Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Northlands Saga, Part Two: Wyrd of the Winter King



Six months since the PCs rescued the jarl's daughters from the witch Sibbe, a new threat emerged from unknown shores. A messenger came to Silvermeade Hall, speaking of a series of attacks. Each time, a mysterious "Winter King" came to the coasts of towns and villages, making unreasonable demands and slaughtering when the fighting broke out. A few times his iceberg retreated, only to leave an unnatural winter in its wake, bringing famine and subjecting survivors to a slow death. His next route is the domain of Halfstead. In discussion with the war council, the jarl and the PCs and his advisors figure out the iceberg's likely route (thanks to Armund) and seek to attack him first in the middle of the ocean before he gets too close. Several longships are outfitted for war, and the jarl and the PCs set out for battle. Syrasi, a Nuklander elf recently hired to be the jarl's magical expert, tagged along as did the troll-kin warrior Vigbjorn.

Eventually after several days of sailing they come to a thick mist and strong storm, with a massive iceberg 3 miles in diameter adrift at sea. Misfortune occurs as soon as the ships set shore, for the Winter King's fell magic sends out giant icicles as siege weapons, forcing the ships to pull back as the PCs and One-Eyed Sven's team leaps to dry land. Weathering storms, undead warriors, and ice mephits, the party later finds Sven unconscious, as well as a giant bridge leading to a mysterious palace. Deciding not to leave him to die, the party does their best to tend to Sven's wounds and keep him warm as they continued exploring.



The western gates were heavily guarded by some surprisingly tenacious skeleton warriors, forcing the party to get their bearings and rest for a few hours. Around that time the jarl's main force circled around to the north side of the iceberg, ascended the cliffs, and assaulted the north side of the palace. After resting up and looting a nearby accounting house, the PCs saw some vikings engaged in combat around the plaza. The PCs helped them out, and got an update of the jarl's progress. The northeast section of the palace is being cleared out, but the undead warriors were very tough and so not much progress was made. The PCs decided to clear out the rest of the south side, finding a treasury with a magical shrunken boat, a lot of loot, and an old shrine to Althunak, an obscure demon god of frost who absorbed the souls of vanquished foes via cannibalism.

The PCs ascended the eastern spire to get a better vantage point. From below, peering down into the courtyard, the jarl's forces were matched up against equally fearsome zombie soldiers. Spotting a giant block of ice hanging by fragile chains, Askeladden relayed a message spell to the jarl of their plan while Syrasi got ready to loose a crossbow bolt at the chains.

The plan worked, the undead forces were tricked under the block as the jarl's party gave a false retreat. The party's efforts did not go unnoticed, as a series of long, slow claps emanated from across the bridge to the north. An armored man astride a skeletal steed was there, and his voice carried over clearly as though he were right next to them. Unusually talkative, the Winter King introduced himself as Prince Uth'ilopiq, of a long-dead civilization, and how he went by many names for his terrible deeds in service to his abyssal lord. He challenged the party to battle, but not before the tower on the far end blocked off the stairwell entrances with giant icicles, preventing any reinforcements in helping the PCs.



A pitched battle was held on the bridge. Two of the vikings with the party went down, Syrasi's glitterdust blinded his steed, and the Winter King's summoned winds nearly knocked Vigbjorn and Askeladden off the bridge. Heavily exhausted and wounded, with allies and summoned monsters falling alike, it was unclear who the victor would be. The tower was about to launch another icicle, this time at the docked northern ships, but not before the rest of Sven's team disabled it by killing the mages and jumping to the bridge to join the battle below (albeit a bit late).

But Askeladden struck the killing blow, and the Winter King, laughing, pulled himself deeper onto the blade, speaking in a whisper of how they struck the killing blow, but not before he tore open a "wound that will never heal." The iceberg was tied to his essence, and mere seconds later cracks in the earth and tremors threatened to rend the castle apart. Chaos descended around the party as the Winter King laughed moments before he was beheaded.

The party rushed as fast as they could, using the magical shrunken boat when it seemed that all was lost. The palace and its unholy legacy sank beneath the waves, as the party rejoined the jarl's ship, the Long Serpent, and set off back to Silvermeade Hall.

It was a joyous yet somber occasion. As people were thankful that the Winter King's reign of terror was brought to an end, so too did they mourn the many warriors who died that day to spare them his wrath. Bodies which were recovered were placed in ships set out to sea, lit by burning arrows as is custom. And a long, dark winter set in.


DM's Notes

I will admit that I made some minor alterations to the adventure, although the crux of it is more or less the same. Originally the Winter King's iceberg was but an unknown factor, and the party got there by going a-viking in exploring unknown waters. I decided to make Prince Uth'ilopiq a more immediate threat and played up the angle of Jarl Henrikson leading a raiding party to make war. I felt that this gave more of a "push" for the characters, both to act first before the iceberg got to Halfstead. The icicle siege weapons were originally just strong winds which blown the ships back, but this more obvious threat would better connect things as an obstacle to disable to help the longships safely approach and dock.

The Winter King was also originally intended to be fought in his throne room, but since it seemed that the party was wandering elsewhere and happened to be exploring next to a grand bridge I had their fateful encounter there instead.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Slumbering Tsar Saga, Session 1


Welcome to the Edge of Oblivion


The party arrived at the Camp, just in time to notice a maddened hill giant rampaging through town, with the PCs right in the way. After dispatching him, Thorgrim used his knowledge of the environment to track down his last movements, along with Arliden's brief mental connection to get a sense of the giant's fate. It turns out that the giant was the leader of a mercenary band of ogres, offering to escort representatives from Bard's Gate to a fissure in the Chaos Rift, only to be ambushed by gargoyles. The giant said some things in his native tongue, a language none of the party knew but could remember a few choice words for later reference.

Following the trail, the party set sight on the Chaos Rift, a deep series of trenches seemingly slashed into the land itself. Although their attempt at sneaking into the gargoyle aerie failed, the party's fast reflexes got the drop on several of the winged monsters. After wiping out 8 of their number without suffering any casualties, the gargoyles offered a truce. They not only will stop fighting and give their only prisoner (an elf from Bard's Gate named Holcolm), they would give one piece of hidden treasure to the party if they can find their lost leader. The party accepted, venturing deeper into the cave, only to find the gargoyle leader's fate at the hands of a fungal slime colony. After readily dispatching it and a close call with an infestation of said fungus, the party returned. Alexis conjured up a wild tale of heroism to the assembled gargoyles, explaining how after valiantly dying in battle, the gargoyle passed on leadership of the tribe was granted to him. Amazingly the gargoyles fell for it, and from then on became loyal minions. The party decided to use their knowledge of the Rift first, deciding to call upon them for battle only when the time is right.



