Back at the Rusty Shield, the party talks with Yorus, Linnek’s contact in the criminal underworld. Learning that Linnek is calling in his favor, Yorus agrees to procure a map for the PCs (showing them the route through the undercity from the Rusty Shield to the edge of Natchai territory), and to come back in a few hours to get it.
In the meantime, the group heads up to the north part of town so BENJI can talk with Telgus the Scholar. Telgus shows Benji a strange artifact that recently came into his possession, a 2-foot-long stick that looks like ancient, frozen driftwood covered with strange protrusions. Purchased from a caravan merchant, who claimed it had been found in an area of the Starrcrag Mountains once known for its gold and sapphire mines, the item has mystified Telgus and his Guild fellows. Benji’s task is to investigate the source of this artifact and see if he can find others like it or clues to its origin.
Returning to the Rusty Shield, the group claims the map from Yorus, who warns them of bandits and monsters that roam the undercity, and sets off to brave the depths and rescue Yasmeena from the Natchai…
The first major obstacle on their journey through the undercity is a broad, slow-flowing canal that is missing its rope bridge, which has fallen down on either side. Shadowy forms swim in the slow-moving, murky water, and over the dull drone of flowing water the party hears croaking sounds that echo weirdly through the enclosed space. As they work to find a way across, two froglings climb up the far bank and shout “give us food,” “give us the small one” (pointing at Benji), and so on… Distracted by their interactions with the pair of creatures, the adventurers don’t notice more of the froglings stealthily climbing up on the near side — the party is flanked on both sides!
A summary of the last few library sessions:
Arriving in Viridistan, the party set off to pursue their business in the city, knowing that Voort’s business would keep the Dart in harbor for a week or so.
- A ragged young woman begged the PCs for protection from her pursuers, a group of armed thugs led by a sinister, green-skinned man in crimson-and-black robes. The PCs opted not to fight (fearing the intervention of the city guard), but before the maiden was carried off she asked the PCs to tell her father, LINNEK THE SMITH, that she was still alive. The group learned that her captors were of the Natchai — followers of Natch Ur, the chaotic evil “god of deep earth” whose worship demanded human sacrifices, and decided to do what they could to help free the girl from such a grim fate.
- A visit to the Archivists’ Guild yielded little information about the Black Ziggurat or their erstwhile patron Ghaelus. Hoping to join the guild, BENJI scored well enough on the initial written examination to reach the next stage — a field mission. He was told to visit the scholar TELGUS, whose villa could be found in the northern part of the city.
- The group hired an urchin to lead them through the Maze (a labyrinthine slum) to Linnek’s shop. Unfortunately this particular urchin was not trustworthy, as he led them into a blind alley where they were accosted by ruffians. A fight broke out, in which one of the would-be robbers was killed. YEE-MUN created an illusion of a dragon that soared over the alleyway, which not only scared away the remaining robbers but also caused a panic in the streets. Aware of their criminal behavior (fighting and “unlawful use of magic”), the party took advantage of the chaos in the street to flee the scene.
- After finding the shop, Linnek thanked the party for delivering the message. Lamenting his daughter Yasmeena’s fate, the smith was grateful for the group’s offer of aid. To help them, he directed them to Yorus, a thief who owed Linnek a favor, who could draw them a map of the route through the undercity to the territory of the Natchai, where they would hopefully be able to rescue Yasmeena before it was too late.
The latest from my library Wilderlands game:
An entire session was spent on the battle on the think-machine plateau in the Ziggurat’s entry level. Standing between the PCs and their objective — the gateway platform that would enable their escape back to the undercity of Greenwax — stood a formidable gang of enemy melee fighters (clones of Mixit and Aseret, the party’s two fighting-women) and two flying, armored security bots that fired paralytic darts and beam weapons. Despite some early confusion on the part of Aseret and Mixit (due to fighting foes with their likenesses) and paralyzed ranged fighters (who had to be healed with antidotes), it seemed that fortune certainly favored the party in this encounter — there were a few wounds, but no one pushed close to death. The group’s secret weapon in this encounter turned out to be Hexil the Phraint (temporarily under the control of our new player), who used his prodigious jumping ability to attack security bots in mid-air with his two-handed sword.
