31 July 2014

Session Report 2014-07-29

SETTING: The Sundered Land

CAST:

Potato, 1st level Dwarf Magic-User
Tilly, 1st level Elf Cleric
Daedriin, 1st level Halfling Thief (Specialist)
Volka, 1st level Halfling Fighter (Hunter) and her hawk, Artemisia
Fiona, 1st level Human Fighter (Pirate) and her hen, Frederique

Session III

The party, upon leaving the chart room, had scarcely taken a step up the spiral staircase when they heard furtive footsteps coming from below. Tilly passed the torch down the line to Potato who was in the rear. Potato and Fiona saw a young boy of about eight enter the radius of their torchlight. He was wearing a maroon tunic with astrological symbols embroidered in gold thread. It was open to his chest where they could see he was wounded. He appeared traumatized. Potato greeted him with excessive gusto, which caused the boy to retreat, so Fiona, being the only human in the party, was pushed forward to deal with the child. Fiona approached non-threateningly and lured the child back into the light, moving as if to comfort him, but as soon as she extended a hand of friendship, he seized her arm with unnatural strength and clawed viciously at it. She felt an unholy iciness from his touch, and noticed that his skin had a deathly pallor. His eyes looked crazed, and he licked his lips as his clawed hands shredded her skin. Fiona swung her hand axe and split his skull, striking him down. Tilly immediately blessed the corpse in the hope of preventing it from rising again and to give its soul peace. Fiona inspected the corpse without touching it. The tunic was its only garment. The wound in its chest was deep and probably made with a dagger. Potato ascribed no meaningful significance to the order of the symbols on the tunic, but acknowledged that they were typical decoration for the clothing of a wizard's apprentice. Volka speculated that the apprentice had been sacrificed in a ritual.

Before the party could proceed, they heard footsteps again from below. The footsteps were heavier than before, made by multiple individuals, and they were running. The party braced itself for an attack. A tall man wearing the clothes and hat of a cook burst upon them, his eyes crazed like the boy's and his clawed hands raised to rip out the nearest throat. Fiona threw her hand axe, lodging it in his skull. His body fell backwards down the stairs, just as two others squeezed past him on either side. They were men in the garb of servants, with the same look of homicidal insanity and the same deathly pallor. Fiona and Potato wounded them, but they were unfazed and clawed the pirate and the dwarf mage viciously. This time Fiona was unable to resist the icy horror that filled her veins and she stood immobilized. Potato likewise succumbed to the paralyzing terror. The ghouls did not pause to feast on their victims, but immediately marked their next targets and prepared to pounce. In the mêlée, the remaining ambulatory party members vanquished their undead foes.

Two paralyzed party members was an inconvenience, but the remaining members decided to continue up the staircase. Daedriin tied ropes to Fiona and Potato and dragged them up the staircase by means of his truly formidable strength (even by human standards). Potato feared the possibility of brain damage resulting from this mode of transportation, but was incapable of voicing a protest. The staircase ended at an arched doorway. Tilly, once again in possession of the torch, noticed that its light did not illuminate anything beyond the doorway. It was impenetrably dark. Taking a chance, she stepped halfway through the doorway with her torch raised before her. (Potato immediately recognized a familiar sensation, like a vibration on the surface of reality, but was unable to communicate this information.) The light shed by her torch was now blue rather than yellow, but it illuminated nothing in the darkness but herself. Ahead, however, she could see a peculiar glowing staircase that wound around a pale pillar. And she could smell sulphur. She reported her discovery to the rest of the party, and it was decided that they should try to find a cure for their comrades' paralysis before continuing. Recalling a door in the chart room that they hadn't bothered to investigate, and which might have something of use to them, they dragged their paralyzed friends back to the lower floor.

