Friday, September 30, 2011

SoSA the last: Who Mourns for Azathoth?

This is post 25 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. Whew!

This last post contains some ideas that could be spread throughout a long-term campaign. If the imagined world has clerics and "real" gods that respond to clerical prayers, then I think it's worthwhile to make some decisions about what the gods are really all about.

This certainly doesn't need to be done at the START of a campaign. To an extent, I agree with both James Mal and Fritz Leiber that a DM's knowledge of the world should grow and widen as the PCs' sphere of influence grows and widens. But if the DM prefers one of the weirder options below, it may be fun to weave in subtle hints about the truth from early on....

Thus, there are two very fundamental questions that PCs may eventually care to have answered:
  • Can the gods be killed?
  • Can mortals become gods?
Don't answer these questions right away. First tiptoe through the following options and then come back to them:

1. Vanilla Polytheism. The gods created the world and sustain it. They draw some power from human worship, but they can exist without it.

2. Autonomous. Worship doesn't help or harm the gods; the boons they bestow on clerics are the result of pure altruism.

3. Parasites. Gods need human worship to survive, and their power increases and decreases with the number and fervency of their worshipers. It's self-interest for them to play an active role in the lives and fortunes of their worshipers.

4. Vorlons/Shadows. They are advanced alien beings who stick around in order to guide humanity. But will humanity eventually decide their guidance is no longer desired?

5. Cacogens. They are advanced alien beings who don't want to get TOO involved with humanity, lest we lose hope in ourselves. But sometimes they just can't resist inserting themselves into human events.

6. Apotheotes. All gods were mortal once. They either ascended gradually, BECMI style, or were granted godhood by ones that climbed this path before.

7. Askewniversals. There is one over-arching deity, omnipotent, omnipresent, and onmibenevolent, who occasionally deigns to interfere (or set things right) in the mortal world... usually via skee-ball. Otherwise, the earth is a battleground for good and evil spirits that often demand worship or other assistance from mortals.


8. Lovecraftians. The singular transcendent power is named CHAOS, and he/she cares not for us in the least. Some lesser powers rebel and try in vain to create order; others feed the chaos by setting mortal against mortal.

9. Zeistians. Nobody knows what created the universe, but there are multiple immortal beings. They feel an instinctual drive to murder one other, because in the end there can be only One (God).

10. Turtles all the way down. It's vanilla polytheism, as above, but the gods themselves worship another set of gods, who in turn worship another set of gods, and so on. Is there someone, or something, that worships humanity?

11. Landru. God is a sentient computer, buried far underground, the sole survivor of the pre-apocalyptic age.

12. Elementals. Everything in the physical universe has a "nature spirit" counterpart. When the thing itself dies, the spirit ceases to exist. (This doesn't rule out long-lived powers that appear omnipotent and transcendent to us: after all, if the ocean has a spirit, then so does the Earth, the Sun, the Solar System as a whole, the Milky Way Galaxy, and so on...)

13. Titanomachians. There ain't room for more than one generation of polytheistic deities in here. It looks like war up on the holy mountaintops. But by choosing WHEN the big war happens, in relation to the PC's campaign, one can impart a very different flavor to these supernal proceedings:
  • Maybe the new gods just recently overthrew the old ones. It's a happy, joyful springtime of the world... but too bad about those Atlanteans who got caught in the shuffle...
  • Maybe the war is just about to start. A new band of happy-go-lucky worshipers has come dancing into town. Nobody seems to be taking this new god "Zagreus" too seriously, but they're about to!
Feel free to choose your favorite option(s), roll randomly, or keep exploring how these concepts are covered in other fictions.  Notice also that there's no need to refer explicitly to specific locations in an extra-planar multiverse, if that's not your thing. (It certainly WAS my thing back in the 1980s, but now ambiguity on that front seems much more fun...)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

SoSA the 24th: Extended Training Montage

This is post 24 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

Why can't I stop thinking about the mini-game of what may happen when a character needs to train for his or her next experience level? I posted about it before, but now I'd like to add some additional flavor for other events that may occur during the several weeks that the PC needs to spend training. For context, though, read that earlier post first.

The experience level of the master should be known. In general, it should take PCs longer to find masters of progressively higher level. If DMs want to scatter them across the map of the campaign world, then the smaller number of high-level masters will necessarily be situated further apart. Of course, it's fine to skew the odds a bit so that at least a few very-high-level masters will be findable. This means that at least one or two PCs can stay with a single master for a while... since it could get redundant for each PC to have to go on a fresh quest for a new master every few levels!

The cost for training should follow a more-or-less consistent system that jibes with campaign economics. The standard idea from the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide is 1500 gp per level (with many possible modifiers, I'm sure). But some masters may prefer barter, or labor, or they may spy some valuable item owned by one of the other PCs that they decide will do in lieu of the standard fee.

When approaching a new master that a PC has never met before, there's a unique Reaction Roll for determining that crucial first impression. Roll 2d6:

02: Horrible impression. The master rejects the PC and will never change his or her mind.
03-05: Bad impression. The master rejects the PC, but may be amenable to convincing. Will bribes work? Offers of utter obeisance?
06-08: Neutral. Master accepts the PC as a student under the standard terms and harbors no strong feelings -- yet.
09-10: Positive. Master accepts the PC and gives a 10% discount on the fee.
11: Very positive. Master takes a liking to the PC and gives both a 10% discount and such efficient training that a week can be shaved off the total time.
12: Simpatico! The master takes the PC under his or her wing, shaves a week off the training time, and doesn't charge anything.

Modifiers to the above roll can come from charisma or the PC's primary ability score. (After all, a fighter may not need to charm the pants off a prospective master -- but instead display his or her mettle by performing some impressive feats of strength!)

In my earlier post, I estimated that the training should take L+1d4 weeks (where L is the character's current level). Let me amend that to cap it at 8 weeks maximum. Then, before doing any of the other things listed in the earlier post, we step through each week by rolling 1d100 once per week on the big Training Event Table...

01-40: Nothing major happens. Good progress with training this week.
41-48: Personality clash between PC and mentor; add 1 week to total required training time.
49-56: Setback in training. PC just can't figure out something important. Add 1 week to total training time.
57-70: PC makes a key breakthrough on a difficult technique; subtract 1 week from total training time.
71-75: PC accidentally witnesses the mentor doing something VERY contrary to his or her stated alignment. Training will go on swimmingly if nobody speaks of it....
76-83: Another student (see below) befriends the PC and may be a valuable ally or contact later on.
84-91: Another student (see below) pulls a prank on the PC. It's intended as good-natured fun, but let the PC react first!
92-99: Another student (see below) takes a disliking to the PC. You've got a rival now, whether you wanted one or not!
00: During a particularly difficult training exercise, the master keels over with a massive heart attack and dies. Training is cut short!

There are obviously many more things that could happen (wandering monsters barging in, intrigue involving the master's rivals, and so on) but the goal is to keep this mini-game reasonably MINI in scope. :-)

When the table calls for another student, one can be generated with a few additional rolls (which DMs should probably have ready beforehand). First randomly determine that student's gender and name, then roll for their experience level (a number between 1 and N-1, where N is the master's current level). Then roll 1d10...

1-3: Similar age and motivation level as the PC.
4-5: Diametric opposite of the PC's personality (without being too far away in alignment, since the master trains you both).
6: Laid-back slacker. Not that into the training; parents paid for it.
7: Machiavellian schemer. Always trying to anticipate how to be the best at the next task.
8: Over-achiever/butt-kisser. Seems to always do better than the PC without trying.
9: Very talented student, but bad self-image (defeatist).
10: Hopeless klutz; will soon be kicked out by the mentor.

