Sundered Empires Session 5

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The party, fresh from their defeat by the ghouls, bought more supplies after resting a day or so in town.  Long Tom’s player couldn’t make it, so I decided that his several failures at turning had tested his faith and he needed to meditate (read: drink himself silly) for a while.

Before they left town, they discussed what had been happening with Vallerend the curate. He told them it sounded as though they had discovered the lost city of Dalagar, a city of humans and dwarves that had been lost to chaos and cursed by them a few hundred years hence.

Though the borderlands had been pushed back since then, no one had really found or reclaimed the lost city.  They asked if he knew any more and he said no, but he might see if he could find out.

They hunted some more for a few retainers (they are henchmen crazy) and found a menacing woman named Onara.  After a terse discussion, she agreed to work with the Kinslayer (which was kind of funny since Arakhe had been the one looking for a henchman, but upon seeing her, Alfric made a beeline and ‘henchblocked’ him).  Turned out that, thanks to several good rolls, Onara was actually a 1st level Assassin, something that made the PCs very happy…finding a henchperson with class levels that is, not that she was an Assassin specifically (though that made Alfric happy).  Most of them think she is just a thief.

The third time into the tomb was the lucky one, right?  Well, upon arrival, Havelock, Arakhe’s faithful henchman noticed that several graves in the graveyard outside the tomb had trails leading from them towards the tomb.  The party was uncertain if this meant more ghouls or zombies or what, but they entered into the crypt to find out.  Piles of bones littered the floor next to the dead zombies (who had been mostly eaten by this point).

The bones turned out to be skeletons but they posed little threat to the players, other than Havelock who took a strong blow from one of them.  Luckily, he was nearly the toughest person in the party so while they had him retreat to the second rank, he was still able to fight with his spear.  They found two of the ghouls and killed them.  Now they had to choose between heading north, to where they thought the scary dwarf was, or east to close off the passage.  They chose east.

What they didn’t do, however, was spike the door or throw the bar back on it.  Had they done so, things might have turned out differently.

To the east, they returned to the room where the thief leader Xanthus had been.  A ghoul hid in the darkness and leapt at Alfric as he rounded the corner.  A lucky strike later and the dwarf was paralyzed, again.  The rest of the party cut the ghoul down and found a large, heavy chest.  Two of the henchmen carried the chest out, while two more helped the heavy, paralyzed dwarf out.

Before they reached the outside though, the northern door exploded open.  Onara was the only one not surprised and she shouted a warning.  The creature swung at her but she danced away from its claws.  It then spoke, telling the party to give it the dwarf and it would let them go.

Seemed like a reasonable offer.

Instead, the party launched an attack.  Faith failed against such a potent undead.  Weapons couldn’t touch it (except the magic sword).  Holy water and oil were thrown on the creature until it got a good dosing.  Then a torch ignited it.  Grimly, it kept coming, refusing to die as it burn and smoldered.  It reached Havelock, brave Havelock who had survived the Caves of Chaos and the wild man of the woods.

He did not survive this.

One touch and he shrivaled  until his body was nothing but a desiccated corpse, all life drained by the voracious wight.

Ok, not exactly a wight, but you get the idea. That’s Havelock on the ground there…

Luckily for the party I forgot that monsters cleave… *shudder*

The party launched a more vigorous assault, and by now, the holy water and flaming oil were taking their toll on the creature.  Thorsigar stepped up with his master’s magic sword (I was nice and, even though they hadn’t said so before hand, I let them transfer the sword to one of Alfric’s henchmen).  One mighty back hand stroke and the monster fell, headless and truly dead.  The holy water consumed its body, turning it into a horrible pile of goo.

They then escaped back into the sun to await the paralysis wearing off.  Some of them counted the treasure from the chest while Havelock’s corpse was given last rites by Arakhe and then burned (to prevent him returning as one of those things).  The last vial of holy water was sprinkled in the tomb by Kanen-Tal, as he said a blessing to cleanse the place of its taint.  Inside the sarcophagus, they found an axe-head that had belonged to the dwarf in life (the haft had long since rotted away).  They took that and the ruined armor, and a necklace the dwarf was wearing with a fist sized ruby.

