Friday 23 December 2016

Cold, tired, scared, hungry, thirsty, and in pain: discomfort in D&D

Image result for the seafarer poem peacock
Illustration to 'The Seafarer', by Jila Peacock.

It's almost Christmas time, and at Christmas I always find myself thinking of Old English poetry. Don't you?

Forþon him gelyfeð lyt,
se þe ah lifes wyn
gebiden in burgum,
bealosiþa hwon,
wlonc ond wingal,
hu ic werig oft
in brimlade
bidan sceolde.
Nap nihtscua,
norþan sniwde,
hrim hrusan bond,
hægl feol on eorþan,
corna caldast.

('Indeed he credits it little, the one who has the joys of life, dwells in the city, far from the terrible journey, proud and wanton with wine, how I, weary, often have had to endure in the sea-paths. The shadows of night darkened, it snowed from the north, frost bound the ground, hail fell on the earth, coldest of grains.' Full poem and translation here.)

What the author of the poem - presumably an Anglo-Saxon sailor of the tenth century - cannot forget about his time at sea is the terrible cold. 'Calde geþrungen / wæron mine fet', he writes: 'my feet were fettered with cold', either because they were so numb that he couldn't move them or because they were actually, physically frozen to the deck. He has been 'bihongen hrimgicelum' ('hung with icicles'), out on the 'iscealdne sæ' ('icecold sea'); he has heard the cry of the freezing tern, 'isigfeþera' (ice-feathered'), and the sound of the 'iscaldne wæg' ('icecold wave'). But he knows that the people who have 'lifes wyn' - the people who have 'won at life', as we might say today, the people who live in cities and have warm houses to sleep in and decent wine to drink - will hold his story 'lyt', or lightly, barely able to imagine what it was like on-board his ship when 'Nap nihtscua, norþan sniwde, hrim hrusan bond, hægl feol on eorþan'.

Image result for dore ancient mariner

In D&D, a lot of attention gets devoted to spectacular bodily injury: getting whacked in the face with axes, splattered with acid, shot full of arrows, incinerated by fireballs, and whatnot. The lower-level discomforts of adventuring life - the cold, the pain, the hunger, the exhaustion, the constant anxiety, and so on - are more likely to get glossed over. To a certain extent, that's perfectly reasonable, because the PCs probably don't pay much attention to them either. Most of the characters in my current game, for example, started out as medieval serfs, and as such I assume that conditions which I would find almost unbearable probably strike them as being completely ordinary: for them, being wet and tired and cold and hungry is just what normal life is like. Besides, they're PCs, and PCs are crazy bastards almost by definition: the kind of Mungo Park types who will plunge into the most inhospitable terrain in the worst possible weather just to see what's on the other side of it, utterly undeterred by their expedition's 90% + death rates along the way.

Even so, however, I think there's something to be said for not ignoring these sorts of discomforts entirely. One thing that comes across very powerfully in a lot of military campaign memoirs is just how much time and attention soldiers on campaign devote to trying to stay warm, dry, and decently fed. Dry firewood, extra food, thick socks, decent blankets: for the footslogger on a long march, or the squaddies holed up in a muddy trench waiting for the next big push, these things are like gold dust. That tenth-century Saxon sailor, standing watch on the deck of a wooden ship, at night, in the North Sea, in winter, in the middle of a fucking hailstorm would probably have traded almost anything for a warmer coat and a genuinely waterproof pair of shoes. So if you're out there, in the wilderness, surrounded by potential enemies and looking for any kind of advantage that you can scrape together... well, that's the sort of thing that you can use. 

Image result for mungo park
Mungo Park, last seen diving into the Niger River while the locals threw spears at him. He had forty-four followers. One survived.

In D&D terms, the easiest way to model this is through follower morale, doling out bonuses for PCs who take the trouble to keep their followers warm and dry and well-fed, and penalties for the reverse. This can also be applied to NPCs, which means that clever PCs can weaponise it: parties who can force their foes to fight them while cold and tired and hungry and miserable should be rewarded by giving their enemies penalties to morale. Reminding PCs that not everyone is like them, and that both their followers and their enemies would really prefer to have a warm meal and a decent night's sleep once in a while, can lead to some interesting situations, as the kind of mundane items which usually get ignored as irrelevant (looted tents, blankets, coats, shoes, and firewood, for example) can suddenly become the focus of intense attention. Which lucky hireling will be rewarded with the only really waterproof hat, for example? (And just how much will the others resent her for it?) Is it worth launching an attack on the bandit camp, despite the potential loss of life, simply in order to get hold of their supply of dry firewood? (After a week of marching miserably through heavy rain, your followers probably think it sounds like a great idea!)

This sort of thing should never become a requirement - most people play D&D for fantastical adventure, not because they want to fret about how to find enough blankets to outfit their adventuring party - but in moderation, I think it can be quite a good thing. It helps to emphasise that situations don't always have to be resolved through the D&D trinity of magic, gold, and violence: that in a world as horribly uncomfortable as most D&D settings, you'll often be able to build alliances just by providing people with food and warmth and shelter, and to cripple your enemies by taking those things away. It ties back to romantic fantasy ideas I've written about before, in which the contributions of 'ordinary' people (cooks, foragers, tailors) can actually make a much bigger contribution to the overall success of a mission or a campaign than some fucker who just grants everyone a +1 bonus to hit. (Ask soldiers in the field whether they'd rather have a 5% increase in weapon accuracy or a warm dry place to sleep at night and I'll bet the vast majority would pick the latter.) And, perhaps above all, it gives you a way to highlight how tough and remarkable and crazy the PCs are. If you depict a world in which most people care a great deal about staying warm and dry and fed, then when the PCs inevitably proceed to give no fucks about any of it, then... well... that demonstrates why they're the PCs, doesn't it?

Just make sure you come up with some good house rules for frostbite...

Sunday 18 December 2016

New B/X Class: The Tinker (AKA 'MacGyver in D&D')

So, um, this is going to be one of my sillier classes. Derek Holland asked me to write a B/X MacGyver class. I've never seen any MacGyver, but I knew the general idea, and Derek gave me a brief: an engineer class which tinkered its way out of situations using devices cobbled together on the spot, rather than relying on a portfolio of prior inventions. So here it is.

Note that, by its very nature, this class requires the GM to be very lenient when it comes to accepting what can be built out of what. The question of exactly how the PC turns a heap of bones and leaves into a fully functional hot air balloon simply by hammering at them for a few minutes is really best not looked into too closely...

Also note that, with the exception of their stronghold (see below), all the devices built by the Tinker have a strictly limited lifespan. When it comes to building things that actually last for more than a few hours, their ability is no greater than that of any other talented engineer of the appropriate tech level.

Image result for what would macgyver do

The Tinker

To-hit, saves, hit dice: As per thief.

Weapons and armour: As per thief, but you are also proficient with any improvised weapons or armour you create yourself (see below).

XP per level: As magic-user.

Mechanical Aptitude: You have the same ability to pick locks and find or remove traps as a thief of equal level.

Inspiration Pool: You have a number of inspiration points equal to your Intelligence score plus five times your level. (So a level 3 tinker with Intelligence 12 would have 27 inspiration points.) Your inspiration pool refills every time you get a good night's sleep.

Scavenger: You can't build your devices without a suitable heap of bits and pieces - fragments of metal, scraps of cloth, bits of wood and bone, whatever - to build them out of. Luckily, you have an uncanny knack for finding random bits of junk wherever you go. By searching for 10 minutes and spending 1 point of inspiration, you can always find enough stuff to build the thing you want, unless it would be obviously and entirely impossible for you to do so.

Image result for what would macgyver do

Improvise Weapons: By spending 1 point of inspiration, you can turn any random bit of junk into an effective improvised weapon by working on it for one minute. In your hands, the resulting weapon will deal 1d8 damage if it's a ranged or one-handed melee weapon, or 1d10 damage if it's a two-handed melee weapon. It will fall apart after being used in one fight.

Improvise Armour: You can cobble together any old random junk into weirdly effective improvised armour. 1 inspiration and 1 minute's work grants a +1 AC bonus to you or one other person; this may be increased to any extent, but the cost in time and inspiration doubles for each extra point of AC. (So granting someone +3 AC would cost 4 inspiration and take 4 minutes.) The resulting armour will fall apart after a number of hours equal to your level.

Improvise Tools: You may spend 1 inspiration and 5 minutes to cobble together nearby junk into a crude but effective version of any normal tool: a lockpick, a snorkel, a water clock, and so on. (At the GM's option, this may also allow you to cobble together things like magnets and small electrical generators.) If your toolkit is taken away from you, you can use this ability to tinker up replacement tools out of sticks and stones. The resulting tools will function for 10 minutes of use per level before falling apart.

