The Hook Mountain Massacre, Part 4

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…Already in Progress

The team has been back in town for a couple of days after the fall of Fort Rannick. After an uneventful pacification of a house full of inbred half-ogres and an even less eventful strategy session, they’ve decided to leave the Fort for now and try to rid the dam of ogres, seeing that as the bigger threat. Kaven, despite having been freed of his charm to the mistress of the casino boat, is still troublesomely untrustworthy to both the Saviors of Sandpoint and the Remaining Rangers of Rannick. He’s left behind to guard the town while Shayliss rejoins the party, happier to risk the weather and ogres than too much more hero worship in Turtleback Ferry.

It takes much less time to reach the dam without a torrential downpour, though the rain has continued on and off at a lighter pace throughout the trip. In a moment of calm, diffuse light gives them a good view of the dam: ancient, pitted by the shallow hole in the right side left by Black Magga’s fall, and obviously groaning under the pressure of the entire Storval Deeps built up behind it. If it were to fail, it would fail catastrophically, and, in Balekh and Veshenga’s estimation, turn Fort Rannick into beachfront property on a new inland sea potentially reaching all the way to Magnimar. Aside from the cataclysmic loss of life along the lake and river from the flood, the fall of the dam would soon result in ogres being able to sail right up Sandpoint’s front door.

Not willing to let that happen, four humans, a half-orc, a half-elf, a gnome, and a bear begin struggling their way up crudely carved stairs obviously made for bigger folk than they. Skulls of every shape and variety, though many of them humanoid, are carefully placed along the path, with Giantish glyphs that Taeva and Haggor make out as warnings to keep away from the Skulltakers… whatever those might be. Slowly hoisting themselves up the stairs, the group enters a cave with a steep rise and Haggor pulls himself up to take a look as the rest of the party struggles to climb up behind.

Within the cave is a strange two-headed giant eating from a disgusting pile of meat. He screams at the group about not being bribed again, then hurries to attack. Though he hits hard, and the party is at a disadvantage due to their low average training in climbing, short work is made of the ettin. Haggor helps the rest of the group up, gets healed by Balekh, and then leads the way up another ledge.

A short path leads out onto the top of the dam proper, where the party has time to form up in the face of a half dozen ogres busily attempting to pry away the stones of the dam, weakening it to speed its seemingly inevitable collapse. They notice the party quickly, and the two groups collide, splashing through several inches of pooled rainwater to trade blows. As with most clashes with brutish opponents, the party’s front line takes heavy damage, a few other get clipped by a stray blow, but victory is all but assured. Haggor does manage to shove one ogre off the steep edge of the dam, watching him pulp at terminal velocity in the river below, and then knocks out a fleeing ogre with a thrown greatclub, ensuring its drowning death in the deep side of the dam. It’s at this point the party really appreciates just how dire the situation is: even if the dam doesn’t collapse, the Storval Deeps have so little distance left to rise before they simply overwhelm Skull’s Crossing that it’s not even a drop into the water from the walkway.

Determined to get the floodgates open, they walk to the middle of the dam, where a skull-encrusted building rests… the skulls of the architecture turn out to be made of even smaller skull carvings as the group gets closer, causing them to reflect on the psychotic decorator of the place. After considering various strategies of getting in, Haggor and Veshenga simply shove through the left hand double doors, pushing through what feels like a smashed mechanism, and everyone hustles into a vine-draped antechamber. Most of the group is in the room before everyone nearly simultaneously notices that patches of vines bulge from the walls in a threatening manner. Balekh is, however, pontificating to whoever will listen about the architecture as a quartet of trolls emerge from hiding and attempt to savage the party.

The trolls, like most unprepared foes the party faces, make the mistake of assuming Haggor’s lack of armor makes him a target of opportunity. He calls upon his monk training to dodge and weave, and the monsters barely touch him before realizing that they should concentrate on the other targets savaging them. Two fall to focused fire in short order, and Shayliss hurries up to spray them with a cone of flame and keep them down. The other two are down almost before they realize that the party has brought a fire mage, and they, too, get burned to charcoal by the young Chelish woman. Haggor, confident enough in his evasive abilities to not ask her to wait for him to move, is also singed.

