Sunday, 7 November 2021

Ravenloft getaway 1: How They Derailed My Entire Plot in Round ONE

 My group's regular Belswick campaign (medieval D&D, 5e) is on hold for a couple of months so we can play in a couple of other systems and settings. Previously: Kraken Corpse Delve and WerewolfVikings.

For our next trick, we started a Ravenloft campaign in Pathfinder that I'm very stoked about. I'm a bit iffy on Pathfinder (way more detailed than the 5e that I normally run). Big plans, big storyline, and of course my chaos player upended all of it in round one. ROUND ONE. 

 I'm so proud!

 

THE PLAN FOR SESSION ONE

Start players out as bounty hunters. They're looking for Narvicus One-Leg (possibly a wizard) who has stolen the dangerous Box of Nightmares from the Church of the Authority. The players also each have a secret mission for a different patron.

Players then to follow Narvicus to his home town of Port Harrowdale, tangle a bit with local underworld / guards (no big difference really), gather info, confront wizard and his gang at his burned out lighthouse, have nice climactic fight, see Narvicus try to escape by boat, railroad this into shipwreck and have the disaster suck everyone into Ravenloft at the end of the session.

Easy, no? What could go wrong with a nice little railroad like that?

 

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED

I describe how group rolls up to the outer gate of Harrowdale, how they spent weeks in the saddle tracking Narvicus here, then immediately cut to the mission outline three weeks earlier with Cardinal Zorn of the Church. They chat, ask questions, and the group walks out of the study...

...for the cackling half-orc witch PC Zenogh to go "three weeks in the saddle? fuck no, we're going there NOW!" and whipping out teleport as their player decides the DM has had enough time to set the scene. 

"But you've never been there!", I try.

"No problem - some port on the northern coast, right? Hold each others' hands and hold on to your pants, motherfuckers!"

Teleport, in Pathfinder, is a good and wholesome spell with huge odds for failure and dice rolling if you don't have very accurate info about where you're going, which (I guess) is what attracted Zenogh's player to it. We'll talk more about this love of chaos down-post.

SPECTACULARLY, the dice gods are kind and Zemogh actually ends up in Harrowdale...with only half the party in tow, because weight limits. Nae problemo: teleport back, pick up the second batch, teleport to Harrowdale.

"How are you casting three teleports in a row at level nine?"
"Oh, I managed to get Intelligence 32. There's more where that came from!"

Why oh why did I let them talk me into playing Pathfinder again? But I have to admit, it's way more spectacularly derailing than a same-level party in 5e could have managed! In their first bit of agency in this mini-campaign, the party has shaved three weeks off of their journey and are now ahead of Narvicus. AWESOME.

It takes a bit of work to get the Ogre Cleric down from the very eye-catching new monastery / lighthouse where the second teleport casting ended up, but all's well as he makes friends with the local acolytes on the way down.

I should stress that Oblala Pul is played by one of my nastier players, whose characters almost always have an angle, deal or secret. This one is an absolute innocent for a change and says things like "you should all drop your weapons because I'm not sure I can bring all of you back from the dead when these guys cut you down".

Oblala, cleric of Saeranrae of the Dawn, isn't as scary as crossbow-mad Inquisitor Albrecht von Gottberg, as flamboyantly nuts as Zordlon, Monk For Hire with the business cards and snake-skin sleeveless vest, as stoic as dwarven fighter Bjorn Olafson or as immediately pegged as pyromaniac, fire-scared troublemaker Arod Dolgun, but his 10ft cassocked frame, carrying an actual temple door on his back, definitely stands out in a crowd. An utter pacifist, he'll focus on healing and healing a lot.

The absolute cake in terms of sheer fuck-your-plans madness in this party, however, will be taken by our group's resident master of chaos and back-up characters, the half-orc witch Zenogh Chaja Wiki.

The business cards that my wife (Zordlon the Monk) put together are pretty awesome. Each one has a new slogan on the back:

  • Zordlon, Fists of Flurry
  • Monk Around and Find Out
  • The Monk with the Funk
  • Redecorates Things
  • Unorthodox Solutions, Fast
  • Stunning Results
  • High Fiving Your Enemies in the Face
 
...any many more customised in the moment. The idea is that Zordlon has such a cussing problem that he tries to keep under wraps with a vow of sort-of-silence, using either business cards or a Book with All the Answers. Surprisingly useful. And hilarious.


HOW I TRY TO SALVAGE MY STORY

The party spends their first day asking around for info about Narvicus and learn that he's a former pirate captain called Narvik who had a very unfortunate encounter with a demon whale. Washed up somewhere on the nearby shore, he swore never to take to sea again and suddenly displayed an aptitude for strange illusions, mind-bending and stone-phasing.

The people he ensorcels forever have a subtle hour-glass shape to their pupils, I let drop.

The party nods, I think some of them even took notes, and then they described how they were going to find a good pub to spend a couple of weeks waiting for their quarry in style. Albrecht von Gottberg takes rooms in multiple inns because he's NOT sleeping where everyone has seen him enter.

Paranoid or smart? Turns out, we'll never find out because other things happen.

How Narvik lost his leg (yeah, he's already got a prostetic leg here - deal with it)


HOW IT GOT EVEN BETTER: DECK OF MANY THINGS

Remember how I said the party each have a secret mission that the other players don't know about? I let each choose from a list and gave them a strong magic item linked to each mission. Zenogh chose the Deck of Many Things

If you for some reason don't know this minor artifact: it's got a lot of potential to derail a campaign, mess up plans, characters and inflict severe damage to the environment. Good fun! This player has been lovingly talking about that for years, so I couldn't resist, as kind Cardinal Zorn, sliding an actual box with the Deck inside across the table and saying "do as you will, my child".

True to character, Zenogh made another player roll d12+1 and proceded to open the box.

It's about at this time that the rest of the table catch on that Zenogh has not, like they all have, gotten a +2 whatever cloak or boots of the whatchamacallit as a gift from their patron. Some are silent with intense anticipation, others...

