Sunday 28 January 2018

Jungle Trek session 2: Please insert Drow

Session two of our heroes' ongoing attempt to be taken for actual sentient beings in the jungle of Xen'Drik. This time on Jungle Trek: velociraptors, playing catch with stone giants, a murder non-mystery thanks to the local cows, and Please insert Drow.

Our noble, heroic, stalwart explorers:

  • Drake - male human healer [non-player character, hireling]
  • Eorie - female human rogue [non-player character, hireling]
  • Santash - male kalashtar psion who shoved his mind into his psicrystal [non-player character]

And their fellow travelers:

  • Indiana Gnoll - male Gnoll ranger. Whip. Deranged laugh. [player: Robert]
  • Woody the Warforged Wizard [player: Bas]
Last episode of Jungle Trek, Indy and Woody saved Neskill, a dark elf kid from a dirty old man who was also a tree and way too interested in the local wildlife. Neskill agrees to give them some pointers on the area and helps them along the river to the edge of his tribe's territory. The big parting advice being to 1) keep going downstream until you hit the river Hydra and follow it back to Stormreach city; 2) when you hit the big lake in a couple of days, watch out for a) giants b) drow c) dragons d) funky pearls that give you mucho arcane power ("We're going there!") but make you puke out your guts ("I'm a golem, I don't even have a stomach.")

Session highlights include

Getting your ass handed to you by a vicious
goose since the Jurassic era. Source.
- a wandering monster check which leads to a lively little combat with a pack of velociraptors. Published stats don't really match the Jurassic Park publicity, but we make do. The real fun begins when the gnoll is left hanging off of a tree branch above a hungry raptor. Much biting and clawing ensues before the pack is driven off.

- a big lake with curious Wyverns overhead ("We need to tame one of them!"), a tribe of pretty friendly giants, and a murder mystery with a giant cow herd gone missing and the local dark elves upset for some reason;

- an island with a pleasant white sand beach that glows softly at night - swimming there was considered good excercise and the pearls sure were pretty, but the unmanly loss of strength and weeping of blood was considered a bit off-putting so the giants are now into weight lifting ("No way are we going there.")

Good excercise, rock throwing. Also keeps the Wyverns away.

- the party wizard, who speaks all languages known to man, giant, elf and animal, but still can't quite convince the giants that he's a person - at least the gnoll has a chit from a druid saying he's a bona fide sentient;

- a tower a couple of 100 meters out in the water with no boat in sight, warning totem statues on the waterline and hungry undead on the bottom, with a little blood offering enough to summon a spectral barge to what turns out to be the ruins of a messed up school for giants with a talent for magic;

- a big wooden barge flying across the land ("We could be home in a couple of weeks flying!") which makes a tour of the shore, a huge stone structure floating half a mile above the water level ("We need to get up there"), and aforementioned ruined tower, but is a bit too moldy after 40.000 years of service to carry a full-grown giant (making it a great ride for the teenagers);

- a trio of eager local yokel giant teenagers who offer to guide the party to the tower in the lake (and then come home right away for supper, says their even more giant dad), but when the party checks only 2 out of the 3 have turned home and the third is nowhere to be seen;

- the local cows, which immediately tell the wizard-who-can-speak-to-animals that no, wasn't the dark elves that killed the cow herd, actually the three punks took him into the forest where there's a patch of jungle dead from extreme cold, and more signs of a brawl;

- the magic tower, with on the ground floor a decayed class room and a book made of metal with magic tricks inside. On the second floor (now open to the sky because the rest of the tower broke off) a magic 3D printer. It will create a magic amulet when you insert some hapless sacrifice into the blood altar conveniently placed on a balcony over the bay. Boy, the giants had many uses for their elf slaves;

Please insert Drow to continue. Source.