Returning to the chart room, Volka, Tilly, and Daedriin headed straight for the door opposite the entrance with Fiona and Potato in tow. Unbeknownst to the able-bodied adventurers, Fiona and Potato were staring at a ceiling that was more than it seemed. The strange patterns of inlaid brass seemed to change as one stared at them until they and the ceiling itself dissolved, revealing the landscape of a world not completely unlike their own, but very different. They beheld a beautiful landscape of abundant vegetation, of rolling grassy hills and forests, all of varying shades of purple. From the tips of the branches of certain trees, bubbles emerged, which floated upward, increasing in size, until they joined enormous bubbles floating high in the sky amongst the purple clouds. They gazed in wonder at this scene as Daedriin picked the door's lock, and their vision came to a rude end as their bodies were dragged into the room.

The room was obviously a laboratory. Daedriin locked the door behind them in case there were more ghouls, and they looked around. There was a long table in the center of the room and another along the far wall. Upon both tables was a wide assortment of equipment, including beakers, vials, tubes, a mortar and pestle, a measuring spoon, a jade bowl, a human skull, a balance with weights, a prism, a copper funnel, a ladle, and other sundry items. Volka promptly claimed the jade bowl. On the right wall there was a bookcase with many large volumes. On the left wall there was a desk and chair. To the left of the desk there was a small furnace, beside which was set a bellows and an iron poker. Daedriin stood Potato up facing the bookcase and the party briefly discussed how to use blinking as a method of communication in case Potato recognized something relevant. Volka was intrigued by the skull. She noticed there were lines and symbols etched into the bone, but they were incomprehensible to her. Thinking it might be capable of speech, she greeted it, but the skull did not respond. Tilly thought the poker might be useful as a weapon, but as she had an aversion to iron (as do the rest of her people), Volka took it instead. Examining the vials, they could find nothing with labels they could understand. Meanwhile, Potato twitched and regained the ability to move. No, he did not see the book they were searching for, but he did see numerous tomes on the subjects of alchemy, natural history, regional flora and fauna, and one in particular containing recipes for various poultices and potions. It was a very large book, with nary an index nor page of contents, and it would doubtless take weeks to study it properly. Potato took it. Volka noticed that the desk had two drawers without locks, one on the left and one on the right, and pondered which to pull out first. She solved her indecision by pulling out both simultaneously. From the drawer on the right came a puff of strange smoke that burned her eyes, throat, and lungs, injuring her greatly. As she staggered about the lab coughing and flailing, Tilly's attention turned to the other drawer. It contained three maps. One indicated the location of a tower, labelled as Kal-Dokk's. One was the floorplan of the first level of a subterranean laboratory, also mentioning Kal-Dokk. The third was a map of the countries of West Sundered Land and East Sundered Land, divided by the legendary city of Sundoria. The party took all three. Volka eventually recovered from her coughing fit, and she looked inside the drawer from which the smoke had come. She found a figurine of smoky quartz in the shape of a frog with an open mouth. It appeared to be partially hollow. She asked Daedriin to check if it was trapped. Daedriin detected none, but said that the figurine probably was the trap. Volka took it. Fiona, too, emerged from her immobilized state and excitedly told the party what she and Potato had seen on the ceiling of the chart room. The party decided that instead of camping in the laboratory, they would exit, look at the chart room's ceiling, head back down to the ground floor, and follow the trail of blood leading down the other spiral staircase. His ear to the door, Daedriin could hear nothing on the other side, so he unlocked it and opened it.

Entering the empty chart room, Potato indicated the strange patterns and symbols of brass inlay and said that they represented coordinates in four dimensions. As they stared at the ceiling, it dissolved, and in its place they saw a blasted, lifeless landscape with mountains of metal and a sky filled with black clouds. Fiona was distressed by this. At first she was concerned that it was the same place they saw before, but upon more careful inspection it seemed to be a different place entirely. Potato believed that the ceiling showed a different time and place depending on the date and time at which one looked at it.

