility, enlarge, mending
Coin XXI (turned in to the Cathedral Severe)
5k silver
6k gold
775gp gems
12500gp platinum jeweled crown
A holy mission

The Game

22 Low Summer 1113
  • A Zangaran dragoon captain, Captain Fen, had just appeared in the Cracked Flagon. As his soldiers blockaded the entrance with bayoneted steam rifles aloft, they made polite conversation. 
  • Fen informed Norbeth that the prior owner had reserved a bottle of Orscean absinthe in the cellar for him, and asked Norbeth if it was still there. Suspicious, Norbeth went down in the cellar and could find no such thing; on his return, he admitted as much. 
HEATHCLIFF NO!
  • Despite their worries, the dragoon captain dropped the issue entirely, produced a bottle of fine brandy and partook of it with the Order. He didn't flinch when Innus Entus purified it before drinking, either. He then informed the party that the cultists they had encountered in Stonehell, the Ultraviolet Flame, served his Emperor, the Witch King of Zangara (whom we determined looked something like Napoleon). Any action taken against them was action against the Emperor, and he would be duty-bound to stop that...
  • ...except that the cultists in this region belonged to a foreign division, and had decided to place their own influence and advancement over the emperor's interests. He shared information about the cultists'  operations, and their attempt to kidnap a warlock dwelling in Stonehell, a servant of the Duke of Bones. The party's meddling had quite befuddled the rogue cultists, and Fen offered the party compensation is exchange for any further... befuddlement. 
  • He and the party came to an agreement, and Fen left on business... but not before leaving behind a rather valuable scroll as thanks for their hospitality. 
23 Low Summer 1113
  • On an otherwise ordinary day, as Ingvar and Innus Entus pray and prepare for bed, they find their new spells are somewhat different than requested: both of them had an additional light spell. 
24 Low Summer 1113
  • Just a couple days later, on a rainy night after an unusual cold snap, the party heard a knock on the door of the Cracked Flagon. 
  • Outside, they found Liam of Beegrove, the young altar boy to Father Abernethy, who had given Ingvar a sealed box. Liam, shivering and wet, asked politely to be let in, and Ingvar let him through. The boy warmed himself on the fire and told them that Father Abernethy, who had just returned from a trip up the river, had sent him to get the box back.
  • Ingvar was prepared to hand it over directly, but Norbeth had a paranoid streak a mile wide, and kept the boy engaged in a long, personal conversation. Liam answered various questions about his dear aunt Martha... whom Norbeth had made up on the spot. 
  • In the guise of going to retrieve the box, Ingvar gathered the party in the tavern's upstairs and made a plan. Agatha was, at that moment, out giving instruction to the local militia, and they didn't know when she would be back. They armed up and confronted 'Liam'. The boy's sclera turned black, and spoke out in a raspy voice. 
Demon: One more thing I forgot to mention... Father Abernethy is dead.
  • They launched into battle. The boy's body collapsed, and a smoky shadow rose over him: eight feet tall but hunched over, with vestigial black wings, and upon its forehead, written in crimson numerals, the number XXI. 
  • Akiva and Innus Entus dove into melee, but found the creature difficult to damage, and though Ingvar protected himself from evil, he could not protect himself from the furniture it tossed about like toys. Its dark wings spread over the tavern, darkening the candlelight and striking them full of a dread fear. Then Ingvar remembered the previous night's premonition, and filled the room with light. 
  • The demon recoiled as the magic light burned it, and its fearsome aspect departed. Innus Entus joined in this, and Akiva and Norbeth now found the creature more solid and easy to hurt. Though it attempted to flee, it was cut down, and as the shadowy wisps dissipated, a single silver coin clattered to the ground. 
  • They attended first to Liam, who was out cold but bodily unharmed. As the boy recovered, he spoke of cleaning up the church late one night, only to be suddenly taken by darkness when he stepped out of the threshold. He also had fragments of memories not his own: a darkness striding across the road, Father Abernethy dead on the roadside like carrion. 
  • It was at this time that Agatha returned from her engagement with the militia, and found the Cracked Flagon in utter disarray. 