Inside the sarcophagus room, they discovered someone had made new markings within the room, chaos sigils and runes of unknown purpose.  Kanen-Tal marred these with his mace and chiseled the signs of Law over them.  But they don’t know who left them there, or how the ghouls found the place.

Amongst the ghoul’s treasure they found several difficult to sell items, including two silver wrought Stars of Chaos.  Certainly saleable, but not in decent society.  Now, they are looking at their book of fences and the town of Threshold as the next stop to dispense with their goods.  But where to go from there?

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Views on the Sundering

The current campaign, as mentioned previously is set in a world that is only beginning to crawl out of a terrible Apocalypse.

Just one of many former cities...

Civilization, such as it is, was nearly wiped out, and what remains is mostly scattered pockets, clinging to the decaying carcass of a once great empire.

Chaos, once hidden from view, now freely stalks the land.

Their champions came among us, baring swords of fire, and they spoke in the tongue of dust and ruin, saying "All your works are ended, all your struggles in vain, for the end is upon you.".

Cities built of wondrous magic collapsed in an instant as magic changed over the entire world.

What wonders they built, we shall never build again.

But, for all that is known of what once was, the one thing that isn’t know is what caused the Sundering.  There are many guesses and theories, and many believe they have ‘solved’ the riddle, but everyone has conflicting evidence that points to their truth.

And the gods remain oddly silent on the matter.

Here is a smattering of different views on what, or who, caused the Sundering.  Which is true?  Are any of them?

“Chaos caused the Sundering.  Listen not to the lies of the aelves and the so-called ‘sages’.  It was Chaos that tore the heart from the Empire of man and cast down our great works.  The weak and wicked turned their hearts from the true Lords of Law and, like a bloated worm in the heart of a beautiful fruit, they worked their evil behind the façade of righteousness and opened the Empire to perdition.  Only the Lords themselves staved off our destruction, but we must bear the cost for our weakness and inequity.  Stay vigilant my brothers, for if we fail again, it will be the end of us all.”

Hierophant Arkay, preaching at the burning of several heretics in the pyres at Old Valas

“The Sundering?  It was a purely natural occurrence.  Well, as natural as the power of magic ever is.  We know that the potency of magic ebbs and flows over time.  The so called ‘Age of Magic’ was probably simply one of many and will come again.  The old Empire relied heavily on magic and when it dried up, most of the great works fell to naught.  Oh, what about the wars?  That was the natural result of a loss of resources and the stricken Empire’s inability to defend itself from the forces it once subjugated. Still, I wish I’d been alive when magic was as simple as speech.  And how glorious would it have been to see the Floating Cities before they fell?”

Malathaz the Black, speaking to the assembled College of Magic in Old Valas

“Bah, they speak of it as though it were a disaster, a fall from grace.  The Empire got what it had coming to it.  It gobbled up everything it saw, a corpulent, decadent whore that made men weak and feeble.  Only the outland tribes remained strong.  Only those dedicated to survival, to conflict, were ready to survive the Firefall and the Earthshakers who tore the walls of the Empire down.  When the skies burned, we were ready.  The Lords of Misrule heard our pleas and saw our strength.  The most devoted were given the strength of the animal totems and became like the beasts they venerated. Now, the bitch whimpers because she knows her death is near.  Soon, we’ll kill what remains of the Empire and cast down the ivory towers forever.”