The party exited the chart room and made their way to the reception room on the ground floor. It was as they had left it, with a fire burning in the fireplace. They followed the trail of blood down the spiral staircase. At its end, they found a corridor extending to the west and a passageway to the east. The blood trail led east. They followed it, finding themselves in a large kitchen. The trail led to a large table covered with fresh blood in the center of the room. To the north there was a large cooking hearth with a spit and a large iron pot suspended from a tripod. There were baskets of vegetables, but all had a sickly purplish gray color. Hanging from pegs on the walls there were various game birds, but all were of a somewhat unnatural hue. There was a corridor to the east and another to the south. Daedriin lighted his lantern, providing the party with a second light source.

They continued east, following the corridor to its end where they found two iron-banded doors, each with a small barred window. The doors faced one another, one to the north (on the party's left) and one to the south (on their right). With trepidation, they chose the left. Volka stood before the door and Potato stood on her shoulders to look through the window. Potato noticed that there were claw marks on the iron bars and on the door itself, as if something had tried to get at whatever was inside. Within, he saw a frail man of indeterminate age lying on the straw-covered floor of the cell, his back to the door.

"Hey! You there! Who are you?" Potato asked the frail human.
They heard a moan and shivered, thinking it might not be human.
"Are you Kal-Dokk? Do you know Kal-Dokk?"
The man seemed confused.
"Is this the tower of Syrifex?" Potato persisted.
At this, the man weakly exclaimed "Syrifex!" and clutched his stomach.

Realizing the man was probably starving, Potato threw a piece of bread at his head (and missed). The inmate snatched the piece of bread and devoured it. Potato asked him again, but the inmate hoarsely replied, "Water..." Daedriin handed Potato a skin of water, who tossed it toward the prisoner. After he had quenched his thirst, Potato continued the interrogation. They learned that he was Jilsen, a tax collector who had come to collect the sum that Syrifex owed, but who had been seized upon his arrival and imprisoned. He didn't know how long he had been there, as there were no windows, but he knew that something terrible had happened. He had been having recurring nightmares of Syrifex in Hell, standing upon a cliff, shouting words he could not understand, calling forth a being of darkness that enshrouded the world with its black wings. Eventually, the servants ceased to bring him food or water, and then the ghouls tried to reach him, but were unable. All of this was beyond comprehension to him, as Syrifex had always been a moderate, even-tempered man, neither generous nor cruel. Asked if he had heard anything unusual, he said that he had heard someone yell "SYRIFEX," and then heard what sounded like a storm laughing, but nothing else. Volka grew tired of the interrogation and went to the other door, leaving Potato hanging onto the bars of the window. Potato asked Jilsen how he had arrived at the tower, and Jilsen told him he had ridden his mule. Potato then told Jilsen about his beloved donkey, Julius.

As the pleasantries continued, Volka tried the other cell door and was surprised to find that it wasn't locked. It slowly swung open, creaking loudly. Within, they saw iron shackles attached to the wall, and within the shackles they saw two arms, but no body. The straw on the floor was soaked with blood. They did not venture inside.

Potato dropped down and Daedriin thanked Jilsen for the information, assuring him that they would free him as soon as they could clear the tower of ghouls. In the meantime, he would be safer where he was. They left him some rations and returned to the kitchen.

