Monday, 27 February 2017

[BLOG] The Overly Thematic Dungeon

The common wisdom surrounding designing dungeon encounters has changed much over the years, yet the question of what makes for a good one, or what makes for a good room mixture has never been satisfyingly settled.

The original approach, developed at the dawn of gaming (and seen in such tattered artifacts as the El Raja Key Archives or First Fantasy Campaign), stressed the game aspect with a very brief key and very sparsely “seeded” dungeon levels. You would spend a lot of your expedition time looking for the carefully hidden lairs and those memorable “special” encounters, and – from our perspective – some of these games might now be described as first-person crossword puzzles.

This philosophy had a relaxed attitude about what goes into the dungeon: anything that’s fun and challenging, and damn those pesky questions about why and how. That’s how Citadel of Fire has an underground tavern on one of its upper level dungeons, how Castle Amber has an indoor forest, how Tower Chaos has an earth elemental named “Stoney” guarding the china room just off the kitchen, and how White Plume Mountain has... well, those canoes are a good start. You can rationalise it, but reason is an afterthought – what matters is the spirit of fantastic whimsy. At best, these adventures are great precisely because they take liberties with realism, and do it well. Without a vivid imagination and the skill to turn imagination into mini-games, the results just feel flat and randomly thrown together (this problem haunts much of the early tournament scene, including, in my heretical opinion, a significant portion of The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth). The best examples of this approach were always the modules which had a sense of cohesion abound them – vague, hard to explain, but there in the background.

Then there is the fantastic realism school, first expressed in a comprehensive manner by an ancient Dragon article whose exact references I cannot be arsed to look up. You know the one. It shows a dungeon room in two states: the original way it looked, and the dilapidated, looted and repurposed state the party will find it during their expedition. Certainly, this approach provides a sense of realism, of “being there”, and it is actually more intuitive than stocking your dungeons with random shit. If your dungeon was a temple, you stocked it with religion-related encounters, and if it was a crypt, you sure didn’t put an underground tavern in it (and underground taverns just kinda vanished from the gaming scene). This approach often provided a complete blueprint for your dungeon: if you put in a sacristy, you might as well put in a crypt and a refectory, and how about a bell tower and some stables? It is no accident that this approach, lauded across the game design community, ended up the dominant one for decades, mostly displacing its predecessor. (It was, in turn, succeeded by the modern “return to the dungeon” model, a selective (mis?)reading of gaming history, which suggested that the good old days were all about “killing things and taking their stuff”, while silently dumping the heavy focus on exploration the actual old games had.)

There are many advantages to semi-realistic encounter design, but it can also go wrong in ways its proponents never considered. From my perspective, the most important of these is the taming of our sense of wonder, either by considering the fantastic impossible and an interest therein juvenile – a notion which had been particularly popular in Hungary, and as I hear, Germany – or by requiring the rationalisation of the irrational. This has a corrosive effect on any kind of fantasy game, but it is particularly damaging to D&D. Once you accept that fantastic things are dumb and beneath a serious person's interest, you remove much of what makes D&D worth playing. A “cabinet contents” dungeon of endless barracks with bits of string and mouldy old boots stuck in a succession of footlockers, or the “this used to be a scriptorium, where scribes scribed their scripts” school of pseudo-historical flimflam is often a recipe for a dissatisfying dungeon where nothing interesting happens. It subordinates fantasy to reality, when it should have done the exact opposite. In the end, one gets the idea that these dungeons are not worth playing. “Told you so” say the people who never liked D&D in the first place.

Skulls. Why did it have to be skulls?
Rediscovering the fantastic side of RPGs is an important achievement of old-school gaming. And there is no reason why we can’t learn from multiple design philosophies and take the best they have to offer. My go-to compromise has been to go for thematic appropriateness, an approach found particularly often in Bob Bledsaw’s writings. Thematic appropriateness links its encounters to an overall theme (be it a crypt, desert oasis or teeming fantasy metropolis), but operates on the basis of loose associations instead of solid, step-by-step logic. 

When you say “port”, it says “old panhandler sells musical sea shells with secret messages, 1:6 of ear seeker”. When you say “jail”, it says “Bluto and Balfour, two ogres (Hp 17, 23) administer regular beatings and serve inmates Seaweed Slop; prisoners are Refren, musical pirate, Harko Fum, beggar of the 4th circle, Mythor Flax, last bearer of Princess Yarsilda’s shameful secret”. There are obvious connections here to a basic theme, but also large jumps of logic – somehow, we got from that port to an ear seeker and from a jail to a princess and her secret, although it does not immediately and necessarily follow from the starting point. You have to believe in your ability to jump to make it – you have to let go a little. This is how dreams connect things in our mind and how the better kind of random tables can prod our imagination: by coming up with odd juxtapositions and fantastic things that nevertheless feel real as long as we don’t open our eyes too wide.

This was the conclusion I adopted a bit more than ten years ago. And yet, despite having been well served by the approach in multiple different campaigns, I am finding that it should have come with an important warning: use your themes, but don’t let yourself get bound by them. Most recently, I have experienced this the hard way while experiencing a creative block coming up with encounters for Castle Xyntillan. As straightforward as designing about three quarters of the castle proved, the remaining quarter (and the dungeon level) has proved a tough nut to crack. I found myself in that state where I am too analytical, too much of a cynic to have good flow – I could probably continue through via sheer willpower, but the result would inevitably disappoint myself. What went wrong? A simple creative block would have been a convenient excuse, but after a little self-examination, I came to the conclusion that I let a coherent vision of Xyntillan overpower my idea of it as a loosey-goosey funhouse dungeon with improbable things. The existing structures and ideas of Xyntillan were closing off the range of ideas I entertained at the beginning. My thought process became path-dependent, predictable. All in all, I needed a break – not just for refreshment, but to forget and let myself wander again in directions I am not expected to go. Xyntillan needed to be less thematic to retain its theme.


