Sunday, 28 May 2017

[REVIEW] The Fall of Whitecliff

[REVIEW] The Fall of Whitecliff
by Ben Gibson
Published by Coldlight Press

The Fall of Whitecliff
Imprisoned by Charl Rankin, the dastardly Castellan of the coastal fortress of Whitecliff, the characters must first escape from their predicament, and then exact their revenge on their captor while exploring a peninsula thrown into turmoil by repression, rebellious locals, shadowy interest groups, and an ancient secret. There is an entire starting-level mini-campaign in the module’s 22 densely written pages, which is arranged around nine adventure sites presented in the one-page dungeon format, and five supplementary pages that tie together the mini-campaign/sandbox.

Starting in a prison cell is a strong premise that gives a mostly non-linear sandbox scenario a useful focus in the form of immediate goals the characters can strive for, and a nemesis they will be all too happy to work against (there is some extra added value in the six pregenerated characters who all have different motivations to go toe-to-toe with the Castellan). This approach walks a fine balance between drive and freedom, although it also means much of the module’s content is closely tied to the Castellan’s machinations, and its adventuring potential is probably going to be fairly exhausted by the time the characters depose him.

The module’s strength lies in its sandbox approach. Letting the company work out their own strategy to topple Charl Rankin is accommodated by the way the different locales and factions are set up. Multiple groups on the peninsula have a stake in the Castellan’s fate, but actually getting rid of him for good is harder than you would expect at first: this complication requires the characters to find out more about their enemy and about the Whitecliff lands. The entire module has an interesting aesthetic and approach I wouldn’t classify as fully old-school. Rather, its roots lie in the early 3e era, before 3e adventure design was mostly overtaken by considerations of balance, mechanical experimentation and the heavily linear adventure path philosophy (this is a Pathfinder release, with conversion notes for 5e and old school games). It proves something I have advocated for a long while, namely that 3e can work well in the right hands, and where its excesses are trimmed back a little. There is also some neat flavour in the setting: it is believably frontier-like, and it is a good example of a points of light area.

Dense text
The module’s weaknesses lie in its format and presentation. Much effort was made to fit it into a tight package and place vital information at your fingertips via the one-page dungeon format, but to my eyes, the results show the limitations of this approach. The one-page adventure sites often feel sparse in their encounters – the detail which makes a place feel live and complex is reined in. It is not the author’s imagination or writing skills which are in short supply; rather, it is sticking to the one-page format which are limiting him. Flavour takes room to establish, and while some designers can impart it through a terse text, this doesn’t work in this particular module.

The advantages of having all information on a single page are also counterbalanced by the density and (ironically) inaccessibility of the text. Vital information gets lost easily in the densely packed small type. There are virtually no margins and very little white space since the space around the maps is filled with text, frustrating the GM’s own note-taking. Sometimes, the information is so condensed it is hard to follow (this extends to the supplementary pages dealing with campaign-level information).

Once again, I am not arguing against brevity, efficiency or innovative ways of presenting game-relevant information, but I find the module’s efforts self-defeating. You will need a highlighter if you want to find useful info in this module, just like you would need it in a traditionally written scenario. While reading through the module, finding information was not any easier than elsewhere. The dreaded two-column layout, while surely antiquated and uncool, has its advantages that help people process information. Margins and white space are not a waste of good paper, they have a purpose (even if I have my doubts about the extra-airy design you can see elsewhere). I feel like this is just too much. What would happen if the one-pagers were two-pagers instead? Would it really be the end of the world?

There are some rather neat additions at the end of the module where it is all fine: a list of twenty random encounters at one line each, and a table of fifty imaginative treasures which are assigned to the module’s random hoards. These are places where the supplement’s brevity works quite well, combining accessibility and efficiency with flavour. Elsewhere, being less dogmatic about the format would have been to the module’s advantage. Indeed, I would very much like to see more from Ben Gibson. But I would very much like him to let his material breathe a little.

No playtesters were credited in the adventure.


Rating: *** / *****

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

[REVIEW] Death in Reik Caverns

[REVIEW] Death in Reik Caverns
by Cactus Games Staff
Published by Cactus Games

Few gaming products I have read have been more deeply rooted in a certain time and place than this adventure module. Death in Reik Caverns was run as a tournament scenario at GEN CON 92’ for 7th to 11th level characters, and it is an interesting time capsule of the late 1st edition – early 2nd edition AD&D era. This was not the best time of adventure design; poorly playtested, overwritten and sometimes plainly non-functional modules ruled the official AD&D® landscape, while fan materials were neither as numerous, nor as interesting as a decade before. Much of the good practice of the 1st edition classics was gone. Death in the Reik Caverns is better than most of its official or home-made peers because it follows in the footsteps of good modules, but it can’t escape the typical flaws of its time.

Pastel Memories
The first thing about this module is the anonymity of its creators. It is published by Cactus Games, and credited to the Cactus Games Staff. Neither the author nor the cartographer or the illustrator – whose grotesque, sometimes bloody images are pretty funny – nor any other contributors are named despite the hefty 60-page size and the decent production values. There isn’t even a copyright notice. Do they still think TSR is out to sue them? Proudly identifying Death in Reik Caverns as a “1st Ed. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons / OGL” module, and setting it in the World of “Darkhawk” is a bit like tempting fate, but frankly, nobody cares anymore, and giving credit is the right thing to do. Also, am I the only one who immediately associates the title with WFRP's Death on the Reik?

The setup is not bad. Evil humanoids have been harassing the little market town of Breehaven, and although they have been beaten back so far, a recent change in leadership and organisation has caused them to become more dangerous and aggressive. This is pretty much Against the Giants, except there is a convenient time limit involved because the monsters have taken the whole village militia prisoner, and they are currently preparing to strike Breehaven and wipe it off the face of the Oerth. That’s nice: it establishes the stakes, gives the bad guys a plan, and tells the players to get their stuff together or there will be consequences.

Here is another straight out admirable thing about Death in the Reik Caverns: it is not afraid to be ambitious. It is a properly large, properly complex one-level dungeon with 85 keyed areas and a two-page map. It has a neat structure where there is an element of progression (gaining access to new areas via a few chokepoints) but also an expansive element of exploration. The caverns have multiple sub-sections, as well as a central underground lair formerly inhabited by a 30th level Wizard, and now occupied by the main baddies and their humanoid army. Now this is a dungeon. Having seen too many lair-sized efforts from old-schoolers with the usual fifteen-odd rooms, it is nice to see someone think a little bigger. This is not campaign-length, just large enough to allow for some proper exploration, and maybe getting lost once or twice in a while.

Day: ruined
The content of the dungeon is regrettably less interesting. There is functional but blandish boxed text that assumes too much (“Dozens of arrows start flying in your direction before you have a chance to do anything.”, “It all happens before you have time to react.”), and occasionally assumes the party consists of idiots (there is a long description of a kitchen followed by “This room is no doubt a kitchen.”, and a “Stone Golem Storage Room” where the text ends with “To your surprise, it comes to life and attacks.” – no shit, Gandalf). It is much less worse than late TSR boxed text that goes on and on for pages, but it is pretty bad. The main encounter entries also have a smirking thing going about red herrings and wild goose chases – it used to be funny to read how the players will think this or that empty room contains secret doors or valuables, but it got old many encounters and way more than 25 years ago. I am not entirely impressed by the way the module interprets the AD&D rules – I get the impression of a GM who is bending them in his own favour to an unfair degree with too many gotchas (mainly to make low-level monsters and traps more deadly for a high-level group), and applying them inconsistently to boot (some spiked pits work different than the others). These issues can be fixed.