Improvise Chemicals: You may spend 10 minutes to convert some totally innocuous-looking nearby substances into either slippery stuff, a phosphorescent fluid, a powerful explosive, a powerful corrosive, or a poisonous gas. You also create a fragile container to store it, which will break if thrown, trodden on, etc. Effects are as follows:

  • Phosphorescence: When container is broken, whoever or whatever is splashed with it will glow brightly until it is washed off. Costs 2 inspiration to make.
  • Slippery Stuff: When broken on the floor, creates a 10' puddle so slippery that anyone who walks on it must save or fall over. If broken over a person instead, they become effectively impossible to grapple. Lasts for 1 minute for every 2 inspiration spent making it. 
  • Corrosive: When container is broken, whoever or whatever is splashed with it takes 1d6 damage for every 2 inspiration spent making it. (Save for half damage.) Maximum damage is 1d6 per level. Can also be used to melt holes through metal barriers and destroy small metal objects
  • Poison gas: When container is broken, everyone within 10' must save or suffer either incapacitating sickness or confusion (your choice) for 1 round per 3 inspiration spent making it.
  • Explosive: When container is broken, explodes in a 10' blast radius, inflicting 1d6 damage for every 5 inspiration spent making it. (Save for half damage.) Maximum damage is 1d6 per level.
The chemicals you create will decay and become inert after 1 hour per level.

Image result for what would macgyver do

Build Artillery: You may spend 5 inspiration and 10 minutes to turn a random heap of junk into a crude but effective man-portable catapault, ballista, cannon, mortar, or similar device. Its target must save or take 2d6 damage: you may increase its damage by spending 5 inspiration for each additional 1d6, so a cannon which inflicts 4d6 damage costs 15 inspiration, and so on. You can also upgrade it to an area effect by spending additional inspiration equal to the desired blast radius in feet. The resulting weapon can be fired once per level before it breaks; it will also fall apart after a maximum of 1 hour per level if it has not already done so. If your artillery is used by anyone other than you, each shot taken counts as two shots towards its maximum limit.

By spending an extra 5 inspiration, you may give your artillery an automated firing mechanism, which will trigger either after a certain length of time (e.g. 'ten minutes after I set the timer') or when a connected tripwire or pressure plate is triggered. Once the automated artillery is triggered, it will fire once per round at whatever it's currently pointing at until it falls apart.

Note that artillery may also be used for non-combat purposes, such as launching grappling hooks across chasms, throwing halflings over walls, breaking down doors, and so on. Just ask your GM how many 'damage dice' worth of artillery power the effect you want would require!

Build Decoy: You may build wheeled decoys (normally human-sized, although you can choose to make them smaller), which you can use as trap-springers, distractions, or even improvised cover. An unpowered decoy which has to be physically pushed from place to place costs 2 inspiration; a wind-up decoy (can run for up to 1 minute per level) costs 4 inspiration, and a motorised decoy (can run for 10 minutes per level) costs 8 inspiration. The decoy has AC 5 and 2 HP per level. Note that you may use decoys as delivery systems for chemicals or automated artillery (see above). If not otherwise destroyed, decoys fall apart after 1 hour per level.

Image result for macgyver hot air balloon

Build Transportation: You may turn a random heap of junk into a crude but effective vehicle. Different vehicles cost different amounts of inspiration, as follows:
  • 1 inspiration: Sled, snowboard, skateboard, surfboard.
  • 2 inspiration: Rowboat, cart, bicycle, hang-glider.
  • 4 inspiration: Chariot, carriage, sailboat.
  • 8 inspiration: Hot air balloon, diving bell. 
  • 16 inspiration: Pedal-powered gyrocopter or submarine.
  • 24 inspiration: Motorised cart, speedboat, or snowmobile. (Don't ask what's powering them. Probably a spring or something.)
  • 32 inspiration: Motorised crane, bulldozer, steamroller, jet ski, or biplane.
  • 48 inspiration: Motorised hovercraft, helicopter or submarine. 
  • 64 inspiration: Mole machine (can dig through earth, sand, or rubble, although not through solid stone), jetpack. 
  • 80 inspiration: Space capsule (complete with steering thrusters and heat shielding capable of surviving re-entry.) 
The vehicles you build will function for 1 hour per level before they fall apart, although you may double their effective lifespan by increasing their inspiration cost by 50%. By default, they are one-person vehicles, but you may add space for additional passengers by increasing the vehicle's inspiration cost by 2 per extra person. (So a five-person speedboat would cost 32 inspiration.) Building time is 5 minutes per point of inspiration cost. 

Emergency Construction: If you're in a real hurry, you can scavenge for parts or build devices at double normal speed by increasing their inspiration cost by 50%. Round up any fractions.

Scrapheap Stronghold: Upon reaching 10th level, you may build a stronghold. Doing this requires 1d6 months work, at the end of which you will, by mysterious means, have built yourself a castle-sized stronghold guarded by a number of 0-level men-at-arms equal to your total inspiration pool. Upon close inspection, both the castle and the guards will turn out to be built out of sticks, duct tape, bits of corrugated iron, and similar unlikely objects, but they function just like a normal fort guarded by normal men. If your men-at-arms are killed, they can be replaced at a rate of 1 per day of work spent rebuilding them. If a year ever goes by in which you do not devote at least one full week to maintaining and repairing your stronghold, both fort and men collapse into heaps of scrap. 

Image result for macgyver hot air balloon

Thursday 15 December 2016

[Actual Play] Blood For The Frog God: The Terrible Triumph of Team Tsathogga

Team Tsathogga has met for the last time in 2016. I shall finish off this series of actual play reports by recording their questionable adventures for the benefit of posterity. I may or may not resume them when the group gets back together in the New Year.

So the cloud monster crashed into the village. Of course it did. Hogarth yanked his head out of the interface just before its impact, blood streaming from his eyes, ears, and nose, just as the sound of impact and unearthly screeching woke everyone in the sleeping village. As the chief and his family stumbled from their beds in confusion, the PCs fled the room, then the house, and then the village, running out into the forests to hide while the monster randomly smashed things until someone - presumably the village chief - used the machine to get it under control. Meeting up with their 'A team' in the forest, whose pursuers had run back to the village when the monster attacked, they agreed that the only place on the island which was now likely to be safe for them were the chambers under the ancient arena, where they could rely on the part-robot ape-man arena champion to defend them. They thus hiked back across the island under the cover of darkness, told the champion that a bunch of people in purple might be coming to challenge him, and hid in the subterranean rooms beneath the arena floor.

Sure enough, they were followed: and a few hours later a group of huntsmen from the village arrived at the arena, following their trail, and led by a man in purple who carried some kind of large glass jar on a metal ring in lieu of a weapon. Spying on this group from the entrance to their chamber, Circe waited until the leader was facing towards the arena, and then sneakily cast a Command spell on him, ordering him to 'charge'. He promptly ran into the arena itself - an act which, as the PCs had expected, was interpreted by the hulking champion as a challenge. The ape-robot-monster leapt on the unfortunate man and began tearing him to pieces, ignoring his attempts to brandish the glass jar at it. His followers opened fire on the beast with bows, thus demonstrating (from its perspective) that they were part of the challenge as well; and once it had finished murdering their leader it pursued them, howling, into the ruins. The PCs waited quietly, listening to the twanging of bowstrings and the screams of dying men, until finally the champion staggered back into the arena, bristling with arrows and leaving a trail of blood behind him, to declare himself still undefeated. Then he fell over and passed out.

Curious about the glass jar, the PCs used Circe's poking stick to roll it off the arena without actually setting foot in it. It turned out to be a preserved human head in a jar of viscous fluid, which - when questioned - turned out to be capable of limited (and headache-inducing) telepathic communication. Talking to the head, they learned that its name was Marcus, and that in life it had lived in the village, although being turned into a head-in-a-jar and used as a portable psychic raygun had evidently eroded his loyalty towards the community he had once called home. What Marcus really wanted was a new body, and the PCs earnestly promised to try to find him one if he would help them with their adventures.

Image result for head in a jar prop

Knowing that more hunters would soon be upon them, the PCs sneaked back across the island to the hidden hatch of the tunnel-dwellers, who were not at all pleased to see them. Jack, who had now recovered from his near-drowning, used all his considerable charisma and devastating good looks to persuade their sentry to permit them passage, promising that if they did it would soon be possible to rid the islands of the cloud-monster for good; but while Jack's charms sent the watchman swooning, the best he could offer was to relay the suggestion to his superiors. With several hours to wait, and convinced that their enemies could be upon them at any minute, the PCs retreated into the still-unexplored ruins in the west of the island, where they found (and ignored) evidence that someone or something was still living in one of the buildings, under a sealed manhole. Sure enough, another group of hunters soon came looking for them, led by a swaggering woman wielding a sword - but the PCs blew her up with a volley of ranged and magical attacks from ambush, and the rest of the hunters fled, their morale crumbling after witnessing their leader's death. Eager to experiment with his new necromancy, Hogarth insisted on taking her corpse with them as they hurried back to the hidden hatch, where - to their enormous relief - they were granted sanctuary in the tunnels.

After taking another of their now-familiar blindfold marches through the tunnels to the north-eastern island, the PCs reconvened with Amelia to discuss how best to proceed. Amelia was confident that her men could easily seize the village (and the machine) if only the monster could be removed from the equation; and after a lengthy process of planning and discussion, they finally hit upon a plan. Amelia would gather up the church's soldiers and lead them through the tunnels, ready to emerge for a sudden surprise attack on the village under the cover of darkness. The savage tribesmen from the nearby village that the PCs had taken over would go with them, and would launch an initial, diversionary assault on the village, which would hopefully draw away the cloud-monster. Andrew would then fly over to the chief's house, carrying Hash, who would keep them both concealed with a Darkness spell; they would then crash in through the chief's window and kill whoever was operating the machine, thus breaking their ability to control the monster. At this point, Amelia's soldiers would begin the main assault and hopefully capture the village. Jack was sent off to persuade the tunnel-dwellers to allow a small army to march through their secret tunnels, promising that they would not just be blindfolded but also have their hands tied for the duration, and Erin and Circe rounded up the tribesmen for what they hoped was not going to turn out to be a suicide mission.