Finally, items 3-6 and 8 in the list in the original training post let you know how the whole thing wraps up in the end.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

SoSA the 23rd: The Tontine Revealed

This is post 23 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

Finally, we learn that several of the NPCs trotted out in earlier SoSA episodes were among a group of evil plotters who made a secret pact long ago:
  • Frederick of Montfort (from SoSA the 2nd), the magic-user who held onto poor Athena the Succubus for a bit too long, carried a key made of carved bone on his person. This key had an image of a white horse on it.
  • Humble Pymander (from SoSA the 10th), the charlatan who taught feaux-clerical powers and was actually a high-level thief, carried a similar key with a black horse on it.
  • Manannan of Montfort (from SoSA the 21st), another magic-user who dreamed of becoming a Lich, carried a similar key with a pale green horse on it.
  • There's one more key... can you guess the color of its fourth horse?
These guys were all members of a high-level adventuring party who were legendary in their day. In addition to the above three, there was a human fighter, Atlas the Audacious, a female cleric, Sophia of the Lights, and a grim, but very lawful good paladin named Theodoric.

All but Theodoric were lawful neutral or pure neutral in alignment. Despite that fact, they ended up doing enough good deeds to garner a positive reputation in their home town of Montfort. But that phase of their lives seemed to come to an end when they discovered a powerful artifact in the caverns beneath a far-away castle: they found the fabled Teeth of Dahlver-Nar!

Ignore new-school descriptions of these powerful relics... they're not a heterogeneous collection of human and monster teeth like some say; in reality they come from just a single source: Dahlver-Nar himself, a powerful arch-cleric of a strange Manichean sect, who lived centuries ago in Eastern Europe. When he died, the Manichean god MALKA RABA DE-IKARA (the Great King of Glory) hallowed his body and energized each tiny bit with arcane powers. Due to incessant wars and invasions, his followers weren't able to embalm or otherwise preserve the body, so much was lost. After a hundred years of occupation and desecration by foreigners, all that was left in his hidden crypt were those 32 eerily perfect teeth.

Anyway, fast-forward to about 20 years ago. The Montfort adventuring party found the Teeth and began experimenting with them. The paladin Theodoric was killed -- slowly and painfully -- when the major malevolent effect of Body Rot kicked in. Without that good influence, the party began drifting toward evil. The cleric Sophia tried to resist, and she told others from her church about the Teeth. She, and the rest of the church, were all murdered by the others.

The remaining four were at a stalemate: they each wanted the absolute power of these relics, but they also wanted to not be killed by their compatriots. So they swore a grim oath... once a decade they would gather to try out one new tooth (per person), and eventually the last one alive would inherit all of the remaining ones. They're all such high-level adventurers that they all believe themselves safe from the others, but it's been a complex, multi-decadal game of chess....

The four plotters decided to convert Sophia's little church into the front for an underground hiding place for the Teeth. This place is a trap-filled, pimped-out lair, and the only way in is to use their four Tontine Keys in tandem. Frederick's key displayed the white horse of conquest, Pymander's had the black horse of famine, Manannan's had the pale/green horse of death, and Atlas' had the blood-red horse of war. All four of them went on to achieve some amazing things with the power of the Teeth that they placed into their own mouths.

How do the PCs become involved?

If the above SoSA adventures are played out, our modern-day PCs probably found one or two of the keys, and maybe learned that both Frederick and Manannan came from the same obscure town. If either (a) two or more of Frederick, Pymander, and Manannan have been killed by the PCs, or (b) the PCs have begun to inquire around about the origin of the keys, then Atlas the Audacious will begin to plot to track and kill them. In addition to being a high-level fighter, Atlas is also a powerful trainer of vicious animals and some types of monster. Rather than attack the PCs himself, he will send his beasties after them. (Here's the chance to use many of the weirder monsters lacking in Gygaxian naturalism. If these creatures have been held captive by this eclectic trainer, one needn't worry about their ecology or diet!) See the Beastmaster NPC in Dragon #119 for some additional flavor.

There should be ample clues around for the PCs to learn about this formerly famous adventuring party -- as well as info about the church founded by one of their number long ago. Sophia's church in Montfort is now run by the son of the party's last loyal retainer. He receives a monthly salary from a source unknown to him (actually the Tontine's trust) to maintain the church and keep it guarded in perpetuity.

The dungeon under the church:

A dangerous place. Go wild with traps and non-biological monsters. If there was ever a place to use a Trapper or a Mimic, it's here! :-)  Once the PCs reach the final room that contains the Teeth, there is a curse on the door: upon touching it, the curse teleports the most useful item (magic or otherwise) held by the person into the super-strong vault hidden elsewhere in the dungeon. (Locate Object or Augury spells will of course be useful here...)

The room itself contains a major fake-out: there's a central podium with a small golden box on it, and there's a decayed corpse on the floor that looks like it died trying to grab the box. The box radiates magic, and it contains some old rotten teeth, but they're not the real ones. The true Teeth of Dahlver-Nar are inside the skull of the splayed corpse.

Monday, September 26, 2011

SoSA the 22nd: Pearls of Great Price

This is post 22 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

An ocean-going salvage adventure with bickering brothers, a major magic item, and some slimy savages...

The PCs have now received some share of experience and reputation. One day while puttering around a seacoast town, they are approached by two older gentlemen -- who also happen to be twin brothers -- with an offer to get in on their sure-fire investment. They're just a few thousand GP short of being able to hire a sturdy sea vessel, which they need to find a fabled shipwreck (maybe this one??) and the even-more-fabled treasure aboard.

The brothers are Alatar, a grizzled old seaman, and Pallando, a grizzled old magic-user. The treasure they seek is a huge (two foot wide) spiral-shaped chambered nautilus called the Mother of Pearls. It is reputed to magically generate valuable pearls when its holder says a magic word (and both the nautilus and the speaker are both underwater). Potentially infinite wealth!

If the PCs agree to the plan, they begin scouting for worthy ships to carry them and their equipment. Unfortunately, both Alatar and Pallando find two different ships, and they get into a huge argument about which one to hire. They each go storming off to different pubs and begin drinking. PCs who remain with either one will hear about a lifetime's worth of grudges and recriminations.

There's no getting them back together, so they both pawn some valued items, reduce their expectations a bit, and then each aim to hire a ship and some worthy hands. It's now a race!  Do the PCs split their party, or do they choose sides in this fraternal rivalry? If one side gets to the wreck soon after the other, will the rivalry escalate into open melee?

Each brother has a roughly-copied "treasure map" of how to find the shipwreck. Alatar knows the sea well, so he will be more likely to find the spot sooner. However, Pallando is the one with the stockpile of Potions of Water Breathing, so that divers can explore around underwater (each lets one breathe underwater for 1 hour + 1d10 uncertain minutes). Much of the fun here is in exploring the sea-lanes near the coast. I suggest building the sea map in several stages:
  1. Create a hex-map of the shoreline and the overall topography of sea depth. Use 3 discrete depth levels: "shallow" nearest the shore, "medium" further out, then "deep" still further away. Insert some deep hexes unexpectedly in the middle of some shallow and medium areas. Also add a couple of islands and a few patches with dangerous jutting rocks, some of which won't be on the treasure map....
  2. Place the desired shipwreck in a random deep region, and have the map's "X marks the spot" be approximately one hex distant from the true location. Put two other sunken ships (red herrings) nearby. Also decide on the location of the Locathah village (see below), which is hidden in a dense kelp forest in a medium-depth region.
  3. Then it's time to add in some flavor. The sea floor of each hex can be one of three types (roll 1d3): 1: flat sand-bed, 2: rolling sandy hills, 3: sea grasses.
  4. Also, for each hex roll 1d100 to see what else may be there:
01-03: lone mountain
04-06: seething underwater volcano
07-10: coral reef
11-15: oyster/clam fields
16-18: ruins of underwater city
19-27: dense kelp forest
28-29: unexplained whirlpool
30-39: wandering monster encounter (see DMG Appendix C: Underwater Encounters in Large Bodies of Salt Water)
40-100: nothing
Don't forget to generate some weather for a few weeks worth of sailing. Please also flesh out the doings with Zak's wavecrawl kit, or JD Jarvis' sea encounter tables, or Charlatan's saltbox rules.