Which again proves: there is a point where theory ends and fuzzier realms of the imagination begin; and in those worlds, we must often walk alone.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #05: Fireball

Who are you and why have you come here without unfurling your flag?” came the demand from the parapets of the small fortress.
They think we are reavers.
We are not Northmen!”, cried Jonlar Zilv. “We are peaceful merchants who have been attacked, and could barely take over this ship! We have no flag, but need food and supplies.
If you came with a peaceful intent, then come – but only ten of you.

The company – now with Einar Sigurdsson in tow – climbed the small path to the fortified gatehouse. Green and blue pennants fluttered, and bowmen were watching their movements from above. The gate opened, and a mailed warrior with a small group came to inspect the newcomers.
Come and be welcome, if you are who you claim to be. The Lord Elendir and the Lady Frederica will receive you and hear you out. But first, you must relinquish your weapons.
With a little hesitation – Gadur Yir was not entirely convinced they would not just be slaughtered – they agreed, and entered a small courtyard surrounded by walls. A great gnarled oak tree stood in the middle, surrounded by stone benches and statuary. A shield bearing two acorns and a star was visible above the entrance to the inner keep. The receiving committee left them to rest, but the bowmen on the walls remained – just in case.
Never forget Silhanosh” Elandil Hundertwasser read a carved motto below the shield. “There is a legendary lost city on this island by that name. Do you know of it, Jonlar?
Not me,” responded the minstrel.

Elendir Manor
They were ushered into the central hall of the keep, a small but well-maintained reception area. On two thrones sat a moustached man clad in a green cloak, a sheathed sword and a bow by his side, and next to him, a middle-aged woman of bronze hair, clad in a gown decorated with embroidered griffons. Their features were fine, probably even half-elven in their delicateness. They introduced themselves as the rulers of this little place, and seemed sympathetic to Jonlar Zilv’s stories about their capture and eventual escape from the hands of northern slavers (omitting only a few pieces of information).
It was a bitter and desperate fight, my lady – we have lost all we owned, and the only thing we have in the bargain now is their ship.
Yet you have lived through the tragedy, and that should be a cause for happiness. Your life may not be as bleak as you now think”, advised Lady Frederica. “Among the darkest shadows, there is a flicker of light.
We have also seen something that may concern you. We recently passed a barren island with a small mansion atop the rocks. We went to investigate, but everyone inside was dead – killed by some unknown attackers, probably flying monsters.
Lord Elendir looked concerned: “That is the Dwelling, a possession of the Feranolts. And it is indeed too close for comfort!
The Feranolts? We are not familiar with that name.
A noble family who originated from this area. They were among those who had settled on this coast, and fought against the Wraith Queen Arxenia, but as the fortunes of the city of Baklin rose and those of Gont fell, they moved on. Now all they have… or had here was a small garrison.
Jonlar was interested. “You speak of multiple families. So this area is ruled by them?
It is all quite sad”, mused Lady Frederica. “A few still stand, including our own, but all have dwindled, and some are mere ruins haunted by beasts. Istaforas, Kortnar, the Dwelling, Elendir, Perladon... Most have moved on from here.
Einar rose: “And what of a larger castle in the eastern forests, some way beyond the coast? We have found a map where it is presented rather prominently.
Lady Frederica was taken aback. “Castle Sullogh. Avoid that place if you value your life. It is inhabited by a race of beings called Sulloghs – witch-created, green and cruel, with knives in each hand. Castle Sullogh has been taken only once, by one Lady Izanoxin, but she left on a holy quest with her retainers and never returned. Now it is inhabited by the Sulloghs again – and worse.
What of Silhanosh? We noticed an inscription referring to it in your garden.
It was again the lord’s turn to talk: “A fair city, but lost to everyone. It was the pearl of this island, but fell in the war against the wraith queen, and we may nevermore return to it. Seek it not.
A family tragedy, then?
We might say so. My father left it as a mere child, and told me much about its wonders. But it is useless to speak of it – now we live here in this manor house, and later, who knows what the future will bring. Perhaps we will once set sail and travel far to the west, beyond the seas...

They talked some more, but it was getting late and it was also time to rest. Lady Frederica advised the steward would talk to them about trading for supplies the next day. The lord and lady retreated to their rooms in the building’s eastern wing, while the company was escorted to the smaller guest rooms to the west of the hall.
So this is not a base of the Feranolts after all” suggested Harmand the Reckless. “The triangles mark the dwellings of local noble families… and interestingly, the Feranolts don’t seem so important.
At least not here,” interjected Jonlar. “What is the white triangle south of Castle Sullogh? We did not learn, but maybe we should check.
We should take a look at this area to the east. The forests seem thinner on the map” suggested Gadur Yir.
I want to gut Grave-Wight” growled Einar Sigurdsson.
Interrogate him” warned Jonlar.
I will perform the blood eagle on him first, then we can interrogate all we want!” snapped Einar.
Hush!” whispered Harmand, and suddenly, everyone fell quiet. “There is someone behind the door.
Einar stalked to the door to apprehend the interloper, but failed, and the man bolted down the dark corridor.
Get him!!!