Kharesh-Gar, Khan of the Kholack tribe, speaking at a moot of human and beastmen tribes

“These were not always statues, my son.  What the Craft-Priests say is true.  We did not just live within the Stone, but once we were Stone.  The true children of Mother Mountain.  No realm was stronger than ours, no people more blessed.  But we gave into hubris.  The Flaw worked its way into the heart our Underking, and we turned from the Golden Lord and Diamond Wife.  So great was our pride we venerated ourselves before our Makers.  Mother Mountain rejected us.  Whole cities were lost as the tunnels collapse.  Through it all, we were cursed with flesh, separated from Mother Mountain. Only a few of the righteous remained true, but so great was their horror at our sin, they have become one with the stone.  It’s said that when we earn the Golden Lord’s grace, we will return to the stone that is our birthright.  Oh, what’s that?  Yes, I understand the surfacers had some trouble thanks to Mother Mountain’s spasms, but it’s nothing compared to what we suffered.”

Asgerd Stone-Hammer, Lorekeeper, speaking to his son in the Vault of the Ancestors.     

“They did this to us.  First, they bound us with their iron and enslaved us.  Then, their wizards stole our power to prop up their dreams of conquest.  The Great Gods did not abandon us, however.  Long did we dance and sing and wear their Masques, till the gods rode us and saw what had been done.  Their wrath tore the world apart and cast the empire low.  Our power is not what it once was, the gods could not repair that wound, but they have spared us iron’s bite and never again will man bind us with that hateful metal.  We are but shadows of what we once were; I suppose that this, at least, we have in common with the humans.”

Sylvath-an, Tryshallan Wardancer, preparing for the Dance of the Mother’s Harrowing   

Beastmen and Goblins…WTF? Part 2

While mulling over the whole ‘beastman problem’, I had some ideas about the goblins.  At first they were just one more variety of beastman, but that quickly went away.  For them I wanted something different.

In a lot of modern games, goblins are either treated as comic relief or granted weird tinkering techno abilities (often supplanting the dwarves as the preeminent anachronistic engineers and scientists of the setting).  I’m not fond of this.  I don’t like the comic angle because, frankly, I feel it’s quite meta.  If the little toothy bastards are trying to stab you or rob you, there is little humorous about them.  I feel that the ‘humor’ that arises from such characterizations is too postmodern for my tastes.

To put it another way, if the majority of players did not view them as so inconsequential after years of slaughtering them, these comic iterations wouldn’t be so prevalent.  Players do not view them as a threat, and so you can make them comedic without any great effort.  Goblins are a joke, they die in droves, so let’s riff on that and make them even more funny and irrelevant.

So, without changing stats, what could I do to make them more menacing?

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Sundered Empires Session 4

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After healing and restocking, the players decided to return to the crypt and see what was behind the door to the dwarven tomb.  This session we played over skype, mostly because I thought it’d be a quick 30-90 minute little session.  That was way wrong!  It did mean that I was rolling all the dice since I couldn’t find a dice roller we could all use online (something like invisible castle being too slow, I needed a chat program we could use but couldn’t locate one pre-game).

The players appraised Kanen-Tal (whose player was present this time but missed the previous session) of what had happened and why they wanted to return.  Being Lawful, they had to tip toe around the fact that Alfric wanted to rob the tomb, and stressed the fact that they believed undead were there.

So the party journeyed again to the crypt.

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[House Rules-Classes]Paladin

As my campaign world plays up religion quite heavily, paladins and clerics have always been an important part of the game world.  Luckily, ACKS has a player’s guide coming out with many more classes in it, of which the Paladin is but one.  More importantly, to me at least, is there is a system for creating new classes and having them be balanced with existing classes.  The main rulebook already does this (adding Bard, Explorer, Assassin, and Bladedancer as well as Elven Nightblade and Dwarven Craftpriest to the B/X canon).

The paladin in the player’s guide is perfectly good but it’s missing something important to me, spells.  So, using the guidelines, I created another paladin.  I hope you enjoy it.  Note, some text is taken from the paladin description in the player’s guide.

Sorry that I had to make it two tables.  Couldn’t get the formatting to work otherwise.

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Beastmen and Goblins…WTF? Part 1

Now, one thing I’ve always avoided in my setting is the presence of ‘humanoids’ that exist just to be slaughtered for gold and xp.  So goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, gnolls… the whole lot of them, have never appeared in my world.  But when I decided I’d use ACKS and fold, spindle and mutilate existing modules to spare me the effort of creating my own adventures, I bit the bullet and put them back in.