- some trouble as the warforged wizard (but noone else) gets zapped by lightning when he wants to try and mess with the 3D printer;

- the sacrifice of a magically summoned pony which nets the group a pat on the back for clever thinking, and an amulet which pops out of exisitence at the end of the summon animal spell. Meanwhile, there's a giant-sized corpse down in the water, and the group spend some time looking for a "fetch drow" spell that will yank some schmuck out of the trees and across the water, but it seems this function is not available at your clearance level, citizen;

- the spectral boat suddenly popping up again at the shore dock and coming to the tower even though there's no-one on board, but it turns there is. The giant kid slips on a grease spell, hits the water and his invisibility pops out (as does the illusion hiding his horns, malformed jaw and golden finger nails), after which he falls for the old "masonry dropped from second story, longspear set to impale when he charges up the stairs in a rage" trick, is deposited onto the sacrificial altar, and presto, a permanent magic amulet;

- the barge on its circuit across the bay coming to a full stop where the roof of the tower used to be, only 10 meters out of reach.

Session ends, the two hirelings level up but the player characters don't, and after an exhausting evening I dream that the players have found some Pathfinder character creation trick to give their healer a constitution of 52.


More jungle, more giant biomancy, more mayhem to follow.

Source materials

This session's prep was brought to your courtesy a map/site from Secrets of Xen'drik [1], a conflict lifted from an adventure in Dragon #345, and most of all an awesome adventure area from Trilemma Adventures.

[1] Avoid. Adventure sites in the book present no conflict, basically they're a map and lackluster area descriptions, either already looted or just not detailed. Case in point - the site used in this session is a tower in the middle of a cursed lake. When the players make it to the entrance, what does the book have to say? "The door to the tower is sealed. How to open it (and what lies within) is left to the DM to determine."

If I have to add the actual NPCs, treasure, traps and general conflict myself, why am I reading your book again?

Thursday 18 January 2018

Map and rumors for the jungle

Crashed airship, hideous flesh eating jungle, etc. Here's a nice and vague set of directions for my players. I'll probably end up making a table with encounters by terrain. Some of the sites mentioned below are pointed out on the map, others they'll just have to find by hunting for rumors.

Anyway, a young and overly dramatic Drow babbles on while he scratches in the dirt:

Resolution is crap but so is the quality of the map they
actually have, so it evens out. Base image from Eberron campaign setting.

On the Hydra [huge-ass river] is where the slave takers [ancient Giant empire] sailed their boats to their palaces. Here we lived in hidden tunnels to serve them without being seen. This is where their princes choked on ashes when the sky fell. No-one knows the cursed treasures that lie there. This is where traders bring strange gifts from far kingdoms. Some who go to trade with them return. No one knows where the Hydra comes from. It flows forever.

Be on the lookout for: drowned cities, giant leeches, water snakes, dinosaurs, ruined palaces, slavers, traders, giant camps, fields of dream flowers, city of the ape lords, isle of enduring light, falls of 1000 ghosts, many-colored frog demons.

This, but more ruins and more cannibals. Maybe you can catch a boat out of here.
Source: DeviantArt / Jordangrimmer

In the jungle were the cities of the slave takers. This is where we served their every wish. These are the places where Vulkoor [all hail the scorpion god] broke their people in his claws and poisoned their blood. There are many places where the slave takers live in their ruins. There are new cities here of other peoples. They do not last. Vulkoor hunts those who band together. 

Be on the lookout for: ruined cities, bands of Drow, scorpions, giants, Druxis of the Serpent Folk, dinosaur boneyards, colony-cities of giant ants, buried armies from 40.000 years ago [Warhammer -40k], fortresses of the ancient war, giant metropolis of Praxirek, the Great Rot.

So much gold. So many stairs. So many traps. So many scorpions.
In the mountains were the forts of the slave takers. This is where they practiced their magic on us. These are the places where they angered Vulkoor. Some still dig for their secrets. They are slaves to what was, but dangerous and strange. The Firebinders use slave taker magic here. The Shadowbinders live in the depths where even we cannot see.