The encounters are mostly a long succession of monster outposts, lairs (you can slaughter various kinds of humanoid women and children if you like), store rooms, traps and standard cabinet contents / dungeon dressing stuff. There is mundane trash and occasionally magical trash. Sometimes the combat encounters are memorable and clever, and if you like a lot of high-level tactical combat with hordes of dug-in enemies, this could be your module. If we evaluate it as a meat-grinder, it is a fairly decent one, although relatively little is made of the fact that this is a monster military waiting for the call to action. While the garrison in Reik Caverns is at full readiness (the monsters are all prepared and just a little too hair-trigger perfect in jumping to action as soon as the characters come close), there is no textual reference to lines of communication, contingency plans or working together. The humanoid groups just seem to await the time they are encountered, and don’t work as a cohesive group, or even as a grou with hidden enmities. (Although if they worked together, it would probably be a massacre.)

What is missing is the spirit of whimsy and magic which transformed the classic deathfests like Against the Giants (which, again, this is basically an homage to) or Keep on the Borderlands into something more than a combat scenario. There is none of the crazy mushroom forests, magic pools and elder god shrines with mauve pillars out of a different dimension that told you you were in a fantastic place, and hinted of a larger world beyond the dungeon. The Reik Caverns are just there. You explore this cavern system, but don’t actually discover anything worth discovering. It is almost all rationalised, mundane stuff, and when it is magical, it is over-explained magical realism – here is a room where the wizard received his visitors, here is where he left a wall of force, etc. No surprises, no memorable imagery: the best part is the place where the wizard has a floor of hexagonal tiles depicting the World of Darkhawk in minute detail, but that’s one room in a long, long series of dug-in monsters and traps.

To sum up, Death in the Reik Caverns does a bunch of things right, but can’t keep up the original good impression. In many ways, it is a typical 2nd edition AD&D dungeon with all the problems of 2nd edition era design. It was created in a period when the craft of adventure writing was at its nadir, and if it was evaluated in its original context, it would stand up pretty well. From the vantage point of a more fortunate age, its flaws are too apparent, and it offers too little to compensate.

Rating: ** / *****
Wait... How the fuck did I get here?!

Saturday, 6 May 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #08: The Griffin Lord

It was already dark and the flames were burning by the gates of Haghill when a tired and battered group of travellers asked for admittance. They were Gadur Yir the half-orc, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung the civilised Northman, the shadowy Franz Who Wasn’t Even There, and a short and pudgy little fellow who now called himself Phil the Terror of Turkeys. They were inspected by the night sergeant, until at last the man held out his hand: “It will be two silvers at night.
His eyes grew wide as Gadur Yir handed him an electrum coin: “So you are with them! Why didn’t you say so from the start?
Whatever the man meant, they were ushered through, and they could mingle with the crowds between the Mead Hall and the Treasury & Mint – as seasoned adventurers, careful to watch their purses as they made for the Dancing Basilisk. Someone else in the crowd was not so lucky. Cursing his misfortune after finding his bag of money gone, a shadowy form made for the side street, hoping to find either the thief who had wronged him, or at least employment to earn the money back.

***

The tavern’s common room was again crowded with revellers; local farmers, travellers; a sullen dark fellow by the fire, and an elegantly dressed man in a black, gold-embroidered coat. The company (minus Drolhaf, whose player was absent) sat down next to a newly freed table, and were surprised to find someone else sitting down with them.
Greetings!” came the cheerful call of a short dwarf with a braided black beard, a large sword on his back. “I would seek friends for a fine adventure. By the name of Haldor, would you be interested?
Gadur Yir blinked, then grinned. “Ha! I am none else but Haldor’s champion, my friend!
The dark fellow next to the fire looked interested, then sauntered to the counter to pay before leaving. The dwarf introduced himself as Balthasar the Elf-bane: “...and when I was just a tot, I was already beheading elves. I have fought in three of the dwarf-elf wars... the thirteenth, the fourteenth and the fifteenth.”

They drank and talked some more, until the conversation came to the subject of the abandoned mines. Balthasar was not the only one who was interested in the wild tales; among others, a portly traveller’s interest was also piqued.
I did not even know of these fabulous mines. Where did they lay?”
“They were...” Gadur Yir grimaced as Phil the Terror of Turkeys elbowed him in the gut. “They were to the north.
The stranger smiled and introduced himself as Bramerlic, a dealer in rare minerals. The conversation turned to business, and eventually, Gadur Yir struck a bargain: the stranger would examine the crystals they found in the mines the next morning. Franz, already a little tipsy, ordered the house’s strongest drink, the Gurgling Brew (“Kotyogó Fortyogó”); then, as the tavern owner came forward with the bottle, placed 200 gp before the man and the astounded guests as every eye tjrned towards their table.
Prepare a feast for tomorrow evening, invite everyone, and don’t you skimp on the food and the drink!

As they discussed the details, the mineral dealer, who was feeling drowsy, left, and his place was soon taken by the elegantly dressed man, who seemed much impressed by Franz and his gesture. His name was Eldiband, a judge who was travelling to Gont to oversee a land dispute.
I am from the Twelve Kingdoms, originally – I was asked to decide in this case because I am a neutral party with no interest in the quarrel – they wouldn’t even let the Baklin judges handle it” he recounted.
"Land dispute?"
"Some kind of old manor house, long abandoned - lots of claims, but all weak."
Feigning to be sleepy, Phil the Terror of Turkeys slipped below the table and examined the man’s belt. He was wearing a long, straight sword and a full money pouch.
And can you handle your sword, Sir?” asked Balthasar Elf-bane. “I mean: have you been free from threats and the like?
Why, that’s the reason I carry this”, smiled Edilband, failing to notice Phil as he put a pinch of confusion-inducing poison in his wine. Soon, he was thoroughly wasted, and Phil made away with the purse, which he discovered contained 50 pieces of silver, 80 pieces of gold, and a small pouch of cloves.

Haghill

The night was uneventful save for rattling noises out in the corridor and drunks banging on the doors. In the morning, Gadur Yir went down to the common room to meet Bramerlic the mineral dealer and make the deal, but Bramerlic didn’t turn up. Bored, he went to see the armourer and have his bent pauldron fixed. He paid in advance, but the armourer looked more sour than happy.
Your kind again, and your mud-covered electrums you dug out from one of those old graves! Truglag and Rothald’s kin in Haghill, making trouble!”
At last the half-orc could convince the fellow he didn’t know these people, and it was a case of mistaken identity. The complains continued to flow, and the armourer recounted how a tavern frequented by orcs and their kind seemed to have sprung up in the nearby Singing Caverns along with a bandit lair... a cave system whose depths held the untamed forces of nature.

Meanwhile, Phil and Franz paid a visit to the Haghill temple, an over-large and cobwebbed structure left over from the old days, and now used as a shrine to Filongar, the humble god of wayfarers and woodsmen. Father Bronk, a mild-mannered young man, bought the crystals Franz had pilfered from Gadur Yir and Drolhaf, and also had a few wares to sell: simple medicines for simple folks, a healing potion to the wealthy, and relaxing pipeweed for a pleasant mood.
And what do the spiders eat?” Greg asked, eyeing a spider that was almost his size.
Father Bronk smiled. “Large flies who venture into the church... occasionally bees.
Bees?
Plenty of them around. There is a strange man in the nearby caves who cares for them, the one we call The Beekeeper. Maybe he is touched by the gods, or maybe he is mad, but all the same – he is not one to cross!
Talk turned to Haghill, and the pair learned of something interesting. Right next to the church, there was a rectangular, windowless building called the Chamber of the Griffon, which nobody has entered in human memory. Many had tried its complicated locks and failed, and Sir Huberic of Haghill had announced that whosoever would solve its enigma was welcome to try, and gain from its riches.