Resource management: There are only so many Potions of Water Breathing available. The number will depend on the chosen size and scale of the oceanic hexmap. I suggest also that the deepest depth level also requires PCs with strength below 17 to drink a Potion of Giant Strength (or something equivalent) to strengthen his or her lungs and muscles, to be able to withstand the pressure. Pallando has only a handful of these potions!

If PCs explore the hex containing the Locathah village, they will initially just see dense kelp forest. If they keep exploring it for more than a half hour, they'll encounter a wandering Locathah patrol, which will attack.

When PCs get to the shipwreck, they'll find that the Mother of Pearls is gone! A generation ago, it was found by Locathah tribesmen and taken to their undersea village. It's spiral shape made them believe it's a holy relic of their god Eadro -- and they safeguard it and worship it. But they don't know its magic trigger word, so they don't know its pearl-making secret.

What will the PCs do?

By the way, some other ideas for playing through an ocean-going salvage operation are found in Lloyd Krassner's game Wreckers. Further ideas for developing the Locathah village can be easily mined from the Sahuagin village described here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

SoSA the 21st: My Fathers Day Cake

This is post 21 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

The PCs are approached for help by a young woman named Cordelia, who believes her two evil sisters (Goneril and Regan) are planning to murder their elderly father. (Consider these names just working titles, of course!) Cordelia suspects they may also be planning to do her in, since she often takes her father's side in family arguments. Cordelia recently found vials of poison in their home and has also spied some seedy, cloaked men coming and going late at night. Could the two older sisters have hired an assassin?

A few days before Cordelia's visit, the PCs should hear about (or maybe witness) a big fight between two rich townswomen in the market place. Nobody quite knows what it was about, but it got physical, with Goneril being knocked down by Regan into a shallow pool of mud on the street. (In actuality, they were tussling over who would get to purchase a new silk scarf...)

Dad's name isn't Lear, by the way; it is Manannan of Montfort. In his day, he was a famous adventuring magic-user, but he has been retired for many years. He is quite ill these days, and is usually pushed around in a wooden wheelchair by one of his daughters. He is often grumpy and ill-tempered. His library is the envy of sages and wizards for miles around, but he turns away nearly everyone who comes to want to see it.

What's really going on: The daughters are petty and vindictive, but they're not trying to kill anyone. Manannan has begun putting into action a plan that he formulated years ago: To live forever, he will turn himself into a Lich. He finally collected the proper scrolls and mystical source-books to compose his Lichly phylactery. He also needs to collect all manner of vile substances, including arsenic, belladonna, and various monster venoms, to mix the "self-embalming" potion that he will drink when he is ready to make the transition. (See Len Lakofka's article "Blueprint for a Lich" from Dragon #26 and Best of the Dragon #2.)

The old man will tolerate some degree of investigation into this supposed poisoning plot (though he will actually tell the truth when he says that he will never believe any of his daughters would want to kill him). However, if the PCs start getting close to the truth, he will strike back.

Oh, but here's where my adventure-design prowess is giving out a bit. I feel there really needs to be some kind of additional structure to the adventure; maybe a chain of hints that reveals ever-more pieces of information that identify what Manannan is doing? Maybe a good map of the dungeon-like tunnels that he built underneath his stately home? Some other ideas include...
  • The PCs may go on a red-herring chase for the antidote(s) to the poisons once they are identified. Might that bring them into contact with a strange underbelly of society -- not just assassins, but also Snape-like loner alchemists and airhead half-elf herbalists?
  • If the PCs find the assassin who is supplying the poisons, he will have some kind of magical protection against the PCs trying to pry information out of him. (Not insurmountable, though...)
  • Manannan's manservants are mild-mannered and slight of build, but they are actually good, agile fighters (low-STR but high-DEX) that protect his valuable library, run errands for him to his suppliers, and so on.
  • Manannan has a magical clock that ticks to the beat of his living heart. He plans to disable it when he takes his final lich potion. However, if he dies prior to that time, the clock will stop and deliver instructions to his most faithful manservant for what to do next. A wannabe immortal always needs a Plan B!
  • My original inspirations for Manannan were the vengeful fathers from (1) the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Masks," and (2) the story "Father's Day" from the original 1982 movie Creepshow. However, now I don't think he cares that much about his red-herring children, nor do I think he's as helpless and infirm as he seems. I'm now thinking he's got a bit of Lo Pan in him...

If Manannan of Montfort is killed by the PCs, they will find around his neck a chain with a most strange pendant: an ornate key that looks like it's carved out of bone, with a tiny painting of a pale green horse on it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

SoSA the 20th: Meteor Storm

This is post 20 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

Elevator Pitch: A weird meteor storm seems to be "attacking" a single town. What's up with that? And why were some people in the town found dead... clawed to death by some mysterious beast?  Hint: It's something from deeeeep spaaaaace...

One night, a few hours after sunset, the PCs see a beautiful-looking meteor shower in the sky. But the paths taken by the meteors appear unusually focused in one particular direction. If they follow the falling stars, they soon find the small village of East Byfleet (on the east bank of the picturesque River Fleet, of course). Several homes have been destroyed by large meteorites, and the morning after the meteor shower two local farmers were found clawed to death by an animal that nobody can identify. The townspeople believe themselves under a magical attack from a hermit-like druid named Vortigern, who lives a few miles upriver.

According to the rumors, Vortigern is a horrible, beastly man who puts curses on his neighbors for sport and calls down all manner of plagues and famines. The people of East Byfleet are poor, but they will offer the PCs nearly all of what they have to save them from the druid menace. Women? They've got 'em. Hale and hearty men? (For retainers! What were you thinking?) The local mild-mannered cleric (think Father Mulcahy) even offers to throw in the gold candlesticks from the town church.

Conducting the storm: For the next 5 days after the first sighting, there will be continuing chances of meteor storm activity. For each consecutive HOUR that the PCs are in or near the town, roll 1d12. On a result of 12, there will be an attack during that hour. (Feel free to roll these all out before sitting down at the table with the players.)

An attack consists of 2d6 meteorites, all coming down in a clump that lasts less than 10 minutes. Each meteorite is assumed to be red-hot and flaming, easily punching holes in normal materials and setting them on fire if possible. For each meteorite, roll for its size and target:

SIZE (diameter): roll d100...

01-16:  1 inch
17-30:  2 inches
31-43:  3 inches
44-55:  6 inches
56-66:  1 foot
67-75:  2 feet
76-83:  3 feet (contains 1 intellect devourer)
84-91:  4 feet (contains 2 intellect devourers)
92-97:  5 feet (contains 3 intellect devourers)
98-100: 6 feet (contains 4 intellect devourers)

(Wait... what? Intellect devourers? Be patient... Just note that if the 5 days go past with less than 2 intellect devourers appearing, feel free to fudge it so that there are at least 4 of them within the next day.)

TARGETS:  roll d100...

01-35:  Wild rough area (field, brush)
36-50:  Farmland
51-59:  Tree(s)
60-64:  Graveyard
65-75:  House or other building (unoccupied)
76-81:  House or other building (occupied)
82-89:  Cart, plow, or other outdoor equipment
90-97:  Animal
98-100: Person

The Druid Vortigern:  He has nothing to do with this. In fact, a small meteor destroyed his favorite tree! He's a neutral good pacifist, but his heathen ways and poor hygiene frighten the villagers. They end up blaming all sorts of crap on him unfairly. He's also only 2nd level, so he can't even Call Lightning or work any of the more powerful druidic weather spells yet, anyway. However, he can Predict Weather, so if the PCs treat him fairly, he will warn them if/when the next meteor storm is coming.