So how to justify it?  I’ve set this campaign some 6000-7000 years before the ‘modern age’ so I assume that, at least in the part of the world the modern campaign is set, they have long since been killed off.  Though right now, in this time and place (which may well be another continent, I’ve not completely decided) they are a blight that endangers the sentient races. Perhaps somewhere in the isolated places of the modern world there are enclaves that still exist, but they appear so rarely they are effectively mythical.

But what are they?

No, seriously… what the hell are orcs anyway?

Creations of mad wizards?

Don’t get any on you!

Servants of dark gods?

You know this dude is bad because his magic is green!

Pig men?

Kill these guys for 10 xp and 1d4 rashers of bacon.

Well, that’s another problem.  I don’t tend to like the idea of multiple intelligent races in addition to humanity in general.  I don’t mind a few, but when ever hill and valley has some new race with a culture all its own hidden away, I start to have trouble believing in it.  Gygax recommended that every dungeon level have some new creature and/or magic item, to keep the game fresh for experienced players, to keep the sense of wonder and discovery.  That’s all well and good when, perhaps, you only have one monster manual and you make up a few specials.  But decades of Dungeons and Dragons gave us tons of intelligent species, both playable and antagonistic, as well as comedy gold like flail snails and flumphs.

Seriously…who fell asleep at the wheel and thought THIS was a good idea?

So where do these creatures come from?  I suppose that for the stranger flora and fauna I’m willing to go with the usual, ‘A wizard did it.’  But if I’m going to do something with intelligent species, I need a bit more oomph.  Luckily, my world’s gods gave me the answer.

In the centuries before the Sundering, as the empire marched it’s unstoppable forces across the land, the barbarian tribes and cultures finally put aside their differences and began to work together to resist the empire.  But their unity, though potent on the field of battle, was too little too late, a fact that they slowly began to realize.  So their shamen and their priests beseeched the Lords of Misrule, begging for the power to stop their hated enemies while sacrificing hundreds of captive Imperials in a multitude of horrific ways.

The gods granted them the strength they begged for, but it came at a price.  Their rage and hatred and self-loathing over their failures led the tribes into dealing from a position of weakness, and the Lords of Chaos disdain nothing if not weakness.  Taking the totems of the various tribes, the Lords of Chaos gave them their animalistic strength and ferocity.  But they took their humanity in trade.  The barbarian tribes wanted to destroy their enemies, and so they gained the power to do that, at the cost of everything else.

One group revered the boar, a tough beast that was seen as nearly unkillable.  The gods warped and twisted these tribes until they gained the strength of the boar.  Once, they were known as the Orac-Thai and now they are simply called ‘orcs’ (Ha! Screw you Tolkien, Warhammer, and Wow, I’m sticking with pig men!)

Another tribe revered the jackal and the hyena.  They saw wisdom in the animals pack tactics as well as its their general slyness.  As such, this tribe was both feared and reviled for their duplicitous nature.  The Lord of Secrets heard their plea and twisted them into a powerful mixture of their human and animal natures.  So the Gnollani became simply known as gnolls over time.  Some sages wonder at why the orcs, who revere the Lord of Beasts and War, would be weaker than the offspring of his bastard child.  Some think it’s over-compensation, others think that there is some secret in their nature hidden by the Night Child that explains the greater strength of the gnolls.  Others wonder if the tribes might not have somehow stolen power meant for the orcs.  Regardless, the gnolls are now feared among the beastmen.

Bugbears are a (silly) part of D&D canon and I can’t just use them as is.  So in my games, any mention of bugbears will simply be references to larger, more mutated…er, blessed, beastmen.

Minotaurs were a tribe that revered the bull and were, perhaps, far more dedicated to their worship than the Orac-Thai.  Or maybe I’ll use their stats for ‘Champion’ beastmen.  Not sure yet.