Meanwhile, Gadur Yir noticed that Bramerlic still didn’t show up. Could he be so late? When the others were back along with Balthasar the Elf-bane, he called to the innkeeper to lead them to the man’s rented room – right across the corridor from theirs.
Mr. Bramerlic?” Silence. “Mr. Bramerlic, are you there?” No response.
I will bash down the door if he doesn’t answer.
Noooooo!
Quiet! We will buy you a new one.
The half-orc charged the door, which came crashing down. The room was a mess with everything thrown around haphazardly; there were traces of a struggle and Bramerlic, along with the blankets, was gone.
He must have been kidnapped!
Now it was the innkeeper’s place to protest: “But Sir! That can’t have happened in this inn!
Am I tired of this...” muttered Franz, and with a malevolent gaze and a few hand movements, hypnotised the fellow.
Now where is he?
Wha… whaaaa?
Where do your special guests sleep, knave?
The innkeeper shuffled along the corridor, and tapped a section of the wall. A narrow panel slid open, allowing entry into a tiny, cramped room with a cot, and no other exit.
Has anyone been there lately?
The gentleman from Gont… he showed the ring… the ring…
He could say no more. The bird – if he had anything to do with the mineral dealer – had fled.

***

Now that the crystal sale was off, Gadur Yir decided to make up for the lost opportunity at Filongar’s temple. He showed Father Bronk his piece of the enchanted flower, and took his offer for a cache of magical potions. He tried to ask for an audience at the residence of the local sage, Villofort the Wizard, but there was no answer, and the neighbours told him he wasn’t home. He also took a good look at the Chamber of the Griffon, examining the threefold lock and the three wafer-thin slots on the bronze gates. At last, he gathered the others, and walked over to the donjon at the northern end of the village to request an audience with Sir Huberic.

What a sight you lot are!” the fat autocrat laughed in his throne. Surrounded by bearskins, large hunting dogs and his close advisors, the master of Haghill listened to the introductions in a jovial but disinterested way. When Gadur Yir brought the subject to the chamber, he laughed, and said they were welcome to try and open the gates – but the whole village would be around to watch the spectacle. He also recounted how mighty fighters and clever thieves had failed, and how even removing the shingles from the rooftop only revealed a flat stone surface.
Maybe we will get in with the power of faith” proposed the half-orc.
That’s an original one!” smirked Sir Huberic.

Slightly later, a small army of sightseers gathered to see another group fail in some new and hopefully interesting way. Huberic and his retinue were there; the first on a large wooden throne, and the rest around him, all eager for a good show. And a show it was all right. First, Balthasar Elf-Bane made his try at uttering a prayer and rushing thegate, but it didn’t work. Then, Phil produced a bunch of delicate tools and tried to pick the lock, to no effect. The crowd was starting to get restless without entertainment. Franz Who Wasn’t Even There blended into the crowd and cast an illusion spell...

…A mighty griffon descended from the sky above the square. On its back rode an orc-faced angel who blew the horn in his hand, then exclaimed in a loud, resonant voice: “I am the bearer of the uttermost mysteries!
The villagers and pretty much everyone stood in awe of the spectacle. Then the angel spoke again, pointing at the scrawniest barefoot peasant kid in attendance.
He will be the one!
...and with that, the heavenly apparition was no more. Gadur Yir, collecting all his might and praying to Haldor, god of heroism, flexed his muscles, spat into his hands, then rushed the gate... ...and rolled a natural 20, which, together with his 18 Strength and a +1 from invoking the name of his patron, came up as an utterly impossible 24. The threefold lock slid open and the gate opened to the gasps and cries of the excited villagers.
The Pegasus Device
That’s something!” exclaimed Huberic, standing up in his wooden throne to see better.
Beyond the gate was a simple rectangular hall, its walls hung with several dusty old banners. On a central pedestal, there was a winged helmet with the stamped sign of a pegasus rider on a tiny shield, and a sword whose scabbard was decorated with griffons and twisting vines. Suddenly, despite the open way, nobody wanted to step forward into the hall and claim these treasures. There was an awkward silence.
He must enter!” cried Franz as he pointed at the kid.
Yes! He must enter!” came the cry from the crowd.
The boy, who looked tiny and stunned, stepped inside and, seeing that nothing had happened to him, reached for the winged helmet. An excited murmur went up as he turned around, the oversized helmet sitting lopsided on his head.
He is the one! He is the one!” the crowd went wild as he returned, and while Gadur Yir stepped inside to retrieve the sword.
Well, kid… what was your name again?” asked Huberic.
Little Greg.
From now on, let Little Greg be known as my own foster son, and I will raise him to be a mighty warrior for the time when he takes my place!
To the standing ovation of the crowd, the shocked Little Greg was lifted up, while Franz muttered to himself: “We will meet again, Little Greg... We will meet again.

That night, everyone in Haghill was eating, drinking and making merry. Huberic the Stout was celebrating the adoption of his son, and to the delight of the commons, Franz had also sponsored a feast at the Dancing Basilisk. This time, Huberic and his retinue had gathered on the lower floor of his tower, where the master of the village was throwing rings to the gathered guests – each member in the company, and others were richer by some valuable. There was some kind of scratching sound from below, and for a single moment, everything fell silent – there were rumoured to be things beneath the Tower of Torpid Terror, and Huberic had once sealed the lower entrances – but the moment passed, and the mood was merry again.

Let’s bring out the bear!” bellowed Huberic.
The bear! The bear! Bring out the bear!
A great brown bear in chains was dragged in by a group of guards, muzzled and its paws in leathers, but still powerful and dangerous.
Who shall wrestle it? To him I offer this ring!
Gadur Yir spat and grinned: “Why not?
They squared off, and the beast lunged, pinning the half-orc to the ground. A murmur rose in the audience of retainers and hangers-on. Phil the Terror of Turkeys quietly slipped under the table, and swiped the money pouch of a man who had just received a gemstone ring from Huberic. As for Franz, he had his own plans: quietly, he made his way behind Little Greg, and whispered into the boy’s ears.
What do you feel when wearing the helm?
Like a hero... leading an army!
Franz looked into the urchin’s eyes, and made a few hand gestures. “Don’t forget it – behind the griffin! You shall grant us special conduct.
Greg nodded in confusion while the bear squeezed poor Gadur Yir, who felt his bones crack in the vise of the beast – as Phil relieved another slack-jawed lackwit of his treasures. At last, six men pulled the bear back with a winch and its chain, and the half-orc was free. Huberic roared with laughter and threw him the beautiful ring anyway.
To Haldor, and heroism!” Gadur Yir raised his cup, to thunderous applause.

***

The morning after, Franz sunk into a fever dream of incense and visions, and saw himself wielding the sword found in the Chamber of the Griffon against a host of plant monsters. This was the famous sword of Tyr Wulos! (longsword +1, +3 vs. plants)

Shortly afterward – while most of the villagers were still sleeping – the company left Haghill and headed for the mysterious Singing Caverns across the river. They passed by a flowering meadow and a hut swarming with bees, and were soon standing before three cave entrances. Wind was blowing between the rocks, and this sound could be mistaken for faint singing. Balthasar the Elf-bane – who was outfitted with the company’s donations for a new set of armour – cast a light spell on his sword, and ventured forward through the middle entrance. It soon turned out that this passage was soon joined by the leftmost one, and they both lead to a small grotto with the burnt remains of a campfire, and a massive iron door barring further progress. The door had no keyhole, only a mesh on the top where bees were flying in and out, and three faces in bas-relief: one angered, one (painted by a previous explorer) sleepy, one laughing. Further examination revealed the faces could be turned around, and Phil ascertained the middle one was used most often but there were some suspicious grooves around it. Finally, Gadur Yir turned this face, and pulled away just before two protruding blades would have lopped off his fingers. It was Balthasar’s turn, who turned the face very carefully. The blades remained inside and the door opened.