Be on the lookout for: mundo artifacts, city of the Firebinders, Orrax the city of Gold, tunnels of the Shadowbinders, giant cults, giants, giant birds, air whales
Across the mountains lies the great desert. We do not know what sins the slave takers were punished for here. There is no shade from the sun. There is no food but what you fight for. There is no water but what you kill for. But there are creatures here that hunt us for food. We see in the dark but they see in the mind [psionics may be overpowered or weak sauce, but it's definitely awesome].

Be on the lookout for: sandstorms, sandworms, sand giants, sand in your food, sandwalkers, sand people. Also Tri-Khreen.

Saturday 13 January 2018

Manticore is a tool user

Apparently raptors in Australia actively guide wildfires to flush out prey. Two take away messages from this news item: one, wildlife can be canny. Two, this discovery is based on -finally- taking Firehawk stories of Aboriginal peoples seriously. As one news article puts it online: they probably already knew this for 40.000 years. (Yes, Australia has been inhabited for that long.)

Back to the firehawks. Groups of kites and falcons have been observed (although not on camera - more research needed) to carry flaming branches in their beaks, light fires, and feast on escaping insects and other animals. Does it count as tool use? Or just clever use of the environment? In any case, let's look at some of the tricks that D&D monsters have up their sleeves.

Rust monster - prunes mushrooms into circles to attract faeries. Faeries are allergic to cold iron. Questing knights will bring said substance, i.e., teh nom. Faeries safe, rust monster sated, knight set back 1500gp for full plate armor but he can increase taxes.

Basilisk - hunt rust monsters for metal-dissolving antennae. Uses to peel petrified knights out of inedible metal armors.

Manticore - hates and loves to hate. Functionally immortal, so -like oozes- takes a long term view. Protects trade caravans, shipping expeditions, clears obstacles for long distance travel. Arranges for assassins to take out war hungry nobles, increases standards of living, supports the arts. All so more people have more opportunity to come into contact with fresh new ideas and take up NEW FUCKING HIPSTER HOBBIES FOR IT TO HATE

Stirge -  nests have been seen planting seeds and redirecting streams to increase plant growth and get a nice, humid area where people like to take some clothes off.

Ooze - slowly etch dungeons into the rock, herd in monsters, treasure. Once murderhobo-occupant relation takes hold, feast on victims and thus create more hygienic environment for occupant numbers to rebound. Mimics - a type of ooze - may infiltrate nearby towns and inspire the locals to set up a Murderhobo economy.

Bulette - play with stone and mud to arrange difficult terrain for topside prey. Blow rock vortices at surface folk. Create dry sand traps.

Dragon turtle - grinds up corals, bleaches in stomach and uses resulting sand to create immaculate white beaches for egg laying. Paradisical environs attract sun worshiping hedonists as baby's first NOM for when it exits its shell. Takes care to break up reefs near the coast so escapees face slow going back to their ships.

Kraken - bonsai gardens sargassos, fuels ocean currents, stirs whirlpools, binds elementals to create underwater volcanos - anything for another hilarious shipwreck.

Gnome - has craftily infiltrated society by learning to mimic its sounds - such as speech. Serves as a display to attract mates and allows parasitic occupancy of cities.

Lyrebird (Australia again)

Friday 5 January 2018

Jungle Trek session 1 - grocery trip

Jungle Trek: they crashed their airship in the middle of the jungle, now they want to get back home. Here's the first session report on how the players made friends and met the wildlife. It's long - I added DM notes and thoughts in between the log. Shorter? Less blathering in between? Comments please!


Don't leave your healer out at night, displacer beasts might catch him; I suck at making being held up with a knife sound scary; when the Druid says that, amazingly, you're a sentient instead of an animal, don't gripe, you just avoided becoming dinner; I hate how Pathfinder gives characters stuff for free that I'd happily have written an adventure about; when the dirty old treant offers you his fruit, don't take a bite but use a whip; and finally, it's remarkably easy to get a hippo bull to charge but don't expect it to be able to trample you to death. Also, swanky new tattoos.