Image result for magic the gathering rally
'Come on, guys! Some of you might even live through this!'

In the end, the plan worked... mostly. The tunnel-dwellers allowed the soldiers to use their tunnels. Hogarth animated the corpse of the dead woman and sent her stumbling into the village as a diversion from the diversion, allowing the tribesmen to approach the settlement without being spotted. When they broke cover, the cloud-monster, predictably, went hurtling after them, and they fled back into the trees; this was Andrew and Hash's cue to assault the chief's house, crashing in through the window and blasting the chief with Magic Missiles and Kroak's borrowed laser sword while he was still interfaced with the machine. As he died, losing control of the cloud-monster, it reverted to aimlessly flailing away at the woods it was hovering over; the rest of the PCs then helped to lead the charge into the village, barrelling over the panicked defenders. Amelia's war-leader, Sarah, gallantly led from the front, flaming sword in hand: she was promptly shot full of arrows upon arriving in the main village square, but Kroak and Circe's healing magic sufficed to save her life, and Hash and Erin took out the archers with some eagle-eyed sniping of their own. As resistance disintegrated, Amelia strode into the village, not a hair out of place, and announced that the villagers were now duly punished for their act of unprovoked aggression in setting their monster on the ship which had originally tried to contact them. They were henceforth subjects of the Church of the Bright Lady, and would revere her accordingly.

Soon afterwards, the surviving tribesmen came stumbling out of the forest, where it turned out that half of them had been eaten by the cloud-monster before Hash had been able to deactivate the beast. Still, with this village conquered, the mutant ape-men slain, and Hologram Head defeated, the PCs and their allies now more-or-less had control over two of the three islands, as well as a machine which would (imperfectly) let them control a giant purple cloud-monster, the true capabilities of which were still unknown. Circe was already talking wildly about using it to build an empire on the mainland, though...

And thus Team Tsathogga rested, having gone over the course of twelve sessions from a disorganised rabble of level 0 serfs to an equally disorganised rabble of level 2 and 3 characters with mad ambitions to take over the world. Only one of the three Purple Islands still defied them.

Zombie Mountain awaits...

Thursday 8 December 2016

[Actual Play] 'I stick my head into the interface!': Team Tsathogga sample the joys of lost technology

[This is the latest installment of my actual play reports for a campaign I'm running, where the PCs are currently exploring a heavily modified, cut-down version of Venger Satanis' Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence. You can read the previous installment here.]

Lost and exhausted in the tunnels beneath the Purple Islands, the PCs had no choice but to rest. They stretched themselves out miserably on the bare concrete floors, sleeping in total darkness to avoid using up their torches, with Kroak and Hash - the only two party members able to see in the dark - taking turns to stand watch. They both felt something watching them from the darkness, and sometimes even glimpsed flickers of movement in the distance, but whatever it was did not approach.

Image result for eyes in the dark
Probably nothing to worry about, right?

After getting a bit of sleep (although not much), the PCs took stock of their remaining torches and set off through the maze of half-collapsed tunnels, marking their path, Ariadne-style, with threads unwoven from Kroak's rags. (Kroak usually hides his inhuman features under heaps of rags and tatters so that people will think he's a leper or something, and thus be discouraged from investigating further.) Some hours later, they finally emerged into an area manned by a group of nervous-looking tunnel-dwellers with guns and light globes, obviously on the lookout for the monster. They were glad to hear that it was now dead, but made it extremely clear to the PCs that they were no longer welcome in the tunnels, despite their previous services. Escorted back to the exit, they found a group of tunnel-dweller workmen wearily repairing the busted hatch for a second time in two weeks, who pleaded with the party not to lead any more monsters into their hidden home.

Reporting back to Elder Amelia, the PCs spun an unlikely story about how they'd tricked all the remaining mutant ape-men into falling off an illusionary cliff before scurrying off to read the book they'd stolen. It turned out to be a necromatic spellbook, crammed with unholy-but-exciting-looking magic, most of it far beyond their meagre ability to use; Hogarth, however, did manage to learn a spell which allowed him to temporarily animate a corpse, and Hash learned one for magically preserving dead bodies. While they were poring over its pages they were interrupted by the arrival of a lost-looking tunnel-dweller, carrying a metal broom over one shoulder. Introducing himself as Derek, he explained that he was a bit of an outcast among his people, who had sentenced him to permanent tunnel-sweeping duties for certain crimes and indiscretions he didn't really want to talk about. Seeing the PCs magically translate books which had defied the most knowledgeable of his people and inspired him, and he had decided to abandon his tunnel-sweeping career for a life of adventure on the surface - and, if possible, a chance to learn some of their surface-dweller magic.

Instantly recognising him as a fellow misfit, the PCs welcomed Derek to the party, and proceeded to quiz him about the movements in the dark that they had seen. He explained that the tunnel-folk were fairly certain that something was hiding down in the darkness with them, and probably deliberately collapsing tunnels to keep its lair hidden, but that none of them had ever been able to find out what it was. Intriguing though this was, more pressing business now claimed the PCs attention: Amelia was determined not to spend winter on the islands unless she had to, and ordered the PCs to go and investigate the village on the south island, in order to find out how they were controlling the purple cloud-monster and, if possible, stop them from doing so.:Once it was gone, there would be nothing to stop the repaired ships being able to move freely back and forth between the islands and the mainland. Having rather outlived their welcome among the tunnel-dwellers, the PCs decided to travel to the south island via raft, and Amelia ordered one to be built for them by some of Captain Matthew's sailors.

The next day, the party set out across the water accompanied by two of Amelia's minions: the Angel Andrew, whose talents of levitation had impressed them during the battle with the ape-men, and a soldier called Paul, both of whom had orders to keep an eye on them and assist with their mission if necessary. Unfortunately for the PCs, they were halfway between the islands when the cloud-monster suddenly appeared in the sky and came racing towards them. Knowing it would only attack what it could see, they all jumped into the sea and clung to the underside of the raft, holding their breath as best they could while the immense purple pseudopods of the monster reached down to curiously investigate the floating raft, smashing it to pieces in the process. Desperate for air, Jack started to panic and swim for the surface, so Kroak grabbed him and held him underwater until the monster flew away, by which point he was very nearly dead from drowning. Finally the party swam ashore with the shattered remnants of their raft, where they left the still mostly-dead Jack shivering by a driftwood fire and nursing his new phobia of the sea.

Image result for drowning man
What Jack will be dreaming about every night for the rest of his life.

Everyone agreed there was no point in trying to infiltrate the village until night, so with true PC logic the party decided to do a spot of light ruin excavation to pass the time. They hacked their way through the undergrowth which choked the nearby ruins and found a mysterious-looking crater, but a brief encounter with a man-eating plant soon persuaded them that it was probably a location best explored on another occasion. After dark Kroak and Hash sneaked into the village under the cover of magical darkness, with Kroak using Command spells to send nearby dogs running off before they raised the alarm, and Hash crept into the home of the village's chief, finding a strange machine in the upstairs bedroom which seemed to be generating a small cloud of purple mist. Unfortunately, his attempt to investigate further disturbed one of the sleepers in the room, and he fled back out again before they had time to properly wake up.

When Hash described the machine to Derek, the tunnel-dweller-turned-adventurer became excited, declaring that it was almost certainly an item of ancient serpent-man technology which the villagers were using to control the cloud-monster. He thought that the purple mist was probably some kind of biological interface, and argued that as the only member of the group with any knowledge of such lost technologies, he should be the one to operate it. The party retreated to their hidden camp, spent the day resting (along with the now slightly-less-dead Jack), and the following night returned to make another attempt at reaching the machine; but Hash's break-in had clearly not gone unnoticed, and now there were guards with torches scattered around the village. An 'A-team' of Andrew, Erin, Kroak, and Derek totally failed to sneak in without being spotted, and ended up fleeing into the forests, with several guards in hot pursuit; so it fell to the 'B-team' of Hash, Circe, and Hogarth to creep into the chief's house while everyone was distracted. The one guard inside the house who had remained at his post swiftly became an impromptu sacrifice to the Frog God after a silent but terminal encounter with Circe's magic dagger, and the three adventurers crept up into the bedroom to examine the machine, while the chief and his family slumbered all around them.

Image result for purple cloud
The Mysterious Purple Cloud awaits!

Hogarth went first. He put his hand into the cloud, and experienced little except dizzying synaesthesia; but upon removing his hand all those trippy colours suddenly turned into very powerful, very ordinary pain, and he slumped back ashen-faced, biting his lips to stop himself from screaming. Circe tried next, and with her customary recklessness shoved her whole head into the purple cloud. All at once she was the cloud-monster, seeing in all directions with hundreds of kaleidoscopic eyes that saw far into both the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the spectrum. The attempt to make sense of this perceptual overload totally overwhelmed her brain, and she yanked her head back out of the cloud, bleeding from her eyes, ears, and nose. Believing that his magical training would make him better-equipped for such tasks than his witchy companion, Hogarth then tried again, putting his head into the cloud - and, sure enough, he was able to get some kind of a grip on the alien body of the cloud-monster, and began guiding it towards their current location. Minutes passed, and Hash and Circe began to get rather worried about the sheer quantities of blood that were dribbling out of the cloud that Hogarth's head had disappeared into - but then, suddenly, they heard a terrible keening sound coming from across the sky. Looking out of the windows, they could see the cloud-monster hurtling through the air towards the village, apparently on a collision course...