The Singing Caverns

The grotto was followed by a cavern passage with several muddy footprints. Their trail lead north, but they decided to continue, then explore the southwest passage, the source of a wet earthy smell. The passage lead to a spacious cavern with multiple exits, lit up by massive mushrooms and overgrown with lush green vegetation. Finding nothing of value but some kind of black rot that was eating into some of the mushrooms, and a basketful of fresh raspberries (which Franz collected), they continued to the next cavern.

Great green leaves swayed in a gentle wind, and the smell of wet earth was everywhere. Among the plants, half-covered with colonies of moss, there was a primitive, half-hidden statue with three lips, waves indicating a hairy chest, and an enormous... club. Gadur Yir chose to investigate behind it, and found a crawlway behind it... but also found that the statue had moved and was intent on smashing him with its fist. Gadur Yir jumped back as the statue began to babble with its three mouths – capturing Phil’s attention, before he was saved by an audible glamer cast by Franz, the noise countering the babbling. The statue fought mercilessly and proved resistant to blows, but with some trouble (and Gadur Yir’s new magical weapon) it was at last brought down. The half-orc crawled into the hole on all fours, and, after poking his hand into some tarry substance, came back with a handful of bones and a palm-sized piece of metal forming a flat fish. There was nothing else here, but Balthasar’s detect magic – oriented on the crawlway – discovered the fish was at least magical.

They returned to the mushroom chamber, and proceeded north, into a roughly hewn west-east passage. To the west, the passage ended with a short flight of steps; from here, further stairs went down to the east, taking a turn to the north. Since they did not wish to descend even deeper, they turned west, feeling a slight draft and the smell of vegetation. Moss and plants grew on the floor of the passage, over the downward flight of steps further west and a small chamber to the north seemed full of them. Torn filaments of some kind littered the floor. This chamber – as Gadur Yir and Balthasar the Elf-bane found – also contained an open sarcophagus, overgrown with thin green vines bearing several finger-shaped pods. Two dusty, headless clay statues, of a large feline and a griffon, guarded the resting place. Bones and old linen seemed to rot inside the clay vessels. Gadur Yir turned back, stepping on a few pods, which split open as they crunched underfoot, and scattered their spherical  green seeds.
Peas? What the...” the half-orc grumbled, but his brooding was interrupted by the sound of heavy steps. Two crude stone statues emerged from the stairs, and attacked without hesitation. The statues were smaller and weaker than the one in the cavern, but the company was growing more exhausted, and both Gadur Yir and Balthasar were heavily wounded in the affair. In the end, Balthasar called out to Haldor to fill him with heroism, and dispatched both statues with a mighty series of blows.
Haldor is the greatest!” he cried.

Down the stairs, the passage turned northeast in a broad semi-circle. On the opposite wall were a series of carved glyphs, and a large depression, about two inches deep. Phil and Gadur Yir stood guard with lanterns while Franz and Balthasar began to decipher the runes.
H…A…L…T…A…N…D…
I hear some kind of scraping noise from the southwest” growled Gadur Yir.
“Wait, we are getting there… T…H…Y…W…E…I…G…H…T…”
Hey, I hear some kind of heavy rolling noise from beyond the wall!” Gadur Yir was getting nervous.
Almost there! I…S…H…A…L…L…
The wall exploded into a myriad clay and stone shards as an immense rolling boulder crashed through it. Phil and Gadur Yir cried out and jumped backwards into the stairway. For a split second, Franz considered the possibility of what would happen if his patron, the mysterious Edoran of the Threefold Moon, intervened in the cosmic balance and stopped the boulder in its momentum. But the stone rolled on mercilessly, causing 26 points of damage and crushing Franz Who Wasn’t Even There and Balthasar the Elf-Bane under its massive weight.

The boulder rolled down the passage and crashed into something with a distant thud. Phil and Gadur Yir emerged to take a look at the carnage. There was an upwards, sloping semi-circular passage where the wall used to be. Nothing remained of Balthasar but a reddish smear and the ring he got from Sir Huberic. Nothing remained of Franz but a similar smear and the small basketful of raspberries, which he had inexplicably flung aside before he was crushed. Gadur Yir said a short prayer over the place as Phil watched – there was nothing left to bury properly – and they turned back towards the passage leading outside to the blooming meadows, and the walls of Haghill.

(Session date 7 April 2017).

***

Notable quotes:
I will take favoured enemy: doors.

Don’t panic, that’s just corpse grease on your hands.

My next character’s name will be ‘Why The Fuck Do You Care To Ask?’

If I see an inscription, I don’t expect it to kill me!

***

Referee’s notes: That escalated quickly. Starting with a few plot hooks on what was designed as a stopover with perhaps a little dungeoneering thrown in (I finally mapped and stocked the Singing Caverns!), the session culminated in “breaking” the Chamber of the Griffon and establishing Little Greg as Haghill's future ruler, then ended unceremoniously with an easy to avoid newbie trap.

The Chamber was one of the throwaway mysteries which could crop up later in the campaign, with a gate obviously meant to be opened by “plot items”. But what do you do when your players best it through inspiration and luck? When making his foolish and doomed attempt, Gadur Yir combined a natural 20 roll, his 18 Strength (+3), and the divine favour granted by invoking the name of Haldor (+1), and just barely beat Heroic difficulty (24) – something practically impossible with ability checks. I was prepared to laugh at the characters making fools of themselves – and Franz’s illusion could have easily been exposed as a fraud by Huberic’s court wizard – but the combination of events was so improbable, so utterly fantastic that it could not be anything but a resounding success. When you are given this kind of chance, you roll with it – and with that, the party gained a powerful ally, and Sir Huberic an adopted heir (whom I kinda imagined as Barron Trump).

Franz’s success was relatively short-lived. Establishing himself as the future power behind the throne (both figuratively and literally), and gaining a level after secretly throwing a lavish feast for the commons, he was flattened by a boulder trap designed with a beginner dungeon in mind. His great coup went unnoticed, and most of the commoners never even knew who had invited them. He died as he lived: as Franz Who Wasn’t Even There. Although, to be precise, the money was borrowed from Gadur Yir and Phil the Terror of Turkeys, just like Balthasar the Elf-bane’s new chain armour, which produced a lousy ROI if something ever did.


Finally, this adventure also marks the return of the sword of Tyr Wulos! This magical longsword +1 (+3 vs. plants) has a long and storied history. The item was named after a low-level fighter in our 3.0 campaign who was killed by a shambling mound, in the same adventure that claimed Grond the bugbear monk (my character), Morgos the dwarf fighter, Panther the barbarian/sorcerer (played by Phil’s player some 16 years ago!), Eldon the Purse the hobbit thief, and Valmard Levandell the sorcerer. In our Fomalhaut campaign, the sword was taken up by the fighter Gwyddion, who had received it from Panthozar, the priest-king of Khosura, at the behest of his advisor, the treacherous Taramis, Daughter of Zafar (she was very grateful for the assassasination of her rival and her return to the priest-king’s favour). Gwyddion carried the sword through the rest of the campaign, which was lost along with him in the cataclysmic detonation of a 35-megaton chromatic warhead and the destruction of the city of the Last Men. Now, chance has brought it into this campaign, and who knows where it will go.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

[BLOG] The Smell of Chicken Guts: The Unlikely Hero of the Hungarian Old School

How do you sell the idea of old-school gaming in a country where few had heard of role-playing games before 1990, virtually nobody before 1985, and where their popularity only took off in the decidedly not old-school 1990s? The question has probably been pondered by everyone in Hungary who has enjoyed and tried to spread this game style. A few old gamers (and this means someone who had first met AD&D before 1993) can point at an indistinct legacy of home campaigns, early game magazines and naïve fantasy. More can recall to the Fighting Fantasy series, which had enjoyed incredible popularity for a few years and spawned numerous professional, semi-professional and homemade imitations. Sometimes, it is easy enough to bring up Howard and other sword & sorcery classics. But for a certain gamer generation, my best bet has been to say, “It is a bit like the Chaos novels.” It is a code word, and most of us know its meaning instinctively.