After some discussion, the group decided to make for the gateway platform with all haste — no time to rest or fiddle with the think-machine any more, for fear that reinforcements may be en route. They managed to reach the platform, place the petroglyph tiles in proper sequence, and teleport back to the chamber in Greenwax’s undercity.
The following session found the party safely back in their rented house in Greenwax, at which time the party learned that they had been absent for two months. During that time, tensions between Rallu, the City-State of the Sea Kings, and the ascendant merchant power Lenap, have increased dangerously. There have been several naval skirmishes along the shipping lanes just south of Greenwax, and concerns about escalation have caused some merchants to consider alternate trade routes. Compounding Greenwax’s trade woes, strange weather along the Antillian Peninsula’s western coast (near the Palsaith Forest) has been causing shipwrecks and affecting a well-travelled shipping route from Viridistan.
The group checked in with their friend Nial Voort, captain of the Dart, at the Sea Devil Saloon. Voort shared plans to sail for Viridistan in approximately a week’s time, once repairs to his ship have been completed; he plans to take the Antillian route, and offered the PCs passage if they lend their arms and magic (he has a favorable attitude towards the PCs, who on an earlier voyage had repelled an attack by shark-men and magically warded off some strange winds.) The PCs agreed, and sought other engagements for the week.
They went to visit their old friend Bartolo the halfling in his upstanding establishment the Honey Drop Inn, who offered them some short-term employment: to head north into the Mad Devil Jungle to harvest and bring back wax and honey produced by a certain local breed of carnivorous green jungle bees. Dangerous work, for sure, but reasonably profitable — 50 gp per barrel. Bartolo agreed to provide a wagon, barrels, and draft animals for the trip. The party estimated that it would take a total of three days travel and two to three days to collect the honey — they would be cutting it close to get back to Greenwax in time, but they agreed to help their friend Bartolo, whose operation was short-handed after one of his regular crews had a bad run-in with some bees… Having stocked up on poison antidote and insect-repellent candles, the party was now ready to enter the jungle.
Our session started late this week, but the PCs seemed to make some headway in finding their way back to Greenwax.
Exploring the secret passage branching off from the vegetation-covered hallway:
- In an adjacent passage they found two corpses who apparently killed each other in a shootout: an android and a human wearing a brown leather jacket and broad-brimmed hat. A quick search of the android’s body yielded a boxlike weapon that fired small silver bolts, extra bolts and a yellow-striped security access card. The human had a revolver in his hand and an old rotted whip on his belt. Benji was attacked by a rot grub during the search; after its messy removal from his arm (and its subsequent bandaging), the corpse’s satchel turned up extra bullets for the gun and a small golden idol.
- The spiral staircase ascended over 100′ and terminated at a small landing and a sealed door. Adjacent to the door was a card slot with a red horizontal stripe above it. Access denied…
Returning to the main hallway, the PCs used their security card to access the quad-brain think machine. After some experimentation, they managed to retrieve the petroglyph sequence that would enable them to return to Satur/Greenwax via the gateway platform. As they stood weighing their options — to continue exploring the Ziggurat in search of finding Ghaelus and “great weapons” to aid Dirjin’s people against the Illithids, or return to Greenwax before the Svirfneblin’s protective enchantment wears off any further — they were interrupted by the sound of booted feet. Coming up the stairs towards them (from the direction of the gateway platform) was a war party that, so far as the PCs could determine, was composed of melee-weapon-wielding clones of Aseret and Mixit, the two fighters who had fingers pricked by the Ziggurat’s double doors… How many clones are there? Are there other creatures with them?
Looking forward to playing out this encounter next week!
I haven’t had enough free time lately to do full actual play writeups, but here are some highlights from the last couple sessions:
- A room containing a pool of bubbling, viscous, lavender liquid. Suspended on a pulley system above the pool is an empty rectangular metal cage. Lining the walls of the room are waist-high tables, some of which are marked with old rusty reddish-brown stains that may have been blood.
- Several impassable doors with card-slots in the adjacent wall.