"THE DECK OF MANY THINGS? YOU GAVE HIM THE DECK OF MANY THINGS?!"

"How many cards can you draw? What do you mean that's what you made me roll d12+1 for?! SEVEN?"

"Woohoo, seven cards from the deck it is!"

As pulled on day one (yes, there will be more) of this increasingly amazing mini-campaign:

  • Comet (defeat the next hostile you encounter to gain a level)
  • Flames (gain the enmity of a powerful outsider)
  • Knight (gain the service of a 4th-level warrior)
  • Balance (flip alignment - in this case to Lawful Neutral. Yeah, that one hurt my little chaos lover)
  • Moon (gain two wishes, to be used in a couple of minutes)
  • Vizier (gain one clear answer on a question, dilemma etc, to be used w/i a year)
  • Euryale (gain -1 penalty on all saving throws)

Not bad! As the light show of moons, comets and flames around Zenogh's table flares on, Harald the Flailer walks up to her and pledges his loyalty. Soon after, she slips into the alley behind the inn.

It's sinking in, at this point, that I've just given someone two wishes. Could be a short campaign! But Z's player is a team player and what's more, he has written out a solid backstory: his half-orc was treated awfully by his two parents and only survived because he was adopted by a goblin clan.


Wish one: to have my mother and father here before me, NOW.

  • human father (deceased) and orc mother appear, who sees her daughter, draws a knife and hisses. LIGHTNING BOLT TO THE FACE, MOM!
  • Albrecht the Inquisitor, absent-mindedly: "does this count as defeating the next hostile?"
  • I chuckle as Zenogh gains a level

 

Wish two: to put a blessing on the goblin clan who raised me.

  • Z's soul is temporarily ripped from her body and shot at blazing speeds to the hill tunnels where she was raised, and she sees streamers of invisible luck attach themselves to all of the goblins. They and their offspring will forever be Blessed.

 

SOOOO, THE WIZARD AND THE RELIC THEY STOLE?

Back in the inn, the rest of the party are absorbing everything that's happened. Ghostly viziers, moons and comets in the rafters, a brooding warrior walking out of the shadows...all that, Bjorn Olafson observes, after about his eighth beer of the evening, is very nice but does not bring them closer to finding their quarry Narvicus One-Leg. The rest agree, and are about to go into Planning Mode.

This, I can only assume, sounds way too boring for Bjorn. He walks over to a nearby table, wipes it clear and jumps up, bellowing:

WHO KNOWS ABOUT NARVIK THE ONE-LEGGED THEN?
 

This is of course awesomely helpful. I can now insert two of Narvik's gang members into the crowd, have the rest of the patrons look very worried, and we're back on track. 

Noticing the dodgy looks from two guys at a nearby table, Albrecht saunters over and introduces himself. At first the two gang bangers act tough, but Albrecht comes across very intimidating and almost seems able to read their minds...which of course he can, because Detect Thoughts spell.

A quick scuffle, and one bandit lies dead in the alley, absolutely pummeled to death by Zordlon, while another is repenting his sins down in the mud. It'll be a minute until this guy can give us answers, says Albrecht. Too slow? Up saunters Oblala Sul, who reaches out to the bit of tenderized meat next to Zordlon and simply says "wake up". One fiery display of the Lady of Dawn later, the second bandit draws breath. 

This is a short campaign, so I make it quite easy to find info and unravel plots: our new friends explain all about how they're holed up at the old, burned-out lighthouse a couple of hours out of town. At this Darkhouse, the band waits for Narvik's return with a treasure from the south...

...how about we assault the place and lie in wait for him there, goes the party? Zordlon, especially, is in favor - this player spent all their gold on cool gear and is thus absolutely penniless. Begging for food and shelter gets boring fast, so a temporary place to stay sounds great!

 

PICK A CARD

First though, the next morning, Zenogh just cannot resist the temptation. I've 'limited' the Deck to one use per day (up to 13 cards in one session, one session per day), although I might change that.

Rolling d12+1 again, Zenogh decides to draw NINE cards today:

  • Knight (out of the card crawls the warrior Lydia, looking sterner and more dependable than Harold)
  • Flames (ANOTHER evil outsider now hates Zenogh with a passion)
  • Comet (I'll need to make sure the next opponent is a bit more of a challenge!)
  • Jester (removed from the Deck and allows Zenogh to either gain 10,000 XP or draw up to 2 extra cards - naturally, she elects to draw extra cards)
  • THE VOID - in a rush, Zenogh's consciousness is drawn from her body and across the Planes, down, down to a gem in an iron tower!

 ...and that ends the drawing session prematurely. Zenogh now sits comatose at her table, Lydia and Harald decide to get the help of the party, and through divine magic, Oblala learns how Zenogh's soul is now bound in a gem in the Nine Hells, in the Iron Tower of Dis on the layer of Dis.

Well that's a nice wrench in the works! It's also one of the famous risks of drawing from the Deck. Luckily, Zenogh's player just got two warrior servants from their previous draws. Lydia, being more dependable (because she has Zenogh's new alignment of Lawful Neutral), will take care of their master's comatose body; Harald, of Zenogh's original, more...flexible alignment, will stick witht he party.


 

FIGHTY TIMES

Finally, we turn our attention to the big pile of Dwarven Forge terrain that's been sitting on the table since the start of the session!

The Darkhouse is a burned-out lighthouse - partly because most of this stuff came in just a few days before and I didn't get around to painting it yet. Sets used: Erinthor Cliffs & Elevation (for the rocky base), water terrain trays for the sea, Brambles for a bit of greenery and hazardous terrain, two Rowboat packs to create wrecks and boats, assorted Tavern, Alchemy Lab and Trap accesories, and a combo of Tudor Ruins and Stone Buildings to make up the buildings.

There's no easy access to the main lighthouse, except for the ensorceled rowboat that will rise into the air if you insert the right token (which of course the group got from the two dudes in the inn). More dangerous though, are the orc, ogre and human bandits in the tower! With a druid casting lightning bolts, ogres smacking people around, tower-archers taking pot shots and orcs getting in licks, it's an interesting fight and it's useful to see what the party can handle or dish out.