Will Team Tsathogga destroy the village in order to save it? Who will survive, and what will be left of them? Find out in the next thrilling Actual Play installment, coming soon to ATWC!

Tuesday 6 December 2016

The power of first-level spells

More Team Tsathogga coming soon, but I just wanted to mention something which my experience with this game has really hammered home to me: level 1 D&D spells are incredibly powerful.

The Team Tsathogga characters are mostly level 2 (although a few of them hit level 3 at the end of our last session), so level 1 spells are all that they've had access to so far. But they're moving through a world in which most people don't have any magic at all, and their ability to cast spells like Charm Person, Comprehend Languages, Cure Light Wounds, Detect Evil, Command, and even the humble Light (which should really be renamed 'Light or Darkness or Blind' - it really is the Swiss army knife of level 1 spells) has allowed them to set themselves up as virtual gods. They can conjure mystic light from heaven, or summon darkness at noonday. They can heal wounds with a touch. They can translate ancient inscriptions in long-dead languages. They can strike men blind. They can locate the source of the evil forces plaguing the community. They can turn foes into friends with a word and a gesture. They can order their enemies to kneel before them in battle and actually be obeyed. No wonder everyone they meet is terrified of them.

Related image
The epic duel of Bargle and Aleena. Remember them? First-level spells all around!

Later editions of the game gave out so much more magic, to PCs and monsters alike, that these spells became little more than parlour tricks - in fact, when cantrips became a thing, some of them ended up getting demoted to level 0. The low-level B/X cleric or magic-user, able to cast only one or two first-level spells per day, became a figure of mockery. ('Remember when wizards could only cast Sleep once per day? Man, casters used to suck so much!') But put them in a relatively low-magic world, and they don't feel weak or comical at all. They feel like miracle workers.

Of course, B/X casters aren't that hard to deal with if you know what you're doing. They're usually pretty soft targets: snipe them from range, or catch them in ambushes that drag them straight into melee, and Mr Beard and Bathrobe will be splattered all over the walls before he has a chance to get off a single spell. My PCs have been absolutely ruthless in dealing with enemy spellcasters, to the point where the first time they learn what spells they could cast is usually when they rifle through their stolen spellbooks. ('Hey, this guy could cast Charm Person! Good thing we shot him first, right?') But 'in the wild', as it were, the addition of a single level 1 cleric or magic-user to a situation can be an absolute game-changer.

I know it's long been D&D tradition that every village priest is a spellcasting cleric, and that every town has a local wizard, and so on. But if you want your PC casters to feel like badasses right from level 1, try putting them in a setting where that's not the case - and then watch just how fast they wreck it using nothing but first level spells...

Thursday 1 December 2016

[Actual Play] Team Tsathogga Terrorises Territory: Tunnel-Town Traumatised by Thaumaturgical Thuggery

Team Tsathogga is still alive! Even though most people probably wish they weren't. (You can read about their previous adventures here and here and here.)

Their attempts to persuade the ape-man-gladiator-robot to leave his arena proved fruitless, so the PCs explored a bit more of the island, creeping up on the village of the purple-monster-worshippers from a concealed approach; there, they saw the giant purple cloud-monster hovering over the village and raining purple slime down upon it, which the villagers scooped up and deposited in a large pit. Noticing that the villagers always wore hooded robes dyed with this slime when outdoors, the PCs began to suspect that these garments were the key reason why the monster didn't regard them as prey like everyone else. Slinking back through the woods, they had a near-encounter with another band of village hunters out searching the island for them, but by using illusion magic they were able to send their hunters rushing off to the north while they fled hastily to the south. Returning to the hidden tunnels beneath the island, they got some much-needed rest in the relative safety of the subterranean zone.

Speaking to the tunnel-dwellers, they learned that their ancestors had once been able to operate many of the ancient machines down in the tunnels, but that most of these had broken down over the centuries and the knowledge of how to repair them had been lost. The PCs offered to use Comprehend Languages spells to help the tunnel-dwellers translate any texts that might be helpful; this offer was relayed back to their elders, and soon the PCs were blindfolded again and marched off to meet the tunnel-dweller's archivist, an elderly woman who requested their aid in translating parts of various ancient technical manuals left over from the serpent-man empire. The PCs did so, even if they understood almost none of what they were reading, winning the gratitude of the tunnel-dwellers.

Image result for bad instruction manual
Some instruction manuals are best left unfollowed.

They also overheard a group of tunnel-dwellers listening to a recorded message, and asked the archivist about this. She explained that it was this message which had initially prompted their ancestors to flee into the tunnels: a transmission in which a woman calling herself Commander Elizabeth Lockheart had declared that the destruction of the serpent-man empire had begun, and urged all slave populations to abandon their masters and await their liberation. In the weeks after the message arrived, the serpent-man settlements on the islands were reduced to rubble by orbital bombardment: but no liberation army ever arrived, no further transmissions were ever received, and her people had been hiding down here ever since. Comparing this story to the doctrines of the Church of the Bright Lady, the PCs began to strongly suspect that the Bright Lady herself might be no more than a deified folk-memory of Commander Lockheart, although they agreed not to mention this theory to the Church forces already active on the islands.

Returning to the eastern island, the PCs discovered that the church expedition was under new leadership: Captain Matthew had made a supply run to the mainland, and picked up the Elder Amelia, who had assumed command of the mission. Unfortunately his ship had been wrecked by the cloud-monster on the island's east coast on its way back, leaving the expedition with two crippled ships and no way back to the mainland until one of them was repaired. With supplies only sufficient to feed her soldiers for a month, and relations with the ape-men getting strained due to competition over very limited foraging opportunities in their forest, Amelia was keen to gain access to new food supplies. Her preferred target was the clan of crazed, mutant ape-men who apparently inhabited the north-east of the island, but she was unwilling to make a frontal assault on their heavily-forested lair except as a last resort. The PCs discussed the situation, and eventually agreed to sneak in with a group of hand-picked soldiers as an advance party under the cover of darkness; they would take up positions on the hillside above the cave that the ape-men used as a lair, and engage them as they emerged, thus preventing them from harassing the main body of soldiers as they advanced up the valley.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy. The ape-men heard the PCs blundering around in their forests and sent sentries to see what was going on: some spectacularly inaccurate arrow-fire from the party achieved nothing except letting the ape-men know that they were under attack, and before they knew it the PCs and their soldiers were skirmishing in the dark with a whole bunch of crazy ape-man mutants, with the main body of Amelia's forces still more than a mile away at the bottom of the hill. Making desperate use of Cause Fear and Darkness spells as stalling tactics, they managed to hold the ape-men up for long enough for the soldiers to advance halfway up the valley, at which point half the ape-men grabbed their children (and a big, suspicious-looking book) and fled into the night, while the other half stayed behind to fight a rearguard action. The PCs and their allies made short work of these, with Circe's healing magic sufficing to cure the injuries they sustained in the process.

Image result for dead apeman
And then it was kinda like this.

This fight left the PCs and their allies as masters of what had been the territory of the mutant ape-men, but Hash was keen to find out what was in that book. A conversation with the local non-mutant ape-men, who had come to see what all the fuss was about, soon revealed that the book had been discovered by one of their own in a weird ruin generations ago; soon afterwards he and his family left their village, and his descendants had become more and more crazy and isolationist with each passing generation, until they were reduced to the freakish creatures that the PCs had just dispossessed. Weirdly enough, learning that its previous possessors had been turned into lunatic mutants just made Hash want the book even more, so Erin found the tracks of the escaped ape-man mutants and the PCs set off to see what had become of them.

Following the trail led them to a morbid scene. In a ruined building, the book lay open on a stone; in front of it lay the corpse of a mutant ape-man, cut open, apparently so that its blood and guts could be used to draw a circle around the book. All around this circle lay the corpses of the other ape-people, adults and children alike, unmarked by any kind of obvious injury - as though they had simply dropped dead where they stood. Finding this whole scene deeply suspicious, Hogarth fired a Magic Missile spell into the nearest corpse - and, sure enough, they all instantly jerked into motion! Rather than emerging separately, however, the animated corpses crawled together into a huge mound which then proceeded to shamble out of the building, clawing at the air with a dozen waving arms.

Huge though it was, this corpse-blob-monster wasn't very fast; and so, once it had emerged from the building, Tod saw his chance for glory. Eager to impress his new comrades, he ran around behind the monster, leapt into the ruin through one of its windows, and tried to grab the now-undefended book - but as he crossed the circle of blood, he was hit by a blast of necromatic energy and killed on the spot. Seconds later, his corpse began to animate, crawling out to join the rest as part of the blob. The rest of the PCs retreated before this horror, and after crawling a few hundred yards the corpse-monster turned around and headed back to the ruin, apparently intent on guarding the book.

Related image
Dead PCs so far: six. Alas, poor Tod...