The real culprit, as if you couldn't guess, is the milquetoast priest, Father Christopher. He's in his early 50s and has retired to this little, out-of-the-way town after a youth spent adventuring as a fighting cleric. Years ago he formulated a get-rich-quick scheme that he recently put into motion. He learned that meteoric iron has many special properties (especially for the forging of magic weapons and armor), and he is collaborating with a local blacksmith to make some valuable items to sell.

Father Christopher learned that could cast a Plane Shift spell to take him to outer space, where he found he could locate big chunks of meteoric metal. His plan was to cast Animate Object to force part of the meteor to break off, hurl itself into his arms, and he can Shift back home with some valuable booty.

However, all did not go as planned. By some really bad luck, the first meteor he found was home to a clan of Intellect Devourers, and his initial Animate Object spell killed a few of them. They tried to attack him, but he popped back through the planar gate just in time! Now, enraged, they're busting off pieces of their home and surfing them down to earth to find him and take their revenge... thus the chances in the table above of finding one or more of these vile creatures in a large enough chunk of meteorite. A few of them are already in the town -- they killed a few people, but still have not yet taken over anyone's mind yet.

When the meteors first begin to strike, Father Christopher tries to play it cool. He refrains from using any clerical magic, and also tries to spend as much time in quiet prayer as possible... all to avoid the psionic gaze of the devourers. If any psionic or spell-casting PCs (or Vortigern!) use their powers, they will make a tasty target for any nearby devourers. This is ripe for plenty of body-snatcher-ish "spot the impostor" drama, of course.  :-)

Friday, September 23, 2011

SoSA the 19th: The Vivimancer

This is post 19 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

Everyone knows about necromancers, who ply their grim arts trying to learn hidden secrets from dead bodies. But not many know there are vivimancers amongst the dead, who weave their magics in the opposite direction....

Deep in the bowels of the Nine Hells, in the iron city of Dis, lives the spirit of a man who has been dead for centuries. After so much time, he doesn't remember by what name he was called in life, but he still burns with the desire to live again. He learned the arts of vivimancy from a rogue Pit Fiend who was wandering the uppermost levels of the Hells and looking to torment the lesser inhabitants. (Giving hope of living again is the greatest torment of all...)

The vivimancer has found a cracked and clouded crystal ball that gives him the means to view living beings on earth. Especially ones that are wandering around near his original burial place. Ever attracted to the flame of life, he often focuses on the most vivacious of people... like adventurous PCs.

So, one random night, the PCs are sleeping out in the wilderness, somewhere within a few days hike of a tall mountain. The DM must choose the one PC in the party that an external observer would judge to have the least amount of overall awareness and judgement -- i.e., the lowest wisdom. It's NOT necessarily the character with truly the lowest WIS score, though. (Perception isn't always reality!) This PC will be the target of the vivimancer's attack.

The attack initiates a contest of wills inside the PCs dreaming mind. For some reason, the only literary example I can think of is the dream battle in this horrible movie. Anyway, roleplay it with as much imaginative gusto as you can muster (while awake!), but adjudicate it with the back-and-forth Contest of Skills mechanic I posted here and here. The attribute of choice is indeed Wisdom, and the vivimancer has an 18.

Even a low-wisdom PC has a chance to prevail, but I'll proceed under the assumption that the PC loses the battle. The losing PC is now under the power of the vivimancer (treat it like possession a la Magic Jar), and he begins the trek to recover his body from its burial place high in a mountain cave, for eventual resurrection.

Tragedy-time: It's been something like 200 years since the vivimancer walked the earth. There is no body left, and no chance at all of resurrection.

Nonetheless, he will leave the party and begin a lone hike to the mountain cave. If "caught" doing untypical things by his companions, he'll make what excuses he can and try to hightail it away from a conversation as soon as possible. Will the rest of the party follow him to see what's up?

There's some rock climbing involved to get to the mountain cave, approximately 600 feet up from ground level. I've heard the 1e AD&D Dungeoneer's Survival Guide has some crunchy mechanics for mountain climbing, but I don't have it. Try this instead:

For this kind of high-inclination, rough rockface (with occasional ledges), the climb speed depends on the SUM of a PC's Strength and Dexterity as follows:

06-16: 3 feet/round
17-24: 6 feet/round
25-30: 9 feet/round
31-34: 12 feet/round
35-36: 15 feet/round

Thieves multiply the above climb speed by 1.5. PCs roped together travel at the speed of the slowest climber.

It's dangerous! Every 50 feet, each character must roll 3d6 as a Dexterity check (i.e., roll under for success). If it fails, the PC falls 20 feet, takes 1d6 hp of damage, and must roll ANOTHER Dex check, this time with 4d6. If that one fails, then there's another 20 feet and 1d6 hp of falling damage. Each failed roll means another fall, more damage, and another required check, but all subsequent checks just keep using 4d6. Unless a successful check stops the PC's fall, it keeps going until he or she reaches the bottom of the mountain or dies.

If multiple PCs roped together are falling, then the subsequent checks after the first failed one get EASIER: down to 2d6, because of increased chances that the rope will catch on something.

A PC that reaches the cave can also throw down a rope for others to hold on as they climb. In that case, the Dex checks are not needed, but for each 50 feet of climbing that stress is put on the rope, roll 1d20. A natural 1 means the rope breaks, and the PC begins falling as if their climbing Dex check failed (see above).

Anyway, once the cave is reached, the vivimancer may become unhinged when he discovers that there's no body left. Just a ring and rusty knife are all that's left in this dusty place; not even a skeleton. If the other PCs are around, he will attack them. Hopefully they can get through to him (or to the submerged mind of their friend) and stop him!

Full disclosure: The concept of the vivimancer was introduced by Gene Wolfe in his New Sun books.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

SoSA the 18th: The Fair Folk (Avalon Lost).

This is post 18 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. It's also the 6th and final post in a mini-series about the post-Arthurian Avalon Lost campaign setting.

That thistle-down hair looks nice, hmm?
Remember the rule about no demi-humans in the Avalon Lost setting? The reason that I didn't want to litter the place with clones of Gimli and Legolas was that I wanted to leave ample room for these guys to shine....

Faeries, fay creatures, the wee folk, the sidhe: It's clear that humans don't have a good idea of what these things actually are. Although they can appear human-like, at other times they seem to be more protean, or simply pure spirit. Rather than some type of demi-human or semi-human, it makes sense to think of them more as anti-human, i.e., a slightly twisted shadow version of humanity -- stuck, with us, in the realm between angel and beast, but just different. Zak S. gave an awesome quote that sums it up nicely:
"I don't feel as though the fairy folk really should have to have any well-defined ideas about people. An adventure involving fairies should be about culture shock on both sides. Your armor and your magic should seem as ridiculous to them as their shoes do to you."
Still, we're talking RPGs here, so I'd be remiss if I didn't give you some kind of anal-retentive systematization! :-) Thus, let's consider the Faerie Folk to be a very special kind of NPC race-as-class...
Click for larger version.
The various types listed under "physical form" can be inspired by the various entries in the Monster Manual, but they're really all just variations on a single theme. As a faerie ages (and/or gains experience by interacting with those strange things called humans), it gains the power to transform itself into increasingly larger and more substantial beings when in our world. Within the limitations of size and time spent in the human world, they are otherwise totally unconstrained by our quaint ideas of continuity of form, or even basic physics.

Faeries do seem to enjoy taking on the classic forms listed in the table above, but they're also fond of becoming dancing lights, Will-o-the-Wisps, and even various things that D&D classifies as coming from the elemental plane of air (Air Elementals, Wind Walkers, Invisible Stalkers, Aerial Servants). The HD given in the table apply to the physical forms they choose when appearing in our world. If these forms are reduced to zero hit points, the faerie abandons the form and zaps back to their other-dimensional homeland. (Now, destroy them at home, and you've done something!)

Alignment: Forget about human concepts such as law, chaos, good, or evil. Faeries have their own spectrum of alignment that is foreign to us. Humans classify them into Seelie (roughly chaotic good to chaotic neutral) and Unseelie (sort of chaotic evil), but that's a blunt instrument compared to the true nuances we can never hope to grasp.