Proceeding down the corridor to the south, they found that there was a passageway to the west and a passageway to the east farther ahead. The corridor continued on beyond their light source. Nearing the first passageway, they discovered that it was actually a recessed door. Tilly kicked it in, and the noise echoed throughout the complex. A moment after the echoes died, they could hear the sound of footsteps running. Volka estimated that there were four beings of human size headed towards them from the corridor and announced this to her comrades. The party retreated to the kitchen and took strategic positions. Fiona took a stance beside the corridor entrance with her back to the wall and a hand axe raised. Volka stood upon the table with her harpoon at the ready. Tilly and Potato stood behind the table on either side of Volka with staff sling and dagger in hand respectively. Daedriin hid behind the large iron pot in the fireplace with a view of the corridor entrance, nocking an arrow. Moments later, four ghouls who had once been laborers burst into the room. After a volley of misses from Tilly, Volka, and Potato, Tilly raised the holy symbol of the Trinarian Church and bade the undead to turn away. Two of the ghouls cowered in fear and ran back down the corridor. The remaining two, oblivious to the halving of their number, attacked Volka and Potato. The ghoul that attacked Potato slipped on the blood-slick floor and fell, and Potato bent to the task of repeatedly stabbing it in the back. Having thrown her harpoon, Volka switched to her sword, but luck was not with her. Tilly and Potato each inflicted enough injuries on the ghouls to kill a normal person several times over, but it was a well-aimed throw of Fiona's hand axe that ended the misery of one ghoul, and an arrow through the skull courtesy of Daedriin that relieved another of its undead existence.

Heading back down the corridor, they saw that the door Tilly kicked in opened to a small living quarters barely large enough for a bed and a stool. Fiona searched it, finding a pouch under the mattress containing 17 copper pieces (which she took).

The passageway to the east was also a recessed door and, also like the first, was unlocked. This time they opened it cautiously and quietly. It was another living quarters, identical to the first, except that the bed was smashed, the stool was broken, and the mattress had been torn to shreds. They chose not to enter.

They continued down the corridor to its end where it branched to the east and the west. They followed the branch to the east, which led to a circular room, in the middle of which were two corpses in a pool of blood, their limbs twisted in poses of agony. Potato looked up at the ceiling. It was domed and had a design of concentric circles. Potato shrugged and the party decided not to enter the chamber.

Retracing their steps, they took the branch to the west, which turned several times to end in a nondescript L-shaped room with two doors, one to the west and one to the south. The doors were made of a fine rare wood that resembled polished bronze, and the doorknobs appeared to be made of bronze or gold. Daedriin picked the lock of the door to the west and opened it, revealing a well-stocked wine cellar. Volka made a move to take the best bottle of wine she could find, but Daedriin advised her that it might be better to wait until they had cleared the tower of threats rather than risk carrying it into a fight only to have it broken. Volka agreed and made a mental note.

They left the wine cellar after a cursory search and Daedriin picked the lock of the door to the south. The light from his lantern could not penetrate the darkness beyond the doorway. He poked his head through (and Potato felt that increasingly familiar sensation as though the fabric of reality was being stretched). Daedriin could see neither walls, nor floor, nor ceiling. There was only a white pillar hanging in the darkness, tapering to a point at its base, which hung above him. Winding around it were steps, very small near the tip, gradually increasing in size. Looking below, there was a swirl of stars that appeared to be as distant as the stars above in a night sky. Tilly poked her head in as well, and instantly wanted to drop something into the room, but there were no stones or pebbles handy.

Tilly: "Does anyone have anything I can drop down there?"
Potato: "I have an iron spike."
Tilly: "No."
Fiona: "You can have one of my apples."
Tilly: "Yes!"
Potato: "Can I have a bite of it before you drop it?"
Tilly: "No."

Tilly dropped the apple into the room and watched it fall down, down, down, ever downward. By the time they stopped watching it, it was still falling.

Tilly: "Well, I'm not going into that room!"

Daedriin pointed out that it must be connected to the room on the top floor, and that they would need to revisit it. This they all agreed to do.

"I wonder what happened to those ghouls who fled..."

Gains: One jade bowl, one iron poker, one smoky quartz frog figurine, one book of potion recipes, three maps, 17 copper pieces.
Kills: Six ghouls.
Losses: None.

[This campaign uses the silver standard. 10 c.p. = 1 s.p.; 20 s.p. = 1 g.p.]

[The system used for this session was Swords & Wizardry White Box with a helping of house rules and a dash of Lamentations of the Flame Princess.]

[The session report format is inspired by Patrick Wetmore's session recaps in Henchman Abuse.]