Circling back to the ruin, Circe produced her trusty Poking Stick (made from ancient lashed-together bones from the caverns beneath her distant hometown) and leaned in through the same window Tod had used to make his ill-fated entry, trying to prod the circle of intestines away from the book - but the moment she touched them, she was struck with a wave of magical energy that hit her like a club. When she reported this to the party, her near-indestructible comrade Skadi volunteered to take her place, on the grounds that it would take a whole lot of club blows to bring her down. Unholy magic tore at her mind, but Skadi just kept pushing until the circle was breached, at which point the supernatural assault abruptly ceased. Unfortunately, a speculative arrow fired into Tod's corpse proved that the corpse-blob-monster was still very much active; so the party led it away from the building while Hash climbed in through the window and grabbed the book, instantly becoming obsessed with keeping it safe and protected the moment his fingers touched its pages.

A surreal scene followed. The PCs fled the scene, but the corpse-monster, though slow, simply wouldn't stop chasing them (or, rather, chasing Hash); no matter how far they ran, sooner or later it always appeared on the horizon behind them, waving its dozens of arms angrily in the air. Hours passed, and darkness gathered, and night and exhaustion forced the party to slow its pace, and still the monster pursued. Realising that it was soon going to catch up with them, the PCs sought shelter with the tunnel-dwellers, claiming that they wanted passage to the southern island and neglecting to mention that they were being chased. However, any hopes that they might have had that the concealed hatchway would foil the creature died when they heard dozens of hands beginning to scratch on the other side of the hatch...

The tunnel-dwellers were not pleased, and began angrily blaming the PCs for leading a monster to their home - but their recriminations were cut short when the corpse-blob ripped open the hatch (which had only been hastily repaired since its mauling by Hologram Head's minions eleven days earlier) and threw itself down the shaft, only to rise again as a heap of broken-boned but still animate corpses whose shattered arms now waved like fleshy tentacles. PCs and tunnel-dwellers alike panicked and ran; some of the tunnel-dwellers threw crude explosives at the beast, and Kroak blazed away at it with his laser sword until the battery was flat, but these attacks did not suffice to destroy it. As the tunnel-dwellers scattered, the PCs followed one at random into a twisting area of half-collapsed tunnels, but he soon outpaced them and the glow of his light-globe faded into darkness. Lighting torches, the PCs saw the horrible monster closing on them fast and knew that it was time to make a stand.

Image result for mtg corpse
Maybe stealing that book wasn't such a good idea after all.

Arrow-fire proved ineffectual. Swords worked a bit better, but the sheer mass of the beast meant that it just kept coming. Finally they tried fire, ramming their torches into whatever parts of the blob looked most flammable, and ultimately Erin succeeded in setting light to it by shoving his burning torch into the long, greasy hair of Tod's corpse. As the blob burned, one of its component corpses grabbed Skadi by the face and tore open her cheeks with its nails, adding to her already-impressive collection of scars. Then the PCs disengaged and fled, watching from a safe distance as the corpse-heap was consumed by flame. Finally the fire burned out, leaving them alone, lost and exhausted, deep in a maze of tunnels beneath the earth. There was no sign of the tunnel-dwellers - but, as Hash peered into the darkness, he had an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched...

Monday 28 November 2016

Condensation in Action: Rise of the Runelords Edition!

It will come as no surprise to long-term readers of this blog that I have something of a love-hate relationship with Pathfinder's Adventure Paths, and with Rise of the Runelords in particular. I've used them to complain about adventure design, the depiction of violence, villain design, linearity, and the conceptual density of published RPG books. But, at the same time, there's a lot of material in Rise of the Runelords that I rather like; and whenever I look at it, I have the most frustrating feeling that there's actually a perfectly decent adventure lurking just under its surface. I think that, if stripped of its rather tiresome Pathfinder Adventure Path trappings, it could easily be turned into a pretty decent OSR-style adventure: nothing mind-blowingly original, but a solid fantasy romp with some memorable situations, locations and NPCs.

So, rather than just moaning about it, I'm going to use this blog-post to boil Rise of the Runelords down to what I think are the strongest and most OSR-friendly parts of it, kinda like I did for the Kingmaker AP here. Except I like more of Runelords than I did of Kingmaker, so this is going to be a pretty long post. (Rather shorter than the 427-page version published by Paizo, though!) As per my discussion of 'old-school space vs new-school time', I have completely ditched the idea that the various parts of the adventure are supposed to happen in any set order. Everything is present and active simultaneously, and the PCs can move freely between all of them at will, rather than being railroaded from one to the next along a set progression.

Those of you who've already read Rise of the Runelords will spot that this condensed version skips parts 4 and 5 entirely. This is because, in my view, they're pretty much pure filler: part 4 is just a reprise of the end of part 3 on a larger scale, and part 5 is a near-perfect example of a pointless filler dungeon. They only exist in order to dole out enough XP to get the PCs the requisite level for part 6, which is an obligation that this version doesn't have to meet.

So. Here we go!

Image result for sihedron rune

Rise of the Runelords: Condensed Edition

Adapted from the original adventure path by James Jacobs, Richard Pett, Nicholas Logue, Wolfgang Baur, Stephen Greer, and Greg Vaughan. 

The Backstory: Thousands of years ago, there was an empire ruled by seven evil wizards who called themselves the Runelords, each of whom drew their power from one of the seven deadly sins. The greatest of them was Karzoug, Runelord of Greed, who made his capital in a legendary golden city high up in the mountains. This city was called Xin-Shalast.

At some point, a horrible catastrophe befell this empire. (In the original this was an asteroid strike, but anything big and destructive will do.) Seeing it coming, Karzoug placed himself in suspended animation in a pocket dimension within his palace; he also put his chief apprentice, Khalib, into temporary stasis along with several of his most powerful minions, with orders to awaken him once the catastrophe was over. Unfortunately for Karzoug, Khalib's fellow apprentices sabotaged the stasis spell after the Runelord went into suspended animation, thus ensuring that neither Khalib or Karzoug ever awoke. Karzoug's various contingency plans were all vapourised in the catastrophe, and he and Khalib have been slumbering ever since.

A few years ago, a stone giant sorcerer named Mokmurian broke through the cloaking spell which hid the ruins of Xin-Shalast from the outside world, and accidentally woke Karzoug from his sleep. Karzoug promptly mind-controlled him, and compelled him to wake up Khalib and the other minions; but the Runelord's magic had grown weak over the millennia, and he was now little more than a ghost. In order to regain his power he required as many greedy individuals as possible to be marked with his seven-pointed-star rune and then offered up to him as sacrifices, their souls powering the Runewell which would permit his return. To these ends he sent out two shapechanging lamia minions, Lucrecia and Xanesha, to harvest souls for him, while Mokmurian was dispatched to raise him an army in preparation for Karzoug's return to the world.

Image result for karzoug
Runelord Karzoug.

Meanwhile, in the coastal town of Sandpoint, the reactivation of Karzoug's Runewell caused an ancient and long-forgotten Lesser Runewell built by the Runelord of Wrath to flare into sympathetic life, sending a ripple of fury through the community. One of the people affected by this was a young woman named Nualia, the embittered daughter of the local priest: under its promptings, she locked her father inside his church and then set fire to it, burning him alive. The people of Sandpoint believed she died in the fire: in fact she fled to the nearby city of Magnimar, where she was taken in by the cult run by Xanesha and became a worshipper of demonic powers. Returning to her home province, she set herself up as a goddess among the local goblins, and began planning her revenge upon Sandpoint.

When the adventure begins, the activities of Lucrecia, Xanesha, Mokmurian, and Nualia have begun to impact upon the surrounding area, but there is no sign that anything connects them. It will be up to the PCs to join the dots between them, disrupt their plans for Karzoug's resurrection, and finally travel up to Xin-Shalast to confront Karzoug and Khalid themselves before they are able to return the Runelord to the world...

The Hook: The PCs are in Sandpoint, attending the consecration of the new church built to replace the one Nualia burned down, when suddenly the crowd is attacked by goblins! There's lots of fire and violence and chaos, and when the fighting ends two sinister facts are revealed: first, that someone deliberately let the goblins into the town by opening the town gates, and second, that under the cover of the fighting someone has stolen the bones of the previous priest from their crypt. The community implore the PCs to protect them from the goblins and help them work out what's going on.

Image result for rise of the runelords
Nualia's goblins on the rampage in Sandpoint.