Zordlon's doing monk shit and wrecks people, Bjorn charges around happily, Harald turns out to be a beast at tanking, and Albrecht is picking off people with his crossbow. The group is getting bloodied, and wonders why their healer is holding back, only to hear he can't really heal less than ~17hp per spell. Bit of a waste to spend a cure light wounds on less than that, now?

Once the 'gate house' is cleared, Arod Fireballs the top of the actual tower to speed things up.

I ask, do the players see the two barrels in the window? The ones filled with flammable oil that I'd have loved to drop on players ascending in the ensorceled rowboat / elevator? Of course those ignite and blow up as well! Exit druid, archers and a couple of rogues, although one is still looking healthy thanks to the miracle of Evasion. His luck is about to run out though, as Zordlon swarms up the wall and wrestles himself inside.

The fight, in fact, is going very well, when Arod, now up via flight spell, spots a well-veiled rowboat departing from the back of the tower. 

Did I just cheat and have Narvik appear on-site weeks early? Did I in fact put him in a cloaked rowboat to leave his men to die as he escapes out to sea, which he vowed never to sail upon again after being mangled by the devil whale that took his leg?

Why, yes, of course! The session is coming to an end and I have nasty, railroady plans so I need to wrap this part up!


 

Arod wastes no time or expense and blasts the boat to smithereens (the "reward him for his choice" part of my DM brain goes "now have him retrieve the relic from the bottom of the sea").

Wreckage on the waves, Narvik sinking below...as the sea starts to boil and a booming voice welcomes Narvik to the depths again. An enormous whale breeches, waves crash upon the shore and the spray starts to envelop everything, reducing visibility zero. White-out, howlings winds, cold stinging water that turns to...gritty sand? The party find themselves drenched in sea water in what looks like a sandstone antechamber half-buried in fine yellow sand. Footsteps - a boot and a peg-leg - stretch off into the distance, where a huge pyramid sits on the horizon.

Where did that magic whale dump the party? And where's that bloody wizard with their relic? Welcome to Ravenloft, motherfuckers! Next session, let's see how you navigate this little desert domain I've cooked up :)

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Summer oneshot: Kraken Corpse Delve

A week ago my group sat around a real table again for the first time in a year and a half - great fun and so much easier than playing remotely. I'll make this a very short summary, because I've still got a lot of writing to do for the third story in this summer "break" from my main campaign. Next up is a couple of sessions romping through spooky scary Ravenloft...

KRAKEN CORPSE DELVE

Is a module by Dungeon Age where the players go on a dungeon crawl through the titanic corpse of a monster from the deep sea. And there's not just arcane organs to harvest down there...

Bryce over at TenFootPole.org did a great review of this module. I agree with him that the concept is cool, the writing is brief and evocative and the document is very easy to use at the table. 

If I missed anything during prep & play it was a handy overview of all the harvestable organs in the Kraken and slightly more detailed maps with symbols and short call-out text of what can be found in each location in the kraken corpse.

Come to think of it, I would have appreciated short hints in the text like 'to the north, there is the glimmering of a great eye; south-west, you hear the creak of large chitin joints'. Right now you're left to improvise that essential info to give players a choice in where they're going.

CHANGES 

I've switched the challenge level of the module for level 7 players and increased gold values of the various organs and the focal diamond to give the party a truly ludicrous prize to fight over. Used stats from the monster manual instead of the stats given; hell hounds as dream foxes (not encountered), black oozes and violet fungi as gill parasites, beholder zombies as Rapid Eye Monsters, an umber hulk for the Vivid Butterfly and a level 13 mindflayer wizard as the big nasty.

INTRO ADDED: A DEBT TO SETTLE

So why are you lunatics delving into the corpse of a kraken? I added a short hook to the oneshot where the players all knew each other from before, had various debts to settle, and needed a quick score: like being the first to stake a claim on the newly discovered kraken corpse on the edge of the Inner Sea of Thal and harvest its arcane organs for the alchemists of His Dread Majesty Gulfrey II. 

(I'm sort of creating a unified setting for this oneshot and the upcoming Ravenloft story, in the same world as Skerples' Kidnap the Archpriest.)

Characters, level 7 in D&D 5e:

  • Feline (Fuh-LEE-nuh, actually a first name in the Netherlands) Allard Berkenbosch de Visser van Coevorden Rakshasa III, Tabaxi wizard affectionally called 'no, bad kitty' by her mom. Cute, chaotic, amoral. Needs 13,000 gp to start an orphanage to take good care of stray rodents.
    "Because a happy mouse is a tasty mouse!"
  • Vydh, lizardman fighter all alone in the world and looking for others of his kind, needs 16.000 gp to pay of gambling and drug debts.
  • Bubastis, shifter ranger with a favored terrain of "someone else's vault and pockets", has 3000 gp in gambling debts
  • El Grande Bomba, catch-phrase spouting, folding-chair wielding bard / barbarian with a whopping 43,000 gp debt (the player elected to roll 3d20 for his debt rather than the d20 I asked for)
  • Bubbles, tiefling druid / warlock with a handy talent for shapeshifting and for teleporting away obstacles. Has a 7000 gp debt to the alchemy guild, inherited from his sadly deceased mentor.


PLAYTHROUGH

I described the party's approach to the kraken corpse, first in a month-long sea voyage, then a weeks-long trek through the desert. They keep finding odd situations: like the original discover of the kraken corpse being surprised to see them already - he only just got back from finding the corpse and sent the letter to inform the party just a week ago. Or the sand-covered remains of an old caravan headed to the kraken corpse, over a decade old. And when they arrive on the shores of the Inner Sea, they find it gone...replaced by an ancient mud flat.

If you're read the module or even just Bryce's review, you know that someone's messing round with time in the module. I decided it was leaking time, which led to all these paradoxical finds.