Two weeks I spend writing up hex generators and random
encounters, and in the end I just quick-sketch an area map with
mostly planned content. Valuable lesson there - will expand
in a later post. Note the illegible cartoons of salamanders and
scorpions all around the map.

The crash survivors

  • Indiana Gnoll - male Gnoll ranger. Whip. Deranged laugh. [player: Robert]
  • Woody the Warforged Wizard - fucking guess [player: Bas]
  • Drake - male human healer [NPC]
  • Eorie - female human rogue [NPC]
  • Santash - male kalashtar psion who fell off the Peryton but managed to shove his mind into his psicrystal [NPC]
  • Emalyse Hargo - female crewgnome who fled the Peryton before the crash on an unknown elemental-powered contraption [NPC]

The dead

  • Captain Orsken Maine - male Half-Orc professor at Morgrave University
  • Enzo Biscotti d'Sivis - male Gnome communications expert, House Sivis
  • ...and 22 other NPCs to be detailed later

What happened last game

Players explored the crash site of the Peryton on the slope of a smoldering volcano - no survivors. Basic survival gear, the ship's compass and maps, and its long-range communication item are taken.

And a shit-ton of magical gear, Pathfinder PCs of level 5 starting off with several thousands of gold pieces worth of loot. Retire already!

The four lift a ring of petrification from captain Orsken Maine's decapitated statue - which turns back into flesh when the ring is jacked. Resident psycrystal Santash catches a final thought in the captain's head: "throw the box into the fire". Off they go to break into the captain's safe.

Seriously, I don't know why I even bothered with that hint, they were probably going to loot the captain's safe anyway. Come to think of it, I might have thrown them off of investigating exactly why the Peryton crashed...

BOOMING RETROACTIVE DM VOICE: you find a mysteeeerious box clamped around a pylon on the engineering deck. Looks out of place, once you pry it open you see it contains crystals and runes and shit to break enchantments. Probably why the fire elemental broke loose. Funny thing is, the magic isn't written in Draconic but in some weird other language. OOO MYSTERYYY!!!

...yeah, back to our scheduled programming:

The captain's safe is trapped of course, but not lethally.

I'm a big softy (and I was saving up the nasty for later.)

Inside, the players find a slightly better map and a puzzle box decorated with symbols of the Silver Flame. The puzzle box has a multicolored feather, which gives oracular answers (and a weekly contact other plane), automatic writing style. Box closed, no signs of magic; box open, and any magic user gets all tingly with the mad mojo in the feather.

Yer basic "we need to dispose of this horrid relic somewhere - you fly to a volcano and throw it in" plot. I was short on time when the previous game TPKed and I had to whip up something new.

Meanwhile, brave lookout Drake is ambushed by a displacer beast, goes down shrieking and the party investigates. Motivation is high on all sides: the cat and its mate need the kibble, the party doesn't want to see their only healer get eaten half an hour into their first session. Some killer magic and whip-work see the displacer beasts off, and then it's time to clutz their way through old-fashioned first aid to wake up the healer who can magic wounds away.

Uninspired mix of body parts or incredibly annoying ambush predator that magically makes you see it where it isn't?
They may not have expected this D&D critter in their Pathfinder game, but that sure wasn't going to stop me.
Welcome in Xen'drik, where everything wants to eat you.

At this point, we're an hour into the first session. After a near-fatality, the party decide to hole up in the wreck of their airship. Shenanigans happen when the gnoll PC designates the remains of the crew fair game to use as rations. It's fine, I'll just adjust their morale modifier. But my bigger problem is that I want them moving; so I roll to see which of the three factions in the area gets to the ship first.

First natives to investigate the crash site is a mixed group of dark elves. A couple wearing bronze armor ride a miniature airship with a cute little fire elemental and has a face suspiciously like escaped crewgnome Emalyse Hargo. Others wear furs, leather and chitin, marked with a couple of different clan sign. Unfriendly folk, who are turning the wreck inside out and start right at the captain's quarters.