Sandpoint: This is a small coastal town which, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, is built over the ruins of an ancient lesser runewell of wrath. It contains the following significant NPCs:
  • Aldern Foxglove, a local nobleman, secretly a serial killer in the employ of Xanesha's cult. As the adventure progresses, he will claim ever-more victims in and around the town, who will have nothing in common except for the fact that they are all uncommonly greedy individuals. All the corpses will be left with seven-pointed stars cut into their flesh. Aldern is secretly a ghoul, but he conceals his undead nature well, and kills most of his victims with knives rather than claws to prevent them from rising as ghouls in turn. He lairs in Foxglove Manor a short way outside Sandpoint, and has unleashed a few of his ghoul minions on the surrounding Farmlands, pretty much just for the hell of it. He and Nualia are unaware of one another's missions.
    • Over the first few days of the adventure, he will swiftly become obsessed with whichever one of the PCs makes most of an impression on the local population, and will start leaving them taunting messages on every kill. 
  • Lonjiku Kaijitsu, the owner of the local glassworks, who has a longstanding deal with local smugglers: they smuggle goods on and off boats using the tunnels under his glassworks, and dispose of the occasional corpse in his furnaces. He has a daughter, Ameiko, and a half-elf 'son' called Tsuto, who he hates as proof of his dead wife's infidelity. Tsuto is secretly Nualia's lover, and blackmailed Lonjiku into letting the goblins into the town: Tsuto then stole the priest's bones during the chaos and fled the town, joining Nualia at Thistletop. Shortly after the adventure begins, Tsuto will return to Sandpoint and lure his father and his sister Ameiko out the glassworks. (See Sandpoint Glassworks, below.) 
  • Brodert Quink, a local historian and eccentric, is full of wild theories about the history of Sandpoint and its vicinity, most of them baseless. He will, however, be able to accurately identify the seven-point-star symbol as the emblem of an ancient magical empire, which built the now-ruined bridge in Magnimar and the dam up in the hills over Turtleback Ferry. (See Magnimar and The Dam, below.) He will also be able to tell them that the legendary capital of this empire, Xin-Shalast, was supposedly high up in the mountains, but no-one has ever been able to find it.
Sandpoint Glassworks: These are a fire risk, so they're out of town, which suited the smugglers who used the tunnels under them just fine. When these tunnels were dug, the smugglers accidentally dug their way into the runewell of wrath underneath the glassworks, but bricked the intersection up again after encountering the monsters inside. With Tsuto's help, Nualia has recently demolished this barrier and enlisted the Runewell's inhabitants as allies, but this change has not yet been noticed by anyone else.
  • A few days after the adventure begins, Tsuto comes to the glassworks with a band of goblins and massacres the workers; he then lures his stepfather and sister out to the glassworks, where he murders Lonjiku (and encases him in glass) and imprisons his sister, hoping that he will be able to persuade her to join him and Nualia. PCs who come there hot on his trail will find him here with his goblins, who will attempt to throw them into furnaces and burn them with molten glass; PCs who wait too long will find only bloodstains and the entrance to the Runewell, Tsuto and his goblins having already dragged Ameiko off to Thistletop.
Runewell of Wrath: A small complex of ancient rooms reached via the smuggler's tunnels under the glassworks. 
  • The runewell is ruled by Erylium, the abandoned imp familiar of the long-dead wizard who built them, who has been stuck down there for thousands of years with only a bunch of ancient zombies for company; since the runewell reactivated she's also been able to brew up a bunch of horrible mutant creatures called sinspawn, using ambient wrath that the Runewell has been soaking up from the surrounding area. 
  • Recently she has acquired a new champion in the form of Koruvus, a goblin hero from a nearby tribe who wandered in by accident and was warped into a mutant freak by drinking from the runewell's cursed waters. If he could be weaned off the waters by the PCs, he could be a valuable ally in prying the local goblins away from Nualia's leadership.
  • Erylium has been acting as a kind of mentor to Nualia, and can reveal a good deal about her if questioned by PCs cunning enough to play upon her craziness and loneliness.
Image result for rise of the runelords
Sinspawn attack!

Sandpoint Farmlands: As the adventure begins, these farms are just starting to suffer from the depredations of the ghouls unleashed upon them by Aldern Foxglove. The farmers are an independent-spirited bunch, and will initially try to deal with the problem on their own.
  • Several days after the adventure begins, a farmer will stumble into town half-mad with terror, gibbering about all his neighbours being eaten by scarecrows. The ghouls have been attacking people, infecting them with ghoul fever, and then draping them with sacks and tying them to sticks in the fields as makeshift scarecrows as they transform into undead. PCs going out there quickly enough will be able to save some of them, though others will already have turned, and will rip themselves from their frames and attack as soon as they get close. More ghouls lurk in the nearby farms, whose liveries mark them as servants from Foxglove Manor; one of them, the caretaker, even has the key to the manor hanging around his neck.
  • If the ghouls are not stopped in time, eventually a small army of them swim downriver into Sandpoint and attempt to massacre the whole population in the night.
Foxglove Manor: A horrible haunted house outside Sandpoint, built by one of Aldern's ancestors, who tried to turn himself into a lich but was interrupted in mid-ritual by his horrified wife, with consequences that proved fatal to them both; now the whole house is haunted by their ghosts, and those of subsequent generations of the family who have been driven to various horrible ends. 
  • Aldern, true to family tradition, murdered his own wife, Iesha Foxglove, in a jealous rage, and locked her body in the attic before fleeing to Magnimar and joining Xanesha's cult. He returned a changed (and undead) man, and now lairs in the basements, telling himself that the weeping and screaming he can hear behind the attic door must just be his imagination. In fact, Iesha has risen as a vengeful revenant, and if released from the attic by the PCs she will unerringly hunt Aldern down and attempt to tear him apart with her bare hands.
  • As well as the ghosts, ghouls, visions, and hauntings which beset anyone exploring around the house, the grounds are also infested with carrionstorms: enormous flocks of half-undead ravens infected with ghoul fever, which descend in their hundreds on anyone wandering the estate.
  • The soul of Vorel Foxglove, the original wannabe-lich, is trapped within a vaguely-humanoid patch of fungus on the wall of the deepest, dankest sub-basement. Burning and consecrating it will bring the haunting of Foxglove Manor to an end.
Image result for aldern foxglove
Aldern by day.
Related image
Aldern by night.

Thistletop: This is a maze of small, twisty goblin-tunnels through thistles and thornwoods, several miles down the coast from Sandpoint. Just offshore is a small, round island - actually the head of a giant long-sunken statue of Karzoug, although this is far from obvious now. Nualia has taken over the whole area, and has left her goblin minions to guard the woods while she and her companions remain on the island.
  • The statue head contains an ancient demon, bound there during the days of Karzoug's empire, and - like Erylium - stuck there ever since. It's been reaching out to contact psychically-sensitive goblins in their dreams, which has led the goblins to regard the site as a holy one, home to a mighty monster that will one day emerge and kill their enemies, but none of them have ever been bright enough to find the secret door it's trapped behind. Nualia is getting close, though.
  • The goblins have very mixed feelings about abandoning their traditional leaders to follow this scary human woman, but none of them are brave enough to stand up to her. She's particularly resented by their shaman, Gogmurt, who could easily be persuaded to lead an uprising against Nualia if he was sure he was going to be on the winning side, especially if Koruvus joined in. 
  • As well as her lover, Tsuto, Nualia is guarded by two mercenaries, Orik (fighter) and Lyrie (mage). Orik is infatuated with Lyrie, and Lyrie with Tsuto; clever PCs may be able to manipulate this fact to set the band at odds.
  • Nualia herself is of part-Celestial descent, as evidenced by her metallic-silver hair. Always feeling herself to be a bit of a freak, and burdened by the massive expectations placed on her as the local priest's literally angelic daughter, she had a brief adolescent affair with a passing traveler who abandoned her as soon as he discovered she was pregnant. Her father's complete lack of compassion at this, and the traumatic miscarriage which followed it, left Nualia extremely susceptible to the influence of the reactivated Runewell of Wrath. Now, as a member of Xanaesha's cult, she wields terrible black magic, and intends to use her father's bones in a ritual to burn the angelic 'taint' from her body and turn herself into a half-Fiend, instead. She wears a seven-point-star talisman, a gift from Xanesha.
    • A week or so after the adventure begins, Nualia will complete her ritual, annoint herself with the ashes of her father's bones, and undergo a transformation into a half-fiend.
    • A few weeks after that, she will finally locate the secret door, unleash the demon, and lead it and the goblins in a full-scale attack on Sandpoint. The resulting fighting will generate enough wrath to make a wave of sinspawn come rushing out of the Runewell under the command of Erylium, further adding to the chaos. If she succeeds in destroying Sandpoint, Nualia will lead her warband up into the hills to join Lucretia at Fort Rannik.
Magnimar: This is the nearest big city, built around the ruins of an immense bridge built in the days of Karzoug's empire, which once connected the mainland to an island out at sea. The city's slum district is directly under the bridge, placing it in perpetual shadow: this is where Xanesha is hiding. It's common knowledge that Aldern Foxglove spent the last few years in Magnimar, and talking to Orik, Lyrie, Tsuto, or even Erylium can reveal that Nualia did, too. The city has recently suffered a rash of unexplained disappearances.
  • A few days after the adventure begins, rumours will reach Sandpoint of the strange disappearances plaguing Magnimar.
  • Aside from the disappearances, the current talk of the town is the strange departure of a local mercenary and sword collector named Viorian Dekanti. A few weeks ago, Viorian was seen rushing out of town, waving an ancient sword and ranting about a city in the mountains. All the servants at her house were found dead, and no-one has seen her since. (She's currently in Xin-Shalast - see below.)
  • The disappearances are, of course, the work of Xanesha's cult, The Skinsaw Men. They have been abducting Magnimar's greedier citizens and offering their souls up to Karzoug in sacrificial rituals, before disposing of their corpses using the log-splitting machinery in a lumber mill owned by their leader, Justice Ironbriar. As a prominent city official, Ironbriar has been preventing the effective investigation of the murders, but the PCs can track the cult down by investigating Aldern and Nualia's movements during their time in Magnimar (or through ordinary detective work on the disappearances).
  • Xanesha is hiding in a rickety, abandoned clocktower under the remains of the Magnimar bridge, which locals call The Shadow Clock. Ironbriar, Nualia, and Aldern all met her there, so interrogating them could reveal her location; otherwise, the PCs can figure it out by watching where the trained messenger ravens kept by the cult fly when they are released. She's guarded by The Scarecrow, an intelligent flesh golem created decades ago by Vorel Foxglove, whom she has adopted. If intruders defeat the Scarecrow, she'll try to stop their futher ascent by cutting the ropes which hold up the tower's huge bells, dropping them on the PCs as they ascend the tower's unstable stairs. She wears a seven-pointed-star talisman, just like Nualia, and her papers include a substantial (though not inherently incriminating) correspondence with her sister Lucrecia in Turtleback Ferry. 
Image result for rise of the runelords
Skinsaw cultist in cult regalia.