- After fighting off a vicious gang of mutants (and capturing a stun ray pistol), the party investigated a large cylindrical apparatus with four wired-up brains floating in separate tanks — a technology which Dirjin observed to be nearly identical to the “think machines” built by Illithids. The party opted not to tinker with or destroy the machine for the time being, but to continue exploring in hopes of finding some clues about its purpose.
- A large chamber, dominated by a shallow sandy pit with a pond at one end and some rocks near the center. In five places, steps lead down into the pit. Surrounding the pit are twelve statues of robed figures, all with cowled heads bent attentively toward the center. Closer observation reveals tiny, ant-sized boats sailing on the pond, a cluster of tiny buildings on the shore, and a tiny castle perched atop one of the rocks. A high-pitched horn faintly rings out at irregular intervals.
- A passageway and room constructed of grey fibrous filaments that seem similar to spiderwebs. Inside the room is a low dais with a pedestal set in its center — a gateway chamber, upon further investigation. The pedestal contains a complete set of petroglyph tiles and a card-slot. Elvira remembered the proper arrangement of tiles that led from Greenwax to the frozen plain, but the party doesn’t know the arrangement that will open the way back to Greenwax (if such is possible.)
- An unusual hallway, smelling of earth and loam, with rough flagstones underfoot and walls and ceiling covered with twining vines and creepers. Midway down this passage, the cautious adventurers notice the gleam of metal in a gap in the greenery. Vigorous work with axe and blade clears away the vegetation to expose an old sliding door; further careful examination reveals a trap designed to spray the victim with some kind of liquid. Deactivating the trap, the door is opened to reveal a dark passageway and an ascending stairway.
Report from the 4/14/16 lunch-hour session.
The party left the Traders’ Mound and headed back to the roadside stone platform where they came through the one-way Gate, in hopes of finding some clue that would enable them to return to their own world. The spell of protection laid upon them by the svirfneblin was of little comfort, and few of the adventurers had any real enthusiasm about entering the Black Ziggurat. Not finding anything, they pressed onward, with the faint hope that the ominous structure looming in the near distance contained not only the answer to the mystery of their missing patron, but also a return Gate to the undercity of Satur…
Arriving at the Ziggurat unchallenged, the party ascended the wide main stair, flanked on each side at regular intervals by squared pillars capped with domes of smoky gray quartz. The double doors at the head of the stairs was tall, twenty feet or more, and of a flat black metal. Mixit, one of the warriors, stepped forward to knock; she felt a pricking at the knuckle as her hand contacted the door, and the doors swung silently inward.
The vast entry hall was dark. As they carefully made their way into the chamber, the party’s light sources revealed doors in the east and west walls, two 5′-diameter holes in the floor spaced 40′ apart, with a facedown human corpse between them. The group’s curiosity was piqued by the corpse’s accoutrements: grey mesh-looking suit, metallic belt, and a strange tubelike device. The cause of death was a crushed skull, which Yee Mun (who had some training as a healer) determined to have been received by falling from a great height…
As the party looked up towards the high ceiling, from out of the darkness swooped two spindly, bat-winged creatures with blank visages and barbed tails — Nightgaunts! One of the nightgaunts grabbed a surprised Aseret and proceeded to hoist the warrior up into the air. Mixit narrowly dodged the other’s clawed grasp, and the fight was on. The party managed to slay the unburdened nightgaunt, which swooped to clutch with claws and lash with barbed tail, without much difficulty. Aseret, on the other hand, struggled mightily in vain to free her awkwardly-pinioned arm so to swing her torch at the creature’s featureless face. Yee Mun concentrated and cast a feather fall spell on Aseret — just in time, as seconds later the remaining nightgaunt released the warrior. Rather than tumbling to a messy doom below, Aseret floated down. Seeing the death of its companion, and possibly perplexed by the unexpected behavior of its prey, the nightgaunt retreated up into the dark recesses of the ceiling.
When it seemed clear that the nightgaunt wouldn’t be returning soon, the party warily turned back to their examination of the human corpse’s items. After some careful experimentation, the party divided up the mesh armor (soak 2), force-field belt, flame projector, and boots, resolving at the next session to examine the two holes in the floor.