No, a different flying ship - oh, forget about it.
(La Chasse Galerie - Wikimedia)

Players still waiting to see what happens. They decide to watch from the shadows. I decide to pick up the pace. Stealth check, perception check...

You can tell us if you
are Firebinders. We will
know when you are.
Are you Firebinders?
From here.
A group of Drow in leather and yet another clan sign surprises the group, they talk via the wizard's magic, and all decide to make off before the "Firebinders" notice them.

NOT happy with this scene. The initial "Drow pops up behind you with knife at your throat" felt too much like a capture scene, and players loathe those. It didn't feel dangerous - no OMG this guy could kill me - but like a chore. Needs work.

Drow scout speaks! (Are you Firebinders? Your ship is Firebinder craft. Do you serve the Firebinders? Which Firebinder did you steal it from? How do you feel about Firebinders? Are there many where you are from? With the constant looking at the jugular and other sweet spots.)

Indy and Woody deny that they are Firebinders themselves, say that they come from far far away, where a people called Gnomes use Firebinder magic to make ships fly. Because fuck Gnomes and their unreliable binding stones, that's why.

What the hey, the Drow scouts are done with this scene as much as the players are and it's off through a dark scorpion-infested jungle to see the wiz---leader of their Broken Pincer clan.

We're an hour or two into the session (with a lot of sneaking and dialogue) and it feels like time for the players to have some more action and a chance to do instead of being done to. So I soften up on the whole suspicious native angle and usher them into a not-too-unfriendly Drow village.

Tribal leader welcomes the group, they muck around in a couple of languages because the wizard's Tongues spell is long-gone, there's a wonderful bit of diplomatic incident when he tries Giant (of course they speak the language of these ancient slavetakers) but in the end the group is welcomed and get asked what the f*** they're doing in our jungle, thank you?

Local Drow custom is to only give your name as a sign of surrender, or as a sign that you are sure in your strength to defend it. This means that I only have to indicate tribe members by role or description, not by name. Much easier to DM on the fly.

In a hilarious aside, the tribe's druid tries Speak with Animals on the Gnoll, which doesn't work, after which Indiana gets a chit saying he's a bona-fide sentient. Money passes hands in the audience as the losers pay their debts. Gnoll steams but decides not to massacre entire Drow camp for snacks.

Sentient my ass.
Gnoll Defenders by BenWootten

I really had to send some interaction this player's way - it may be realistic to have the local tribe not speak fluent Common, but it sure is annoying. Next level, I see people investing in learning Drow. Am not going to introduce bable fish or somesuch - let them muck about. The Gnoll is already trying if people speak Gnoll, Lizardfolk or Goblin. Have decided that Lizardfolk is a distant cousin to Serpentfolk, and of course there are Serpentfolk in the jungle. Don't eat their flowers.

What do you know? If the strangers really want to travel far to the north, and if they're willing to perform a slight service, the Broken Pincer will be delighted to help them on their way. Turns out there's a youth on the rite of adulthood who has bitten off more than he can chew; he was supposed to go out for fruit, but never came back. The Drow can't help him during this rite of adulthood, but if some stranger were to help out...

This, the party feels, sounds like an excellent opportunity to show their worth. Could they perhaps escort said youngling back to camp? And this would be utterly delightful to the Drow.

Heigh-ho, it's down a steep cliff via slippery steps and across some rapids, with hilarious falling damage and being swept away by the river at the bottom, but everybody survives although their dignity doesn't, but nobody here knows them so it's all a wash. Plus, fast-moving water so less leeches.

Scene needed better description though. I wasn't in the game this session - felt unprepped, had to think hard to give responses or describe scenery.
Google giant leeches. I dare you. Or clicky. Via

As an aside, our ranger has jungle as a favored terrain and it turns out some rule variant says he can have the entire party leave no tracks for as long as he wants. Honestly, this bugs me so much about Pathfinder, D&D3.X and VDND - not this single class option, but the enormous heap of powers and tricks that get piled onto even a beginning character, every level again.