The party meet Ajeral, a tentacle-bestudded woman from the far future here to change history so that the world's won't be overrun by tentacly beasties that change humanity to fit their own image. Only her sister Xejal is sending dream monsters through the still-open time gate (Ajeral wants to go back at some point!) - can the party yank out the 100,000 gp diamond the size of her head from the gate and close it?

Bubbles shares her memories of her world - sun darkened, mountainous horrors - and comes away convinced the weird lady is telling the truth: there be shiny down there. Also, now has 10ft single-target telepathy.

The party head down into the kraken corpse, meeting Havian the old chitin miner (who'se been her for decades) and Sister Akandra, blind and ancient (immortal?) head priest of a buried temple to a sea angel, who is convinced that the sea is still on her doorstep. She blesses the party for their stories and sends them deeper into the corpse.

Down at the tentacles, the party tangles with paralytic poison from the kraken's tendrils and slides between them, down to the gigantic 10ft kraken eye blocking the way down. There are things inside it, in addition to the eye fluid which acts as potions of true seeing. Bubbles uses her Helm of Teleportation to teleport the entire thing to his alchemy lab. 

Down they go along the optic nerve, to take a side branch and end up in the ink sac. An ancient sailor's body drifts in the black-purple fluid: mouth open in a horror grin, skin twisted into tentacles and see shells. The group very carefully flies, climbs, teleports or otherwise make their way across the ink. Bubastis slips and falls in, which nets her seven tentacles sprouting from his chin and braiding themselves into a goatee.

A squeeze through a fleshy channel later, the group finds themselves in the egg sac, full of tiny (5ft) kraken babies, still ripening or ready to hatch. WISELY, they don't mess with these yet but they do meet the Vivid Butterfly, a dream beast sent by Xeyal. She tells them her younger sister is misguided, and she can offer them anything they want - literally a wish - if they bring Ajeral back through the time gate.

Most of the party is down with this, except for Feline and La Grande Bomba. And so the illusionary showers of pearls, images of the location of lizardman tribes and other gifts vanish as the Vivid Butterfly declares: you are but my dreams, you are not real! We run a fight where the party first needs to convince themselves they are not delusions, and then have to withstand the Butterfly's hypnotic gaze (I used an Umber Hulk stat block). 

Victorious, the party attempts to catch their breath, to discover that this area is full of noxious gasses, krakenflesh quakes and passing dream beasts! Random encounter checks, baby. They wisely retreat to the ink sac to finish their short rest.

Final encounter: Xeyal

I bring out the Dwarven Forge map of the final location in this delve: a big open cavern with the shining, swirling Time Gate to the far future. Xeyal tries to convince the party one last time, but they're not having it - and so it's on! I'm using a 13th level Enchanter wizard on top of a mindflayer chassis, with legendary actions to keep pace with the party. 

* I'm sorry team, I was mistaken in giving Xeyal the ability to focus on two concentration spells at the same time! That's reserved for the opium-smoking wizards in my Belswick campaign ;)

Mind blasts, lightning bolts, a Bigby's Hand to catch Bubbles making an end run around her, invisibility and dominate person* to turn Vydh to her side: in the end Xeyal almost wins by downing the entire party with a Circle of Death, but Feline counterspells it. Enraged Disintegration follows, only for Feline to dodge away by using Sister Akandra's blessing! 

 It's a close call, but as Bubbles yanks out the focal diamond from the time gate and Helm-of-Teleports it to his lab, Xeyal loses focus (as do I, after a long night and fight keeping track of legendary actions, saves, bonus actions and more). The sister drops, and everyone catches their breath after a well-earned victory.

World saves, loot obtained, on the next oneshot!

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Summer oneshot: Werewolf - Into the Maelstrom

We're taking a summer break from my Belswick campaign so I can work out how to drive that game through its mid and endgame. Instead, we'll be running a couple of oneshot adventures and a 3-5 session campaignlet. End of July we logged into Skype for a little jaunt of Werewolf: the Dark Ages (simplified) set in my Maelstrom archipelago.

 

Spoiler ahead: the Big Nasty at the end of this story is a reskin of the Soulmonger from Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry. Dragon stats from Mage: Dark Ages by White Wolf, soundtrack by Two Steps from Hell.

THE PLOT

My players voted to set one of our summer oneshots in my Maelstrom Islands piratecrawl region, so all I needed to do was pick one of the islands to focus on: Quellport, with its plague of Red Honey drugs sounded like a fine place to explore. 

I added Skerples' Mehabara as a waypoint to stretch out the sea voyage a bit and give them a place to find information. The trip from the starting point of Ysland > Mehabara > Maelstrom will serve as a nice journey into the Mythic Underworld: things wil get increasingly stranger the further they go.

In line with point 1 of Game Prep (below), I decided not to fuck around with overly subtle plots here. Added the following ingredients and stirred vigorously:

  • An honoured Viking Wolfchanger, who after a lone quest to end a drug plague came back befuddled and without his Wolf spirit.
  • The vile drug Red Honey (from the pc game Sunless Sea), made by cunning vampires out of the souls of the innocent.
  • A titanic soul-singing Sea Wyrm caught in / causing a leagues-wide maelstrom, whose slobber was being refined into said Red Honey.

A friend in need! Vampires! Drugs! A sea dragon! (Spoiler: they didn't even TRY the drugs.)

The Maelstrom Islands are where I keep all the really nasty stuff in my piratecrawl.

 

PLAYER RESPONSES

Blanche Sidwell, bearshifter ridden by the spirit of her grandmother who saw her entire family burned by missionaries:

  • Fun and exciting story. A system with many parts that hook together in obscure ways and only when playing does it start to show.
  • The raven with persuasion 👏🏼
  • The teaching moment about how not to wake up a were shark 🤭😬

 

Mugin Rafida, scoutin', lootin' ravenchanger with a spirit-gift of a silver tongue:

  • Reynard's lie, the gift that keeps on giving.... 😋 Furthermore, of course, the mega funny "Are You Sleeping?"
  • Our accidentally finely balanced party. (2 big berserkers & 2 small & sneaky guys) For me this whole system was new, but definitely delicious. Encore! To grandma!
  • Not to mention the fact that we are playing Werewolf: the Dark Ages but the only werewolf is an NPC who lost his powers and should be killed off if he doesn't get them back.... ("Can I really not become a farmer!?" "NO!")