Arliden offered to take Holcolm back to the relative safety of the Camp, while the rest of the party followed up on rumors of a monster named Old Death who managed to do in a few of the gargoyles. They also heard word of two stony pillars where green lightning pulses from on a plateau in the middle of the canyon, but first came the monster.

The party hardly entered Old Death's canyon before coming into view of legions of petrified adventures, and was promptly attacked by an abyssal basilisk. Using spell-conjured mud and fog to blind it they kept the fiend's foul gaze at bay while they slowly worn down its defenses. Afterwards the group came into contact with a giant spider corpse made to look like a living being in the middle of a giant web and killed its two ettercap architects. But at this point the day was growing late, and so the party decided to retreat and make camp.

The Slumbering Tsar Saga, Cast of Characters


Aside from Northlands, my other weekly game is Slumbering Tsar with an entirely different group. It started about a month earlier than Northlands, and the adventure has a very different feel to it which keeps things interesting. A dark fantasy vibe in a desolate region scarred by the lingering taint of evil, where the only major center of civilization is a tent-city of outcasts and refugees. The central feature is the city of Tsar, once a grand and evil temple-city of the demon god Orcus now dusty ruins from a long-ago battle.

This post focuses on the PCs, our possibly-doomed, possibly-victorious heroes who dare to set foot in Orcus' once-greatest domain!

Meet the Cast




Nobu Itoma: An ascetic exile who trained in a Stoneheart Mountains monastery, his wanderings brought him to Tsar, driven by both personal motivation to master his elemental talents and to rid the world of the Desolation's spreading vileness.

Mechanical Information: Kineticist from Occult Adventures.  Calls upon the powers of stone and fire to barrage enemies in a hail of elemental fury.


Alexis Karamazov: An exile from the Wizarding Academy of Endholme no longer welcome due to his participation in conspiring to overthrow a noble dynasty (thus violating Endholme's policy of political neutrality). Aside from his fellow PCs, his other steadfast companion is his faerie dragon familiar who oddly seems to be as magically powerful as its master.

Mechanical Information: Sorcerer specializing in area of effect and debuffing spells. Fond of creating pits, summoning monkey swarms, and using telekinetic water-filled barrels as cover and the occasional siege weapon.



Arliden (Arl) Penthe: an Orange-ranked cleric of Solanus (god of healing), Arliden was dissatisfied with his higher-ranking peers' reactive measures against plague, maladies, and other causes of suffering. Hearing of the Desolation's reputation, he sought to travel to this region to stem the tide of foul magics and cleanse the hapless souls trapped there. But unlike many healers of the cloth, is more than willing to turn an enemy's own life force against them in a near-vampiric fashion.

Mechanical Information: a psychic Vitalist, Arliden is the primary provider of the silent telepathic network the group uses to communicate with each other. He is fond of delving into the minds of enemies and aiding the party with healing and morale boosts. Can fire off a bolt of energy in a cinch.


Thorgrim Stoneborn: a duergar veteran of the deep realms of the earth, Thorgrim's original reason for coming to the Camp was rumors of a Silverhelm Clan war party searching for the bones of their former king who fell during the Battle of Tsar. His frosty demeanor makes him a peculiar ally, but such a mindset has served the party well in this dreadful land.

Mechanical Information: Hunter with a penchant for physical combat and a mighty giant lizard animal companion. Is the most physically-inclined member of the party, Nobu coming in second. Use of teamwork feats and Eternal Guardian maneuvers (Path of War Expanded) allows him to exploit enemy movements and attacks by turning threatened squares into difficult terrain and provoking attacks of opportunity for those who try to fight him or his trusty lizard.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dragons of Renewal, DL6: Dragons of Ice



Dragons of Ice Cover by Larry Elmore

Note: The original DL5 was a setting overview of the world of Krynn before there was a full campaign setting. Since future up-to-date books adequately cover this ground, I "skipped" that sourcebook.

Dragons of Ice is the first appropriately-named chapter in the Winter arc, and also marks the splitting of the party as well as the inclusion of a DMPC for an appreciable segment of the campaign.

Overview

The PCs makes their way to the City of Tarsis, once a thriving port now a land-locked shanty due to the ravages of the Cataclysm. Looking for safe passages for the Abanasinian refugees, it becomes clear that Tarsis' port is of no use. Thus the must stay in Thorbadin and only an end to the wars will things return to normalcy. The party meets up with a detachment of the Knights of Solamnia seeking to research of ways to defeat the Dragonarmies. During this time the PCs learn of the Dragon Orbs in the hidden Library of Khrystann, and Tarsis falls under siege by the Blue Dragonarmies. Escaping with Derek Crownguard and the Solamnic Knights, the PCs flee the city and get word to head south to Icewall Glacier from an old couple advising them to follow "the path of the white bear."

While traveling south to Icewall Glacier, the PCs find and save a polar bear being tortured by minotaurs and camp out in a shipwreck during a storm. They are later found by a tribe of Ice Folk, who offers them hospitality and explain their recent troubles with thanoi (walrus-men) and minotaurs. If the PCs accompany them back to their village, Derek Crownguard shows the PCs a map of Ansalon. He explains that the free peoples of Krynn are gathering at the isle of Sancrist to discuss an organized resistance against the Dragon Empire. The White Dragonarmy attacks the Camp, and the PCs take part in mass combat. After the battle the Ice Folk seek vengeance at Icewall Castle, the headquarters of the White Dragonarmy.

After entering, the PCs have opportunities to discover a Dragonlance-bearing knight (now dead) encased in ice; fight the White Dragon Highlord Feal-Thas and recover his personal journals; and possibly discover the Dragon Orb guarded by his draconic mount Sleet in the lower reaches. Having dealt a great blow to the Dragonarmies, the PCs head to the nearby Ice Mountain Bay with grateful Ice Folk to find and unearth a sea-worthy vessel. Their trials over in southern Ansalon for the time being, the PCs take off for Sancrist only to encounter stormy conditions and possibly a dragon attack which leaves them shipwrecked.