Agatha: What the hell happened here?
Norbeth: Never trust children!
  • The Order brought Agatha up to speed, and then made haste to the Clifton church, where they informed a vigilant priest about what had transpired. The priest was horrified, especially by mention of the coin.
Priest: Demons don't leave change!
Party: Well this one did!
Priest: I'm calling Father Caleburn. 
  • Soon, the Cracked Flagon was host of Father Caleburn, Clifton's chief exorcist, who was not at all happy to be dragged from his bed. With his aid, they secured the coin: it was a chunky silver piece, not unlike that used in the kingdom, but upon the head was an angular profile reminiscent of the devil Asmodeus, and on the tail was a depiction of Hell's open gate. In the ridge, a series of nicks made the numeral XXI. Given its size and weight, Ingvar suspected that Father Abernethy's box contained yet another coin of the same sort...
  • Father Caleburn told them that these were not just any silver coins... these were two of the Thirty, the thirty silver coins paid by Hell to the Nameless Traitor in days of yore. The coins had a special power: each could be used to buy any one thing that a person owned.  According to tradition, the first coin bought a city from the king which ruled it, the second bought the princess from her mother, the third bought an army's loyalty from a general, and so on. The twenty-first coin bought a tribe from a barbarian chief, who subsequently saw his people slaughtered for a minor offense. The traitor saved the thirtieth coin until the last day of his life, when the reaper came knocking. From death, he bought his life, and thus sought to escape Hell's grasp... but while the reaper sold him his life, his soul was forfeit. So it is said that the Traitor dwells in Hell, watching his still-living body walk the surface, a toy for whichever devil wishes to inhabit it. 
  • There is one more key to the story: each of the thirty people who took a coin were later corrupted into shadowy monsters bound to their coins. The twenty-first, which the party just faced, was among the weaker of the Thirty. 
  • Recognizing that they held two powerful evil artifacts, and that more of the Thirty were likely operating nearby on behalf of their infernal masters, the party decided to take the coins to the city of Cascabel and secure them in the holiest site in the region, the Cathedral Severe. 
29 Low Summer 1113
  • They set out the next day on their week-long journey, going west along the Hale river, crossing at Giantbridge, and looping back east to get to Cascabel city. Along the way, coincidentally on the night the Order passed through Giantbridge, they celebrated Akiva's birthday. 
  • Akiva also picked up a henchman along the way, a ratling thief named Ermi, with whom he had a great affinity. 
6 Mid Summer 1113
  • Arriving in Cascabel, the party heads directly for the Cathedral Severe, center of the faith in the Cascabel region. It's packed and busy, but with Father Caleburn's letter of introduction, they are able to receive an audience with Bishop Hailborough. 
  • The Bishop had received ill omens, and knew the party had something nasty for him. He confirms that the object in the box is another of the Thirty silver coins, and sends for both to be secured in the cathedral's vault. 
  • The party wants to know more about the coins and what can be done to stop them, so the bishop hands introduces them to High Inquisitor Michel, a great paladin from the Free Cantons visiting Cascabel for the Midsummer rites. Michel impresses on the party that the church's operations against the Thirty are a dangerous and secretive matter, and once involved, one will either see it through or be killed by it.
  • Norbeth and Akiva say thanks, but no thanks; they're rather more secular types, not likely to waste their lives on a holy suicide mission. Agatha, Innus Entus, and Ingvar accept. 
13 Mid Summer 1113
  • In the remaining days, the group enjoys the festivities as the city is celebrating two high holy says back to back. At the same time, Norbeth and Akiva take the Sheriff of Clifton's letter of recommendation and successfully apply to become a Free Company: now chartered by the crown, they have access to a great many privileges, including the right to bear arms and armor within walled cities; on the flip side, the kingdom can call them to war, and with the recent string of peaceful years it's unclear if things are quiet or if a war is overdue. 
  • By the 13th, the group splits. Norbeth and Akiva remain in the city, possibly to return to Clifton, while Agatha, Innus Entus, and Ingvar board a ship heading upriver with inquisitor Michel. They are joined by two other souls recruited by Michel: Nachman the mage and Dany Mossé the ranger. Dany and Agatha share some commonality, though they can't tell exactly what. 
14 Mid Summer 1113 (Team Holy)
  • The second day of their travels, the group traveling upriver (whom shall henceforth be called Team Holy, as opposed to Team Secular) finds their vessel slows to a halt on the wide river. Tendrils of algae swarm onto the deck, coalescing into humanoid mounds of vegetation!
  • The fight is joined, and though the mage Nachman is seriously wounded by a vegetable fist, he remains with the living. Innus Entus comes to the ship's rescue with his trident of fish control, burning a scarce charge to summon the perilous giant gar which infest the deeper waters to rip apart the creatures holding the boat to the river mud. These gar continue to escort the ship for some distance, warning off other opportunistic predators. 
  • With the creatures routed and the passengers safe, the Order picks through the remains and finds, against all odds, one of the vegetable attackers contains a hard-packed core; within that core is a disintegrating mummy, still carrying a jeweled scepter and precious metals. Inquisitor Michel celebrates this as God's favor, granting wealth to those who do not seek it. Even after the generous cut Michel takes for the church, the Order still acquires a great deal for their coffers.
15 Mid Summer 1113 (Team Holy)
  • The Order finally arrives in Chamrousse, the City of Bridges, on the 15th, Midsummer's day. Down the river, this is Crowning day, though here in the Free Cantons that event is much less revered. Brother Michel conducts the party to the palace of Count Claude Malevol (who is, despite the name, an all-around good fellow), where they meet his court wizard, Idred the Most Omniscient, his chief officer Boroth Swinney the Joyous, and his spymaster, Longo
  • In conversation with these august figures, the party learns of the events of ten years past: how the Thirty silver coins first came to influence these lands, how the treacherous anticleric Corby deceived them and stole away the Grayl of Good and Bad Destiny, and how what must be done. But that is a tale for another day...
  • Or, you know, for this blog's archives
  • The session concluded there. What mission awaits Team Holy? What will our more secular PCs do without religious supervision? And what was the deal with that hurricane, exactly? Join us for next week's session of Cascabel!
Takeaways