Literature abounds with interesting things to do with the Kindly Ones, but here are a few classic adventure hooks...
  • The Changeling. Human children are taken, and changelings are left in their place. The stolen human eventually transforms into a Faerie being, but it takes time: nominally 1 day per year of age of the human, but the bare minimum is 3 days. (So you'd better get them back quickly!) In our world, a changeling may wither and die; it may always be wistfully detached (semi-autistic?); or it may grow up to be a strange outsider in human society -- much like an adventuring PC...?
  • A faerie challenges a human to a contest. Riddles? Drinking? Fiddling? Once the DM determines what's at stake, and what compels a PC to accept such a scary bargain, one must figure out how the rules will be twisted.
  • Many fay ones don't understand human love, so they perform some interesting experiments....
  • Some faeries do fall in "love" with particular humans (though it's far from our
    idea of romantic love) and abduct them to their realm. What, huu-mahn, you don't think this is a great honor?!
  • There are dozens of stories of strange people appearing in the wilderness and offering mounds of gold to buy something precious carried by a local person. Of course, they're using fairy gold, which turns to leaves and gorse blossoms when they are safely away.
Hmm, as I look over the above list, I think that the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation used just about all of them when writing episodes for Q. No wonder they had him channel Shakespeare's Puck to once say "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

SoSA the 17th: Tintagel Dystopia (Avalon Lost).

This is post 17 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. It's also the 5th post in a mini-series about the post-Arthurian Avalon Lost campaign setting.

The further southwest the PCs travel in England, the more they will hear about the goings-on at Castle Tintagel in Cornwall. It was the stuff of legends during Arthur's time, second only to Camelot itself as a stronghold of law and justice. Six decades ago, it was where Uther was infamously polymorphed to sate his desire for Ygraine. Three decades ago, it was the site of the tragic love triangle between King Mark, Tristan, and Iseult.

Tintagel, apart from the Feckless Fief of old Bedivere (see SoSA #14), is the only other quasi-holdout of chivalry in Britain. This region is now ruled by a king who calls himself Solomon (Selyf in the Cornish tongue) and claims to channel the power, judgement, and mercy of God himself.

The Cornish countryside abounds with stories about Solomon, his rule, and his family. Some rumors tell about the wonders of classical civilization that one can find only at Tintagel and environs, and the abundance of food that comes from the farms sponsored by the king. Others spin tales of woe about the horrors perpetuated by Tintagel's knights; burning towns capriciously, arresting people without cause, and so on. The positive/negative ratio of rumors is close to 50/50, but there are also some weird ones...
  • Solomon has built a huge golden throne, with golden lion statues lining the steps, and which can walk about the castle and carry the king wherever he wants to go.
  • Solomon has at least 50 wives.
  • Solomon secretly commands an army of air spirits (which sound very much like D&D Djinni).
  • Solomon is controlling marriages in and around his royal court, with the aim of breeding a race of ultra-strong, ultra-intelligent knights and ladies.
DMs: feel free to decide which rumors are true and which are just conflations with the legends of the king's Biblical namesake!

The real story: Solomon runs a rather fascist little mini-state. The citizens get some good bread and circuses, and in exchange have even less freedom than others in this Dark Age. They're forbidden from moving from town to town, they are forced into the family's designated occupation, and so on. Independent adventurers like the PCs are strictly verboten! Any young man in Solomon's kingdom who shows promise at the chivalric arts is taken away from his home and initiated (read: brainwashed) into the twisted version of knighthood that holds sway here.

DMs should map out a special "wandering monster" type chart for encountering the Tintagel knights or other royal functionaries in the Cornish countryside. The first time the PCs encounter them, the knights will notice what kind of troublemakers these are, and attempt to capture the PCs and take them back to the castle. Even if the PCs escape this first attempt, the knights will track them and call in more backup until they succeed.

If the PCs do get captured and taken to the castle, some mid-level couriers will separate them into two groups: those with potential, and those without. Paladins, clerics, and most fighters will qualify for "potential" status (i.e., potential brainwashing and incorporation into the utopian state). The king himself may take an interest in the careers of those with the most potential. However, all PC thieves, magic-users, and druids will be classed with the undesirables and put into the large dungeon complex below the castle, eventually to be sold into slavery.

Will the PCs escape and reunite their party? Hopefully! If they do escape, they'll soon meet Prince Cybi, Solomon's son who is attending the local seminary to become a cleric. Secretly, though, he is organizing a band of rough and ready freedom fighters to end his father's tyrannical regime. (If the PCs have a run of bad luck while trying to escape, maybe Cybi assists in getting them free...)

The overthrow of Solomon would be a good "boss fight" for high-level PCs. They'll need to gather allies in large numbers, which may take a while. DMs will probably want to stat out the occupants of the Castle, much like the garrison of the very sack-worthy Keep on the Borderlands. If I was running this, I'd probably use something like Rusty Dagger's cool and evocative vertical cross section for a huge castle complex, and spice it up with a few rolls through Zak's recent random castle generator.

Monday, September 19, 2011

SoSA the 16th: Isle of Wights? (Avalon Lost)

This is post 16 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. It's also the 4th post in a mini-series about the post-Arthurian Avalon Lost campaign setting.

If the PCs venture southwest of Londinium, into Surrey, Hampshire, or Dorset, they'll begin to hear some mean-spirited comments about those stuck-up Wighters (residents of the Isle of Wight), who are finally getting a well-deserved comeuppance. The dead are now rising on that little island!

Over the past few generations, many Wighters that came over to the mainland exhibited an inflated sense of importance. Many of them paraded their Jute heritage proudly, with seemingly every other traveler being descended from one line of Danish royalty or another. They often demanded more in exchange for Wightish coins and jewelery than their trading partners thought fair. They often brought with them high-quality magic items (vorpal swords being a specialty), and often made it clear that their products are far superior to any that one could find anywhere else.

Now, however, many rumors are arriving across the Solent. There have been dozens of poltergeist-like occurrences in the towns of Medina and Westcowe, and all manner of hauntings in the in the prehistoric mounds and barrows on the west side of the island. Worst of all, the last few mining crews that have been exploring for new veins of precious metals have been attacked by something underground, and the tales told by the survivors hint at the presence of dire things like black puddings, purple worms, umber hulks, and so on.

What's really going on:

No wights, or any other undead, actually. Just a magical experiment gone awry... and trying to take over the world. No big deal, right?

Decades ago, the Isle of Wight was one of several secret headquarters of the dread enchantress Morgan Le Fay. She had built a huge underground complex in the hills outside Medina (on the site of an old Roman fortification that centuries later will become Castle Carisbrooke) to host her most dangerous experiments. The entrance to the dungeon is through a huge tree that sits above the site (cliche noted).

This tree is gnarled and old, with dark, almost blackened bark, but it still is very much alive. In fact, it IS Morgan's main experiment. She initially tried to create a nature oracle to answer her questions and grant her wishes, and it worked for a while. But after she left the island for the last time, many years ago, the tree gradually became intelligent. As it extended its roots farther and farther away, picking up nutrients from scores of miles around it, it has gained both more-than-human intelligence and psionic abilities.

Without any other peers to talk to, it's also grown kind of insane. The strange occurrences around the island are all random psionic effects; either random attacks (against anyone in a target area), or random effects of psionic disciplines reaching out from the extended roots. The tree has access to all Minor Disciplines, but only (so far) a handful of the Major ones. It has used Dimension Door to call forth many of the strange beasties that now occupy Morgan's underground lair. The eldritch roots of the tree were also the cause of the Wighters' luck in mining metals that were especially useful in crafting magic items.