Things to Change/Look Out For



Siege of Tarsis


Dragon Attack from Pathfinder: Burnt Offerings


Originally, the PCs' main headquarters in Tarsis is the Red Dragon Inn. Splitting up to investigate, the Winter team headed for the Library while the Spring team stayed behind. When the Blue Dragonarmy invades, the Spring team escapes thanks to the timely arrival of Alhana Starbreeze shortly after an aerial assault levels the Inn. In both teams' cases, the adventure encourages the PCs to flee the city.

This will be covered in Spring, but given that Alhana Starbreeze is literally a character they never met before and the PCs might be heroic types who don't want to abandon innocents, I propose a few changes.

First, have both Alhana Starbreeze and Derek Crownguard meet the Autumn PCs (along with any new PCs) before the adventure proper, using the Inn as a sort of informal "war room." That way nobody will be taken aback at an elf appearing out of nowhere demanding the PCs flee without their comrades.

Secondly, provide for a way for the Winter and Spring teams to let each other know that the other side is safe, or prepared drills beforehand in case of an invasion (which the adventure points to as likely given the mayor's appeasement to the Dragonarmies). In my campaign I had Khrystann's local chronicler, a gnome journalist of my own creation by the name of Widge Pathwarder deliver a message to the Spring team. Depending on the system you're using, and if using a smaller 4 person party, it's likely that the PCs have access to scrying magic at this point, too.

Thirdly, place an emphasis on evacuating civilians. Tarsis is unready for a full-on siege, but the PCs are likely to want to help in whatever way they can. The base adventure includes an encounter where the party can rescue an old couple from opportunistic looters, but otherwise most of the events do not provide opportunities for the PCs to feel like Big Damn Heroes. In my own campaign I included an encounter where the PCs had to break apart a Dragonarmy barrier in the middle of the street to free captured citizens. They also had the opportunity to help guide civilians into nearby sewer entrances while blue dragons rained lightning from the skies. I modified the kapak assassin encounter to occur in the tunnels with civilians below so that the PCs needed to play things smart (kapaks release a cloud of poison gas upon death).

Splitting the Party

Back in the Character Creation post I discussed this upcoming eventuality, but as of now there are some more things to add.

The original Chronicles party was a whopping 8 person band, and the addition of DMPCs over the adventures swells this number even further. Thus a party split in these circumstances is manageable. However, if your gaming group is a more reasonable 3 to 5 group, making new PCs is likely in order. For my own campaign the new PCs more or less comprised the Spring team, fellow folk who suffered losses at the Dragonarmy's hands. The Winter team was the original Autumn PCs. Granted, you may prefer a mixture of old and new PCs in each team, but for maximum role-play potential consider assigning PCs to one of two teams based on their backstories and character concepts:

Winter Team:

Solamnic Knight: This chivalrous order plays a huge part in the later adventures of this arc, and can make for some nice contrast with Derek Crownguard.

Kagonesti/Qualinesti Elf: The Qualinesti made a colony on the Isle of Sancrist, as did the Silvanesti. The two groups are on poor terms with the native Kagonesti.

Politician/Commander Types: From the Battle of the High Clerist Tower to the Whitestone Council, Dragons of Winter is full of opportunities for leaders of men to decide the fate of Krynn.

Dragonarmy Deserters/Turncoats: The final chapter in Winter involves infiltrating the heart of the Dragon Empire in its largest city. Naturally heroes with a connection to this fell bastion of evil will be invaluable.

Craftsmen/Artisans/Tinkers: Although the base adventure assumes that Theros Ironfeld will craft the Dragonlances once their secret is discovered in Foghaven Vale, this role can just as easily be filled by a PC, especially if they lost an arm at some point in the adventure. The proximity of Mount Nevermind in Sancrist can be a good place for a gnomish tinker to meet up with colleagues.

Spring Team:

Silvanesti Elf: The first chapter involves venturing into the nightmare landscape of Silvanesti with its princess to restore it to its former glory. Enough said.

Clerics and Religious Types: Ideal for both, but this adventure particularly explores the legacy of the Cataclysm in Dragons of Faith where the PCs explore the undersea ruins of Istar. In Dragons of Truth the PCs venture to the Glitterpalace where they may speak with the Gods of Light

Kender/Guerrilla Types: Virtually all of eastern Ansalon lies under the Dragon Empire's dominion, the kender of the Goodlund Peninsula and the Nightmare Lands of Silvanesti the only places more or less unclaimed but still suffering. Dragons of Shadow (3.5) or Faith (AD&D) extensively detail these environs, and may give the PCs opportunity to ally with the Silver Fox and make inroads against the Dragonarmies on their home turf.

Derek Crownguard



The follies and potential troubles of DMPCs have been discussed in many forums. But the other major thing to address is Derek Crownguard's personality. Although I haven't read this far into the novels, his personality is rather well-known for being perpetually hostile and unlikable. In the books he was constantly at odds with Sturm Brightblade and mostly on the quest for hopes of personal promotion by bringing the Dragon Orbs to the Whitestone Council. He's representative of an old and fallen knightly order more concerned with the letter than the spirit of the code; Sturm is the more moderate contrast who will eventually bring the Knights back to glory.

Naturally, one might ask why the PCs should bother at all with him. And that is indeed a good question. The simplest explanation is to dispense with him, having any existing knightly PCs assigned to Tarsis to research the Dragon Orbs. But in my own 13th Age campaign, I not only kept him, but altered his personality a bit. In combat he was more of a supplementary role, less a full NPC and more a "stunt tactic" or element the PCs can use to trigger combined assaults with and distractions. Personality-wise, I played him more as a slightly cantankerous yet well-meaning knight. the weight of the war and its stakes darkening his mood at times. He was still obsessed with the Dragon Orbs, viewing them as an ultimate trump card. The examples of the PC Paladin (who was also the role of Prophet) encouraged him to righteousness at the Battle of the High Clerist Tower, effectively becoming the leader of the Solamnic Knights during the war.

For those reasons, my own group did not mind him as much, but I can't say for sure if this will work for your own.