Let’s return to the early 1990s. One of the important (sometimes beneficial, sometimes detrimental) features of this period in fantasy fandom was the combination of exploding demand combined with very inadequate supply. Before 1990, Hungary had been ruled by hard, speculative science fiction with frustrated literary ambitions and few compromises towards soft SF. Fantasy was right out. The Lord of the Rings, a major popular hit, was released by a proper non-genre publisher, despite its rejection by the literary establishment (including its translator, the future president of Hungary between 1990 and 2000, who had once referred to it as “the world’s largest garden gnome”). But suddenly, as things came apart, nothing was off-limits. Genre fantasy and other pulps, then including science fantasy, UFO literature, pornography, action novels, bodice rippers, New Age manuals, ancient astronauts and who knows what else, started to appear as a trickle and then as a deluge, mostly by grabbing the works of authors who were too distant or too dead to protest about their royalties. Somewhere in that colourful, excited rubbish was John Caldwell’s The Word of Chaos.

A Classic
The Word of Chaos – with the phenomenally ugly cover of its first edition – quickly became a hit, and was followed by the publication of Caldwell’s other books. In a few years, it formed a pentalogy (The Heart of Chaos, The Year of Chaos, The Chaos of Chaos [you might get the idea someone was running out of the titles] and Chaos Unleashed), and established itself as one of the popular fantasy series in Hungary. It was only a few years later that most of us learned that “John Caldwell” had never existed, and was the pseudonym of Hungarian pulp fantasy fan Istvan Nemes all along. Like his contemporaries, Nemes – who had worked as a programmer in various odd jobs, and was long involved in SF fandom – chose the alias for marketability. English genre authors, thought to be more authentic, commanded more respect and sold much better, while Hungarians were just not taken seriously. In time, Nemes also turned out to be several other people, including Jeffrey Stone (whose Trilogy of the Night is the best damn magic-meets-technology novel ever written, and the work “Melan the Technocrat” comes from), David Gray, Mark Wilson, and even more, including Julie Scott, Audrey D. Milland and Julia Gianelli (these were for the bodice rippers). Conversely, to add to the naming confusion, Wayne Chapman, the author of In the Month of Death and Flames in the North, the other major fantasy darling of the early 1990s, turned out to be two people working under a common pen name – and it was not much of a surprise when a third (in)famous fantasist specialising in dark and visceral historical fantasy, “French-Canadian” Raoul Renier, also turned out to be a domestic product in the person of Zsolt Kornya, a protégé of Nemes of the eighteen pseudonyms. But back to our main subject.

The magic of The Word of Chaos (and the early Chaos books in general) is easy to understand. It is adventure fantasy in the finest tradition, and to those in the know, it was immediately obvious that it was closely based on AD&D – from its distinctive character types to specific spells (which are memorised by the protagonists, a tell-tale sign if there ever was one), it was all there, and it read like the transcription of a long-running campaign. And what a campaign! This game featured classical adventuring including daring raids on a pirate ship, the search for a powerful and lost magic spell (the titular word of chaos, something of a mixture between confusion and power word: kill), dungeoneering, plane-hopping and city intrigue. It never hesitated to kill off its characters, even beloved ones, or yank the carpet from below their feet. In the best picaresque tradition, it was full of ups and (a lot more) downs, playing out in a dangerous and corrupt world full of uncertainties.

But what gave the stories their own charm was the double-dealing and backstabbing that never happened properly in the dead boring Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books. The Word of Chaos featured an ensemble cast of treacherous assholes who were bound together by nothing more than chance and external circumstances, and proceeded to plot against each other each time the GM seemed to have left them to their own devices. Intriguingly, it was not the real evil characters who came across as total scumbags, but mostly the good-aligned and neutral ones, who would just as readily kill you as anyone else, but they would do it in the name of goodness and decency. Druids, in particular, were portrayed as sanctimonious fanatics who will never hesitate to murder someone “for the cosmic balance” or some other sick prophetic ideology. When you meet these guys and girls, you’d better have your weapons ready. (If there is anything specifically Hungarian about the novels – and considering they were born of a fascination with western cultural imports, there isn’t much that’s readily apparent – it is this utter disdain for corrupted idealism, and a general sympathy for underdog characters caught between massively powerful hostile forces.)


Fighter/Cleric 3/2, AC 6, flail 1d6+3
Which brings us to the core feature of the series: the Chaos series is written from the point of view of the bad guys. In the eternal war between Order and Chaos, Nemes put his money on the side we are accustomed to see as antagonists. It is no great hero or naïve farmboy who is used as the viewpoint character, but a smelly, cynical, questionably aligned and not particularly heroic half-orc fighter-cleric. Skandar Graun, the hero of the series, walks into the novel as a low-level scoundrel, and while he has an epic destiny of sorts (among many others which, however, remain unfulfilled), he is little more than a crude brigand with a low cunning and a hope of making it big. Skandar Graun is likeable precisely because he is an asshole – although an underdog asshole. He cheats, fights and betrays his way through the series, performs human sacrifice for his patron, Yvorl, god of Chaos (Fiend Folio reference!), summons slaads (and again...), misleads and steals from his companions, and he has a singular important ability – he has a penchant for being the last man (well, half-orc) standing when the excrement hits the fan.

When we meet him, we are introduced to Skandar Graun through this passage:
“When he recalled his shameful deed, he angrily bit off a piece of the wooden mug. What a dumb mistake he had made, he scolded himself. How could he be so senseless to crush not just the traveller’s head with his club, but also flatten his beautiful bronze-studded helmet! He hadn’t made a mistake like that in years. Afterwards, he had tried in vain to repair the dented helm, but it could not be helped. So did Skandar Graun inherit the stranger’s good steel sword, his dangerous spiked flail, three throwing daggers and his bag of money; along with a shield and a lordly set of armour – but his hairless brown head would go uncovered. To make his misfortune even worse, the man’s cordovan boots wouldn’t fit his enormous feet no matter how much he prayed and cursed – although he had tried both. What more could he do? He stuck with his old, battered and hole-riddled boots which had accompanied him since forever. Well, at least he was used to them, and they didn’t stand out much from his usual attire: his grease-stained, hairy leather pants hung dirty from his waist, and around his knees, they were riddled with hazelnut-sized holes to provide ventilation. And we should not think his glinting armour would stand out much from his tattered clothes. To soften the baronial effect, Skandar Graun didn’t discard his beloved old black cloak, which he had inherited ten years ago from his foster father, and which had since assumed the effect of camouflage through several tears and unidentifiable stains. The cloak also had an advantageous feature by reeking of the smell of chicken guts, suppressing the disgusting human odour emanating from the victim’s freshly acquired shirt.”
This was clearly heady stuff, neither Drizzt nor Sturm and Caramon, who had always struck us as colossal bores and suckers (especially in comparison). All of us wanted to be Skandar Graun or someone like him in our games. Well, or at least Yamael, the mysterious, taciturn, mint-chewing half-orc assassin, another one of John Caldwell’s characters... or Marlena, the treacherous elven thief... or someone else from the long series of treacherous lowlifes inhabiting the pages of his book. There were several of them, as the series cheerfully went through characters like a shredder, replacing them with newer and newer anti-heroes from a revolving cast.