 

Gorm, sneaky, shadowy ratchanger with the same spirit-gift of a silver tongue that Mugin has:

  • The waking up of the shark with the rite of silence was genius
  • A oneshot game is a nice way to cut loose without too many long-term consequences 👍🏻
  • Lovely powerfull combat😁

 

Fükka the wereshark, fully invested in using the Burrow gift to tunnel like a landshark:

  • I loved EVERYTHING is this oneshot. From the introduction scene and meeting Snorri to the sea trip.
  • From the werebear at the market and the herbalist to rescuing/kidnapping Joelle.
  • Demolishing a galleon to make a point was a personal highlight.
  • From dicking around in the mayor's office to the alarm clock joke.
  • And the short but powerful combat in the monastery.
  • I also loved how the party was put together for this oneshot. Raven and Rat talking the socks off everyone they meet. Bear and Shark leave a trail of destruction 😂

 

GAME PREP

Step 1: get in the right frame of mind

  • Attain proper epic mood by splicing 2 Steps From Hell directly into cortex.
  • Reread words of wisdom from the Jeff on How to Awesome Up Your Players. In short: start a little larger than life, escalate from there. Werewolf characters can shrug off cannon attacks and splinter ships' masts by throwing cannons through them, so revel in that and give them both mooks to mow down and Big Opponents to pit themselves against.

Step 2: summarize Werewolf: the Dark Ages ruleset

  • This game is wordy. Only one other group member knows the lore about all the Garou tribes, breeds and auspices, so I stripped out that and the whole spirit world angle to get a streamlined system of totem warriors who can shift into animal form and use gifts from the spirits.

Step 3: create characters.

  • Remember how I started this out by saying we'd be playing WEREWOLF? Naturally, the group asks if other shifters are also a possibility. And so I add Wererats, Wereravens, Werebears and Weresharks to my stripped-down system. 
  • In the end, none of the four players picks a werewolf. Luckily my plot wasn't dependent on that; they're a bunch of weirdo barbarians tasked with helping a fellow totem warrior.

 

RUNNING THE SESSION

Intro: love of faith?

No meeting in a tavern. I ask each player: love or faith? and run them through a mini-scene where they can introduce their character.

Love: 

On the northern Ysland, werebear Blanche Sidwell and wereraven Mugin Rafida are clearing a road through a lavafield to win the hand of the lovely Frigga in marriage. They suspect foul play when all the workers except themselves fall sick due to poisoning. They scare them away using Reynard's Lie, a silver-tongue Gift which will see A LOT OF USE in this oneshot.

Faith: 

In Smokehaven on Ysland, wererat Gorm Olsen and wereshark Fükka are looking on as a new christian church is erected on the island. Christian workers and an Asatru mob are facing off and stones are flying. Using that same silver-tongue gift, Gorm intimidates one of the workers' leaders to back. the fuck. off. Meanwhile, Fükka gets hit by stones thrown by a woman called Magritte. He takes narrative control, sets her up as a loveless fanatic and then uses the Burrow gift to go all landshark on the woman. The rest of the group don't miss a beat as they drop into the Jaws tune.

 

The Lost Wolf

Haggard Aedja the Crow summons the players to an ancient runestone overlooking Smokehaven and introduces them to morose wolfshifter Snorri Longtooth. He's "lost the wolf" (no more raging, shapeshifting and using spirit gifts) on a loner quest to find the source of the nasty drug Red Honey. Lead: his last known location before losing his memories was the Mehabara archipelago.

Quest: take Snorri to find his wolf spirit and bring him back with it - or not at all. "Life without your totem is not worth living", hints Aedja darkly as Snorri, sweat beading, asks if he really can't become a farmer. 

I realized during the scene that I hadn't given Snorri a lot of lines yet - he was more of a will-drained McGuffin than an NPC, really. So decided to have him speak up and ask if he couldn't just retire. That brought out a darkly humorous side in Aedja, which I rolled with. Never doubt where your mad scrabbling for coherent dialogue takes you.

Captain Haakon (which sounds exactly like Captain Hook in Dutch...I wrote it down without saying it out loud) will get the players to the Merabaha in her drakkar, the Storm's Light; after that, they're on their own.

 

Shipping trip - that poor storm

I didn't have a lot planned for the trip from icy Ysland to the sunny Mehabara; luckily I didn't have to! Asked players to roll for weather, then for encounters on the way on this handy travel chart by Skerples. The result: a bad storm. The response: sharkshifter Fükka climbing into the mast and using a magic rite to browbeat the storm into blowing the Storm's Light to the Mehabara extra fast.

 

Skerples' Mehabara Islands (islands his, map mine)

Mehabara: wreck that market

As the drakkar sails into the tropical, fortified harbor Alamet of the nation of Tarracon, bearshifter Blanche spots a witch burning in progress. There's soldiers, a crowd, a crying young lady, priests, a pyre - and then very quickly there's a LOT of screaming as Blanche goes red-eyed, flashes back to her grandmother who was burned at the stake, and makes the world shrink as she grows into a 15 foot monster that proceeds to tear apart the market.

That Deranged Ancestor flaw sure sounded fun when the player bought it in character generation! 

With a couple of musket bearing soldiers coming down from the fort, the group pick themselves and off the street and ask sort-of-witch Joëlle (cook's help, really) for info about illegal drugs. Well she sure as hell doesn't know, but one of these crazy fur-wearing barbarians just turned into a couple tons of bear and saved her from death by fire, plus this is a oneshot, so she points the lunies to Jimena the Herbalist and bargains for a spot on the boat.

Jimena, of course, is deeply paranoid, has a hair-trigger and a bound fire elemental, and is absolutely NO match for a rousing new round of Reynard's Lie by Gorm and Mugin. "Don't you remember you wanted to tell us everything?"