Gadur Yir stumbled over his own legs, but Harmand cornered the man in the central hall, and spoke the words of a hold person spell. The old man, clad in a gown and wearing a pair of slippers, did not fall under the spell, and started crying for help. There was a sound of arms and bellowed orders from the eastern wing as he was finally subdued.
And who the hell are you?” Einar glared at him with fury.
I am Fragor the Steward. I knew you lot were up to no good. Ha! You can take my life but it is too late! I serve my lord and lady with to my last breath.
I think this man needs a drink and we need to talk things over.” Jonlar Zilv quickly strummed the chords of “You Are As Bad As I Am” to make him more agreeable.
What the devil is this racket?!” The Lord Elendir and the Lady Frederica came rushing into the hall with a group of armed soldiers. “Fragor? … The visitors? Explain yourself!
It was just a stupid misunderstanding, my lord” stammered Fragor, the fire in him gone. “Please forgive me for waking you up – it was all my fault.
Is that so?” Elendir was everything but convinced, but Fragor was insistent there was no foul play. Eventually, he relented. “If you say so, good Fragor – let us all return to our rest. But you should come with us now... just to explain a few things. Milords...” they turned and left, leaving behind two morose-looking guards to watch the throne room. The company also retreated to their room, silently weighing the consequences.

The next day, they were awakened by a knock on the door, coming from a stern guard.
Come. The time for your departure is at hand.
They followed him into the reception hall, now deserted, but for packs of food and supplies. When asking about payment, the guard shook his head. “It is yours, a gift from the lady. She will not accept money for it.
Carrying the packs, they were escorted into the courtyard, which was now watched by dozens of bowmen from the parapets, all prepared for trouble. At the gatehouse, they were silently handed back their weapons, and the guard nodded. “The best of luck for your distant journey. Farewell.
The gates closed behind them, and they returned to the ship without much of a word.

***

After sailing a little way from the coast and spending some time watching from the crow’s nest if they were being followed, or if a messenger had left the small fortress on the way towards Gont, they eventually decided to sail east and investigate the sign of the white triangle. It was less than a day’s sailing with good winds, and by afternoon, they could anchor the longship in a small wooded bay where they spotted ruined walls beyond the shrubs and trees. It was a lazy afternoon, and a warm wind played among the branches, accompanied by birdsong.
This is an evil place” grumbled Harmand.

Following standard procedure, they ran the ship ashore, and while some of the men started gathering firewood for dinner, the company headed for the forest ruins, followed by a company of ten men carrying their makeshift battering ram. They emerged on a low hilltop and surveyed the ruins of a small keep: its southern walls were already gone, a pile of stones, but to the north, two structures were still standing with some walls and a ruined gatehouse between them. The smaller building to the west seemed to have one story only, while the other had two. The weed-strewn courtyard also had a walnut tree with some vines choking its trunk, and a stone well with a large statue next to it.

Perladon Manor
The coast seems clear, but let’s proceed with caution” advised Einar.  “Men, you shall stand in the back and be prepared for trouble.
Creeping closer, they saw the statue depicted a brute more than a man and a half tall, clad in rags and furs, and wearing a haversack on its shoulders. It seemed to be looking at something in its upheld hand, but whatever that was, it was gone.
That is an ogre. It did not turn into stone due to the sunlight” said Harmand.
If I see a reptile or a woman, I will immediately avert my head!” declared Jonlar.
Meanwhile, Gadur Yir examined the tree, discovering it was still laden with walnuts – and the vines encirncling the trunk were carrying heavy black berries, which he wisely avoided. Turning his attention to the well now, he saw that the side bore a wolf’s head and an inscription reading “*PERLADON*” Looking inside, he saw water deep down.
Hold the other end of this rope while I climb down. ...and if any of you turn into stone while I’m down, just tell me.
Descending into the well, the half-orc’s keen eyes saw something glinting below the water surface.
There is always stuff on the bottom of wells” Harmand grinned.
Gadur Yir was more careful than to act rashly. He turned his attention to the well’s mossy walls, looking for hand- and footholds to grab onto. This brought something else to his attention – a protruding brick that looked most suspicious.
The water first” he declared, and after hammering a dagger between the stones to hang the lantern from, dived underwater. He descended below the surface, and grabbed something round in the silt, retrieving a heavy silver jug. “Now that will fetch a nice price.” Turning his attention to the brick, he pushed, and his attention was rewarded as he saw a short tunnel leading forwards toward a corroded iron door...

...however, at the same moment, there was a commotion up in the courtyard. The door to the western building swung open, and a burly hand threw a large basket among the company before slamming the door again to the chorus of booming laughter from inside the building. Hissing and clucking in an obscene manner, three monstrous abominations with the features of both chicken and lizards tumbled out, biting and pecking at everyone they could reach.
I bet on the half-orc!” came a booming voice from inside.
The characters fought desperately to keep the bewildered monsters at bay. One jumped on Jonlar Zilv and pecked him with his beak, and Jonlar turned into an inanimate stone statue.
I think it’ll get the elf before they’re done!” came another cry, followed by more laughter.
Oh, jump out, you cocksucker!” howled Elandir Hundertwasser, demonstrating a previously unknown part of his vocabulary, and simultaneously casting a command spell. The door creaked open and a huge, obviously angry ogre landed in the courtyard’s dust, followed by multiple others...