Incentive to Go South



Feal-Thas, White Dragon Highlord by JL Meyer

Both versions of Dragons of Ice use the old "wise elder with vague knowledge" trope to guide the PCs to Icewall Glacier. This, combined with Crownguard's revelation of Sancrist later at the Ice Folk Camp, makes the adventure feel extremely railroady due to the fact that the PCs are finding out the next location right after the other instead of a gradual organic planning. Even more so, the PCs might decide that heading to Sancrist is more important than the assault at Icewall Castle, which can be problematic.

For my own campaign, I baked the plot hook right into the adventure's first chapter: the texts within the Library of Khrystann not only revealed the history of the Dragon Orbs, but the revelation that long ago the Wizards of High Sorcery "went far south, to a land of snow and ice to hide them from the world due to their power." And contacts within the Knights of Solamnia revealed that the Dragonarmies were conducting an excavation in the Glacier itself, apparently searching for something.

I also made it so that Icewall Castle was actually close to the ocean, near the western section of the Glacier. The Castle had a harbor with sea-worthy boats, giving the PCs even more reason to go there for a proper boat to take to Sancrist.

In Conclusion

Dragons of Ice is an overall fair beginning to the Winter arc. It starts off with a bang as the city's besieged, includes a battle against the White Dragonarmy forces on the tundra, and climaxes with the discovery of a real Dragonlance to use against the dragon Sleet. Its weakest areas involve plot hooks and incentives, but hopefully this advice should shape this up into an even greater adventure!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Northlands Saga, Part One: Spring Rites



Note: At this point in the campaign Syrasi and Vigbjorn have yet to join until the next adventure. The current party is Askeladden, Amund, and Grackleback.

Our tale begins in the region of Halfstead, a relatively prosperous realm home to Silvermeade Hall and Jarl Olaf Henrikson. A single father with three daughters, the oldest one Runa is set to marry calling for celebrations. The PCs, trusted huscarls and confidants of the jarl's social circle, are entrusted with looking over them as they set off to pick flowers in a nearby field.

The daughters are quite a handful. Inga, the eldest, is very arrogant and treats the PCs like servants. Fastvi hopes to one day be a warrior and is enamored of Askeladden's status as skald. Runa, on the other hand, is reserved and carries on a conversation with an imaginary friend (or is it???).



While going to the field, and preventing Fastvi from overruning a farmer's crops in an ill-thought out horse dash, the party comes across a rather friendly hound who Runa desires to keep. Unfortunately, a witch by the name of Sibbe the Unkempt, indeed the very woman who helped deliver Runa's birth 9 years ago, seeks the girls to perform a blood sacrifice and enacts a powerful sleep spell on the field's occupants. The PCs fight for a bit as two of her henchmen, a berserker by the name of Njarni the Traitor and a scoundrel known as Clever Gufti attack. The dog bites Njarni in the genitals before it succumbs to sleep, earning the mutt a throat-slitting both for revenge and to make sure their scent can't be tracked down.

When the party comes to, the group sends Cecile (a paladin DMPC played by me for just this adventure) to inform the jarl of what happened, while the rest of the group rides off to save the girls. Along the way they meet a swamp-dwelling troll who's won over by Grackleback's offering of meat, sneak by some drunken cattle raiders and steal a cow for the aforementioned troll-blooded to eat, trek across the undead-haunted Barrow Lands, and come face to face with the dead dog whose spirit motivates him from beyond the grave and joins the party!

The PCs also meet Styr the Ugly, an outlaw who noticed Sibbe's group and tried to attack them, thinking them easy marks and to use the jarl's daughters as ransom. They did not count on a mind-controlled Runa or Sibbe to take out half his bandit crew with magical flames, and thus they had to huddle up and lick their losses. Askeladden convinces them to ambush Sibbe for revenge if nothing else. He accepts, and the PCs (plus a dog and 3 bandits) head up to tor. The sky is dark and stormy as Sibbe gets ready for her ritual. The PCs climb up the back, avoiding the easy to spot main pathways, and attack!



Sibbe is felled in one strike by Grackleback, interrupting her ritual. Coughing up blood she orders Runa to avenge her, and an already enlarged (11 feet tall) and berserking Njarni attacks Amund. Styr's bandits use the tor's standing stones as cover, taking shots at the villains, while Askeladden rushes to unbind Fastvi and Inga. Meanwhile Amund finishes off Njarni with one punch knocking him to his knees, then another square in the jaw.

Just in time the Jarl's war party ascends as Styr makes a speedy getaway. Olaf Henrikson is overjoyed to see his daughters safe and sound, and awards the party gold arm-rings as a sign of favor and trust. But unexpectedly, a legion of undead warriors meet the group as they head back. One of their leaders steps up, gesturing to the party for a necklace which Sibbe apparently stole from him. Askeladden gives it back, and in returns is granted an artifact blade as a gift.

Back at the hall the PCs are the talk of the town, with people asking them to retell their deeds, something the skald is all too happy to do. Alas, the undead hound refuses to go any farther and watches from the town's edges before heading off into the woods. Grackleback decides to follow him, and is looking to this day (and possibly to live among the swamp trolls, one of the few who shown her kindness).

The Northlands Saga, Cast of Characters



So around mid to late 2016 I snagged a PDF copy of the Northlands Saga Complete for Pathfinder. During this time I noticed an increasing crop of Nordic-themed RPG supplements as of late, and the idea of a full adventure path in a cold land of viking warriors was quite appealing. Yet gaming priorities prevented me from running this until early this year. As of now we're very far into the 2nd of 10 adventures within this book, and are having quite a bit of fun. I decided to chronicle our exploits in a campaign journal here.

This first covers the heroes of the North, both past and present. In other words, the PCs. As of this posting, all of the PCs save Grackleback are part of the current party.

Meet the Cast




Amund: An ingarsuk (giant from Inuit folklore), as a young boy Amund was captured in a Northlander raid and taken south to the domain of Halfstead. He spent his childhood in the town of Silvermeade Hall, earning a living as a hunter's apprentice and earned a place at the jarl's table in spite of his oft-distrusted heritage. A man of few words, he is still technically a boy in giant years, but for the time being he is assumed to be merely giant-blooded (humans with a distant touch of giantish heritage) by other villagers.