I should have turned every use of this gift into a drinking game. It's is an absolute gift (ahah) for the DM to spoonfeed info to the players or speed the plot along. And so, they handily discover that Red Honey is made on the isle of Quellport in the Maelstrom Islands, further west on the spice route.

 

Rite of the Questing Stone

Give them tools and see how they use those to fuck over the world is my DMing philosophy in a nutshell. Case in point: Fükka has chosen to invest heavily in the Rites background which gives him a lot of magic spells to play with. Like Rite of the Questing Stone, which he uses to confirm their heading.

When Fükka rolls six successes in a system that caps "absolute brilliant success" at five though, I decide to go a bit beyond what the spell calls for. His pendulum points straight to the Maelstrom Isles all right, but I feel that's not nearly enough.

And so Fükka drops like a stone, thrashing and foaming at the mouth on the deck for hours while his spirit flashes to the Maelstrom. There he senses an ancient, hungry power under the waves. He's a big boy wereshark, but this thing is vast and corrupt. And with that, Fükka wakes up again, bathing in sweat and getting a lot of scared looks from the crew.

Nothing like a bit of foreshadowing, right?

 

Negotiating passage

Captain Haakon (I suck at names) isn't too sure about sailing on to the Maelstrom. Snorri is game, but doesn't really remember a thing about the route and has no sway on board; it's all down to the captain and her crew, and they'd much rather head back to Ysland.

"There's big monsters in the sea - no wonder they use big ships over here like that galleon - look, they've got rows of rows of cannons and we've just got a ballista! Also, whirlpool over 30 miles wide." 

"That scary galleon over there?", asks Fükka as he casually steps off the side, shifts into a 20 foot megalodon monster shark and pulverizes the magnificent ship's hull.

"Yeah, that one", concedes Haakon as some Reynard's Lying by Gorm and Mugin seals the deal: the captain and crew are either reassured or more scared of the players. Probably a mix, but: it's a oneshot! Gotta keep things going.

 

Dinner reservations

Sailing checks are disappointingly boring and the Storm's Light reaches the slowly counter-clockwising waters outside the Maelstrom Islands in a couple of weeks' sailing.

Fükka (as shark) and Mugin (as raven) scout ahead and find the biggest port on the isle of Quellport, conveniently also called Quellport. Rounding Quellport's southern tip, they spot a beautiful white-walled monastery on a high cliff and notice the water starting to flow faster. They're in the outer grasp of the Maelstrom now! 

Quellport is a very Ranstead town, which means I get to break out slight German accents. The drakkar makes port and the party asks around for info: where can they get some Red Honey? The harbormaster has no idea but points them to the mayor's large and somber house on top of the hill.

Some more Reynard's Lie secures an appointment, and Mayor Stijn Gellink confides that he does remember a similar drakkar and viking berserker coming into port a half year ago. Snorri offered to track down the source of Red Honey, but wasn't seen since. If the party can put an end to the drug ring and its evil effects, the mayor will pay them a goodly sum. He's heard rumours of the Rose Garden Monastery being somehow involved, but honestly cannot imagine the Good Sisters being up to drug running.

 

Wake-up call

Can the party perhaps stay the night? Of course they can. It's at this point that Blanche tries out a little magic ritual she's learned: until she speaks, all sounds she makes is silenced - to be unleashed in one big cacophany of sound around her when the ritual breaks.

In the early morning she gets up, casts the rite and then spends a good 15 minutes stomping around, smashing pan lids together, rattling drawers and so on in absolute silence. She then whispers next to Fükkas ear: "you awake yet?"

Of course this leads to the entire room getting blasted awake, Fükka spectacularly failing (succeeding?) a Rage roll and turning into a half-man, half-shark abomination which rakes its inch-long claws through Blanche. Bleeding out (with 1 or 2 health levels to spare - low roll!) she manages: "worth it"!

Forget classic D&D Silence, this rite is the superior version.

 

Rose Garden

After recovering, the party scouts out the Rose Garden Monastery in animal shape and discovers that the place is a fortress with a lot of nightly activity. Burly, red-faced nuns with cudgels and swords keep watch as tired workers from the town come in to work in what sounds like an underground distillery. Once every few days, a small boat called La Balleine takes a prisoner out to sea and returns with barrels filled with some pinkish slime.

The best part? The abbess Sister Zaira and her confidante, the poet Isery, only come out at night. Blanche's deranged ancestor immediately recognizes one of them: that's the missionary who burned her whole family! And yes, the pair are deathly pale.

Fucking vampires, man.

 

Front Gate

A plan? Storm the place during the daytime, of course. Reynard's Lie opens the gate, then it's rage-out time as the party absolutely tears through about twenty burly nuns. Some of which pack quite a punch and move like the wind for a couple of second, until they burn out.

Ghouls (mortals who drink vamp blood and gain a couple of mild powers) are tough, but not Werewolf tough. Fükka tears into them, Gorm rat-teleports on top of the watchtower to strike the musket-wielding occupants with beautifully coordinated strikes, Blanche forgets to shapeshift and is struck down by a raging nun - only to pop up 15 feet tall and in a death rage which only subsides an hour after the fight.

From the cellar with its weird arcane distillery and two comfy coffins, a soothing voice with hypnotic suggestions swaft up. By sheer luck, the party manages to stave off vampiric Presence and Domination and not turn into hapless minions for the bloodsuckers! Gorm dives into the cellar and turns his claws into silver for extra rage and murder power, taking out the hypno-poet Isery. Fükka starts to demolish the roofs to let in the sunlight.

Vampiric speed keeps Sister Zaira out of claw's reach of Blanche for a few seconds, but once the raging bear manages lands the tiniest glancing blow, she can spend Rage to buy sickening amounts of extra damage (other shapeshifters can take extra actions per round; bears just hit like an artillery barrage). A vampire turns into a smear on the ground turns to ashes and this fight is over.

In notebooks scattered across the monastery, the party find evidence that the vampires were trading prisoners' souls to someone called Grandma who lives deep down in the Maelstrom. In return for regular souls, they received the raw pink slime they then purified into Red Honey.