...meanwhile, paying no heed to the events unfolding above him, Gadur Yir contemplated the iron door. He tried to shove it open, but miscalculated as he rushed it, and bent one of his pauldrons. Cursing, he turned back towards the well...

...wile outside, a bloody battle developed between the ogres, the party, the remaining cockatrices and the ten sailors who threw javelins at whomever they could get a shot at. There were seven ogres, but although battered and bloody, the numbers and ability of the company and a few hold persons prevailed – except for Jonlar Zilv, now a statue. Gadur Yir climbed the rope and climbed out with the silver jug just as the retainers were chopping the last ogre to death with their axes.
If Jonlar was alive, he would compose a song about your cowardice” spat Einar.
But he doesn’t” concluded the half-orc.

After some discussion, while the others were patching themselves up and discussing what was to be done, Einar, ever impatient, entered the building. He ventured into a large kitchen, where a roast goblin was cooking on a spit above an open fireplace. Faint squeaking noises came from beyond a barred door to the southwest. Spying inside, he saw a huddled mass of goblins looking back at him and begging to be freed.
You can go now” the Northman told them. “Just remember that it was Einar Sigurdsson who had saved you... him and his company.
Interrogating the grateful creatures, he heard them tell a story of a giant stone throne in the northern woods, and a castle full of murderous green creatures.
­Castle Sullogh” Einar thought to himself.
Searching the ogres’ lair in a northern room, he found their treasure bags: it was mostly hunks of meat, stones and rubbish, but they were mixed with 900 gold pieces, a bale of soft fur that turned out to be cat, and a fine silver plate hammered with the letters reading “MINARVI”. Einar quietly pocketed the gold, deciding to share it with only those who had fought in the battle, and skipping the cowardly Gadur Yir.

After the goblins were released, they sent further time searching the premises. In the round tower that had served as a prison, they found a capstone carved with the sign of a rooster. Harmand the Reckless recommended to search it, and after hoisting him up, he found it to be a simple stone decoration. However, when the same procedure was repeated in the ogre lair with the sign of a ship, the stone turned and a slab of stone slid open in the corner!

The passage was dark and exhaled damp rot. It had obviously lain abandoned for a long time, and wss littered with sacks of mouldering grain. However, under the sacks was the real prize – a hatch with a lock on it.
This must connect with what is behind that door in the well” Gadur Yir suggested.
Striking the lock from its hinges, the hatch revealed a downward shaft with rungs climbing down into the darkness. After a brief discussion, and instructing the retainers to guard the outside and sound a horn if there was any trouble, the company excitedly descended into a foetid passage...

***

Stairs descended even deeper from the landing, worn with time and use. A locked iron door, similar to the one the half-orc couldn’t open, blocked further passage. The only lockpicks in the party had belonged to Jonlar’s statue, and Barzig the Back could not open the lock with improvised tools, but with Einar’s strength, the door proved a pinch to open. They saw a passage going forward, and one turning to the right, then turning slightly to the left in the S-SE direction. Choosing the latter way, they continued. Vaulted rooms opened to the sides, laden with old barrels and their bounty, sour and fouled. The second room to the east revealed something else: a rectangular stone slab decotated with the carvings of vines, grapes and grape leaves.

Let me check this one” Gadur Yir grinned, and rummaged behind the stone structure, looking for irregularities. His efforts were rewarded as a stone leaf clicked, and a secret door opened in the wall of the exterior room. “What do we have here...
They entered a gallery running along the walls of a domed, hexagonal room, overlooking a lower level filled with gloom, and separated from it by thick iron bars reaching up to the ceiling. The floor looked richly appointed, with fine ceramic tiles of ochre and teal colours. Deep underneath them were what looked like stone chests or sarcophagi.

Under Perladon Manor
Around the gallery they went, touched by the coldness of the deep, and through a door to the south. Here was another chamber reaching east and west. The part they were in was domed, the walls lined with wooden coffins, doors opening to the north and south. To the east, iron bars and a barred gate blocked off an interior chamber, where there was a single stone sarcophagus. Letters carved into the floor spelled a message: “THE FOLLOWERS OF PERLADON: THOSE WHO HAD VANQUISHED THE FORCES OF THE VALLEY, SHALL NOT REST IN ITS EARTH.”
Another crypt. The Perladon family, eh?” mused Harmand.
As a cleric, I can detect evil if you wish me to. But I don’t think there is a need for that” said Gadur Yir.
Barzig tried his makeshift tools on the barred door, but to no avail.
Well then, let’s get to work” the half-orc spat in his hands and lifted the lid off of one of the wooden sarcophagi. A skeletal figure was resting inside the coffin, wearing chain mail, with a large shield and a flail on his breast. “Just make sure it isn’t...

But it most definitely was. The dreadful undead rose from its grave, and the other sarcophagi shifted as well, and nine skeletons emerged.
Begone!” bellowed Elandil Hundertwasser, and seven of the skeletons turned to run.
We can take them!” hollered someone, and the first skeleton soon bit the dust as Harmand crushed it with a solid blow.
At this point, something dark and ominous and inky billowed out of the stone sarcophagus in the interior room. A dark form with glowing eyes of molten gold and claws of shadow coalesced.
I am Godfred Perladon... and I am your death!” it hissed in a cold tone of lifeless contempt. Its shadowy fingers started to trace the patterns of elongated, flat figures of eight in the thin air, and it muttered syllables of magical power.
Ooooh CRAP!” Harmand gasped as a fiery spark flew out of the shadow’s hands, hurtled through the gap between the iron bars, and detonated in a deafening inferno covering everything, crushing the bones and wooden sarcophagi with its force and flames for seven dice worth 33 points of damage.