Clearing the rest of the ancient building of goods and hiding places, the party troops downstairs to find a strange pool of water, illuminated by magical lighting, interposed between them and a door piled high with skulls. The party spreads out to check the other doors in the room and the pile of skulls, none noticing movement in the pool until a singularly immense troll surges effortlessly onto the top of the water and stabs at Haggor and Veshenga with a wickedly barbed polearm, dropping the monk before the he can get close enough to fight. Taeva lets out a wild cry and flings herself onto the creature’s back, stabbing at its neck and back. The rangers do what they can, filling it full of arrows and taking wild swings, as the casters burn it with magic. Moments before it is able to understand its predicament and sink with the gnome into the depths, it falls over and Taeva leaps free of the troll… leader?

Balekh patches up Haggor as Veshenga goes back to work on removing the skulls blocking access to the far door. Haggor swims through the pool and into the side rooms, eventually finding a scale model of the dam that Balekh believes is some kind of control center. By his calculations, the dam should automatically release a safe amount of water before it gets nearly this high, but even if the automatic systems were broken, the override switches on the device should be having more effect than they are. His conclusion is that somehow the device is simply not getting whatever power it needs to open the floodgates. Just as he is coming to this conclusion, the rest of the party clears the far room and enters what appears to be a two-cell prison, each gated room containing a glowing mystic circle. One circle contains a large pile of crimson ash, and the other contains a seemingly mummified creature, all wings and horns.

Balekh is called in to investigate, and realizes that the creature is an ancient devil of the highest order—a dessicated Pit Fiend—just as the creature reaches feebly towards him and groans, “Free me!” Balekh asks the rest of the party to get out of line of sight while he assesses the threat from the creature, and as the gravely wounded devil begins to promise him anything within its power to set it free, Balekh concludes that the dam must power itself by soul energy from the circles: two trapped Pit Fiends drained over the eons until what should be immortal is rendered extinct, and a power supply meant to be unending is no longer able to open the dam.

Sharing his information with the rest of the group, they start to consider their options as the fiend whispers promises for anyone setting it free: power, knowledge, even a solution to Shayliss’ bloodline contract. Worried that the devil’s wheedling might soon have an effect on the rest of the party, Balekh wheels up the portcullis to the empty cell, planning to risk himself. Haggor beats him to this plan, shoving the theurge out of the way in an imminently practical gesture of making sure the party’s healer/scholar isn’t the one first into unknown danger. As soon as he steps into the circle, Haggor immediately feels a portion of his life energy stripped away as the devil across from him begins to scream. As the eldritch beast splits apart in lines of crimson fire, it wails a single, unidentifiable word of hatred over and over—Karzoug!—before itself flickering into steaming crimson ash.

As the party helps Haggor free of the mystic circle, they feel the rumbling of millennia-old machinery struggling to life, and the sudden rush of a torrent of water as the Storval Deeps spill out safely onto the river below. Satisfied with a job well done, the party stops to recover… and plan for an assault on Fort Rannick.

Pathfinder, Rise of the Runelords: House Rules

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These are the house rules I’m using in my Rise of the Runelords campaign under the Pathfinder system.

Classes

We are using a modified set of classing rules:

  • Only core Pathfinder classes are available. Feats and spells from other books might be available for inclusion/research based on GM/player discussion.
  • All characters will use the multiclassing rules normally.
  • No prestige classes are available except those designed to fix a broken multiclass combo (e.g., Arcane Trickster for Caster/Rogue, Mystic Theurge for Caster/Caster, etc.). Check before character generation to make sure the prestige class you want is available.

Character Parity

  • All characters use the same Pathfinder point buy (36 point), and receive maximum hit points per level.
  • All missing players will have their characters NPCed.
  • All characters receive experience at the same rate, no matter how many games are missed.

Initiative and Combat Order

(Based on a post from Ars Ludi)

Combat order is a shared experience:

  • All enemies act on the same initiative roll (generally an average of enemy initiative scores), and can coordinate their actions if appropriate.
  • During surprise rounds and the first round of combat, PCs roll initiative normally, and act in their normal order until the enemies act in the first non-surprise round.
  • After the enemies have acted in the first round of combat, initiative becomes a tradeoff between enemies and PCs: the PCs go, and then the enemies go (and allies might go on a third tick if appropriate).
  • PCs are encouraged to coordinate their actions on their initiative mark, though this coordination may be cut short if it becomes excessively complex for what could be conveyed in a combat round.
  • Once the PCs have coordinated their actions, actions are resolved clockwise around the table unless some actions need to take place before others (e.g., “I have to move over there so the cleric can heal me.”).
  • PCs may split their move and standard actions, to perform maneuvers such as two PCs moving to flank an enemy before either takes an attack.

Aid Another for Skills

(From Trailblazer)

Each player working as a team rolls the skill check. The highest roll is the leader and each additional roll that exceeded DC 10 adds +2 to the leader’s roll.