I didn't narrate every blow in this fight; every player got in a couple of licks and was sort-of-attacked, then I sped up and went to the next highlight of the fight. It's a oneshot; got to keep things moving. And with my tendency to spin out scenes for extra roleplaying, we had to call it a night here! The party had found the source of Red Honey, but hadn't recovered Snorri's wolf-soul yet. And where was that pinkish slobber coming from that the vampires turned into Red Honey? We found out in part two of this oneshot.

 

Finale: in Grandmaw's House

A couple of days after session one, we all log in for the grand finale. I recap that there's a final mystery to be solved deep in the Maelstrom. The party inexplicably decides to take captain Lutèce of the prisoner/pink pre-honey-smuggling boat La Balleine instead of their own, sturdier Storm's Light.

Not that I minded!

 

Down the hatch

La Balleine is off (you guessed it, after some fast Reynard's Lying to convince the captain she's too stupid to ask questions and should just do what she's told. Six successes on the roll means the story really takes, and she's a bumbling fool for the rest of the trip.

I take them in a grand tour around the map while Fükka and Mugin decypher the strange navigational chart on board the ship. Isle de Carcosa with its forbidden inland city, Henderson Island and its many identical shipwrecks, fog-haunted Graben Island and its strange-eyed fishermen, icy Kerguelen and its basalt ruins, and then in, in, in past the horrible prison of Dreadhold, where the sea tilts down in a roar.

Blanche sends a Gift-spirit in the form of a crow ahead to scout and help out the navigators, and good that she does, because that nets them enough successes to spot the lonesome rock in the foaming whirlpool. Some hard rolls crash La Balleine on the relative quiet of the rounded rock wall's wake. Here they find a couple of small rock islands with the remains of a temple or shrine.

As the group explores, Mugin spots heaps of treasure all around the site and all hear a faint singing, as of many voices that are trying to come into harmony. Mugin awakens a golden cup with strange geometrical designs and spends some time talking to the ritual vessel of blood for Tlaloc of the Ice Knives, Aztec god of rain (and of course bloody sacrifices).

Mugin takes off and scouts from above in raven form, to see a titanic shape moving in the circle of the rock wall and reefs. It rises to the surface, growing, ghostly voices starting to chorus as the head of a sea dragon breaches the waters. Its head is yards across, its body vast beneath the waves, its maw slavers with pink slime and is filled with fangs, some of which made of ice and shivering with the song of all the souls this thing has fed upon.

Grandmaw demands her next offering of souls.

 

UNLEASH THE DRAGON!
Terrain by Dwarven Forge, Terrible Sea Monster by the shop in the Albuquerque Natural History museum.



It's improv time again: I hadn't prepped a voice for Grandmaw, but I do know what I based the monster on - the Soulmonger of the Fionavar Tapestry, who eats the souls of all the elves trying to sail beyond the world. And so in the spirit of the moment I hit on using a different voice for every new sentence. Old and gruff, light and imperious, sickly, arrogant, fearful - it's a chore, but it seems to have the intended effect at the table!

Of course the party isn't about to offer anyone else - not even the slaver-captain - to this creature of the depths. Gorm, in rat form, has uncovered symbols on the temple indicating that the monster is chained here, near the bottom of the Maelstrom. But its prison is slowly breaking and each soul eaten breaks the bindings just a bit further.

It's slaughtering time!

I play this battle blow-by-blow, have the Soulmonger sing its song and drain the willpower and rage of the shapeshifters, rip into their forms - almost kill one - but in the end the action economy dooms it: four shapeshifters unloading multiple actions a round blow through the beast's health at a frightening rate. Especially when Fükka goes blood-mad and tunnels into the things side just as Gorm slashes through its palate from inside the maw!

And so, after 45 minutes of rousing combat, Grandmaw sinks bleeding into the icy depths. She's not dead yet - as long as she has souls to digest, she will return, and she's got six of them lodged in the icy fangs in her mouth. Luckily Gorm twigs onto that and uses his last bit of air to shatter them all before he passes out. Blanche, along for the ride, then uses the last of her strength to get them up to the surface.

GET INSIDE ITS MAW!
Gorm the wererat going for the teeth as Blanch the werebear hangs on for dear life


Final plunge

The battle is over but the party is far from safe; they're still deep inside the Maelstrom behind a rock wall that starts to break apart before their eyes. I start pushing over the pieces that make up the rock wall to add to their sence urgency as Blanche, Gorm and a revitalised Snorri get on board La Balleine.

Mugin keeps track of what's really important and has been ferrying chests of gold and silver onto the ship as all this happens.

And the wereshark? He circles the corpse as he feels its dominion over this spirit-strong sea fade and I can feel the player wanting to claim the domain as his own. But he's needed aboard ship, because with crappy sailing and the increasingly dangerous waters the boat is almost breaking apart. Hope and spit keep the boat sort-of-together - until the second sailing botch of the evening rakes it across the rocks.

Gorm does what rats do, empties a barrel of gold and uses it to abandon ship.

Clever use of Fükka's rites turn La Balleine into a functional raft, but they've lost the capacity to steer. The group finally rolls well on their sailing check so I have them veer dangerously close to the very heart of the Maelstrom - giving them a hazy vision of a king on a throne writhing senselessly to the sound of pipers as a thousand-masked jester waves to the passing ship - and then catapult them past Gorm's floating barrel beyond space and time into the starless void. 

Again, this was sheer improv. I had no real idea of what was at the bottom of the Maelstrom, and I think the spark of ideas went like: catapult orbit past a black hole - azathoth - court of the writhing king - nyarlatothep. Because adding Nyarlathotep to a world is always a good idea.

 

Wrap-up

I roll on a special table with all my piratecrawl regions to see where the five shifters end up after their voyage through the Warp; by an amazing stroke of luck they end up in the Mehabara where they began! (Could have stranded them in Chult or on the Isle of Dread - oh well.)

After months, they recover their drakkar Storm's Light from the Maelstrom Isles, where it has picked up Gorm the wererat from where he crashed on the doorstep of Dreadhold Prison.