Strength 2, Agility 2, Mind 0, Lifeblood 10
Brawl 1, Defense 1, Armor 2 (leathery hide)
Attacks: Claws (+3, grapple/lift), Barbed tail (+3, damage 1D)
Traits: Flyer, Stealthy
The PCs have been searching for their missing patron, the sorcerer Ghaelus, who disappeared while searching for the Black Ziggurat — yes, THAT same unspeakably-ancient, multiversal, dimension-shifting fortress/entity. Well, in last week’s session the PCs found a Gate (one-way, though they didn’t realize this at the time) leading from the undercity of Satur to a frozen plain on a dying world. Several miles from their point of arrival was a massive pile of dark stone, the Ziggurat itself.
They encountered two travelers on the road in a wagon drawn by two furred ice-lizards. Dirjin, a githzerai, and Hexil, a phraint, offered the shivering travelers passage in their wagon to a nearby svirfneblin Trading Mound. Gark, the Mound’s leader, provided the PCs with food, warm clothes, and some more information about the Ziggurat’s manifestation on this world:
“In its own way, the Black Ziggurat is responsible for the slow death of our world. Many years ago, to appease their dark gods and their own hunger for power, the wizard-kings of the earth went to war. The Black Ziggurat – as you may have seen its cursed pile on the plain above – was the focus of their struggle, as each vainly believed that mastery of the Ziggurat would enable supremacy over his rivals. To this end, they pursued dark sorceries that drew upon the power of the sun to create mighty engines and weapons that ravaged the planet and depleted the sun’s essence beyond a critical point. Every year now, the light grows weaker. Winters are longer and harsher. Crop harvests yield less. The surface dwellers are struggling to survive – perhaps we dwarves have it easiest, being already conditioned to subterranean life. When the sun finally dies and expends its last rays, so will be extinguished the hopes of all who live on the surface. We who live below may yet live on for a time, drawing warmth from the depths of the earth and sustenance from our traditional food supplies; even then, though, we must face eventual extinction as the planet cools into a ball of ice. This is the future our diviners have seen, and the reality we face, barring the return of the Builders who created this world.”
“The Black Ziggurat is, at its core, a living talisman that feeds on dark energies. It radiates promise – of wealth, power, pleasure, knowledge, security, whatever one desires – and drains those who enter of their spirit. If you go there, you will need wits and weapons to defend yourselves from the physical dangers therein, but more importantly you will need powerful protection from the Ziggurat’s innate magic. Do not tarry overlong, for as the wind and water wear away the stone, even the strongest incantation can be weakened over time if enough force is exerted against it.”
The PCs passed the night in the mound and underwent a ritual of protection by the svirfneblin geomancers. Arioka, the elf archer, traded her hourglass for a vial of powdered fungus with potent soporific properties which, when mixed into a paste, could be applied to arrowheads as a sleeping-poison. The party then climbed into the wagon — Dirjin and Hexil decided that, for the time being at least, their interests lay with the party — and set off towards the Ziggurat.
[I highly doubt any of my players are reading this, but if you are — stop here!]
I’ve spent the last few sessions of our weekly lunchtime 5e game building up to the module “Temple Lair of the Lizardmen” from Judges Guild’s Book of Treasure Maps II, and as our session gets underway, the PCs have just arrived in the ruined village of Vandain (re-positioned to map 11, hex 0903 for those who are interested.) The current PC group consists of:
- Benji, Halfling Rogue 2
- Mixit, Human Fighter 2
- Aseret, Human Fighter 1
- Arioka, Elf Ranger 2
- Yee Mun, Elf Wizard 1
- Elvira, Elf Wizard 2
Granted, most of my players are pretty new to the game, but they have all acquired to varying degrees the “caution-almost-to-the-point-of-paranoia” trait common to old-school dungeoneers. In previous adventures, they have handled themselves quite well, making wise and clever decisions. Not so this time…
Before leaving Southwatch Tower and boating down the Muddy River to Vandain, the PCs knew to be on the lookout for a band of lizardmen of unknown size, which has been attacking caravans and travelers in the region. There are clear indications on the PCs’ treasure map that indicates the location of “watchmen” (and, more generally, the presence of lizardmen) in and around the ruined village. With all this information, what do they do? They walk across the open marshy ground towards Vandain like tourists, blundering around enough that the lizardmen are eventually alerted to their presence. No scouting, no sneaking, nothing, despite traveling into town from the north (where their arrival by boat is undetected) and observing from distance “a humanoid form move between the buildings.”