Death and Dying

(Variant of 4th Edition)

  • When a character is dropped to 0 or negative HP, he or she is unconscious and dying. Negative HP is not tracked; all dying characters are assumed to be at 0 HP.
  • A dying character is automatically killed by a Coup de Grace, or any attack that deals more than a quarter of his or her Hit Points. Area of effect attacks automatically hit dying characters in most circumstances.
  • Unless stabilized by NPCs or enemies after the fight (or an ally during the fight), an abandoned dying character dies at the end of the encounter.
  • If able to be tended by party members, a dying character automatically stabilizes at the end of an encounter.
  • All healing restores a stabilized or dying character from 0 HP.

Combat Reactions

(From Trailblazer)

Every character gets 1 Combat Reaction plus an additional one when he or she would normally get iterative attacks (at +6, +11, and +16 BaB). Combat Reflexes adds positive Dex mod to BaB to determine when one gets new Reactions (e.g., +2 Dex gets new reactions at +4, +9, +14).

The reactions refresh at the beginning of the character’s turn, and can be used as immediate reactions when the monsters or the other PCs act. They can be used for:

  • Attack of Opportunity: Same as before, just uses up a Reaction.
  • Aid Attack: Add +2 to the melee attack of another PC against a target threatened.
  • Aid Defense: Subtract 2 from the attack of a target threatened when it makes a melee attack against another PC.
  • Dodge: When an attack is declared against you, but before the result is announced, add half your BaB to your AC for that attack.
  • Parry: When an attack is declared against you, but before the result is announced, add half your BaB plus your Shield AC as DR X/- for that attack.

Attacks of Opportunity

(From Trailblazer)

Moving around in someone’s threat range doesn’t provoke an AoO, only trying to leave it without a retreat or 5-foot step. Other actions like spellcasting or drinking a potion still provoke normally. Reach weapons still allow an AoO on moving adjacent ( as the target leaves the threatened space), but creatures with natural reach that covers all space up to the reach will not provoke AoOs from approaching the monster.

Ability Damage and Level Drain

(Previously house ruled for 3.5, replaced with Pathfinder rules)

See the Pathfinder Negative Level rules.

Turning Undead

(Previously house ruled for 3.5, replaced with Pathfinder rules)

See the Pathfinder Channel Energy rules.

Diplomacy

(From Giant in the Playground and Trailblazer)

You can propose a trade, agreement, or conflict resolution to another creature with your words; a successful check can then persuade them that accepting it is a good idea. Either side of the deal may involve physical goods, money, services, promises, or abstract concepts like “satisfaction.” The difficulty of the Diplomacy check is based on three factors: who the target is, the relationship between the target and the character making the check, and the risk vs. reward factor of the deal proposed.

The Target: Your Diplomacy check is opposed by the highest Sense Motive or Diplomacy check of all creatures in a group you are trying to influence. All such creatures use the Aid Another rules for skill checks. (For this purpose, a number of characters is only a “group” if they are committed to all following the same course of action. Either one NPC is in charge, or they agree to act by consensus. If each member is going to make up their mind on their own, they do not get the benefit of Aid Another, and you may roll separate checks against each.)

The Relationship: The DC modifier depends not only on the personal relationship between you and the target (if any), but also on the magnitude of their feelings for you.

Relationship Example DC
Intimate A faithful lover or spouse. -10
Friend A long-time friend or family member -7
Ally A member of the same army, team, or church. (Helpful) -5
Acquaintance (positive) A business associate with whom you do regular (satisfactory) business. (Friendly) -2
Just met A town guard (Indifferent) +0
Acquaintance (negative) Someone you have met regularly with negative consequences. (Unfriendly) +2
Enemy A member of an opposing army, team, or church; a bandit. (Hostile) +5
Personal Foe An antagonist who knows and opposes you personally +7
Nemesis Someone who has sworn to you, personally, harm +10

Risk/Reward Analysis: The amount of personal benefit must always be weighed against the potential risks for any deal proposed. It is important to remember to consider this adjustment from the point of view of the NPC; what is highly valuable to one may not be equally valued by another. When dealing with multiple people at once, always consider the benefits to the person who is in clear command, if any hierarchy exists within the group.

Risk/Reward Example DC
Fantastic Great reward, negligible risk; a best case scenario. -10
Favorable Deal favors the target. The reward is good and the risk is tolerable. -5
Even No reward, no risk; or an even swap. +0
Unfavorable Deal does not favor the target. Either the reward is not great enough or the risk is intolerable. +5
Horrible There is no way the deal can favor the target; a worst-case scenario. +10

Success or Failure of Diplomacy: If the Persuasion check beats the DC, the subject accepts the proposal, with no changes or with only minor (mostly idiosyncratic) changes. If the deal favored the target, his attitude improves by one category.