Turtleback Ferry: This is a small fishing town beside a lake up in the hills above Sandpoint, protected from the monsters that lurk there by the Black Arrow Rangers, who are based in the nearby Fort Rannik. For the past few years, Lucrecia has been operating a gambling barge on the lake, using its games as a way of identifying the most greedy locals; she would then offer these individuals 'special membership', the mark of which was a seven-pointed-star tattoo somewhere on their body. Each of these people believes that only a few people have been offered such a deal, but in truth there are now scores of them in and around the town. Just before the adventure begins, Lucrecia deliberately sinks her barge and goes up into the hills, planning to engineeer a flood which will wipe Turtleback Ferry off the map and offer its marked inhabitants up as a mass-sacrifice to Karzoug.
  • Several days after the adventure begins, word reaches Sandpoint that the (in)famous gambling barge, The Paradise, has sunk in the lake near Turtle Ferry, to the disappointment of some locals and the relief of others. PCs who dive down into the lake to investigate its wreck will discover signs that it was sunk deliberately.
  • A couple of weeks after the adventure begins, word arrives that none of the Black Arrow rangers - normally a common sight in Turtleback Ferry - have been seen there in weeks, and the locals are starting to worry that something might have happened to Fort Rannik.
  • Several weeks after the adventure begins, if the PCs haven't yet stopped Lucrecia, a massive flood obliterates the town of Turtleback Ferry. (See The Dam, below.)

Fort Rannik: This fort high in the hills above Turtleback Ferry is the base of the Black Arrow Rangers. Unfortunately for them, Lucrecia was able to gain control of several key members of the organisation (via blackmail, debts, seduction, and use of magic), whom she used to ensure that the rangers were scattered over a wide area on the day her minions struck. Each man individually thought he was doing nothing worse than delaying a patrol so as to permit some trivial act of criminality to pass undetected, but collectively their actions allowed Mokmurian's ogres to ambush and massacre the rangers one band at a time, before storming the badly-undermanned fort. When the adventure begins, Fort Rannik has only just fallen to the ogres.

  • The Ogres are an undisciplined bunch, high on overconfidence after defeating their ancestral enemies. Any halfway-decent plan to trick them will probably work. Interrogating captured ogres will swiftly reveal that their clan was recently taken over by a stone giant named Mokmurian, who wore a seven-pointed-star symbol, and that a bunch of their clan-mates are currently at work sabotaging an ancient dam in the hills.
  • Lucrecia is believed dead by the people of Turtleback Ferry, but is actually here, lording it over the ogres and waiting for the flood. She wears a She wears a seven-pointed-star talisman, just like Nualia and Xanesha, and her papers include lots of maps and notes about an ancient dam in the hills and a substantial (though not inherently incriminating) correspondence with her sister Xanesha, all sent care of Justice Ironbriar in Magnimar. If she sees the fort is about to be retaken she will flee to join Mokmurian in the ogre lair.
  • The last surviving rangers are huddled in the cells, too weak to fight, while the ogres eat them one by one. If the PCs wait more than a few weeks to retake Fort Rannik, they'll all be dead; otherwise, they can tell a sorry tale of misdirection and betrayal. The traitors themselves are all dead, their souls offered up to Karzoug by Lucretia, but examination of their corpses will show they all had Lucretia's star-tattoos.
Image result for rise of the runelords lucrecia
Lucrecia in her human form.

The Dam: A huge and ancient stone dam up in the hills, built by Karzoug in ages past. Lucrecia led the ogres down to the hidden flood controls, which they are busily wrecking. If they aren't stopped, then several weeks after the adventure begins all the floodgates will kick open at once and a whole lake's worth of water will be dumped into the valley below, wiping out Turtleback Ferry.

The Ogre Lair: High up in the hills is the lair of the Kreeg Ogre Clan. After Karzozug's empire fell, one of his generals built a petty kingdom in these hills, and the ogres still regard the seven-pointed star as a symbol of superstitious dread: as a result, Lucrecia and Mokmurian had little difficulty in taking over the clan and using the Kreegs as footsoldiers. The ogres are currently at work forging weapons and armour for what Mokmurian assures them will be a great war soon to come.
  • Several weeks after the adventure begins, panicked stories will begin to filter down into Sandpoint and Magnimar of ogre raids on the surrounding countryside.
  • Mokmurian the stone giant sorcerer is here, leading the ogres. He wears a seven-pointed-star talisman, just like Nualia, Xanesha, and Lucrecia. Karzoug can see through Mokmurian's eyes, and if the giant is captured he will directly take over Mokmurian's body, mocking the PCs before detonating the giant's brain within his skull.
  • The ogres will happily boast about how Mokmurian told them a great army was going to descend on the region from a hidden city in the mountains, and how they would have the honour of fighting in its vanguard and eating all the humans for miles around.
Xin-Shalast: Karzoug's ancient capital now lies in ruins. His magic still hides it from the outside world, and only someone who wears one of his seven-pointed-star talismans will ever be able to find it; anyone else will simply wander in circles until they give up or freeze to death. (Mokmurian found it through a mixture of special magical research and blind luck.) If one person in a group has such a talisman, they will be able to see the path to the city where everyone else sees only mist and snow, but if the non-wearers are actually dragged into the city proper then they become able to perceive it normally.
  • Xin-Shalast's population mostly died when the empire fell; those that survived did so by hiding underground, becoming a race of skulks calling themselves The Spared. They currently languish under the cruel rule of a vampire decapus whose ancient prison they accidentally mined into, but if liberated they will happily aid the PCs.
  • Karzoug's enormous stronghold currently stands almost empty, inhabited only by a handful of his giant and lamia minions, his apprentice Khalib (who is currently grief-stricken about letting his boss down by oversleeping for several thousand years)and his new champion, Viorian. Viorian was unfortunate enough to be the owner of the Karzoug's ancient Sword of Greed when its master awakened; he recently used his power over the blade to take over her mind and compel her up to Xin-Shalast to fight for him. If the sword could be taken off her, she'd eagerly join the PCs against Karzoug. Any PC who attempts to wield the Sword of Greed will suffer the same fate as Viorian did. 
  • Deep within Karzoug's stronghold can be found his ultimate contingency device: a one-use, one-way time portal. Only Karzoug can use this portal. Once he is strong enough to return to the world, he plans to use it to bring his army from ancient Xin-Shalast (just before the cataclysm) into the present day, giving him a force capable of carving out a new empire in his name. The device is pretty resilient, but a sufficient quantity of magical damage will wreck it beyond repair.
  • Karzoug himself lurks within a sealed demiplane, The Eye of Avarice, which can only be reached by stepping into a magical golden fire that burns within the heart of his stronghold. This is guarded by his final defender, the fanatically loyal lamia priestess Most High Ceoptra.
Image result for xin shalast
Xin-Shalast. (That's Karzoug's face carved onto the mountain at the back!)

The Eye of Avarice: This tiny demi-plane of gold and fire is where Karzoug lurks, waiting for enough greedy souls to be sacrificed to him for him to finally regain his mortal form and re-enter the world.
  • If Lucrecia succeeded in destroying Turtleback Ferry, AND Xanesha's cult (including Aldern) were not stopped until they had sacrificed a large number of victims (or were not stopped at all): Karzoug is pretty much at full strength, and will be nightmarishly difficult for the PCs to defeat. A few months after the adventure begins, he will emerge from the Eye of Avarice, summon his ancient legions through the time portal, and proceed to conquer a new kingdom for himself. (If the PCs have already destroyed the portal, then the world will 'only' need to deal with an angry archmage.)
  • If Lucrecia succeeded but Xanesha was stopped, or vice versa: Karzoug is a powerful, wraith-like being, who will not be easy to defeat. If at least some of his minions are still active out in the world, he will gradually accumulate the power he needs to manifest, but this will take at least several months.
  • If both Lucrecia and Xanesha were stopped: Karzoug is a plaintive, ghost-like creature, howling among the ruins of his ancient achievements. Defeating him should only be moderately difficult for a well-equipped party. Even if some of his minions are still active, it will take him years to accumulate the power he needs to manifest in the world.
Epilogue: Karzoug's death sends out a magical shockwave across the whole of his ancient empire's magical infrastructure network. The magic concealing Xin-Shalast will dissipate: the PCs will have only a short time to strip it of as much of its legendary wealth as possible before treasure-seekers descend upon it like vultures from every direction. And far away, in six more hidden chambers beneath six more forgotten ruins, the other six Runelords will begin to stir...