Surprise, surprise, the PCs walk around the corner of a building right into an ambush. Spears thrown by the two lizardman sentinels hit their (randomly-determined) targets, the two party wizards. One of the lizardmen immediately retreats to raise the alarm back at the lair, and the other follows his two guard crocodiles into the fray. When the dust settles, one crocodile is dead, two PCs are incapacitated and making Death Saves, and the remaining foes are bloodied and retreating.
The PCs hastily stabilize their unconscious comrades and drag them into the furthest-outlying ruined building. As our 1-hour session draws to a close, the players ask about using Hit Dice to recover lost hit points. I explain the rules about Short Rests (1 hour minimum) and Hit Dice, and offer friendly warning hints to the effect that holing up to camp here at this time may not be the best idea! Despite my attempts to dissuade them, they decide to spend an hour in the ruined building. As the players will find out next week, it only takes about 5 minutes for the quick reaction force of 5 lizardmen to reach the scene of the melee, and a couple more minutes to follow the path of bloody, bent marsh grass (through which the wounded PCs were dragged) to the party’s location…
Some additional thoughts:
- The players were lucky that before the session, I referenced the Monster Manual and magnanimously downgraded the original module’s Giant Crocodiles (9d12+27 hp!) to normal Crocodiles (3d10+3 hp). It really would have been curtains for them… On this note, I’m really not a fan (so far) of the across-the-board hit point inflation in 5th edition.
- I had good dice and the players had pretty lousy dice for most of the session, which always makes a difference.
- My gripe about inflated hit points aside, combat pretty fast, easy, and fun. I’m really thankful that 5e did away with all of 3rd edition’s fiddly rules for Attacks of Opportunity, which was one of the things that very quickly killed 3e for me.
- I don’t pay too much attention to Challenge Ratings. Put stuff out there, provide the players ways to gather information, encourage good strategy, tactics, and clever play, and, if they still run into something too tough, remind them that “running away to fight another day” is always an acceptable option.
- Finally, on a related note, if players blunder around without thinking, let the dice fall where they may…
Bartolo is a prosperous halfling merchant who deals in beeswax- and honey-based products, the most popular of which are Bartolo’s Green Candles (known throughout the region for both their distinctive jade color and insect-repelling properties*.) His family also owns and operates the Honey Drop Tavern in northern Greenwax, which is where his son approached the four PCs with a job offer: protect a cargo boat traveling up the coast to Fort Axilar, a trading post on the Axilar River delta. There, its captain will meet with Bartolo’s partners, a primitive tribe of golden-furred halflings, to trade for a new supply of potent wax and honey (harvested from ferocious, giant jungle bees by mysterious apicultural methods known only to that tribe) and return to Greenwax with the cargo. The PCs were warned to be on guard against pirates, who, in addition to seizing cargo, will commonly carry off prisoners to sell in the flesh-markets of Antil to the north.
The journey was uneventful for the most part, but as they drew near their destination they saw smoke rising from the delta — Fort Axilar was under siege! As the captain urgently sailed to the beleaguered outpost’s aid, two longboats filled with armed pirates raced out to intercept them. Dodging a hail of arrows, the PCs managed to cripple one of the boats with a well-placed arbalest shot, but the other reached the ship. A gang of savage-looking human, lizardman, and ape-man warriors swarmed aboard and the melee was joined. For a time, the two sides seemed evenly matched, but the battle turned when the human sword-maiden Mixit carved a path of bloody ruin through a half-dozen of the enemy. The spectacle thoroughly demoralized the remaining pirates, who beat a hasty retreat. When the ship reached the Fort, the battle was over. A larger group of mixed-race warriors had been repulsed, but not before they caused great havoc: some dead, many wounded, buildings burned, captives taken, and treasure — including the new stores of wax and honey — seized and carried off into the jungle. A war party is being assembled by the fort’s commander to pursue the raiders into the jungle, and the PCs were offered a share of the spoils for their assistance.