If the check fails, the subject does not accept the deal but may, at the DM’s option, present a counter-offer that would push the deal up on the risk-vs.-reward list. For example, a counter-offer might make an Even deal Favorable for the subject. The character who initiated the Diplomacy check can then simply accept the counter-offer, if they choose; no further check will be required.

If the check fails by more than 10, his attitude worsens by one category.

Complex negotiations may involve multiple checks, especially when determining the details of a treaty for example.

Identifying an Item

(Previously house ruled for 3.5, replaced with Pathfinder rules)

See the Pathfinder Spellcraft description.

Hoyle’s D20

This system is used to replace all d20 rolls in the game.

Each player starts with an individual deck of playing cards with the face cards removed. It has four sets of Ace-10 and two Jokers, for a total of 42 cards. At the beginning of each session, the players shuffle their decks and set aside 5 cards without looking at them. This is the “bank” and the size can be adjusted based on how much leeway you want the players to have to undo bad rolls.

Whenever a D20 roll is called for during the game, the player turns over the top card on the deck and uses it as the result. Ace counts as one and all other cards count their full value. Black cards represent 11-20 (i.e., add 10 to the face value of black cards). Jokers have a special rule noted below.

If the player fails a roll, he or she may flip over the top card of the bank and use that card instead. The player may choose to continue flipping cards from the bank until getting a successful result or running out of bank cards.

If a Joker is drawn, the player immediately sets it face up to the side, moves the top card of the deck onto the top of the bank without looking at it, and then flips the next card. Saved Jokers can be used to add +2 to any other roll (even damage rolls) after rolling, and are discarded once played for this effect.

Once the player plays the last card in the deck, all cards in the discard pile are reshuffled. The bank retains its size, and does not get any new cards added to it after the shuffle: after play begins, only flipping a Joker adds cards to the bank.

Action Points

(From Trailblazer)

Banked cards are treaded as Action Points. In addition to flipping over another card when you fail a roll, you could burn an AP card to:

  • Improve any d20 roll (attack roll, skill check, saving throw, caster level check, etc.). Roll an action die (typically, exploding d6) and add the result to your d20 check. You may only use an action point to improve the result of a roll before the DM informs you of the outcome of the roll. You may only use one AP per roll to improve any given d20 check.
  • Negate a critical threat scored on you by an opponent.
  • Confirm a critical threat without having to re-roll your attack.
  • Use a limited resource ability (“per day”) an additional time (even if you have exhausted your normal supply).
  • Take an additional attack or move action on your turn. An extra attack is at the same bonus or penalty as your other attacks that round. (Once per turn only.)
  • Make a “second chance” saving throw or SR check on a subsequent round. This use is only permitted if the target failed his first saving throw/ SR check and is subject to an ongoing (not instantaneous) effect.
  • Heal half your maximum HP after a 10 minute rest.

You can go into AP “debt” (getting less than 5 cards at the start of the session) if:

  • You invest an AP in a magic item to have it level with you (automatically increasing its enhancement bonus at 6th, 9th, 11th, and 15th levels).
  • You are raised from the dead (debt lasts until leveling up).

Elite/Boss monsters can use their APs for all of these benefits, plus taking an extra action during your initiative order (but not to interrupt your turns). These monsters can also spend extra APs if the party is awarded a bonus AP. Elite monsters typically get 1 AP to start, and Boss monsters get 1 per PC.

The Hook Mountain Massacre, Vignettes 1

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Black Magga

Shayliss stamped her feet a couple of times to make sure the rock was solid and not slippery, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It wasn’t the salt air of home, but at least it wasn’t the smell of smoke and mildew that had tormented her for the better part of a week trapped in the inn. The sky was mostly clear, the sun was shining, and there was hope of soon being able to have clothes that were both dry and clean without resorting to magic. Even after months of being able to evoke miracles at her whim, she still wasn’t comfortable using them for household chores, and hadn’t bothered to learn the spells that Balekh relied on for such things… especially since it was so much easier to create fire than banish dirt, and she was always afraid she’d burn the building down, much less her wardrobe.