This report was waaaaaay delayed, mostly because I was quite busy on the tail end of the year. This was in large part because I was finishing House of Pestilence, but also for non-RPG reasons. Now, however, I'm back home and in-person gaming should soon commence anew!

I've had difficulty dialing in the rate of advancement in this campaign so far, and I thought this session would be lighter on treasure and xp to give the PCs some room to breathe so they aren't taking two-weeks breaks all the time to level. And then a random encounter drops something on the high end of treasure type D on them. Goes to show, the dice make liars of us all. 

As long-time blog readers will know, the players have just bumped into the old Castle Xyntillan PCs! Though this world was not at all developed when I ran that campaign, I've integrated its continuity into this one: the events of CX took place a decade prior, with considerable effects upon the region, and Corby has become a new opponent! The knock on effects of random decisions from years ago continue to influence my games, and I wouldn't have it any other way. 

The session dragged around the middle-end, mostly because, with the group split, two players made new characters which, contrary to my expectations, quickly had to fight a combat, and so there were periods of alternating play and character creation. Still, the fact it was possible to make characters that quickly does speak well to the system. 

I also feel that the end of this session was a bit too much of me talking and trying to get all this Important Narration out before a rapidly approaching close time. That one's just on me. 

I look forward to seeing how the campaign continues with party split in space and time, and likely in level as well. Though we're only a few sessions in, I feel that the premise of a grand campaign, with many characters, tangled webs of causation, and big nonlinear stories, is beginning to bloom. 

That's all I have for now. Until next time, have an excellent week.