Image result for sihedron rune

Timetable of Events (if not disrupted by PC action):

  • Adventure Begins: The consecration of Sandpoint's new church gets gatecrashed by goblins. Tsuto Kaijitsu steals the bones of Sandpoint's previous priest during the confusion.
  • First few days: 
    • Aldern Foxglove starts killing greedy people in and around Sandpoint, and becomes obsessed with one of the PCs. 
    • Tsuto Kaijitsu lures his stepfather and sister out to the Sandpoint glassworks, intent on murdering the former and kidnapping the latter. 
    • Ghoul attacks begin in the nearby farmlands.
    • Rumours reach Sandpoint of strange disappearances in Magnimar.
  • Next several days: 
    • A farmer stumbles into Sandpoint raving about killer scarecrows.
    • Nualia completes her ritual at Thistletop and becomes a half-fiend.
    • Word reaches Sandpoint that the gambling barge Paradise has sunk near Turtleback Ferry.
  • A few weeks later: 
    • Nualia frees the Thistletop demon and attacks Sandpoint.
    • Word reaches Sandpoint that none of the Black Arrow rangers have been seen in Turtleback Ferry for weeks. (By this point, all the captive rangers at the fort will have been eaten by the ogres.)
  • A few weeks after that:
    • Lucrecia's ogres wreck the dam, and Turtleback Ferry is wiped out by a massive flood.
    • Panicked stories of ogre attacks reach Sandpoint and Magnimar.
  • A few months after the adventure begins: If the PCs have not yet disrupted his plans, Karzoug returns to the world, summons his army through time, and begins conquering a new empire.

NPC Quick Reference Guide (which the official edition, unbelievably, doesn't have!)
  • Aldern Foxglove: Disguised ghoul, aristocrat, and serial killer, a descendant of Vorel Foxglove and a member of Xanesha's cult, The Skinsaw Men. He lives in Foxglove Manor, and has turned the servants into ghouls. He is currently murdering the greedier inhabitants of Sandpoint as offerings for Karzoug. Before joining the cult he murdered his wife, Iesha Foxglove - he has never returned to the scene of this crime, and is unaware that she has risen as a revenant.
  • Ameiko Kaijitsu: Daughter of Lonjiku Kaijitsu, the owner of the local glassworks. Has a rocky relationship with both him and her half-brother Tsuto. Something of a wannabe adventurer.
  • Black Arrow Rangers: Order of rangers based at Fort Rannik. Recently massacred by the Kreeg Ogre Clan, who are keeping the last handful of survivors prisoner in the fort.
  • Brodert Quink: Eccentric local historian who lives in Sandpoint. Can identify the seven-pointed star as the symbol of an ancient magical empire, whose legendary capital, Xin-Shalast, no modern explorer has ever been able to find.
  • Erylium: The imp familiar of a long-dead magician, who has been imprisoned in the runewell of wrath under the Sandpoint glassworks since the fall of Karzoug's empire. The smugglers working with Lonjiku Kaijitsu accidentally mined into her lair, but promptly bricked it up again. Tsuto told Nualia about this, though, and she had the wall torn down again, talking with Erylium and coming to view the imp as a kind of mentor. Erylium has some zombie and sinspawn servants, and can brew up more of the latter in her runewell if the locals get angry enough. She is also served by Koruvus.
  • Ghouls: The servants of Foxglove Manor, transformed into undead by Aldern Foxglove. Currently murdering farmers in the Sandpoint Farmlands.
  • Goblins of the Sandpoint region: Currently united under the leadership of Nualia, but uncomfortable about following a human. Could be persuaded to rebel by Gogmurt and/or Koruvus. 
  • Gogmurt: A goblin shaman, very unhappy about the fact his tribe has been taken over by Nualia. Would rebel against her in a second if he thought he'd win.
  • Iesha Foxglove: Luckless wife of Aldern Foxglove, who murdered her in Foxglove Manor, before locking her body in their bedroom and fleeing to Magnimar. The curse of Vorel Foxglove prevented her soul from escaping the house, and now she has risen as a vengeful revenant. If released from her room she will hunt down Aldern and try to kill him.
  • Justice Ironbriar: Leader of the Skinsaw Men cult in Magnimar. A high-ranking city official, who has been using his status to ensure their murder spree goes largely undetected. Owns the Magnimar lumber mill, which the Skinsaw Men use for cult meetings and corpse disposal. A devoted servant of Xanesha. 
  • Karzoug: Ancient Runelord of Greed. Currently a ghost stuck inside the Eye of Avarice.
  • Khalib: Karzoug's apprentice, who was supposed to wake him up several thousand years ago. Currently in Xin-Shalast, looking for a way to make amends for his epic oversleeping.
  • Kreeg Ogre Clan: A clan of ogres currently active at Fort Rannik, the ogre lair, and the dam. They serve Lucrecia and Mokmurian.
  • Koruvus: A goblin hero who went exploring in the smuggler's tunnels under the sandpoint glassworks shortly after Nualia tore down the wall which separated them from the runewell of wrath. He wandered into the runewell, drank its cursed waters, and was enslaved and mutated by their magic. Now he serves Erylium, but if he could be weaned off the waters he could be a great ally in persuading the goblins to rebel against Nualia.
  • Lonjiku Kaijitsu: The owner of the Sandpoint Glassworks, and a collaborator with the local smuggling gangs. His now-dead wife had an affair with an elven traveller, and her half-elf son, Tsuto, was the result; Lonjiku has always hated Tsuto for it, and the feeling is quite mutual. He has a slightly better (but still pretty awful) relationship with his daughter, Ameiko.
  • Lucrecia: Shapechanging lamia sorceress; sister of Xanesha, and one of Karzoug's key minions. Ran the Paradise gambling barge in Turtleback Ferry, which she used to mark all its greediest citizens for sacrifice. Used her hold over several of the Black Arrows to engineer the fall of Fort Rannik, and now works with the Kreeg Ogre Clan to destroy the dam in order to destroy Turtleback Ferry as a mass sacrifice to Karzoug. Has one of the four talismans.
  • Lyrie: A mercenary magician currently employed by Nualia. Has a crush on Tsuto. Knows Orik is infatuated with her, much to her irritation. Currently based at Thistletop.
  • Mokmurian: A stone giant sorcerer, who discovered Karzoug's resting place in Xin-Shalast and accidentally woke him up. Now mind-controlled by Karzoug, he leads the Kreeg ogre clan at the ogre lair. Has one of the four talismans.
  • Most High Ceoptra: A lamia priestess, and the final guardian of the Eye of Avarice in Xin-Shalast. A fanatical follower of Karzoug.
  • Nualia: Embittered part-celestial demon-worshipper. A member of Xanesha's cult, and self-proclaimed goddess of the Sandpoint region's goblins. Currently based at Thistletop. Has one of the four talismans.
  • Orik: A mercenary swordsman currently employed by Nualia. Infatuated by Lyrie, and jealous of the fact that she prefers Tsuto. Currently based at Thistletop.
  • The Scarecrow: An intelligent flesh golem built by Vorel Foxglove. Currently serving as a bodyguard to Xanesha in the Magnimar Shadow Clock.
  • Sinspawn: Horrible monsters created by Elyrium at the Runewell of Wrath. She can only create them when there's a high amount of intense anger in the nearby area. 
  • Skinsaw Men: A murder cult led by Justice Ironbriar on behalf of Xanesha. Both Nualia and Aldern Foxglove are members. Currently murdering greedy people in and around Magnimar.
  • The Spared: A tribe of skulks which live in the tunnels under Xin-Shalast. Currently being ruled and terrified by a vampire decapus, and happy to aid anyone who can get rid of it for them.
  • The Thistletop Demon: An ancient demon summoned during the days of Karzoug's empire, and left stuck within its summoning circle inside Thistletop when the empire fell. It has been contacting the nearby goblins in their dreams, and they believe it is a sacred monster but have no idea how to free it. Nualia is currently trying to discover a way into its secret room to release it.
  • Tsuto Kaijitsu: Embittered half-elf, the half-sister of Ameiko Kaijitsu and the stepson of Lonjiki Kaijitsu, who hates him as the living proof of his late wife's infidelity. The feeling is mutual, and Tsuto has been plotting revenge on Lonjiki and Sandpoint for years. He is the devoted lover of Nualia, but would like to save his sister from her rampage if at all possible.
  • Viorian Dekanti: A mercenary and collector of antique swords from Magnimar, she was unlucky enough to be the current owner of the sword of greed once wielded by Karzoug's champion. Karzoug used the sword to take over her mind, kill her servants, and force her up to Xin-Shalast, where she now serves as his champion. His hold over her would be lost if she was parted from her sword.
  • Vorel Foxglove: Ancestor of Aldern Foxglove, and builder of Foxglove Manor (and of The Scarecrow, which inhabited it until Aldern gave it to Xanesha). A necromancer and wannabe lich, whose ascension to undeath was terminally interrupted by his wife. Their spirits, and those of their miserable descendants, now haunt Foxglove Manor, trapped forever within its walls. 
  • Xanesha: Shapechanging lamia sorceress; sister of Lucrecia, and one of Karzoug's key minions. Leader of the Skinsaw Men cult in Magnimar, and mentor to Nualia, Aldern Foxglove, and Justice Ironbriar. Lives in the Magnimar Shadow Clock, guarded by The Scarecrow. Has one of the four talismans.