But, now, the rain was over, the town was starting to resemble civilization again, and everything could go back to some semblance of normalcy. Of course, as soon as she thought that, she realized she’d just cursed herself. It helped that the thought was followed shortly by a thundering sound from the north. She cautiously peeked open one eye, her face having gone from a look of serene peace to pinched anticipation in a moment. Sure enough, the sound was racing ahead of what could only be a surge of water heading down from the mountains.

“I’m glad you’re safe, honey,” she muttered to herself in a deeper tone of voice. “Oh, of course, dear, I ran as soon as I saw it. Shame about everyone else in town,” she replied in a self-recriminating tone.

“Well, it’s not like you had any way to warn them, right?” She started casting around on the ground for anything that wasn’t soaking wet, “No, everything was wet, and I certainly wasn’t going to tear my dress just to try to save a few lives…” Grimacing at the act, she reached down and tore a strip of cloth from her skirt, produced a spark with a whisper, waved the now-burning strip, and then closed her eyes while incanting the words of a more powerful spell.

The fireworks were almost without sound, but the flares were blindingly bright. Citizens going about their daily business turned to take in the ominous sight, only to hear a woman’s voice yelling something. Some of those that were closer or more perceptive were able to make out that it was the pretty blonde girl that came with the adventurers, pointing north and shouting “FLOOD!”

A few minutes’ warning was more than the town seemed fated to get, and it certainly made a difference. Buildings near the river emptied, inhabitants running to higher ground, and the bravest souls rushed into the stables to free the horses. A handful made for the ferries, battening them down and hoping to ride out the incoming wave, now clearly audible to everyone. The slowest rushed into the church, the town’s chief priest/mayor frantically ringing the bell as the last of the flock tried to escape.

The water hit less climatically than Shayliss feared; she watched from the hill amidst some of the townsfolk as it rushed up about 100 feet into the town but failed to hit with tidal force. Besides a few swamped boats and the threat of rotted floors, it looked like the town might have dodged an arrow… but then she heard the noise that had been masked by the water. An unearthly, high-pitched keening wail was swiftly approaching down the river just behind the surge, and shocked voices shouted “Black Magga” at the sight of huge, night-black tentacles reaching out of the river and approaching at high speed.

As they hit the mouth of the river, they found purchase on one of the submerged docks and a horror began to pull itself forth. A titanic body, a mouth full of fangs, and tiny eyes full of hatred glared about at the first thing the ancient beast had to blame for her unexpected trip. Roaring out a challenge that caused several in the crowd to faint and the rest to bolt, the beast began to crawl out of the water and fixed its evil glare on the most prominent challenge an eldritch menace is likely to find in mortal society: the temple of Erastil. With a bellow of aeons-old hate, it began to pull itself towards its target.

Shayliss looked around. Somehow, she was still standing after everyone else had fled, only a few passed-out bodies to keep her company. “Why didn’t I run?” she wondered to herself. “It’s not like this is even my town… I did a lot. I saved most of them, right?”

“Of course you did, we would have done something about it, but we’re big damn heroes with martyr complexes. I mean, that’s the only reason you talked to me in the first place, ‘cause of saving your town when I didn’t really have to. But, of course, we wouldn’t expect you to do the same thing… even though you were the only one there who could.”

She was already running down towards the southernmost dock before she finished talking to herself. The cries of terror from the church were audible as soon as she got into town, even over the persistent, nagging wail of the enraged sea monster, pulling itself into town inch by inch as it wrenched its bulbous body free of the surging river, its rear tentacles seemingly still caught in some flotsam, slowing it down. She hit the dock at a run, skidded to a stop, took a deep breath while both cursing her own stupid bravery and calling to mind her magic.

“Get away from them you bitch!”

The squamous horror turned after about a dozen missiles of searing red light struck her, a few of them actually burning through her defenses and causing pain. It roared and shifted, tentacles straining to tear open the church already falling away, their purpose forgotten. It slowly began pulling itself in a new direction, towards the small mortal blasting it with hellish magics. Three dozen missiles in all surged through the city as the beast drew ever nearer, balancing its weight on the submerged shore, nearly free of the last of the flotsam that had carried it twenty miles downriver.

With the screaming beast filling her whole world, Shayliss felt the last of her magics exhaust, closed her eyes, and braced herself for the end.

And then, with no horrible terror in sight, but close enough to smell its noxious breath, the keening roar blocking out almost everything, she heard it… another surging thunder. With her last moment of coherent thought before the overwhelming realization of her pointless sacrifice, she flung herself down to the dock and wrapped her arms tightly in the mooring ropes, felt the water wash over her and the beast, and hoped that Balekh hadn’t made it to the dam…

Spirit of the Century Challenges

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I spent the weekend prepping for multiple games, so today’s just a glimpse into some of the challenges I used for one of them.