But by the time we got the idea, playing Skandar Graun or his demon-worshipping friends and enemies was no longer an easy option. As it turned out, they had come from an earlier, more risqué and titillating era of Advanced Dungeons&Dragons, full of demonic statues with gemstone eyes, poison, deadly illusions, half-orcs, assassins, half-orc assassins, naked chicks with bat wings, anti-paladins and devil-worshipping clerics. The campaigns serving as a basis for The Word of Chaos and its sequels took place around 1986 and 1987, while the game in town around 1992 and 1993 was the bowdlerised 2nd edition AD&D. This was the “Angry Mothers From Heck” era, the TSR Code of Ethics era (see my comments under this post), the patronising “let’s protect the kids and their impressionable little minds” era. It was almost the same game in body, but it was obvious to us it had been robbed of its spirit and authenticity. The fuckers had stolen our half-orc assassins and fighter-clerics, and given us worlds we immediately recognised and wrote off as phony imitations; they tried to blind us with “official” AD&D novels which never compared favourably to the earthy colours and dark wit of the Chaos series.

We would play with what we had, but we sure envied those older people who had access to the exciting stuff, real AD&D – and sometimes, in the fan translations that circulated in the gaming scene in the form of worn photocopies, we could find a hint or two of what had been; perhaps an alternate class, perhaps a few pages of interesting magic items. Mind you, this was pre-Internet: I would not see an authentic demon-idol 1st edition PHB until 1997, and at the time, it was selling for the local equivalent of a hundred dollars – tantalising, but out of reach. At the same time, the Hungarian gaming scene itself was changing, and AD&D was mostly supplanted by M.A.G.U.S., a locally written game (on which I may write later), which, despite its many problems, offered some of the interesting adult themes we were interested in.

The Secret Ingredient
Many years later, acquiring the genuinely old-school modules and supplements, and getting to know the actual personalities involved in the original Chaos campaign, revealed more pieces of the puzzle. The GM behind the original games, it turned out, had been the same “Raoul Renier” who had later made a name for himself as an author of dark historical fantasy and a vocal RPG critic – at the time bitterly and vehemently opposed to Gygaxian AD&D. But, even more intriguingly, I began to discover that the seminal Word of Chaos was actually based on two very identifiable modules, beginning with The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (although its role is only episodic in the book’s original edition), and largely playing out in The Secret of Bone Hill, featuring much of its sandbox environment from the town of Restenford to the ruined keep and its dungeons. This was a revelation not just because it put a concrete place behind our favourite teenage reading material, but because it showed us how much more the book (and presumably, the campaign it was based on) had given us beyond the bare module. Bone Hill’s throwaway NPCs were spun into fully realised characters: Locinda the half-orc, a minor mercenary NPC, appears as Bloody Lucy, Skandar Graun’s long-term love interest; the wizard Pelltar becomes Peltar, a servant of Order and the half-orc’s implacable nemesis; Restenford is a bustling place of intrigue and danger, and as for the ruined castle and its dungeons on Bone Hill, it is much more cool when it is used in the novel’s showdown than it appears in writing (and it is not too shabby that way). Now here was a proper way of using game materials – something nobody had shown us properly in the 2nd edition era.

Of course, Skandar Graun’s adventures continued – first in the initial pentalogy (these short novels total maybe 700 or 800 pages altogether), and then through several more books. As they proceeded, the books’ connection to actual play grew weaker – the second novel, The Heart of Chaos features an extraplanar quest through the mad plane of Limbo (structured as a multi-level “dungeon” reversing many AD&D concepts – good mind flayers and evil silver dragons, and another treacherous adventuring party), while the rest deal with the war between Order and Chaos. Our favourite half-orc, who starts out as an unknowing pawn, eventually ends up getting fed up with the crap he is given so much he ends up knocking over the game board, more as a form of ultimate protest against all the misfortune and death he had been surrounded by than in the hopes of actually accomplishing something. Apparently, it was at the early stages of this campaign arc where the original Skandar Graun had died, and the rest of his stories have less connection to gaming – although they still make for good reading material. The less said about the later sequels the better: – they felt like the series had finally succumbed to burnout and a breakneck pace of writing, descending into self-parody in an embarrassing way that still leaves a bitter aftertaste. Ultimately, the series was also made into a fairly lacklustre and ponderous RPG (that didn’t quite have the adventurous charm of the original series), and even a badly botched CRPG (which, as it often happens in the externally funded Hungarian computer game industry, was shut down by its publisher halfway through its development and released as a buggy, half-finished mess).


But that’s not the reason we still remember Chaos. The ultimate essence of these pioneering stories shines just as brightly as it has always done: after all, they are our stories, and they represent fantasy just the way we have always liked it.


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #07: The Enchanted Flower


Looking down at the mountain-surrounded valley with its idyllic meadows and forests, Greg the Rat-catcher repeated his ominous warning: “This all looks too good to be true. We should be careful.
Shall I guide you? I know a thing or two about the wilderness”, countered Gadur Yir.
They made their way down the rocky mountainside, until they spotted movement next to a large boulder. Creeping forward, Greg observed a tall, fair-haired and bearded elf, walking as if dazed – dried blood and dirt on his face. Deciding he was no enemy, they quickly surrounded the traveller and demanded he introduce himself.
I am Dawn of the Southern Climes. [A poor translation of the much more flavourful Délszaki Hajna – G.L.] I… don’t know where I am – only a heavy blow on my head, and then nothing. Are you my companions?
Now just a moment!” protested Gadur Yir. “We barely know each other!
Forgive me – even my armour seems to be lost... May I come with you for a while?
The more the merrier!” grinned Greg “My name is Jan Quietstep. Right this way...

***

The Valley Beyond the Mountains

They approached the dense forest, full of birdsong, moss and tangled undergrowth. A narrow path disappeared among the ancient trees. The half-orc and Drolhaf Haffnarskørung took the lead, followed by Franz and Dawn, while Greg stayed in the back, looking more for mushrooms than an ambush from behind. They did not have to go far before the path broadened and opened into a clearing. A standing stone, perhaps the height of a man and then some, stood among the bushes.
Carvings!” Drolhaf examined the three crude figures on the mossy surface. “And runes?
The letters were crudely etched, but Drolhaf and Dawn figured them out: “MYSTERY”.
Are these druidic signs?
Who knows? It is a hidden land... everything is possible.

The Standing Stone
At Franz’s urging, they pressed forward. The forest here was choked with ferns, exhaling fog and wet smells. Suddenly, the floor of the path gave way, and while Gadur Yir could grab a branch in the last minute, Drolhaf disappeared into a dark opening with a muffled exclamation. Examining the treacherous fall, they saw darkness – but to their relief, there was movement down below, and the Northman called for a rope. They dragged him out of the mossy sinkhole, and he brandished his find – an old electrum torc he had found among the stones, along with broken bones and ancient spear tips.
We should cover the pit so we have a trap if we are pursued” suggested Gadur Yir, and Jan quickly set out to tie together a few ferns to make it happen. He also grinned as he stuffed two fat mushrooms into his pack: “Angels’ lament! A good poison always comes handy.