The Tree of Morgan is getting more powerful by the day. It needs only another month or two to extend its roots over the entire island. Another month, and the roots begin to burrow through to mainland England. The tree has become so powerful that it can only be destroyed by the same means that AD&D artifacts and relics can be destroyed. (Recall, however, that one of the ways listed in the DMG is to cause the item to be crushed by Arthur's Dolmen. But is that really a megalithic burial stone, or something else...?)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

SoSA the 15th: Dragons and Giants and Haggis, Oh My! (Avalon Lost)

This is post 15 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. It's also the 3rd post in a mini-series about the post-Arthurian Avalon Lost campaign setting.

Maps for Arthurian adventures often are cut off on top, such that Hadrian's Wall, or thereabouts, seems to be the northernmost edge of Great Britain. I think that eliminates much of the potential fun that can be had in traipsing the highlands, battling over whose tartan has been proscribed, and figuring out whether that screeching sound is a banshee or a bagpipe!

So, until TSR releases their new AD&D hardback, Scottish Adventures, I thought I'd focus on two interesting things that could be done with special Fiends from the Firth of Forth....

1. The Loch Ness Dragon

You don't need more than that header and this image, do you?
When PCs arrive in the region, they learn that, yes, there is a terrible dragon who periodically emerges from the black depths of the Loch to terrorize the people. But is that the whole story? I can think of two obvious twists:
  • Actually the Loch Ness Monster is of good alignment, and is a protector of the people. The people need protecting from an even worse villain (a human, naturally) who puts the blame on that hideous beast whenever possible.
  • The PCs could learn the dragon is female, and has just laid some eggs in a region of the Loch that people have been coming into to fish. There's nothing more fierce than a mama dragon protecting her babies!
Anyway, one can find just the right unique concept for the LND by using judicious choices from E. G. Palmer's awesome random dragon generator, or maybe multiple clicks on this other dragon generator. I've always been kind of partial to the Night Dragon variant from Dragon #74. (He's pretty much all "Hide in Shadows" until the breath weapon comes out: blinding white light! Perfect for the murky Loch.) I also credit some recent highbrow literature with reviving the concept of unique dragon design. :-)

2. Random Giant/Ogre Generation

Meeting a dude who's 10, 20, or 30 feet tall should be as unique an experience as meeting a dragon. Especially so in Scotland, where everything seems bigger than life and full of fresh mountain air. In that spirit, I present a random generator for these glandularly excited individuals...

Height in feet: 2d12 + 6  (i.e., a range of 8' to 30')

HD and "Standard" Damage per Attack (with giant-sized melee weapon):
If height is 8'-9', HD = 1d4+3 (4-7); Damage/attack = 1d10.
If height is 10'-11', HD = 1d6+4 (5-10); Damage/attack = 2d8.
If height is 12-'13', HD = 1d6+5 (6-11); Damage/attack = 3d8.
If height is 14'-16', HD = 1d6+6 (7-12); Damage/attack = 4d8.
If height is 17'-19', HD = 1d6+8 (9-14); Damage/attack = 5d8.
If height is 20'-23', HD = 1d6+10 (11-16); Damage/attack = 6d8.
If height is 24' or more, HD = 1d6+14 (15-20); Damage/attack = 7d8.
Armor Class (descending):  1d6 - 1  (i.e., 0 to 5).

Intelligence:  Roll 1d20...
01-06: Low
07-13: Average
14-16: Very
17-18: High
19: Exceptional
20: Genius
Gender:  Roll 1d6....  1-4: male, 5: female, 6: extremely difficult to tell...

Alignment (yoinked from E.G.'s dragon generator):  Roll 1d8...
1. Lawful Good
2. Lawful Evil
3. Neutral Good
4. Neutral
5. Neutral Evil
6. Chaotic Good
7. Chaotic Evil
8. Alignment subject to change. Re-roll per encounter
Chance to find giant in lair: (1d8)x5+10 %.  In other words, roll 1d8, multiply result by 5, and add 10.  Result is a percentage.

Skin Color:  Roll 1d12...
1. Reddish
2. Yellowish
3. Pale Green
4. Light Blue
5. Violet
6. Brownish Green
7. Brown
8. Tan
9. Dull Gray
10. Coal Black
11. Ivory/Bone
12. Chalk White
Hair:  Roll 1d20...
01-06: Similar to local Scots.
08-11: Completely bald and hairless.
12-14: Full-on Sasquatch.
15-16: Long, barbarian-style mane.
17: Dwarf-braided longbeard.
18: Buzz cut.
19: Moe from Three Stooges.
20: Achy-Breaky mullet.
Whacked-out quirks:  Roll 1d20...
01-12. None.
13. Cyclops.
14. Two heads (attacks as an Ettin).
15. Four hands.
16. Tusks as long as swords.  (Two extra bite attacks for 1d10 hp each.)
17. Undead giant. Roll 1d6 for zombie, wight, ghoul, vampire, skeleton, or lich.
18. Lycanthrope giant. Choose your favorite form.
19. Head of an animal: Roll 1d6 for: bull, goat, lion, horse, bear, or ape.
20. Not a giant human, but really a huge... roll 1d6 for: orc, goblin, hobgoblin, bugbear, troll, or kobold!
Special attacks/abilities:  Roll 1d20 (maybe roll twice or thrice on this table)...
1. Throws rocks at targets up to 20 times their height; damage is same as their regular melee damage with a giant-sized weapon.
2. Throws rocks at targets up to 30 times their height; damage is 1.5 times their regular melee damage with a giant-sized weapon.
3. Throws rocks at targets up to 40 times their height; damage is double their regular melee damage with a giant-sized weapon.
4. Can leap distances up to 20 times their height.
5. Hit only by magic weapons.
6. Catches hurled boulders 90% of the time.
7. Casts Call Lightning as a 10th level druid.
8. Casts Earthquake as a 15th level cleric.
9. Casts Summon Insects as a 12th level druid.
10. Casts Control Weather as a 20th level cleric.
11. Can polymorph to a normal human size and appearance once per day.
12. Can become invisible 1d4 times per day (for up to 30 minutes each time).
13. Can charm person 1d10 times per day.
14. Reads minds.
15. Telekinesis of items up to twice their own weight.
16. Breath is noxious; effects and cone area equivalent to green dragon breath.
17. Able to move in rapid bursts for a total of 10 rounds per day. In each of these rounds, the giant can make 3 attacks instead of the usual 1.
18. Invulnerable to a specific type of dragon breath (or similar attack). Roll 1d10 for: black, blue, brass, bronze, copper, gold, green, red, silver, or white.
19. Can summon up a number of elementals equal to giant's HD each day.
20. Can smell the blood of an Eng-lish-mun up to 100 feet away.
The above may come close to being able to reproduce the range of AD&D Monster Manual giants, ogres, ogre magi, ettins, and titans, but I guarantee nothing!  :-)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

SoSA the 14th: The Feckless Fief (Avalon Lost)

This is post 14 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures. It's also the 2nd post in a mini-series about the post-Arthurian Avalon Lost campaign setting.

There's an interesting option for a starting player character that I neglected to mention in the previous post. If one of the players is especially jazzed about restoring honor and chivalry to this dystopic and chaotic setting, then maybe that character should be held back for a special introduction...

Once the other PCs leave their home town and enter the wilderness, they can come upon a small cave or barrow. (How? Maybe chasing a fleeing rabbit for dinner... or running away from a wolf chasing someone?) Long story short: buried in this barrow is our special PC, who was cursed to lie in a kind of suspended animation for two-score years. This was one of Arthur's knights, albeit one of the newest and greenest; just having taken his vows and been dubbed a few weeks before he was cursed. But he is now revived (somehow!) by the presence of the other PCs. Of course, being a PC himself, he bonds with them and wants to join their party. :-)

The opportunities for culture shock are obvious. Also, Sir X will likely have to hide his true identity as a knight in order to survive in this bleak time. Still, he will endeavor to keep to the laws of chivalry as he received them. (The example list of "commandments" to the right were given in an article by Robert J. Bezold in Dragon #51, on codes of conduct for AD&D paladins.)