It’s a bright Spring morning in downtown Saturday Manhattan, where the newest YMCA gym for teens is being opened with a series of thrilling athletic competitions. The PCs are guests at the event, and are welcome to compete.

  • A pugilism contest featuring the great Jack Dempsey as referee. This is a single elimination match. Characters have a simple contest of the best of three rounds, with the winner moving on to the next match.
  • A single-elimination endurance weightlifting competition using the “Hercules” brand weights donated to the gym. There are five rounds, the difficulty of progressing to the next round with a Might roll is the current round number, and if the number of the current round is greater than Endurance, the difference is a penalty to Might.
  • A race along the new outdoor 1 mile track, two laps around. Each roll represents five minutes of running, and each roll after the first is limited by Endurance. The first to 14 successes (two laps) wins.

The team can split up to pursue the following leads, grouping by skills for one roll each:

  • Interrogate Minions (Intimidation/Rapport): 0 – Rigby was targeted as an artist; 2 – They were not acting alone; 4 – They are seeking the greatest treasure the world has ever seen; 6 – The key to the treasure is hidden by someone connected to the Museum of Art
  • Research Hieroglyph (Academics, Art, Mysteries): 0 – The symbols represent the Egyptian snake god Apophis; 2 – Apophis cults are very old and typically pursue Armageddon as a concept; 4 – They are typically interchangeable with cults of Nidhogg, Leviathan, St. George’s Dragon, and the Hydra; 6 – This glyph is fairly modern, likely a formulation of an active cult
  • Word on the Street (Contacting): 0 – Several other kidnapping occurred in the last day; 2 – All of the victims were artists and/or wealthy; 4 – Each victim was closely connected to the management of the Museum of Art; 6 – The Met itself was not broken into.

The Hook Mountain Massacre, Part 3

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Apres Moi

The rains begin to pour down upon Turtleback Ferry shortly after the party returns from the riverboat. Haggor looks wistfully out into the storm, sad that there’s no fishing. Taeva slogs around town looking for clues and barely finding her way back to the inn. By the second day, the rain has only increased, and the party is worried that it won’t let up anytime soon. Veshenga goes to check on Kaven only to find that he left the night of the fire to go back to the fort; they find this a bit suspicious.

With no end in sight for the rain, the party decides they can’t wait any longer to head out. They’re worried that all this rain after an already heavily-snowed winter might mean trouble for the dam, and the fort is on the way so they can inform the rangers of the problems they anticipate. Shayliss absolutely refuses to slog through 20 miles of mud and monsoon, but the rest set out as soon as they’re decided.

Despite the deluge, the party makes about as good time as can be expected. Footing is treacherous, visibility is severely limited, and everyone is continually sodden to the skin, but they make a consistent six miles a day as far as they can tell. At the end of the third day, they make camp at what they hope is the fork in the road between the fort and the dam.

About an hour before dawn, they’re awakened by the sudden lack of water cascading off the tents. Taeva is the first up, and thinks that she hears some kind of rhythmic thumping coming from the dam, as if some kind of construction was echoing off the wall and down the river canyon. The party hurriedly prepares for the day and sets off in the first light towards the dam.

As the sun finally rises completely over the edge of the eastern mountains. the light clearly illuminates the grim skulls that adorn the epic Thassilonian construction project. It also shines upon strange black tentacles, so giant that they are visible from a few miles away, reaching over the edge of the dam. A massive cracking sound overwhelms the sound of hammering on the dam and the party watches in horror as the upper right lip of the dam blossoms into a lattice of fragments. The tentacles whip in horror, and the party thinks that they’re grabbing and flinging oversized humanoids into the river below in their rage. Within a few moments, the party only having made it a few dozen yards in the race towards the dam, an immense section of the dam gives way completely, spilling fragments of ancient stonework, countless gallons of water, and an angry sea monster into the river below. Realizing that the coming flood will sweep them away on the road, the party rushes uphill, attempting to reach the fort.

As the screaming sound of the monster and the thunder of the exploding river passes behind them, and they worry about the fate of Turtleback Ferry, the party eventually begins to hear yet another layer of trouble: ahead there is nothing but the sound of battle. Rushing towards what should have been a safe haven, the heroes of Sandpoint crest a ridge to see that the fort below is being assaulted from all sides by hundreds of ogres. By the time they’ve come anywhere near close enough to help, the fort’s gates have fallen, the walls have been breached, and the river from the fort is running red with the blood of its defenders.