The path soon turned northwards, entering a clearing. Mysterious birdcalls sounded in the distance, off in the trees. A lone statue wearing a mossy cowl stood here, looking towards the west.
Are these the stations of a ritual pilgrimage? Perhaps the pit was a place to offer sacrifices” Greg mused aloud, then pointed at the base of the stone figure. “Look!
A black substance like pitch had been recently smeared on the stone, and there were bundles of animal hair and leather strings at its base. “Let’s get going.

There were two paths, on to the north and one to the west. Following the statue’s gaze, they chose to investigate the western trail, which lead closer to the steep mountainsides. Dead branches crunched underfoot, and birdcalls came from all directions. An unclean, repulsive reek permeated the air. The birdcalls grew louder, there was a rushing sound in the old growth from all directions, and horrible monstrosities, giant-sized birds with dead eyes and brown feathers on their rotting flesh shambled forward. The hooting corpse birds attacked from all directions, and Drolhaf was soon staggering from multiple wounds, made worse when Dawn of the Southern Climes accidentally shot him in the chaotic mêlée. But soon, the company stood victorious in a circle of their assailants.
Wait... It is not over!” whispered Greg, and soon, the others could also hear the approaching sounds of a heavy bulk pressing through the undergrowth. Attracted by the noise or the smell, a great stag beetle the size of a table arrived, waving its enormous pincers.
Just watch me. I can tame this beast and we will have a loyal steed” Gadur Yir grinned, and approached the heavy monstrosity with a food ration in his hand. Unfortunately, the bug was less interested in the bait than the massive half-orc, and rushed him, delivering a vicious bite.
Drop your horned helmet!” called Greg “Maybe it has mistaken you for its female, and wants to mate with you!
As Gadur Yir struggled with the stag beetle, Drolhaf came to his aid, but stumbled in a root and went below the feet of the behemoth. Finally, after blow after blow were rained on the bug’s carapace, the Northman freed himself and flattened the beast with a heavy blow. “This is how it is done.

***

The trail continued, and emerged into a larger clearing at the foot of the looming mountains. On top of a small mound was another standing stone with carved runes, and the mound itself was dotted with perhaps a dozen burrows and tight entrances. Dawn of the Southern Climes and Drolhaf Haffnarskørung climbed up to decipher the signs as Franz, Greg and Gadur Yir stood watch.

Caution was a good idea. Greg soon spotted a small, thin figure emerge from a burrow and try to stalk the pair by the standing stone. He took a dagger from his belt, and threw it with deadly accuracy. The thin figure went down with a guttural shriek. Examining his prey, he saw a dirty and thin child, with long limbs and sharp teeth, an unnatural glint in its eyes. There was excited chatter under the mound, and Franz, who had just had enough, lit and lobbed a flask of oil down another burrow. There was an explosion, yelps of pain and cursing. Smoke streamed from multiple openings, and some half a dozen more children streamed out, fleeing into the undergrowth. Greg caught two more with his daggers, and Gadur Yir grabbed one to interrogate it, but he only received a few kicks and guttural shrieks for his trouble, so he let it go. The last feral child disappeared among the fleshy leaves of the undergrowth.

At last, Dawn and Drolhaf deciphered the runes: “HE WHO THE WANDERING FOREST SHALL MEET, SHALL FOLLOW THE NORTHERN MOON’S PATH, THE OLD HID A GREAT SECRET THEREIN, WHICH EVEN IN THE NON-WORLD SURVIVES.” None the wiser, Greg – who was roughly the childrens’ size – climbed into one of the burrows. The passage ended in a common room full of small, hideously burned bodies. The walls were reinforced with roughly carved stones, and there was a looted sarcophagus along with a large, ancient brass bowl filled with thousands of copper pieces. The rest of the treasure consisted of the feral childrens’ things – dead birds with broken wings, berries, strangled small critters. He left the dead and their belongings where they lay.

Writing on the Stone

***

It was late afternoon by the time they returned to the clearing with the hooded figure, choosing the northern path. Greg’s nose picked up a peculiar smell, and he disappeared into the ferns, returning with a handful of pungent-smelling mushrooms.
What are these for?” protested Drolhaf. “That smells like dogshit!
This is an Old Duke!” Greg grinned. “Want a bite? It is edible!
Leave those things alone... we have better things to do.
The sounds of a stream could be heard nearby, and the company found a place where multiple paths converged. A stone bridge rose over the waters, and large leafy plants nodded on the shores. Crossing cautiously, anticipating an ambush that did not come, they found the sign of an arrow carved into a tree, pointing to the north.
Could this be a way to lure us into a giant ambush?” asked Gadur Yir, then looked again as he was joined by Drolhaf. “No. Of course not. A giant wouldn’t cut it so low. Let’s get going.

The trail turned northeast, and soon lead to another clearing covered with leafy plants, moss, and fallen trees. In the afternoon sunshine, Gadur Yir could make out another arrow, pointing northwest, and a second path to the northeast, leading in the direction where they had anticipated the lakes they had spotted from the mountains.

Gadur Yir and Drolhaf shrugged, and advanced forward. A splash and a great sucking sound, and they both disappeared below the surface of the clearing – muddy water covered with a layer of moss and algae! They struggled to free themselves, but just as they surfaced, there was the sound of a *whoosh* and a bush at the edge of the clearing fired two thorny stalks at the unfortunates. Greg and Franz, both weak, cowered behind a tree to avoid the missiles, while Dawn of the Southern Climes produced a flask of oil and lit the wick… but the bottle exploded in his hands, burning him just as two missiles struck him on the chest! He ducked behind a tree, cursing. The Northman and the half-orc were in serious trouble. Finally, while the two held onto a log in the mud, and slowly tried to crawl ashore, Greg came to the rescue. Sneaking from tree to tree and avoiding stray missiles, he took another oil flask and burned the bush to the ground.

***

Most everyone was wounded now, and evening was approaching. Deciding to investigate closer to the lake, they chose the unmarked path to the northeast. It lead, through the dark woods, to a small clearing. Delicate flowers swayed and bobbed everywhere, and the cool air carried a pleasant scent – of mint, camphor and stranger perfumes. In the middle of the place, atop a slab of stone, there was a statue depicting a curious being: it had the upper body of a beautiful, naked woman with waters trickling from its smiling mouth, and the lower body of a lion with a lizard’s tail. An opened peacock’s tail rose above the strange stone figure. The earth was wet where it absorbed the trickle of water, and dragonflies flew above the clear puddles. Dawn made out letters – regular ones – in the stone:
“IN MY LAP GROWS THE YOUNG FLOWER OF THE WOODS,
MY HEART OFFERS THE RAINBOW’S SEVEN HUES,
‘TIS JUST MY SECRETS, STRANGER, YOU SHOULD NEVER SEEK,
THE KEY OF MY MYSTERY I WILL RETAIN WITH ME AND KEEP”

The Mysterious Statue
The rainbow’s seven hues?” Franz placed seven flowers of different colours before the mysterious statue, and held out a flask as a green, scintillating liquid poured forth.
Still not the flowers we are seeking – but remember the bard Tomurgen’s warning that we would only find it at night by its light? It is almost sundown – let’s wait a little.
They settled in the clearing, and ate some food as the Sun disappeared behind the western mountain range and the sky grew dark. Stars appeared above, and as the night surrounded them, they saw different points of light start to glow between the statue’s paws. Delicate leaves and flowers sprouted, pulsing with interior radiance. Remembering Tomurgen’s cautionary warning – “He who reaps it shall take its blood / But he who pulls shall with his anoint
Greg carefully cut a handful with his blade. “This should be enough. I think it would be very dangerous to take more than we…” Gadur Yir, grinning, was already there, cutting a bunch for himself and hiding it in his pack. “...have already taken.
Dawn of the Southern Climes warned: “I don’t think we should stay here. Let’s get going.
We should avoid going back to that mud-pit. Let’s cross the forest and go southwards until we reach the stream, then get back to the bridge” suggested Gadur Yir, already walking towards the trees.