15 July 2014

Equal Opportunity Energy Drain

Despite the bookkeeping hassle and the strained in-game explanations, level drain has one thing in its favor: inciting terror amongst players. This is a good thing, as the undead ought to incite terror, but it has its drawbacks: namely the fact that high level characters are far less vulnerable than low level characters. Some may assert that this is justifiable for the same reason that high level characters have more hit points, and thus are more difficult to kill, but I would respond that true terror ought to transcend the relative safety of experience. In fact, that's one of its most unsettling characteristics. This is why I have decided that in my own games, energy drain refers not to levels, but to how many six-sided dice you roll to determine your reduction in strength (which, at least in the version of Dungeons & Dragons I play, is independent of character level). Most undead will cause 1d6 points of strength to be drained. More powerful undead, such as vampires, will drain 2d6 points of strength. Zero strength equals death (and probably eventual undeath). If one survives such an attack, strength is restored at the rate of 1 point per week of rest. The usual spells (i.e. restoration and wish) will fully restore lost strength. As with the traditional energy drain, there is no saving throw to avoid its effects.

08 July 2014

We Are Sorry to Interrupt This Spell

I have come to the conclusion that spell interruption makes no sense in the context of Vancian spellcasting. In the Dying Earth stories by Jack Vance, it may take hours to memorize a few spells, but once a spell is in the magician's mind, coiled like a spring, all he or she needs to do is utter a few syllables to unleash it. I imagine the effect being as immediate as the killing words in Dune. Ritual spellcasting is another matter. Spells cast ritually are not memorized (at least, not in the same manner), but the casting time is greatly extended, affording ample opportunity for interruption. Coupled with an additional cost (such as possible hit point loss or temporary attribute reduction), ritual spellcasting becomes a viable method of extending the spellcaster's usefulness without resorting to power inflation (in theory, I should add, as I am currently playtesting it with Swords & Wizardry White Box). Dispensing with the idea of spell interruption for memorized spells helps me in two other ways. First, since I am no longer using the complicated combat round sequence of post-OD&D, I no longer have to worry about requiring spellcasters to commit to a spell before initiative is rolled — they are as free to cast or not cast as anyone else who is free to use or not use a weapon. Why does this matter to me? It matters because the game flows better, and when the game flows better, my players and I enjoy it more. Second, it preserves the value of memorized spells in contrast to ritually cast spells. And since I'm using Brendan's Simplified Spell Progression (i.e. reduced spell capacity), it's all the more important that the memorized spells become the reliable ones.

(I probably ought to note here that I am not observing the variable casting times of certain editions of Dungeons & Dragons. In my campaigns, memorized spells are cast instantaneously, whereas ritually cast spells have a uniform casting time of one turn [ten minutes].)

Here, then, are my latest revised rules for ritual spellcasting...

Ritual Spellcasting Variant 3

The standard rules of normal spellcasting apply (verbal and/or somatic components only; casting time of 1 round; memorization of all spells in 1 hour after 8 hours of sleep), but spellcasters may also cast any currently unmemorized (or unprayed for) spell that they are qualified to cast (i.e. are of a high enough level to cast) with the following restrictions:

  1. Casting time is increased to 1 turn, after which the spellcaster makes a saving throw vs. magic. If failed, the caster loses 1 point of strength per level of the spell. Strength lost in this manner is fully recovered after 8 hours of sleep.
  2. The casting must be uninterrupted. If it is interrupted, the spell is disrupted, but the caster must still make a saving throw or lose strength as described above.
  3. Material components must be used. Magic-users may use either a magic circle with candles or incense, or an alchemical catalyst to be imbibed, poured, or otherwise destroyed. Clerics may use items appropriate to their religion and culture such as censors, holy water sprinklers, bells, chimes, gongs, prayer wheels, candles, bonfires, etc.
  4. For magic-users, the book containing the spell must be available to consult during the casting. For clerics, a holy symbol, holy book, or sacred object must be present.