Stretching the time a summon spell lasts, hiding your party's trail from even the best of trackers, inflicting bleed damage with a sneak attack? Skills like that should be the reward for an adventure, not a basic package you get just for levelling up like every other shmuck. Because it turns those awesome powers into the basic expected power set for every PC and NPC, something not earned but just picked out of a list. 

I know I could rule that sorry, power just doesn't work in this jungle. But I'd have to rewrite every bit of a Pathfinder class until I liked it and at that point, better start typing up my Fantasy Heartbreaker (it's basically D&D with Goblin Punch spellcasting). We chose Pathfinder as this campaign's rule system because the players really preferred it over VDND - and hey, it's their game as much as mine.

Maybe I've just been reading too many OSR blogs.

Jinmenju - via
Anyway. In the swamp down the cliffs, there's a tree with delicious fruit - the Drow youth was sent to get one of the fruits and bring it back to camp. Little detail left out? The tree is sentient, mobile, and sadistic. Having caught the Drow under a root a while back, it now dangles its sick head shaped fruits right out of reach.

A buzzing sound from the tree works its way into the characters' heads and turns into a lechy old guy's voice - some sort of telepathy. (Anyhing but more translating!) Sure, Jinmenju will let the kid go. But Jimnenju will need a gift if he has to give up this tasty snack. Perhaps one of the little grey things from the lake to the west?

Also this as a close-up. Via Lynne's Images (Flickr)

...which turn out to be hippos. Indy and Woody are smart and know that hippos are no joke. Getting run over by a hippo is not good, getting bitten is also not good, basically hippo = bad news, but it's either lure in the alpha male of the herd or fight the tree for the Drow kid.

Plan A is for Woody the wizard to just summon a hippo via magic and offer it to the tree. However the tree sounds smart, the spell only lasts for half a minute, and after some debate they don't think they can pull it off. Plan B then: Indiana Gnoll will try and bellow a challenge to the alpha hippo, hopefully get 2 tons of enraged herbivore to charge after him a bit, then hide and sneak ahead, rinse and repeat.

I gleefully prepare the trample rules. Woefully unimpressive, by the book the hippo wouldn't be able to kill even the wizard with its puny 1d8+6 trample damage. 1d6+Con bonus of hit points per level just sucks all the joy out of a DMs life. Maybe I missed a multiplier somewhere. Yeah, that's got to be it - x4 "because it would be hilarious to see you get smeared into a paste and because hippopotami should be feared, damn it" bonus. Issue resolved. But it never comes up because the ranger manages to outwit the furious alpha male.

Tough dice rolls are no obstacle - the Gnoll pulls off the scheme and delivers the giant hippo right to the Jinmenju tree. Which rips the giant beast down to half its hit points in a single attack. Party finally gets how effing out of their league they are against this creature. This ain't no level appropriate challenge. But the tree does need all its roots to handle the hippo, and lets the Drow kid go. Indiana Gnoll even gets to show off his whip skills and brings back one of the tree's fucked up fruits.

I swear I wasn't planning on making this a story on dirty old men kidnapping kids for sick kicks. Just rolled out of the map that way. What issue do the Drow have? Must be something they can't solve it themselves - some taboo with an adulthood rite. Ok, what's in the area that's dangerous? Oh yeah, the 13 hit die tree with the smelly hypnotic fruit. What could it want - what else is in the area? Lake with hippos. Presto.

I wrap up the game because it's getting late: back in the Broken Pincer camp, the players are welcomed as friends this time. They'll get a guide (same Drow they just saved - he has some shame to work off) and directions on what lies ahead.

For their services, all (N)PCs get a swanky Broken Pincer tattoo of a cracked scorpion claw, which will give a once-in-a-lifetime bonus on grapple checks. For instrumental Gnollery, Indiana's version is upgraded to a single shot Freedom of Movement spell.

He'll need it.