...Gadur Yir cursed in pain as he opened his eyes. He beheld a scene of devastation. The charred bones of the remaining skeletons, and the incinerated corpses of his companions lay on the blackened floor. The doors next to him had been torn off their hinges. His ears were ringing, but he saw a figure bolt through the remains of the northern door.

The shadow! It was still towering behind the bars, looking at him with malevolent eyes. Gulping, the half-orc reached for his holy symbol and held it high to call on his patron god.
I cry out to you in my moment of need! Help me, oh...” There was an awkward pause as the shadow surveyed him with its burning gold eyes. He had forgotten the name of his own god! He had forgotten the goddamn name! The possibility of divine favour, whatever it was, departed. Gadur Yir silently turned his tail and fled back through the way he came.

...panting and running through the upper floor of the gallery, and into the cellar, he felt the darkness below pull at him, and heard the hollow laughter of the shadow. Or were his ears ringing? He stumbled, half-dead, into the corridor, where the remaining skeletons cowered and fled as he beheld them. The exit! He sped north and turned…

Glinting metal flashed in the darkness, and he heard Barzig the Back’s sarcastic voice: “No hard feelings... but it had to be done.” He parried desperately, and the bow-legged nomad cursed as his dagger broke on the half-orc’s armour. Gadur Yir growled, spat, and with a mighty blow, brained the hapless assassin.

***

Looking back on the ruined manor house of the Perladon faily, Gadur Yir bid farewell to Brusuf the Servant and the ship’s crew. They were free to seek their own fortune on the high seas, but he was done with sailing for a while, and after gathering some supplies and binding his worst wounds, decided to head for the deeper woodlands in pursuit of new adventures. Turning his back on Jonlar Zilv’s silent statue, he struck off through the thickets on the edge of the Forest of Woe, and presently was gone.

(Session date 5 February 2017).

***

Notable quotes:
Jonlar Zilv, stoned: “I call it ‘temporary invulnerability’.”
Harmand the Reckless: “I call you our ship’s new figurehead.

Einar Sigurdsson: “Let’s stop wandering the realm of the imagination and let’s loot the manor house.

Einar Sigurdsson: “...but you feel the essence of The Word of Chaos! [A classic Hungarian fantasy novel, and a formative experience for older RPG fans, of which I’ll write more later] …we were torn apart by a fireball, and only the half-orc survived, just like in the novel. So cool!

Elandil Hundertwasser (quite dead): “But now who will heal the world’s wounds?
Someone else: “Sure won’t be you.
Elandil Hundertwasser: “The key is inside you!

Player: “Did you design this adventure on your own?
Marvin, Elandil’s player (sarcastically): “Do you think anyone else could come up with something like a shadow shooting fireballs?

GM: “The ecological footprint of Gygaxian naturalism strikes again!

***

Referee’s notes: There is often a turning point in the novels where you can determine who were the protagonists all along, and who were the supporting cast. If our campaign was a novel, it would now be clear that it was about the exploits of Gadur Yir, “the two-legged plague”, “the cursed half-orc”, or call him what you will. They tried their luck like the other times, they pushed it a bit too far (exploring a dangerous dungeon with depleted, although not fully depleted resources), and this time, it blew up in their face – literally, for a whopping 33 points of damage (I rolled fives and sixes on most dice of that 7d6).

With all but one member of the party dead – and it was an iconic form of death, make no mistake – many of the current plotlines got severed just as the campaign was almost turning in a predictable direction again. Certainly, Gadur Yir has decided that Grave-Wight and the Feranolts, whatever their crimes, could wait for now. So, we take a new direction again and some new planning is in order – with new adventures and new companions. These paths will lead towards the interior of the island, and in a sense closer to its deeper mysteries. We still have to see where things will end up, although the elements and events of this now concluded first arc will rear their head again and again, even if from new angles and perspectives.

With the campaign’s unpredictable but characteristically Caldwellian turn (a term whose meaning I’ll discuss in a forthcoming post), at least we now know whom to root for. Our protagonist has been chosen!

Saturday, 28 January 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #04: The Abandoned Nest

It was raining and heavy winds buffeted the walls of Knifetooth. Einar Sigurdsson shaked his head.
We consider it bad luck to set sail in weather like this. Let’s wait until it clears.
They spent another day in the little garrison town, and Jonlar Zilv spent most of it wasting his money at the Coughing Cur. He was so generous that he gained the trust of a traveller who had been spending his time here, an elf in a flower-patterned green cloak. He was Elandil Hundertwasser, far from the West, “from the blessed forests where the harps sing”. Elandil was here to heal to heal the world’s hurt, and wore the sign of Irlan the Merciful, who taught a doctrine of caring for the weak and the downtrodden out of sheer goodwill. After a short discussion, he joined the company, while Barzig the Nomad – whom neither the late Sufulgor del’Akkad’s player, nor anyone else really liked – returned to sulk among the NPCs and be a nuisance.