The group is rich, has saved their wolfshifter friend and most importantly: slew vampires and an ancient Sea Wyrm. Time to call it a night - this was an awesome oneshot to play and I look forward to the next one!

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Summer break: oneshot time!

We're taking a summer break from my Belswick campaign so I can work out how to drive that through mid and endgame. In place, we'll be running a couple of oneshot adventures and a 3-5 session campaignlet.

 

Voting via google poll resulted in the following:

Oneshot: Into the Maelstrom
System: Werewolf: the Dark Ages

Oneshot: Kraken Corpse Delve
System: D&D 5th edition

Short campaign: A Ravenloft Summer
System:
Pathfinder 1

 

Systems and settings that didn't make it:
Night's Black Agents, Call of Cthulhu, Dark Sun, Eberron

Oneshot adventures that didn't make the cut:
Kidnap the Archpriest
or Random Mercenary Mission ("save those for the main campaign!"), Death Frost Doom (does the name scare people off?), The Black Auction, Pollute the Elfen Memory Water.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Belswick 32 & 33: doing the dishes

Last time in Belswick, the PCs negotiated for safe passage with a bunch of frost giants who'd lost their holy silver cup. These sessions they solve the riddle of who stole the Cup of Thrymm and get it back from a lake hag. Also: playing nice with Orcs, saving young love and getting adopted by a Roc.

News: these are the last Belswick sessions for the coming months. I need a bit of time to recharge my Belswick inspiration and figure out how to move this campaign to a mid and end game. Also I need to get some other ideas out of my system: it's summer oneshot madness y'all! More about that later. First:

Who stole the Cup of Thrymm from its locked shrine?

It's a Guess Who plot! Only a few giants are small and agile enough to climb the shrine tower and squeeze through the narrow window. Hagden the half-stone giant turns out to be in love with Jarlsdottir Brynna; Brynna has hatched with the wise woman Denise at the mountain lake where the cup gets stolen and found again by Hagden, giving him the social standing to ask Brynna's hand in marriage.

Of course the players confront the pair down in the cellar, safe from other giants...but manage to talk their way out of getting splattered across the floor; they'll go bring back the Cup without telling on the couple. It'll be a nice way to win the giants' favor and thwart the enemy Arraynian spies who want to win passage for their own troups.

How'd that all go?

Pretty ok really. The band follows the old underground Dwarven canal to near the mountain lake where Denise lives. En route they meet Brian the Dungeon Bug and buy a lot of info and magic boots off of him (gnawed-off feet included). Brian in return warns them not to step in the Green Slime. Ricky the scouting imp finds a troll skull, rendered inert by intense acid. Brian helpfully lets the group know that Denise has a pet. Sort of a lizard, blackish, with wings?

They ran for it, of course?

Strangely not. At the mountain lake, the party chats with Denise. Redhaired Pyrrha, herself feytouched, makes a deal for an unspecified later favor: can Denise get her dragon to call on the Arraynians? Sure, sister! Mike the Druid wants the dragon to leave the lake (it's polluting it and killing all the fish) and offers his own domain as a new nest: after some haggling, also a deal.

Denise meanwhile is willing to give back the Cup of Thrymm if the party tear down a "possessed" stone hut on the shore. This turns out to be a shrine to the Nameless Saint of Ravens, who leads the pure of heart to destroy sources of evil. Sure enough, the hut is covered in ivy blowing against the wind. The party isn't really phased about tearing down a holy shrine: sure, it's a deal!

Bad things happen then?

What else? Shams the dwarf downs a potion of burrowing and starts to undermine the shrine; Barak the orc takes a potion of bottled breath and blows the shambling mound off the hut. While Barak is praying to the Raven Saint, the shambling mound sits on the ground gathering its wits - and the shrine collapses on Shams and Barak both. Even that isn't enough to give the slow shambling mound a real chance. 

Denise is delighted and promises to give back the Cup of Thrymm after one more night of admiring it. That night her pet black dragon walks up to the force field the party sleeps under and chats with Mike, catching his smell for later.

Then there's running, right?

Surprisingly, Mike stands his ground. (Smart. Running gets you swatted.) The following morning, silver Cup in hand, the group heads back for the Giant fortress. 

And they FINALLY roll the Roc-in-the-distance on the random encounter chart!

The giant bird circles behind faraway clouds and the party dives for cover - except Pyrrha and Mike who stand and admire it. One spot check later, the titan bird banks and lines up for an attack run. Pyrrha races off - and Mike gets snatched up for snacksies in an enormous clawed foot.

...as per usual for this player, who always gets himself into crazy situations. And sometimes even out of it: as a druid, he can talk to animals. "Papa, why did you snatch me up?" One awesome bluff check later, the Roc, thoroughly confused and also myopic, puts the hatchling on his back, from where it promptly escapes, diving down into the lake. Dad dives after - "son, no!" - but can't catch the druid. Then it remembers: it doesn't have hatchlings! And flies off.

It says a lot about the rest of the party that they just stand there and wait for the druid to roll up to them.

Meanwhile, the Cup and the giants?

Oh yeah. The session is winding up and I want to wrap things up. The party uses the Cup to win the Jarl's favor. The Arraynians get conned into visiting the mountain lake and aren't seen again. 

...except for their leader, a fair-haired woman called Julie; she visits party wizard Guy, wearing tattered clothing and covered in acid burns. She forgives him; she has recently talked to Guy's sister that he thought dead; and she lets him know that the White Rose of Arrayne can bring brother and sister together again.

Guy, not having foreseen this with his divining skills, falls for the honeyed words (and well-timed charm spell). As power gathers around Julie to whisk them both Elsewhere - no spell-words or arcane gestures here, but a pressure in the mind - the Arraynian's plans are rudely thwarted: Barak has sent his quarter-ton riding boar to chat with the lady.

A snap of power; a wizard saved; a paladin familiar returning later with stories of a great void filled with plastic, twisting forms of many colours. Enough to sink our teeth in after summer. Until then!