***

They passed through the undergrowth in the dark night. The ground grew soggy and treacherous, and they were getting closer to a body of water – at least judging by the reeds and other marsh plants.
Are we sure we are going in the right direction?
Gadur Yir nodded “Of course! I always know where I am going.” [Except when he rolls a natural 1 on Wilderness Lore.]
Funny, I don’t like the way that willow over there looks like.”
Yeah, let’s not linger. This way!” [Ends up going North instead of South.]

After a long struggle and cursing, they emerged on an unfamiliar trail. From the right, they heard the guttural sounds of some kind of revel in the distance and saw the light of jumping flames shining through the forest. At least the way to the left was dark and quiet, even if it was in the wrong direction. Indeed, after a short time, they saw lights again, and, dousing theirs, approached a fork in the trail lit by flickering candles. Another mossy standing stone stood here, its base heaped with upturned human and animal skulls filled with tallow and lit with wicks.
What’s that sound?” Greg whispered. “I hear approaching sounds.

They quickly hid in the undergrowth, right as five large black shapes shambled into the clearing. By their reek and rotted feathers, they knew them to be the same corpse birds they had fought before; but hiding was no use – the undead horrors simply struck for them, and the fight was on. Gadur Yir fought desperately, but he fell in a single hit. Franz cast colour spray at the monsters, but to no effect, and was himself cornered. Greg shrieked and fled into the forest, followed by two of the dead avians which seemed to be right on his trail. Thinking quickly, he darted ahead, making a large circle in the woods to shake off the pair of pursuers and return to the others, who had just finished the rest of the attackers.

Deciding to make camp in a secluded depression, Greg ordered everyone to avoid making a fire, just in case the revellers or anyone else would come to investigate.
We can slip by them after dawn, when they are asleep” he suggested.
The caution was well rewarded when, shortly after they lay down, the lookout heard an approaching group on the path. They saw maybe a dozen hunched, dark shapes before the standing stone, and heard high-pitched voices.
Slain and killed! Intruders are afoot!
Another countered: “I shall suck the marrow out of their finger-bones!
Where? Where????
I smell them not! This corpse-reek upsets my nose! Pfeh!
Let’s go now. I will not stick mine into the affairs of the elder brothers. Let them deal with it, they shall.
And with that, the group was gone. But not for long: barely had the company rested a few more hours, they heard riotous singing and more footsteps. This group also seemed taken aback by the slaughtered bird corpses, but one of them seems to have smelled something else.
What’s that? What’s THAT?! I smells it, I do!
Smells you what?
I shall find it. Come, brotherkin, into the bushes!
Greg was quick to react. Reaching into his knapsack, he produced the two smelly mushrooms and threw them a little distance from the camp.
Eh? What’s that there?” came an excited question.
Damnit and curses! Just another of those shrooms! I thought I had…
Feh! You and your findings! Let’s be gones now.
They sighed a collective breath of relief as the drunken company’s sounds grew distant. Greg crept out and examined their footprints – long and clawed, they were obviously not left by goblins.
We really should be going” he said.

***

The way back towards the cave mouth was along the beaten path, and only disturbed by a pack of giant, colourful butterflies, which they avoided by giving them a wide berth. On the mountain slope above the forest, they rested some more while Greg put out rabbit traps. At last, the day after, they returned to the abandoned room complex. They passed through the ominous rooms, leaving behind the tempting golden chalices resting on top of the ancient sarcophagi. At last, they were at the foot of the stairway going up to the upper level... but the way forward was blocked! A transparent figure stood there with crazed eyes and an unkempt beard. Recognising an opponent they had no chance of hurting, the members of the company ran where they could. Gadur Yir cowered behind the stone throne, while Franz ran back downstairs into the hall of the dead, followed by Dawn of the Southern Climes. The apparition gave pursuit, and Franz snapped his fingers, turning invisible. Dawn emerged to dodge it and rejoin his new companions, but he felt a ghostly arm reach for him, and all went dark...

On the upper level, the reassembled company waited for a while, but the elf didn’t come. “And Dawn?” asked someone. Greg just shrugged and started for the southern passages. The others followed, re-entering the mines, and descending back to the entrance level. There were more sounds in the distance coming their direction, but they chose to hide and avoid a confrontation – Gadur Yir concealed himself under the bridge, Franz used his other invisibility spell, while the others took shelter behind rocks and stone piles. Wet footsteps came from the southeast, followed by sibilant noises. A company of seven shambling, amphibious figures appeared with milky white, wet skin and oily eyes. They looked like upright newts and carried heavy stone-tipped spears. Everyone tried to freeze and avoid making a noise as they passed, and they did, to everyone’s collective relief. The company, wounded and tired, made for the exit of the mine tunnels, and the way towards Haghill and civilisation.

(Session date 18 March 2017).

***

Notable quotes:
Orastes, on Gadur Yir: “My character is a TPK survivor, I’ve got nothing to fear.

Gadur Yir, after fighting the giant stag beetle: “I think the taming attempt didn’t work out… I take the food ration back and clean it of the bug juices. It is my last one.
Franz: “You wanted to play David Attenborough.

Franz: “This is a gender-conscious sphinx.

GM, to Gadur Yir, cowering behind a throne: “At last, you are the half-orc behind the throne!

***

Referee’s notes: The conclusion to the previous adventure (with a few things omitted at the end). The party navigated a hostile and rather dangerous territory with a lot of caution that was rewarded with their objectives achieved and nobody dying until they ran into that apparition. This was a session where they were well over their heads, but quick thinking and a little luck prevailed. Of course, much has remained unexplored in the valley and beyond (the company found a pass leading out of the valley as well, but decided to give it a wide berth), and they missed something crucial that one particular player would have been anxious to discover.

I reran this scenario – the quest for the enchanted flower through the mines and the hidden valley – at “Adventurers’ Society”, a Hungarian mini-convention, where the two sessions’ worth of play managed to fit into the 4.5 hour time slot. The characters of this session were:
·         Bedoar the Bulbous, Master of Enchantments, 3rd level Magic-User (choked on poison gas but got better);
·         Anchor, 3rd level female half-orc Fighter;
·         Raris of Baklin, 3rd level Cleric of Zeltar, the God of Fortune;
·         Losulin, 3rd level female elven Archer;
·         Min, 3rd level Thief-Archer (killed by a prismatic missile); and
·         Zigmund, 3rd level Northman Fighter.

Curiously, the players chose an almost identical way through the two halves of the adventure (with less exploration and some minor variations), although they were much more bold in experimenting with the obviously dangerous stuff in the abandoned rooms, something that proved a two-edged sword. Notwithstanding an almost-TPK caused by vampire bats, they came away a good deal richer than my regular group, finding many of the hidden things which eluded my players. Of course, some of these things were useful, and some of them were rather dangerous – they came close to flirting with death more than one time.


They got a lucky break in the valley itself, managing to run into a group of its guardians (bad news), but convincing them through clever bluffing to escort the company to their destination (good news since they were fairly close to the convention’s time limit). Two PCs died. One succumbed to a poison gas trap in the dungeon segment, but was temporarily revived with slow poison, and eventually found not only guidance to an antidote, but by a stroke of sheer luck, the antidote as well (I rolled for that chance fair and square). Another character made a mistake disobeying a fairly clear warning, and ended up eating a prismatic missile which came up on “40 damage”. Ouch.