Itinerary, days 12 to 15
The next day – the twelfth since the fateful encounter in Haghill – the skies were clear and there was good wind. They set sail back to the northeast, and under Einar’s command, the increasingly well-trained crew worked as if they had always been on the seas. Although their destination was the mysterious ruin at the southern tip of the isle of the wolves, they would stop sooner. Barely half a day has passed when, sailing around the wooded island across Knifetooth, the lookout spotted a manmade structure among the trees – a dome looking like shining marble. Overcome by curiosity, they ran the dragonship ashore, and as the crew began to gather wood under Einar’s commands, Gadur Yir, Jonlar Zilv, Harmand the Reckless, Elandil Hundertwasser, Barzig the Back and ten men went off to explore the isle’s interior.

They followed a narrow and winding path, and at last came to a clearing at the foot of a hill. This seemed to be a nexus of multiple paths, converging on the domed edifice. A circle of columns stood on a half-sunken foundation overgrown with grass, and a broken white marble dome rose over the columns. Approaching the structure, Jonlar Zilv noticed something shimmering between the columns, surrounding the interior – a slight distortion or refraction, barely visible. Inside, something seemed to stir, but it was just a hint of movement – or perhaps another trick of the light. Singing the tunes of “Oh Lucky Day”, he felt the structure was magical. Prodding between the columns with a branch, then a dagger ascertained the way was blocked by something like a firm but invisible wall, and climbing the dome with a rope, it was discovered that the crack in the marble was likewise blocked by the same influence. At least Gadur Yir, who was acting as the lookout, saw something interesting: among the few hills rising from the island’s forests, smoke or steam seemed to issue a short way from here – probably worth investigating. They spent a little more time, fashioning a heavy tree trunk into a makeshift battering ram, but even with their ten followers, the invisible wall did not yield.

Now investigating the trail leading in the direction of the vapours, they discovered its source was a crevasse in the hillside. Flanked by enormous ferns, steep rock ledges descended into a dark sinkhole, and they felt the mixed smell of hot steam, salt and charnel rot.
Men! You shall wait here until the evening as we investigate this place. If we do not come out, you shall return to the ship and alert the others,” instructed Harmand as they lit their lights and prepared to descend.
The crevasse twisted and turned, and the damp heat increased. From below came the foetid smell, and the sound of a chanting choir exclaiming ominous gibberish. Jonlar signalled the others to wait, and – shielding his lantern to stay undiscovered – tiptoed down below towards a number of dim lights in a larger cavern. He happened upon a hideous scene out of some stygian hell: pools bubbled with sulphurous and salty waters exhaling a fiery heat, and a ring of four dark shapes danced around a black cauldron bubbling with brew. The hooded forms writhed and stalked, croaking vile curses and incantations; behind them stood several motionless figures, man-shaped, wrapped in sackcloth and tied together with chains and ropes. He crept closer to see one of the hooded dancers, and froze – as one of the robed forms faced him, he spotted a hideous, bloated female visage, as if she had been dead for weeks. The black eyes shone like sticky pearls, and the tongue was like a slug in the hag’s abominable mouth. The sight, combined with the smell of putrefying flesh and seaweed, was too much for Jonlar, and he vomited out his lunch. Feeling weak and feverish, he stumbled upwards to the company to report.

Of course we should attack them!” Gadur Yir was resolute, and the others nodded. They prepared to ambush the hags while they were busy with their dance, but as they descended, words of magic echoed in the crevasse and all went black. Under the veil of darkness, they heard shuffling, smelled rotten meat and salty water, and knew that the corpses in sackcloth were upon them. A light spell pushed the darkness back a little, creating a small bubble of illumination where they could fight the faceless horrors, which withstood the heaviest blows and tore terrible wounds with their bare hands. Ripping the cloth revealed dead eyes and decomposing faces, eaten by salt and disfigured by appalling wounds. The dead were massively powerful and very hard to destroy. Nevertheless, Gadur Yir could push through them to attack the hags directly – rushing and felling one of the crones with his sword just as she was reaching for a shelf laden with bottles of strange liquids. Just as he turned, he came face to face with another, whose eyes bore into his. He felt the shadow of death as his throat and lungs began to fill with seawater, but, coughing, he rushed forward to strike – but she was quicker, and as she spoke magical words, he saw a cone of radiant lights hit him, and lost consciousness.

Above, the battle was still raging, and while Harmand the Reckless felled the sackclothed dead, the others were helping him as well as they could. But while the numbers of the dead thinned, they heard a disturbing cackle from below:
Shell him and cook him, little sister! We will sup on his bones tonight!
Foul hags! The light of goodness shall burn you! Come up and face your death!” called Elandil.
Come on down yourself, pretty!” came the mocking cry.
Finally, the way down was clear, and they rushed to Gadur Yir’s aid. The hags were ready, but this time, so were Harmand and Elandil. Two hold person spells caught the foul women – one of whom was trying to submerge an undressed Gadur Yir into the steaming cauldron – and after a fateful moment while unseen forces were debating whether they were indeed persons or not – two froze before they could work their magic again. A melee developed in the cavern with the remaining undead and one hag. Struggling with a brine-eaten corpse, Jonlar Zilv slipped on the wet rocks, and fell headfirst into one of the boiling salt water pools along with his opponent, but survived, and the opponents were all downed, the hags executed with extreme prejudice. Gadur Yir, finally freed from the spell he was under, quickly donned his armour again.