Mechanical Information: Jotunn Racial Paragon Class from Rite Publishing. Amund serves as a mix of melee and ranged support, alternating between spears, fists, and boulders. He's an accomplished hunter, and helped the party track down quarries and weathered the worst of the Northlands' climate.



Askeladden of the North: Raised alone by a mother who never spoke of his father, Askeladden heard many heroic sagas from her later forming his aptitude for skaldship. But a tragic storm at sea changed his fate, taking away the one person he respected more than anyone else in the world. He lived an itinerant life as a bandit, before meeting his match against a man he calls only "the Shieldstorm." A short yet fast friendship was formed out of this unlikely circumstance, but one day Askeladden's friend, disappeared, leaving but a handwritten recommendation to Jarl Olaf Henrikson to train Askeladden as a huscarl. Jarl Henrikson accepted, albeit grudgingly, and the skald isn't exactly happy about the situation either.

Mechanical Information: Skald hybrid class from Paizo Publishing. Although capable in melee combat, Askeladden is very heavy on using heroic ballads and minor magics to enhance the rest of the party's combat prowess. He's an experienced metalsmith and crafted more than a few magical arms for the party.



Grackleback: A troll-blooded woman of Silvermeade Hall, Grackleback is a rather friendly if gluttonous associate of Jarl Henrikson. She is not well-liked by the other inhabitants due to her heritage, although she and Amund got along well enough.

Grackleback's player bowed out of the campaign, and so the troll-blooded left the quaint village of Silvermeade Hall to search for an old friend...

Mechanical Information: a Rogue through and through, Grackleback fights with her claws, taking advantage on ambushes and openings in enemy defenses to bring down foes before they can strike back.



Syrasi the Curious: An elf whose people ventured north fleeing religious persecution, Syrasi is an accomplished worker of the magical arts. Jarl Henrikson was the one who requested she travel to his town to help consult him in supernatural affairs, although her other reason was that his departed wife contacted her from beyond the grave to help their daughter Runa control her magical heritage. Currently a free agent, Syrasi accompanies the party on their travels, motivated out of altruism to fight the many evils arrayed against them and the people she loves.

Mechanical Information: An elf Witch with variant racial traits suitable for cold travel, Syrasi focuses heavily on hexes and curses to debilitate enemies. She knows a variety of magical spells useful in and out of combat, and can craft magical scrolls.



Vigbjorn: A troll-blooded warrior of Silvermeade Hall, Vigbjorn displays great intelligence and mind's worth the envy of any warrior, which causes more than a few opponents to underestimate what they view as a "monster." Originally meant to serve as expendable cannon fodder in battle who managed to survive, he's now a steadfast companion of the other party members.

Mechanical Information: Multi-class Barbarian/Rogue with the Scout archetype, allowing for Sneak Attack damage to be applied during a charge attack. Hit fast and hit hard is the name of the game for Vigbjorn.



Aluki: An Ulnat woman from the village of Laquirv in the Far North. Aluki first met the party when her kayak was set adrift by a storm and crossed paths with their ship. She helped them fight against the Children of Althunak, a demonic cult terrorizing her people, and later on became smitten with Syrasi and volunteered to travel with them for a time.

Mechanical Information: Is an outdoors survival expert, capable of drawing upon magic to help the party better brave the harshness of nature. Specialized in ranged archery, able to shower foes with arrows from across the battlefield.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Dragons of Renewal DL4: Dragons of Desolation


Dragons of Desolation Cover by Keith Parkinson


The finale to the Autumn Twilight arc takes place entirely within the dwarven kingdom of Thorbadin. Now that the PCs have the Helm of Grallen, they possess a surefire way to get the dwarves to listen to them and possibly provide shelter for the refugees.

Overview

The Heroes of the Lance find the way into Thorbadin, and while there meet the noble Arman Kharas. After fighting their way out of Northgate with Theiwar dwarves in pursuit, they are brought to the Life-Tree of the Hylar where the Council of Thorbadin holds court. After the council debates, the PCs are sent on a quest to recover the Hammer of Kharas in the Valley of Thanes.

Venturing to the Valley, the PCs find a tomb on top of a floating mountain. While there a pranksterish copper dragon disguised as a dwarf acts as a guide. Before they can claim the Hammer, they fight Verminaard's draconic mount, Ember, at the top of the tomb.

Rushing back to Thorbadin, it turns out that the Daegar and Theiwar clans are in league with the Dragonarmies. By letting their forces into the mountain kingdom, a civil war occurs with the purpose of overthrowing the ruling Hylar and gaining possession of the Hammer for themselves. Amid the prisoners is Berem the Green Gemstone Man and Eben Shatterstone, the latter still posing as a loyal comrade if the PCs haven't found him out yet. The PCs are escorted or taken prisoner to the Temple of Stars, where Verminaard awaits. A grand battle occurs dramatically near a pit, which Verminaard is likely to tumble into should he be slain. Regardless of the battle's events, Arman is dealt a grievous injury and dies a hero. With the Hammer, the Hylar leader Hornfel is crowned King and order is restored.

Depending on how long the heroes took, the refugees' fate is either safe from or massacred by the Dragonarmies. Riverwind and Goldmoon have the option to marry if they're PCs in the adventure. The quest ends on a note that although the heroes struck a decisive victory against the Dragonarmy's forces, the battle for Krynn's freedom is far from over.

Things to Change/Look Out For



Maps: The AD&D adventure's strong suit is that it had more detailed maps of Thorbadin and its districts than the 3.5 adventure. Although knowing where the PCs are is not a necessity, given that most encounters are event-based than dungeon-room-based, it can be a nice visual aid to have.

Verminaard's Offer: This is only in the AD&D version, but I advise that you excise this. It's basically an opportunity for the villain to show up, gloat, and make an offer to the party to betray the refugees. While this can work in a book, show, or similar medium, in a tabletop game it's far more likely that the players will try to attack. Given that random nature of die rolls, it's possible that a lucky party might knock the Dragon Highlord off his mount and kill him right then and there.

Northgate: Overall, this section is fine as-is. The PCs meet Arman Kharas, who knows the way better than they do, and provides some good opportunity to do heroic stuff and save prisoners. However, the party is motivated to retreat as an onslaught of theiwar soldiers, dozens at a time, come to assault the party. Regardless of gaming system, running 30+ enemies at once can be a real slog unless you're using a singular "mob" template. I suggest keeping the theiwar army encounters more descriptive, and have a half dozen fight the PCs at a time when they're running.