A few post-session thoughts:
- The first half of our lunchtime session was taken up with converting characters to BoL and explaining the basic mechanics of Attributes, Careers, the Task Roll, Boons & Flaws, and Hero Points. I was expecting this, and decided to use the remaining time to set up next week’s adventure. If we have additional players show up, their characters can either be survivors of the Fort Axilar battle or sailors who volunteer for the war party.
- I realize that, much as I enjoy improvising at the table, I’m just not that good at creating cool names on the fly.
- Before next session, I need to create a player aid for how to use Hero Points, as it’s one of the few things everyone needs to remember that isn’t on their character sheet.
- As ideas unspool about where this adventure is going, I find myself thinking back to a sadly-short-lived plan to run Dwellers of the Forbidden City with BoL…
* Bartolo’s Green Candle: Made from the wax of giant jungle bees and subjected to secret alchemical processes, this candle will, when burned, give off a pleasant fragrance that will repel insects in a 10′ radius. The candle must be burning to have this effect.
Thursday was the second session of my lunchtime Labyrinth Lord game, attended this time by five players (all from Tech Services, for those keeping track.) The PCs were hired by Ghaelus, a member of the Archivists’ Guild, to retrieve the skull of Krelek, an Orichalan sorcerer and sage, from a tomb on the outskirts of the barrow field. Ghaelus’s ultimate goal was to gain access to Krelek’s personal library, located somewhere in ruins of Satur, in hopes that it might contain the crucial information to confirm Ghaelus’s hypothesis: that the ruined city of Satur was built upon the ruins of an even older civilization. Ghaelus planned to use the skull to commune with the dead sorcerer’s shade in hopes of procuring the words of power that would allow passage through the magical wards and defenses of Krelek’s manse. Equipped with a charm to preserve them from the most potent of the tomb’s magical defenses, the PCs braved the barrow field again. In our one-hour session they fought skeletons, disarmed mundane traps, battled an animated statue, and found the secret antechamber containing Krelek’s sarcophagus. The party returned to Greenwax with the Skull and two treasures: a gem-encrusted dagger worth 200 gold pieces and a silver bloodstone ring which, when properly inspected, proved to have been enchanted with a minor defensive charm to protect the bearer in combat.
By all accounts we had fun, and the players are looking forward to more. This time we only played for about an hour (which started late due to two new players having to roll up characters), and one of the players had to leave before we finished. I did manage to finish the prepared adventure in the time we had, but it definitely felt a little rushed. Following the session’s end and my subsequent conversations with several players, I’ll most likely be switching systems from Labyrinth Lord to Barbarians of Lemuria. (Hmm, there seems to be a pattern developing here!) To that end, I’ve already started cobbling together my “Barbarians of the Wilderlands” document. I have little patience for tracking experience points these days, and I also think that, for players in a casual pick-up game, there’s something gratifying in having one’s character receive experience points at the end of a session and be able to spend them immediately to improve in a certain area.
My intent has been for this to be a drop-in game, that whoever wants to play is welcome. Given that we only have an hour or so to play, character creation for new players — which in either LL or BoL is relatively fast — is a huge time-sink. To minimize this, I’m considering a couple options:
- Have a stack of pregens handy for people who drop and just want to try the game. At some point, players who prove to be regular attendees can choose to either continue with their pregen character or create a new one.
Have a regular cast of pre-generated characters that all the players can choose from. If new player A plays Krongar the Mighty in an episode and doesn’t show up for the next session, new player B could take over that character for that session. A benefit I see in this approach is that I wouldn’t necessarily be constrained to one hour for the adventure — we could potentially end the session with a cliffhanger and pick up the following week without having to deal with new characters.
One of the aspects of old-school D&D play that I want to retain in this game is the emphasis on exploration (and related importance of resource management), which doesn’t really mesh with BoL’s default style of over-the-top heroic action. Yora’s BXoL houserules for treasure and encumbrance have been very helpful in this regard. Heroes of Hellas has provided some additional food for thought, specifically regarding Kleos (as a potential way to model “leveling up” and rising in social stature) and adding followers. More on this as I tinker…