This bubbling red potion looks like something that should heal you,” mused the half-orc. “The hag was trying to reach for it just as I cut her down.
The potion was accompanied by a flask cut from smoky glass, emblazoned with a death’s head, and a bag of dust, also magical.
The black one is very powerful. What could it be used for? Did they use it to transform into these monsters? Something to do with these undead?” Nobody answered Jonlar’s questions.
We’ve also got 550 gold and 350 electrum here” counted Harmand the Reckless. “That should give us enough to pay the men for a while.
They returned to the expedition, then ordering the men to carry the makeshift battering ram to the ship, headed back towards the seacoast, casting another glance at the domed building. At night, playing music as they feasted on their supplies, Jonlar Zilv tried to remember if he had heard of the enigmatic building. “In its glittering prison, hoar, to rest returned” came the words of an old song. “Maybe early in the morning, when it is coldest,” he thought.

At the same time, Gadur Yir built another fire out of sight from the company. Holding up the head of a defeated hag, he offered his deeds to Haldor the Heroic, along with a sacrifice of two hundredweights of gold. There was a rolling sound in the distance, and he heard words that spoke to him and urged him to reach for greatness through mighty deeds. He felt stronger, more in tune with his god, now one of Haldor’s divine champions.

***

The next day, the winds were good, and after checking the pavilion in vain again, they set sail towards the white ruins on the southern tip of the isle of the wolves. An entire day was spent on the sea, and in the afternoon, they were getting close to the mountainous isle when the lookout called to the crew:
Ships! Half a dozen, small ones!
Einar ordered the dragonship to sail towards the vessels, which tried to escape but were overtaken.
We are poor fishermen and have no valuables!” pleaded someone on one of the boats.
Do you know of any ruined structure around here? A manor house?
Nothing at all! We only come this way because the catch is so abundant – please leave us be.
These people are useless” Harmand grumbled.

Another night passed as they slowly navigated around the island’s southern tip, avoiding the treacherous rocks. The outlines of the ruins they had spotted previously were visible on a densely wooded mountainside, but Einar decided to wait until the morning. At dawn, a small skiff set out towards the bay at the base of the mountain, with ten hand-picked men and the landing party.
That’s a pier... looks rotten and abandoned… and… what is that?
The thing they’d spotted was a small sailing boat hidden under the crown of some trees, with fishing nets and a pair of oars.
This could belong to the werewolves. Maybe we should sink it?” came Elandir’s suggestion.
Fool! Whoever is here, we don’t want to start off with hostilities. Remember… we need to learn about the mansion of the Feranolts.

The company slowly climbed the narrow trail to the ruined white buildings. On a mountainside plateau, they found the stone foundations of burned and ruined houses, a collapsed longhouse, saplings already growing in the wreckage.
I wonder… There it is!” Jonlar Zilv pointed at a small, slate-roofed building. Smoke curled from a low chimney, the door was open, and nets were hanging on the porch.
Ho! Is someone there?
From the house came a sound, and a great wolf jumped out to bar the entrance, growling and baring its teeth. Jonlar gestured to the men to stay their weapons. Behind the wolf, an old man appeared. He was bearded and fair-haired, wearing a simple garb and an axe on his belt.
My name is Ballodric. Who might you be to disturb this place?
Allow me to introduce ourselves, oh Ballodric. I am Jonlar Zilv, and our company comes with peace. We seek a ruined mansion or manor house, but it looks like we lost our way.”
You shall not find what you seek here. There are only ruins, and I the only inhabitant. I fish, and Sark here hunts.
How is it that you live in this place?
I was born here. Then, hearing the call of adventure, I set sail and saw three empires, but by the time I returned with my tales, there was no one else to tell them. Whoever had lived here was killed or carried into slavery – by Skarlog Thane, or someone else. It does not matter any longer. So I stay, the last to remember the village of Hjaelle.
You must have many stories from your travels. We would happily hear your tales.
I am not in the singing mood, and I’d rather be alone.
We shall respect your wishes. Do you by chance know of an island with a small fort or manor belonging to the Feranolt family?
You have come to the wrong place indeed, if you are looking for it – why, I remember when I was just a youth, me and my family sailed to Gont to sell a few things. Now, it was the morning before we sailed into the town that my father pointed at a lonesome rock in the sea, and told me that was the Feranolts’ place – and that it was well fortified.
You have been very helpful,” Jonlar Zilv bowed.
What about the Gwydions? Do you know them?” blurted Gadur Yir.
They are my kin also, although distant. They live across the mountains, on the other part of the island. You’d rather not visit them – they don’t like strangers.
The others looked at each other, then back.
We have seen them. They had strange customs,” responded Gadur Yir.
Strange to some. Well, you must be quite tough, if you met them and you’re still here.
We should be leaving,” Jonlar Zilv was eager to end the conversation.

***

The ship sped towards Gont as the good winds carried it. It was already late in the afternoon when they spotted the barren little isle, and dusk by the time they got close to it. Tall rocks rose into rugged outcroppings, and a narrow road wound from a small, abandoned stone pier to a two-story house. There was a bell next to the pier. Large clouds gathered, and the rain began to fall. Once more, they disembarked and climbed the serpentine road.