Dark Dwarves and Derro: In the later RPG supplements, the evil dwarven clans of the theiwar and daergar are their own subrace of dwarves, but not the classic duergar and derro in other settings. In the original AD&D game, the theiwar dwarves are derro.

Personally speaking, I prefer having the dark dwarves physically and mechanically indistinguishable from the other dwarven clans. It plays up the "civil war" factor and makes it seem more subtle in having the Theiwar thane being a secret Dragonarmy agent. Unless the party has a dwarven PC, to an outside observer the feuding of council politics comes off as a less-established clan jockeying for power, rather than an obvious Evil McTraitorface trying to play the part of a villain with good publicity. It also avoids the question of why the council would tolerate and trust a thane from a subrace who are on the whole afflicted with murderous insanity.


Life-Tree of the Hylar

The Council: The Council is currently unsure of the Dragonarmy's true threat, and their isolationist policy will make them reluctant to open up their gates for refugees. After the Council debates, they will send off the PCs to find the legendary Hammer of Kharas as a token of goodwill, given that the Hammer plays a decisive role in determining which clan's thane becomes king of the nation. As a token of ensuring the party's cooperation, the council keeps Eben Shatterstone as a hostage (which is Raelgar, the Theiwar Thane's, idea). If the PCs refuse, they are imprisoned to await trial for trespassing on Theiwar territory and murder if they killed at least one dark dwarf in Northgate.

Holding off the "Lady in the Lake" Monty Python jokes, this is the next best way for the PCs to go on a dungeon crawl. However, the default example's a bit forced. Have the scene play out normally, but instead of making it the reward an open-ended "whosoever recovers the Hammer of Kharas, that person will the dwarves of Thorbardin befriend," attach a more tangible reward. Most likely shelter for the refugees, or agreement to refuse the Dragonarmy's offers (which the Theiwar and Daegar have been advocating for).

Another thing to consider is that in the AD&D version, the PCs have a chance of realizing that Verminaard is telepathically dominating Raelgar's speech during the meeting by noticing his mannerisms are similar to the Highlord. This is not present in the 3.5 version, but either way things don't change much on whether you include it or not. Even if a free agent, Raelgar's condemnation of the PCs still sets him up as a person the PCs shouldn't trust.


Battle Against Ember

Duncan's Tomb: There are precious few monsters and traps in this dungeon, and the main inhabitant is the copper dragon Evenstar. Emphasize the few encounters, traps, and Evenstar's trials in packed general areas instead of planning out the entire dungeon or doing a room-by-room search. Otherwise it will just feel empty and featureless.

The battle against Ember should be climactic, although like previous dragon encounters he is extremely powerful in 3rd Edition. Using the stats of a Juvenile Red Dragon, but increasing the size category to Gargantuan (without the Strength and Constitution increase) makes for a more reasonable encounter. Additionally, I also turned the flagpole into a mostly-depowered dragonlance which breaks after the battle. This helps demonstrate the power of the campaign's namesake and gives the players a taste of things to come.

For 13th Age, I used a modified Large White Dragon's statistics, save that cold damage is converted to fire and I switched around the vulnerabilities as appropriate.

Both versions of the game have smaller encounters afterwards: in AD&D's case kapak scouts, and in 3.5 six of Ember's children. I personally discarded any encounters in this chapter after Ember, for she served well enough as a climactic battle for this sub-section.

Return to Thorbadin: While the PCs were gone, the Theiwar and Daegar clans helped Verminaard and the Dragonarmies gain access to the kingdom, plunging the realm into civil war. This portion of the adventure involves the party fighting their way through soldiers to the Temple of Stars. One of the encounter locations includes a Daegar prison holding Eben Shatterstone and Berem the Green Gemstone Man. I personally did not include Berem in this adventure; on the contrary, one of the PCs bore the mantle of the Green Gemstone Woman for a 13th Age background. This worked better, as otherwise Berem is an easily forgettable NPC. I'd personally not have him in this adventure, and if he must show up in the campaign have it be during Dragons of Spring.

Capture: In the 3.5 version of the adventure, the PCs are supposed to go to the Temple of Stars after encountering Thane Rance of the Daegar, who demands the PCs surrender (albeit the PC bearing the Hammer of Kharas is allowed to keep it). If not, they must fight a total succession of 93 dwarves and draconians altogether. This is a form of rail-roading I despise.

Instead, allow the PCs to find out the Temple of Stars' location from enemy soldiers, Hylar allies, Arman Kharas himself, or likewise. It feels more satisfying for the party to walk in of their own accord and confront Verminaard once and for all.


The Fall of Verminaard

Final Battle: The climactic battle in the Temple of Stars is  easily one of the high points of the Autumn Twilight arc. Even so, there are a few things to change to make it better.

First, discard the forced handing of the Hammer of Kharas to Verminaard. Be it via the traitor Eben or telepathic mind control, these both take away agency from the PCs with little change in the endgame (Verminaard fights the PCs).

Second, there's a lot of enemies to keep track of. Verminaard, Arman Kharas, the fireshadow, Eben Shatterstone (potentially), and the dark dwarf and Dragonarmy soldiers. When running this battle, I had Thane Raelgar as an enemy NPC which Arman was busy fighting, and the dwarves and Dragonarmy soldiers as a sort of "mob" template which the PCs could attack as a whole.

In the default adventure, the two dark dwarven clans turn on each other when the Theiwar side with Verminaard, as the Daegar thane Rance had a deal that the Dragonarmies would hand him the Hammer instead (Verminaard seeks to take it for himself). This makes for some nice internal treachery, but another idea is to have valiant Hylar soldiers come rushing in to help, particularly if Arman is not with the party. Either way, the pitched battle makes for a chaotic background.

Thirdly, the standard adventure has Arman die regardless of the course of battle from a poisoned blade. This is meant to be a valiant sacrifice, but instead allow the PCs the option to change this. In my games I had Arman and Raelgar fighting in the background, describing how the heroic dwarf was starting to lose, as he lost his footing and the treacherous Thane raised a poison dagger to plunge into his chest...