The party continues rushing forward, trying to decide if they can at least deliver some punishment to the ogres before fleeing, when they see to the south a small squad of rangers that appears to have been returning from the forest. The rangers have less reservation than the party, and rush with a battlecry towards a small cluster of ogres defiling corpses outside the walls. As the rangers and ogres clash, several younger-looking men fall in battered heaps before the heroes can alter their course to flank. Moments later, the party crashes into the ogres from behind, joining with the remaining rangers in a short and dangerous battle with four raging ogres. The rest of the scouts are killed before the ogres are put down and the group flees south away from the roused ogre army.

As they race through the scrublands to hide in the forest, the party has time to observe their new companions. One is Vale, the dark-skinned Shoanti Veshenga met months ago in Magnimar. The next is Kaven; very familiar to Veshenga of late, and, as far as Balekh and Haggor are concerned, most likely the man they saw leaving the riverboat under suspicious circumstances. The third is an older Varisian woman who seems to be their captain; she is obviously skilled with a bow, and travels with a bear companion.

Finally, the group loses the ogre pursuit and stops to rest at the edge of the forest. The rangers are obviously shell shocked and uncommunicative, though they explain that they had been on recon and were trapped by the rain only to find that being delayed had saved their lives. Haggor and Taeva become frustrated when they don’t seem to register that Kaven may have betrayed them. Despite having plausible explanations about his time in Turtleback Ferry and his sudden departure, Haggor senses that he is lying. Not just lying, but something in the ranger’s evasiveness reminds him of Justice Ironbriar. Certain that the man in charmed, they ask the rangers to detect magic, and the Captain confirms their suspicions but is too exhausted emotionally and physically to agree to any solutions at the moment.

Annoyed, Haggor and Taeva march off into the woods… just in time to hear the baying of hounds and something large crashing through the trees.

Sandbox D&D and E6/8

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There’s been a lot of talk this week about sandbox-style games after Gabe from Penny Arcade posted about shifting his game to a sandbox-style, particularly influenced by Ben Robbins’ West Marches game. Possibly with just coincidental timing, Zak from Playing D&D with Porn Stars pointed out that sandbox games work better with PCs that are roguish rather than completely morally upright, as the more strict a character’s moral code, the more likely he or she is to require being acted upon, rather than acting.

The shared definition in all these cases of sandbox-style game is one where the world simply exists independent of the PCs, and it’s up to them to interact with it in a way that tells a story. The GM sets up as many areas of interest in advance as possible, at least to a degree necessary to logically extrapolate them into an adventure location when the PCs take an interest, but, specifically, doesn’t secretly move the same material around to make sure the PCs see it. That is, the PCs have meaningful choice driven by their own agendas: for example, if they choose between the Cave of Eldritch Horrors and the Tomb of Ancient Evils, they have have some idea of the differences so they can make a decision, and they have to trust the GM not to just have one dungeon prepared that gets slotted into whatever place they pick.

A West Marches-style D&D sandbox also has some specific requirements: a home base that’s primarily for bookkeeping, not exploration; the PCs as the primary actors of the setting, unable to run to a greater authority for aid; an understanding that dangers will be laid out in at least a somewhat simulationist manner, so lower leveled PCs can get in over their heads if not careful; and multiple parties of PCs that can intermix members, and replace dead characters with brand new PCs.

It seems to me that, in particular, these requirements are very well served by Epic 6th (E6) or Epic 8th (E8). Both of these are variants on an idea proposed a couple of years ago about the “sweet spot” where D&D 3.x is Heroic Fantasy rather than more akin to Wuxia or Superheroes in power level. In both, maximum level for PCs is the level at which the GM feels most comfortable with their power level – typically 6th or 8th level. After reaching this maximum level, PCs simply gain additional feats when they should level, drastically slowing their power creep while still introducing variant capabilities and character broadening. In particular, it limits the exponential growth of caster power at a point where they’re still not too out of line with other characters (few save or die spells, limited room-clearing AoEs, less capability to control the beginning of fights and alpha strike), stopping short of spells that allow major changes to the flow of the game world (teleport, raise dead, earthquake, major creations, walls, fabricate, etc.). Under E6/8, PCs should continue to play like typical fantasy heroes like Conan or Aragorn for much longer than in typical D&D.

For a standard D&D 3.5 sandbox, I’d stick with E6, but Pathfinder introduces a number of classes where mid-level “capstone” abilities are awarded from 6th-8th level, so going with E8 prevents some builds from getting their coolest mid-level power while others stop leveling just short. E8 also means that some of the 5th level spells like Teleport and Raise Dead are within range to allow their use as rituals for “epic magic” within a setting, without making them commonly available for use.