The Dwelling
The house was not much of a mansion, but it was secure on top of a bare and uninhabited island, buffeted by strong winds and surrounded by sheer precipices. Window shutters rattled on their hinges, and the gates were slightly ajar. Above, a relief depicted the slender form of a wyvern, flanked by two stars.
Feranolt! This is the place” Jonlar exclaimed.
Carefully, they entered the dark building. It was cold inside, and there was a damp smell all around. The chamber, a large sitting room, was a mess. Chairs were thrown here and there, broken bits of wood and smashed items littered the floor. Wind was wailing in a cold fireplace filled with ashes, where books had been burned in a haste. A body was lying in a pool of blood, a grievous wound almost cutting him in half – a lightly armoured guard.
Looks recent” remarked Elandir “And there is a muddy footprint here.
The track looked inhuman with three claws, belonging to something that must have been very heavy. They were all around and there was no definite direction except outside and up the stairs. They searched more of the lower floor, finding servants’ quarters, a guest room, and a kitchen with smashed objects and a large, hanging piece of brawn that looked like it had been bitten into two pieces with a single bite.
But we did not see a boat... if it happened so recently, where did they go?” asked Harmand the Reckless. “Perhaps flying creatures...?

Climbing the stairs revealed another, smaller sitting room with another body, a mostly intact dining room with three sets of dishes prepared for a meal, a terrace overlooking a sheer drop into the dark seas, and finally a drawing room. More papers had been destroyed here, and furniture made of fine wood used to light a fire. A bureau had had its drawers pulled out and the contents smashed and scattered.
The Feranolts' map
This looks interesting,” Jonlar Zilv pointed to a framed piece of parchment on the wall, still intact. The diagram was a map of the surrounding seacoast, marked with different signs, but mostly unlabelled. “It doesn’t look too old – should not be more than a few years at most.
Are these triangles connected to the Feranolts’ holdings? Their smuggling or spy network? Alliances?
That triangle on the small isle in the sea represents this place.
We will have to see at least one before we know.
Let’s look at it later when we have more time. Remove it from the frame, then roll it up. Anything else?
I will check that bureau, just in case...
The efforts paid off, as Jonlar found a secret drawer that had been left unmolested. Withdrawing a package, he found coin rolls packaged in paper – 150 gold in total – and a letter stamped with the seal of a wyvern between two stars.
Could the two stars refer to the head of the family? Or is it an older form of the standard insignia?” asked Harmand.
We have no way of knowing... but let’s look at the letter. Here it is: “Shekou -- in case there is a need, seek the Grave-Wight. -- Feranolt” I’ll be damned! So our guy is involved after all!
After a short pause while they instructed the men to carry off the remaining books, bring the dead to the ship, and stay put, Jonlar had another idea. He found an intact piece of paper, ink and quill, and wrote a short message, trying to imitate Feranolt’s letters: “Shekou -- Grave-Wight has a new problem. Avoid Gont, and lay low in Haghill. -- Feranolt”
It is a pity we can’t reproduce that seal. Still.” He threw the crumpled piece of paper on the floor in clear sight, then the pieces of the sealing wax on it. “If we return to Haghill, and ask around for newcomers, we could have our bird. Who knows?” He stamped on the remains to make them dirtier.
Now let’s get out of here. Whatever happened, happened, and we don’t need to be here to watch it return.

***

Down in the ship’s cabin, anchored in a small bay some way off from the pier so Shekou – or the monsters, or anyone else – wouldn’t find them, they studied the large map sheet.
Jonlar Zilv pointed at a larger triangle marked “Castle Sullogh”. “This one looks like a more interesting place because it has a death’s head next to it.
Look – there is another triangle up in those south-western mountains… and something to the north?” countered Harmand.
Must be a church, with that cross on the top.
And to the north-west, we have Haghill, where we came from... well, not you, Elandir.
I think the circles are villages and the triangles are fortifications,” remarked Jonlar.
Or hiding places!” said Gadur Yir.

There was no disturbance during the night, and soon, they were sailing again, deciding to avoid Gont for the time, and check out the triangle to their north. Hours passed again as they sailed, until they spotted another group of fishing boats, which fled as soon as they spotted the larger ship.
What do you know... could this have anything to do with the fact that Northman ships may enjoy a bad reputation?” asked Harmand the Reckless.
No way!” smirked Jonlar.

They sailed on, and the white cliffs of the northern shore rose above the sea. Above a harbour, a small fortress stood on the rocks, green and blue pennants flying in the wind. The lookout could make out the sign of two acorns and a star. Weighing their options, they sailed into the harbour, preparing to disembark.

(Session date 14 January 2017).

***

Notable quotes:
Harmand the Reckless: “Gadur Yir is shopping again? I swear! A potion of blondness for the mall orc!
Jonlar Zilv: “Did you check if it was a brand-name backpack?”

Elandil Hundertwasser: “And I am from the distant West, far beyond the seas, from the distant blessed forests where the harps sing. Namely…
GM: “Namely so far the GM doesn’t even give a fuck about the name of that place.

***

Referee’s notes: Somehow, back on track after a large but fruitful detour. The brutal battle with the hags and their sea zombies was one of those confrontations which could have ended very badly, but was won by perseverance, large numbers, a bit of luck... and a bit in the rules I didn’t prepare for. When adapting the hold person spell for my own rules, I did not specify it would only affect human and mostly human opponents – what’s worse (from the GM’s perspective), it is simply translated as “hold”, without the extra meaning of the English original. This way, two targeted hold spells caught two hags, which just happened to turn the tide of the battle.


Then, a step towards the Feranolts. The isle dwelling attacked and looted, the map and the message are all that’s left for now. The emerging consensus in the group is to take revenge on Grave-Wight, who seems to enjoy a close connection to the old Feranolt family. It is a good question whether the Feranolts are still influential, or even extinct – Gadur Yir’s player suspects this is all a misdirection, while Jonlar Zilv’s player believes they have some kind of smuggling or spy network in the area.