At that point, one of my PCs rushed forth to save him in the nick of time, taking Raelgar out with a critical hit. Naturally your own campaign's conflict will be different, but granting the PCs the choice to momentarily disengage to save Arman at the risk of leaving their party open has more narrative and tactical impact.

Finally, there is the matter of the giant pit of death in the center of the Temple. It's a given that one or more PCs may get the idea to push Verminaard into it. Indeed this is how the Dragon Highlord met his end in the novels, but it can be anti-climactic system-wise if a PC uses a single bull rush, spell, or opposed Strength check to knock him in on the first or second round.

One idea is to place Verminaard a fair distance from the pit, or to give him a spell such as levitate to have him come back up. But this is quite obviously meant to mitigate a valid tactic with minimal dramatic impact. Another idea is to have him fall in when shoved or at the brink of death, but have him summon the fireshadow to lift him back up out of the pit with a blazing vengeance! This makes the battle feel like a nice evolution from a "first form"to "final stage" boss, to borrow video game terminology.

In Conclusion

Dragons of Desolation requires a few adjustments, but individually take little effort to change and fix.

I'm happy to have completed the first arc of the Dragonlance saga. I plan to begin writing for the Winter Night arc sometime next week. This will also be the first time the saga's two-party split-up is addressed in detail!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

State of the Union: New campaigns, a Tenkar's Tavern pick, and more


Slumbering Tsar Cover Art

I have horrible organization skills. The only two constants in my life are my day job and my tabletop games, and even the latter is subject to change based on players' real life concerns. Aside from this, I am scatterbrained even when it comes to my entertainment. Video games played for dozens of hours lay uncompleted to gather dust when another catches my interest. I share news of cool happenings in geek culture with friends on Steam, only to forget who I told what and end up repeating myself. I got so engrossed in the Witcher 3 the last month I neglected my blog, my writing, and scheduled events.

I bought a weekly planner to get my life back in order, and after noticing my last blog post and undone projects like Dragons of Renewal and Arcana High, I set out to start working again on the things I feel passionate about and want to release into the world for viewers' enjoyment. This blog post is a sort of news update of sorts, to let you know what's been going on while I've been gone.

Two New Campaigns: Way of the Wicked, the Dragonlance Chronicles, Slumbering Tsar, and more. I own a fair share of adventure paths and epic sagas, but many of them go unplayed as mere reading material. I'm pleased to note that my Saturday and Sunday groups settled on two Frog God Games mega-adventures to try out: Slumbering Tsar and Northlands Saga respectively. Amusingly this was mere coincidence that they were of the same publisher; I presented both groups with 4 or 5 adventures I was keen on running, and let them decide. The Northlands game has been going for a month now, 4 sessions in, and Slumbering Tsar just began last week. We're having fun with both, and I may keep a campaign journal of both if the gaming groups are fine with me sharing on the blog.

A Tenkar's Tavern OSR Pick: Yesterday Erik Tenkar shared Part One of several products part of the GM's Day weekly sale. My latest book, Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery, was among the choices. Although I did my part to spread awareness of the sale, it's humbling to see one's own work as a recommended pick on one of the most popular OSR blogs. For a time I was afraid that my book would get hardly any notice, that a magic school campaign style wasn't as popular as I thought it would be, a not uncommon fear I have whenever making a new product. It's nice to see that the time and effort I put in to it has not gone unrewarded.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Lego Ideas has a Dungeons & Dragons themed pitch


The full link is here.

I found this courtesy of RPG Net. It's been forever since I played with Legos, but even during my middle and high school years I once entertained the notion of using the old building blocks for dungeon building in my weekly Dungeons & Dragons games. Well apparently someone had a similar idea, and is currently gauging interest to see if it's worth producing. What's fascinating is that the rooms in question for this proposed set are customizable, in that they can be mixed and matched to create a variety of different sequences for the rooms.

This would be perfect for introducing children to table-top games, in that it shows off the game via a a more approachable and friendly medium.

You need to have a registered account at Lego Ideas in order to vote, but all the same if that's not too much trouble consider lending your support if you think this is a cool idea!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

KickTracking: Dungeon Grappling



It's been a while since my last blog post, and I apologize for that. Truth be told January went past me like the blink of an eye, and I neglected some of my regular duties. But over the past few months more than a few RPG KickStarters I backed began delivering finished products to me. I've been fortunate to have most of them arrive around their estimated release schedule, and be more or less what I expected. I decided to share some of my thoughts on them, starting with Dungeon Grappling.

The Pitch: Dungeon Grappling is more or less a variant rules fix for not one, but three popular rules systems: Swords & Wizardry, Pathfinder, and 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. From the days of AD&D to the D20 era, grappling has always been a bit of a bother with baroque resolution to the point that most gamers did not bother with it. I cannot speak as to 4th edition, and 5th Edition's grappling rules don't seem very obtuse from what I've seen and heard, but it was a common enough trend that the creator of Dungeon Grappling sought to create an improvement to make this combat maneuver a viable option as well as being easily understood.

Communication: Douglas Cole was surprisingly active ever since the project first came to light, a rarity for many crowdfunded RPG projects. Updates occurred several times a week, and this did not change even after the project was fully funded. Cole was very active in the comments section as well,

Delivery: The estimated release date for the PDF was in February 2017, with several print copy tier rewards estimated around April. I backed at the PDF level, and the final version of the eBook came to me around mid-January. There are now Print-On-Demand options for the book on Drive-Thru RPG and RPGNow in a softcover color.

Delivered ahead of schedule, a rarity in the KickStarter world.

End Product: The book itself is 53 pages, full-color. The artwork is very good, and the meat of the mechanics can be summed up in the use of Control Points, a kind of pseudo-hit point system reflecting how "beaten into submission" a target is in regards to grappling. I can't help but feel that won't really cut down on "book-keeping clutter," for as it is another value to keep track of in regards to hit points, spell slots, etc. Even more so if multiple creatures are grappled or grappling in the same fight.

The book seems rules-heavier than I like, but in regards to individual systems it does seem to make fighters, monks, and martial types quite competent in grappling in Swords & Wizardry. However, in Pathfinder  the problem of huge monsters having extremely high CMD (Combat Maneuver Defense) values is still a problem as the CMD is substituted for a target's Grapple DC (or the overall defense value when people try to grapple you). As for 5th Edition, the Athletics skill is still important for various grappling moves and defenses, meaning that Bards and Rogues with Expertise and raging Barbarians are still the best class choices for this.