E6/8 should have several benefits for a West Marches-style sandbox:

  • It already assumes a dearth of leveled NPCs, and even if it didn’t, once PCs hit the level cap they know there’s no one an order of magnitude more powerful than they are. There are no situations where the PCs will worry that they might as well get a character in the teens to deal with (though they might want to try to get an army).
  • The GM can distribute CRs throughout the map with much more freedom, as even a low level party will have a chance to escape when accidentally confronting a threat for max-level characters in a way that they wouldn’t if the world was designed for up to 20 levels or more.
  • Similarly, rearranging party members and taking on 1st level characters should be far less onerous for higher level PCs, as a spread of no more than 7 levels is much less dismissive of contribution than a spread of 19+. A 1st level character can do something useful in an 8th level fight in a way he can’t in a 20th level fight.
  • Finally, the lack of high-end magic should make preparation much easier for the GM: players don’t get access to the truly amazing travel spells to ignore overland travel through threat areas, they won’t just drop an Earthquake on top of a dungeon, and they can’t make major adjustments to the environment in a way that invalidates standard mapping and monster tactics.

Were I to run such a sandbox, I’d probably have a host of other rules tweaks (like the Trailblazer suggestion of removing permanent item creation and sale, and a return to a variation on level-by-wealth to encourage tactical play), but using E6/8 would seem like the key way that such a playstyle could function for an extended period.

The Hook Mountain Massacre, Part 2

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The first game they come across is a strange dice game called Bounders, where Taeva manages to catch the eye of a wealthy-looking gnome who quickly installs her as his good luck charm. The others spend less time at the table, as Balekh realizes that the odds are very poor. This doesn’t stop Taeva from somehow inflating her starting stake despite playing little else that evening.

The next game is a strange roulette wheel adorned with a ghoul’s head called, appropriately enough, ghoulette. The goal appears to be to bet on the right insult that the ghoul will utter, and Haggor quickly becomes locked into the battle of wits with the foul beast, losing all of his chips, re-buying, and losing them all again while passing the time with the pretty tiefling girl that invented the game.

Balekh and Veshenga spread out amongst the card tables, deciding to play games with a little more skill involved. Both do tolerably well, and Balekh eventually moves to the high stakes table after realizing that coins that are essentially spare change to an adventurer are a significant investment for many townsfolk. The excitement begins to dull when he intentionally loses to an obsessed-looking young man only to watch him blow his earnings at another table.

As the party has begun to grow tired of gambling and have noticed a wide array of Sihedron marks hidden on various patrons, they decide it’s time to investigate the proprietor of the boat a bit more. Veshenga and Haggor search the boat, noting that they are now well out from shore, and realize the only place the offices could be is through the kitchen, and they somehow manage to slip through the busy room without being noticed. Downstairs, they find the captain’s chambers, what is obviously a magically-powered engine room, and a door that could only be the owner’s office. Listening at the door, they manage to catch a woman’s voice talking about potentially being discovered and putting the next phases of the plan into motion. By the time they decide to kick in the door, they see a room empty of people but full of a newly lit fire and featuring an unlatched, oversized porthole that someone may have just used to escape.

After finding the fire too deliberate to easily put out and braving the fire to search for documents (all taken except for a ledger), they rush upstairs to tell the others. A cook that is asked to keep people from panicking panics herself, rushing out in a billow of smoke and leaping over the side of the boat. They helplessly watch as she is pulled beneath the surface of the lake by some danger or other; meanwhile, the boat begins the first stages of riot.

Balekh hears the news and immediately grabs Shayliss, the two of them heading downstairs. Holding her breath and very unhappy with what is about to happen to her dress, the flame sorceress unleashes Pyrotechnics on the quickly growing fire, immediately quenching it in a tremendous blast of smoke that sends her and Balekh into coughing fits.

With the immediate crisis averted, the party finds the captain, confirms that he’s been Charmed by the missing Lucretia, and inspects the engine mechanism. The boat is clearly out of commission, but the gambling is still in full swing, and the crowd quickly goes back to it now that the fire is out. They seem to all still be happy to keep their Sihedron marks a secret, despite Balekh’s exhortations to come forward to have them erased.

The riverboat is towed back into town in the morning by the ferries, and the party begins to plan what to do next. Unfortunately, their arrival back to town heralds a new period of torrential spring rains, and they’re left with the decision of whether to forge into unfamiliar wilderness during a downpour, or wait to see what happens next…

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