Anyway, one of the rumors that the PCs first hear in Londinium is that there is a small kingdom (about 100 miles to the northwest) where a truly chivalrous ruler sits, and that he was once a knight of Arthur. Whether or not the other PCs want to go there, the revived knight will probably desire to do so. The kingdom is Mercia, and the king rules from Castle Tamworth. The king is known to his subjects by the royal title Cynewald, but the DM should know that this is truly Sir Bedivere, who was with Arthur until the end, and who returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake. He was exceedingly lucky that his kingdom was so well-protected from invaders, since nearly all of the other knights who went off to rule various fiefs did not survive so long.

Unfortunately, Bedivere's mind has gone a bit soft in the decades since the end of Camelot. Due to a combination of nostalgia and a misguided belief in the widespread existence of knights throughout the land, he forces his local community to hold sham jousts and other courtly doings, 4 times a year. To avoid his anger, his underlings manage to hire fake knights, squires, and chaste ladies who look the part, but outside their public play-acting they're not what they seem to be. Many people in the surrounding town of Tamworth enjoy these entertainments, but those who pay the high taxes to support the extravagance aren't that happy.

It goes without saying that our revived knightly PC will be outraged at the sacrilege of holy chivalric traditions. (I'm reminded of Aang's outrage at the re-purposing of the Northern Air Temple.) What happens next, only the players know....

Of course, DMs can spice things up in many ways. Jeff's Random Castle Shenanigans would serve well as a "wandering monster encounter chart" when at Tamworth. I think I've already linked to Welsh Piper's Random Noble House charts, which can flesh out more intrigue about Bedivere's family and royal court.

Friday, September 16, 2011

SoSA the 13th: Avalon Lost

This is post 13 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

This post introduces the Avalon Lost campaign setting, which will be fleshed out a bit in the next week's worth of posts. In it I've tried to mix in a bit of the post-apocalyptic feel of a Dying Earth type genre, while still keeping it tied to a quasi-historical (albeit high-mythical) version of our own Earth.

The idea is that it is now several decades after le Morte d'Arthur. The exalted age of Camelot is still remembered by many people, but after the fall of the High King, the land is in chaos. A quarter century of rising brutality, slavery, and petty kings have caused the good people of Britain to lose hope. Can a new generation of adventurers revive the lost ideals of chivalry?

It's assumed the PCs meet up with one another in a little backwater town called Londinium, circa 561 AD. King Arthur's last stand was in 536 (25 years ago), and it coincided with a mysterious climatic event that caused the Isle of Avalon to disappear beneath the waves.

Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.

          - Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King

FYI, one may see some similarities with Greg Stafford's monumental RPG Pendragon. That's certainly your go-to place for the heights of Arthurian glory -- but this ain't that!  :-)  There also may be some similarities with Jeff's Wessex campaign. However, Avalon Lost aims to be less focused on one small region, and even less "fauxthentic" in its historical accuracy. After all, once you step into the pool of Arthuriana, you're treading in the same waters as Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, Boorman's Excalibur, and Monty Python's Holy Grail! Even a relative straight-man like T. H. White had guns and communists for Arthur to fight!

It's a grim place, but there are rumors that the candle-flame of knightly chivalry still exists... somewhere (see future post!). Most of humanity is not aware that there are things such as magic-users, or clerics that can summon miracles almost on command. There's also antipathy between these two casting classes, since most Christian clerics believe that King Arthur was cursed by his association with that devil-worshiper Merlin (who's gained similar notoriety as this guy). The few remaining secretive magic-users see things differently!

I'm assuming an absence of prevalent Tolkienish demi-humans and Gygaxian humanoids, so the choices of "race" for starting PCs are probably limited to just, well, Briton, Angle, Saxon, or Jute. There are likely to be ogres or giants in far-away remote areas (see future post!), and maybe Teutonic dwarfs over in Germany or Scandanavia. Of course, Britain is home to the Fair Folk (see future post!) and other nature spirits.

DMs should probably go with a silver standard for coins, and find a nice hexmap of Britain -- which I thought Google would provide aplenty, but I could only find one even remotely serviceable. If any one's search-fu is better than mine, please let me know. Or we can just wait for Alexis' largess to extend northwestward! Stafford has some great non-hexed period maps. Mapping out the Roman roads is good for scoping out the skeleton of (crumbling) civilization, too.

Some other tidbits for this setting include:
  • The starting adventure I posted (SoSA #1) was written with this setting's Londinium in mind.
  • Despite the lack of visible knights galloping around, the PCs will hear rumors that, far away, there are still places where true knighthood still flowers.
  • The sinking of the Isle of Avalon wasn't the end of life in that place. It's now a thriving underwater city of mer-people. They still faithfully maintain Arthur's tomb. If the PCs ever venture in there, they'll find it EMPTY.
  • Castle Camelot itself has been razed, the Round Table broken up for kindling, the earth salted, and so on. To such a degree that many nearby people don't even realize where it stood anymore. Might there be a megadungeon underneath??
  • Some parts of Britain are under occupation by invaders. Saxons are in Kent, and Danes/Vikings are in the northeast. Rumors of huge slave camps abound.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

SoSA the 12th: Blood for the Black Widow

This is post 12 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

(This one works best if there's a half-elf in the party.)

Long elevator pitch: There is an evil high-level magic-user, Brunhoff of Kent, who has fallen insanely in love with Lolth, the demon queen of the Drow. He yearns to call her to him with the most powerful cacodemon spell he can muster. He gets it in his head that to do this, he requires not only the blood of a human victim for the material component of this spell, but a perfect blend of human, elf, and dwarf blood.


Brunhoff employed dozens of sages to (magically) trace the genealogies of everyone within a hundred miles. He discovered that one of the human PCs had two very interesting great-great-great-grand-ancestors: one was an elf, and one was a dwarf! (*) If there is a half-elf PC, then only one remote ancestor is needed. In any case, in this person the three types of blood are "co-mingled" perfectly!

Why does he believe this will do any good? Brunhoff learned that Lolth has expanded her dominion in the Abyss. She has totally conquered the Pharisee Elves of Caer Sidi, as well as the Mountain Dwarfs of Maldev. (You know your Q1 well, right? Both are other worlds in the prime material plane connected to Lolth's extradimensional web...) Brunhoff believes that this blood will demonstrate to Lolth that he, too, has conquered both elves and dwarfs, as well as those pesky humans who are always attacking her other allies, and thus gain her special favor.

So how might this play out?

One day, while walking down the street in a town or village, a local person, commonly dressed but carrying a high-quality fencing sword, bumps into the PC with the special blood. "Why don't you watch where you're going, X?" (Please insert for X any clearly demeaning epithet that emphasizes something negative about the PC's appearance or parentage.) No matter how the PC reacts, there's a loud challenge to a duel, right here on the spot. A crowd gathers.

Brunhoff is there, too, dressed as a mild-mannered cleric pushing a wheelbarrow of turnips for his monastery. He expects his hired hand (a high-level fighter) to defeat the PC in a duel. Then he will offer to take the injured/dying PC back to the monastery to be healed. Even if he can't kill the PC, he hopes to extract as much blood as he needs at leisure.

If the PCs run away, or if the PC wins the duel, then Brunhoff will go with a Plan B. The "cleric" will make himself an innocent-seeming pest to the PCs and follow them around a bit, maybe asking for their help with some local roughnecks who are threatening the safety of his (fake!) monastery. If all else fails, he may resort to some charm or geas action when the PC isn't surrounded by his or her friends.

What will happen next? That's about all I've got on this one, unfortunately. If you like the idea, I'm curious to know where you'd take it.

(*) The story of the dwarven female who, long ago, wanted to leave the mines and explore the world is a fascinating one that shouldn't be forgotten. She fell in love with a local lad, and luckily found a magical friend who helped her polymorph herself into a gorgeous human woman, and the rest is history....