Although I was expecting a more quick and dirty rules-lite option in lieu of a gradient scale, the professionalism and early delivery of the KickStarter  helped earn trust from Gaming Ballistic and any future projects they might have in store.

Dungeon Grappling can be purchased on Drive-Thru RPG and RPGNow.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Core Concepts of Arcana High




For the past 2 to 2.5 years there's been a particular idea stirring in my head for a while. An idea which as of now has several hundred pages worth of notes and draft write-ups the result of 2 campaign's worth of design. One of the campaigns was uncompleted sadly, yet still brought about several months worth of play. I at first decided to write up an adventure path for Pathfinder for this work, as a four-part series. This took a lot more time than I thought, so I decided to work on various side projects all the while hoping to one day see my magnum opus on the shelves of online storefronts one day (most likely for Pathfinder and 5th Edition). But like Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery, I figured that drumming up interest over time can be a great idea. As such, this blog post is the first in a series of revealing Arcana High.

Introduction

Arcana High is a hybrid four-color fantasy and magic school campaign in the vein of Harry Potter meets Teen Titans in a D&D fantasy world. For those unfamiliar with my earlier posts on the subject, the general idea is that the PCs are adolescent mages who found some magical artifacts. With these powerful relics, they can transform into alternate identities to better fight the forces of evil. All the while they must juggle their public lives as students in a world-renowned magical academy along with keeping the good people of Brancean safe from their ever-growing rogue's gallery of villains.

It was a rather popular itch I've been wanting to scratch for a while, due to the rarity of such play elements in traditional fantasy games and retroclones. When you think about it, the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons can support a pseudo-superhero style of play quite well. You have titanic dragons ravaging cities, foul cults seeking to awaken sealed evils, mad archmages brewing up new and deadly horrors to inflict upon the world, and holy forces bestowing their powers upon worthy mortals. With the preponderance of city-based campaigns and sourcebooks, diversity of adversaries, and the ever-popular appeal towards saving the world, a superhero kind of game with masked vigilantes wielding supernatural powers not for gold but for justice is not only feasible, it can work very, very well!

Major Themes

Four-Color Fantasy: Masked knights, sorcerers, and druids battle a mad alchemist atop an undead leviathan creation wreaking havoc on a port city. Thieves' Guild goons shake down storefronts and make a quick getaway on charmed manticores. A golem built by the lord-governor to fight crime goes on a  rampage due to interpreting the law in an over-literal fashion. The city's gnomish-designed printing press publishes eye-catching headlines of the PCs' latest exploits and clashes with the aforementioned threats.

A Central City of Adventure: The city of Brancean is modeled off of the real-world city of Constantinople, the capital of the East Roman Empire and then the Ottomans. As such, it is the focus of most of the setting, akin to what Gotham is to Batman and Metropolis to Superman.  It is a city of history, formed around the foundations of Highstone Academy when Aleria was but a division of independent baronies and tribes. As a principle nexus of an intercontinental trade network, it sees folk from all corners of the world (and some say of the planes). It is home to many wonderful sights, from the Colosseum where one can watch and participate in chariot races and all manner of sports tournaments; a literal Undercity home to drow, dwarves, and other subterranean beings; a 200 foot tall statue of the Goddess of Law and Civilization; and the pre-eminent Highstone Academy, of course!

Mediterranean Style Setting: The region is known as the Bowl of Levios, dominated by a central sea also called the Sea of Levios. This body of water was home to a great sea serpent of its namesake who ruled the lands as a god-king in times long past. Although in the current era there is debate as to his divinity, there is no question that he left a great mark on the land, and many of the oldest realms are seaside and underwater cities. Here are but a few lands of the Bowl:
  • the Alerian Empire, home to the cosmopolitan metropolis of Brancean and the world's most famous magical academy. 
  • the Al-Bahri Sultanate, a southern kingdom home to the Ridhai, who sail the seas on the back of island-sized Zaratan turtles.
  • the city-state of Kremdora, which suffered a devastating cataclysm while fighting an ascendant mage-tyrant and whose domain is now located within a residual anti-magic field.
  • Bristor, a northwesterly realm of small, independent kingdoms and tribes, home to knights, druids, and berserkers.
  • Tabiach, a realm of merchant princes and feuding city-states.

Imagine a Venice with merfolk and aquatic elf residents.  Imagine open-air tavernas serving pita bread dips and shish kebab street food to apprentice mages on their way to school . Imagine masked vigilantes fighting a possessed toga-clad statue of a long-dead emperor. Imagine an adventuring company accepting submissions from not just honorable knights and iconic elven archers, but also fair-haired northern reavers and steppe-borne nomads with curved swords. This is the world of Arcana High.

Scaling Powers: One of the chief mechanical principles of the two Pathfinder campaigns I ran for Arcana High was the use of magical relics. Once belonging to heroes of the distant past, they could transform a wielder into a masked form which the original heroes wore themselves. Aside from the super-genius gadgeteer, most superheroes were not known for carrying around gabs of equipment to act as the primary extension of their abilities.

For that reason, instead of accumulating gold and magic items as a primary campaign concern, I more or less made the relics into scaling magic items for the "big six" bonuses (weapon, armor, shield, saving throws, deflection, and natural armor). I also let the PCs choose from a broad array of relic upgrades which could be gained once per level. They included things ranging from an elemental energy blast attack to a Green Lantern-style major creation spell-like ability of limited duration. Magic items were still a thing in the campaign, and the PCs did have access to a pseudo-Batcave where they could load up on common gear between missions, but with the versatility of relics reliance upon the "Magic Item Christmas Tree" effect was nowhere near as pronounced. Being an all-spellcaster party helped ease things as well, for they are the classes in base Pathfinder which can best replicate a superhero feel.


Conclusion

I have a lot more to say about this dream project of mine, but right now I wanted to focus on the major themes instead of losing my dear readers in layers of lore I already wrote up in various documents.

What aspect of Arcana High should I focus on next?  Talk a bit more about the magic school? Perhaps a few figures from the supervillain rogue's gallery? Sample relic powers and abilities?

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!