So, I was able to fold the primary conflict between races into religion as well, a key motivating factor of conflict in nearly all my campaigns.  Beast races seek to destroy the civilization of humans, dwarves and elves because they not only carry centuries, if not millennia, of hatred against the other sentient species, but also their self-serving version of the Chaos faith tells them emphatically that they must crush and dominate all others they come into contact with, only then can they prove their strength and worthiness to the gods and gain their favor.  A strong leader can quell this behavior in a beast tribe and bring them to heel, but even then, it is only a temporary change.  Beastmen forced to farm and tend land will do so, but they are unruly farmers at best.  They were built to overcome and conquer, nothing else.

Being similar to beasts, they breed very quickly, usually having litters of five to eight at a time.  Beastmen children are born with their animalistic nature even closer to the surface, and they are savage little creatures.  The weak are left to die or are killed for food by the strong.  By about three or four they are large and tough enough to kill a grown man.  Females are as savage and powerful as males, only slowing down in the last month or so of pregnancy (which only lasts 4 months), at which point they are (sometimes) allowed to avoid tribal duties.

There can be no mercy for the beast tribes, not if mankind hopes to avoid being overwhelmed and wiped out.  While it is possible to speak and reason with beastmen, any alliances or treaties with them rarely last more than half a decade (the time it takes for a new generation to rise up and howl for blood).

So there…I now have a group of villains that can fill the role they normally fill in rpgs, while still fitting within the context of my world.

Goblins…now Goblins are something that became quite fun for me so I think I’ll treat them in their own post.

Accidental Worlds Part 3

The timeline I made was something I did in the third or fourth year of the campaign.  I decided that my world needed a rough history, mostly for myself.  I think I was running the Ulman campaign (a new campaign in a country gripped by civil war… very Black Company  in feel) in university at this point while occasionally running holiday sessions with the original group.  So I had story playing out all over the map (Ulman was a country set in the south-eastern portion of the map that was barely there, just a land beyond a mountain range with lots of forts and borders).  I was really getting the opportunity to explore my creation.

The time line went back ten thousand years to a ‘Mythic Era’.  I started ‘history’ with a defining moment, that would allow the world the players were familiar with to come into being.  Ten thousand years seemed suitably epic to me.  As I created it, I wrote in ‘ages’ because, well, wasn’t that how fantasy back-stories were done?

So I had my ubiquitous ‘Age of Magic’ when magic was super powerful and allowed for things that basically boil down to high-tech.  Sort of an Atlantean idea that could also justify a world filled with strange ruins and dungeons filled with crazy monsters.  After the end of that period, when flying cities crashed to the ground as magic left the world, I had the Age of Strife (essentially a 1-2 thousand-year ‘dark age’), and so on and so on.

For a long time, I’d lost those piece of paper, though I clearly remembered the beginning of history, so this tended to get referenced a lot in the games I ran.  I even ran one short-lived campaign in the Mythic prehistory, when Tryshallan ruled the world serving the will of their Living ‘Gods’.

The interesting thing about the time line is that until recently, none of it really mattered.  The only thing that mattered was the ‘modern age’ (the age I’d set the campaign in) and the mythic dawn, when the world was new.  The players couldn’t seem to escape the ramifications of the past.  Some of this was retconning, as I explained things that originally weren’t fully thought out in my head and later on made more sense in light of new play or a sudden epiphany on how I could make it fit together.

Though I’d imagined the story of the basic thrust of prehistory, and even alluded to it in the original campaign, it didn’t get much fleshing out till the Ulman campaign when I used it to justify a dungeon the players were exploring.  That campaign never got finished, as the group broke up as groups often do.  But that history became key to the setting, as past and present have become inextricably linked thanks to the actions of the modern pcs.

But the nice thing about playing with different groups and setting games in different times is that every time I do, I get to flesh more of the world history out and learn, along with my players, what the world was like then and there.  It’s a fascinating experience that keeps me interested and coming back for more.