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

SoSA the 11th: Bzzt! Thanks for Playing

This is post 11 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

You may have noticed that many of the previous posts are kind of explicit or obvious about the dangling of an "adventure hook" before the players. C'est la vie, I suppose, but if you go this route as a DM, I'd suggest also trying to balance these with other events that are NOT necessarily going to lead to a pre-planned scenario. Thus, this post contains tables of no-hook hooks that can be used to pepper in some flavor and verisimilitude into a campaign... and which can subvert players' expectations that every event must be meaningful.

Aside: How are these different from other similar tables of random events, like Michael's or Zak's? Well, maybe they aren't... but my goal here is probably a bit more sneaky; i.e., to provide events that SEEM like "real" adventure hooks, but really lead nowhere special.
Aside to the Aside: Of course, if the players really get interested in one of these events, an enterprising DM may choose to make something more of it on the fly. It makes no sense to just cut off players with "Oh, sorry, there's nothing behind Door Number Two."  Balance and moderation be the watchwords...
Anyway, on to the tables. One for town and one for country. These can be used when visiting some place for the first time, or when returning to a familiar area.

Town/city:
  1. Showmen have come to town! The town is plastered in posters for an upcoming circus, play, sideshows, etc.
  2. A hobo accosts a PC and says some crazy stuff.
  3. There's a going out of business sale somewhere. Why are they closing their shop and preparing to rush out of town?
  4. Tomorrow is a big religious festival. The locals are VERY eager for the PCs to participate. (Is it a death lottery or something? Nah...)
  5. A main building in the town burns down in a huge fire. Everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else afterwards...
  6. The river is rising, and the place is about to be flooded out!
  7. A major crime just occurred. (Big-time heist? Murder of prominent citizen?) An angry mob may be forming soon if nothing is done to get to the bottom of it!
  8. A mysterious stranger comes to town. The dude just got out of jail, and either (a) he's looking for revenge, or (b) he don't want no trouble.
  9. An NPC known to the players (an innkeeper, blacksmith, etc.) wants to leave home and become an adventurer with the PCs, but he/she is completely "hopeless" -- in personality as well as in ability scores.
  10. Strange disappearances! Last night marks the 3rd person to disappear in the last 2 weeks. Rumors include a serial killer, a monster prowling the streets, and those spooky gargoyles on the church coming to life.  But it's really just a set of coincidences: one was a mob hit for owed money, another was a random stick-up gone bad, and another was a jealous boyfriend killing a dude who was talking to his woman.
  11. PCs arrive to find martial law in the town! Why?  (a) An evil prisoner escaped and is on the loose. (b) The Emperor is about to visit! (c) Who was it who scrawled that horrible (but true) graffiti about the mayor's bedroom proclivities? No matter the reason, outsiders may be looked upon with greater suspicion than usual.
  12. Everyone's windows are shuttered and the people are hidden away in fear.  A bad omen occurred -- pigeons pooping on the eyes of the statue of the main deity or something -- and that CAN'T portend anything good.
Wilderness:
  1. There was a big battle here... yesterday. Who fought? What's left to find in the carnage?
  2. An empty cottage sits in the middle of nowhere, with smoke coming out of the chimney and a fire burning in the hearth. But nobody's around for miles....
  3. If the PCs get within a few yards of a certain tree, they spot an empty crystal
    potion bottle lying among the roots.
  4. An absent-minded sage is found, exploring for rare plants and insects.
  5. Hey... that's an ominous-looking cave. What could be in there? (Sometimes players need to be reminded that there are big bad monsters in the world that aren't guarding any treasure whatsoever!)
  6. Freaky weather: Snow in July? Locusts falling from the sky? Ball lightning? Huge hailstones? Light rain, but flash flood!
  7. Freaky terrain: Mudslide? Quicksand? Earthquake? Avalanche? Why is there a sulfurous smell coming from that ravine?
  8. A lone horse is grazing in a field. No saddle or tack, but it's obviously well-trained as a riding horse.
  9. There's a perfectly circular ring of toadstools (a "fairy ring") in a glade. Not magical at all; just naturally occurring!
  10. The PCs come upon a large grassy hill, with a number of wide, chalk-like ruts carved into its side. If they move back to a point where they can see the entire hill at once, they see the overall design: a centaur!
  11. The PCs find a small caravan of religious pilgrims who were just robbed. "Please help us!" But the robbers are long gone and will never be found.
  12. The PCs spot some activity in a nearby hillside, and see the opening of a mine. A half-dozen grizzled, filthy dudes are working there, and they're also prepared to defend their turf if needed. Unfortunately, they bought the mine from a swindler, and there's really no gold or gems inside.
Finally, one should add to these lists the introductory hooks for all of the other SoSA adventures in this series!  (If you're not going to use them as true hooks, of course...)  :-)

Monday, September 12, 2011

SoSA the 10th: The High Priest of Quackery

This is post 10 out of 25 in the Cygnus Series of a September of Short Adventures.

There's a charismatic man, call him Humble Pymander, who comes to town claiming to be able to teach people how to access cleric spells like heal, bless, etc., but without needing to be a cleric in thrall to some capricious deity. He's a swindler, of course. However much popularity he garners amongst the rubes, the local clerics may have a thing or two to say about this person cutting in on their territory!

The PCs can encounter Pymander in several ways.  They can "randomly" come upon his revival tent and attend a performance. Or, in a tavern or inn, Pymander may approach the PCs and ask for their services, telling them his life is in danger: "Protect me from those clerics!"

The revival performance is a classic medicine show, with musical entertainments and success-story testimonials punctuating the hard-sell from Pymander himself. The climax occurs when the clients (who have paid dearly for the opportunity) line up and get a special two-handed hand-clasp from Pymander, which supposedly transfers the power to them. From then on, it's claimed, they will have the ability to heal and bless, as well as repel the undead, just like the most powerful clerics of yore.

How does he do it? Pymander once had access to a powerful artifact that gave him the knowledge to create a new alchemical potion. This viscous, clear liquid is an arcane combination of three ingredients:
  1. two parts Potion of Extra Healing (for the healing oomph),
  2. one part Keoghtom's Ointment (for the power do it via touch), and
  3. three parts Potion of Human Control (to transfer the benefits to others).
He smears some on the hands of each dupe, which gives them the actual power to heal 1d3 hit points of damage on another person, via another laying on of hands.  However, this power only lasts for about 24 hours.

Pymander also claims that his power transference gives people the power to turn undead. Once per visit to a new town, he takes his star students out to a graveyard late at night to test their new abilities. Of course, he has accomplices dressed up as zombies and wights, who bust their way out of shallow graves, attack, then act appropriately frightened when the rubes "turn" them.

Some events that may spur some interesting PC activities include:
  • The PCs will learn about the limited duration of Pymander's transference of healing powers. If Pymander is ever confronted about it, he will claim the person must not have been concentrating hard enough. THEN he will begin preparing to skip town as soon as possible! 
  • Pymander has a couple of hulking, 18-strength goons that travel with him for protection. They will be quick to lean on anyone that comes backstage looking for the man in charge. Pymander also hired a few local 1st-level fighters for additional security, but these have low morale.
  • Given sufficient advance advertising, clerics of all local denominations will certainly send agents into the audience to investigate what's going on.
  • Clerics of some of the more chaotic deities may also sneak around backstage... and attempt to kidnap Pymander to wrest his secrets from him.  This is one reason that he's got the goon squad on high alert.
In reality, Pymander is is a middle-aged high-level thief who owns many different magic items. Some of these items would be found on his person, or in a Bag of Holding that he keeps in a Portable Hole... inside another Portable Hole. On his person he also has a large ornate key made of bone, with an image of a jet-black horse carved into it.

Proclaiming Pymander's secrets to the public is likely NOT to convince his most devoted followers of the truth. They will jump through hoops to legitimize his actions, and they may attack anyone who sullies his exalted name.