The Skinsaw Murders, Interlude

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Veshenga (by her player)

My little Quida, the world is as large as it is beautiful. Most of our roads have yet to be found, have yet to know the heels of our boots, or in your case the toes of your two tiny feet! Those are the roads we walk.

The road to Magnimar was a centering and calming thing after wading through the haunted house, slaying her amorous psychotic, and receiving the odd reading from Mvashti. Of course, Veshenga would not question her elder’s reading, despite the fact it left her with more questions than clues. What really bothered her was the questionable past she had found, up until now, relatively peaceful. Was there something else? She wondered about her companions’ fortunes. They had traveled on the winding road, and told stories over fires, and filled their days with so much laughter. Things were changing.

On the road, my little Quida, you will encounter your finest friends and your most fiendish foes. You will sample foods you never knew existed, and drink wines older than your very own father! The mountains will tower, and you will be in awe as you stand in their purple shadows.

Upon entering the grandiose city of Magnimar, Veshenga slipped away from the group after confirming to meet them later for dinner and drinks. Her steps guided her through the twisting streets until she had arrived at the crowded Bazaar of Sails. The smell of so many Osirian spices mingled with merchants and buyers, all barking deals and sales at one another. In the midst of it all, she managed to purchase a bottle of fine Chelish wine from a vendor seated in a tent, its canvas walls lined with horizontal bottles capped with corks pointing to the little man in the middle. He chewed on a pipe as she paid him.

You may even fall in love one day, sweet Quida. His heart will beat with such hopes and promises, and you will hear it when he holds you. As you travel the woods and follow the streams, you will meet many strangers. Some of them will try to hurt you while others, well, they will welcome you.

The bottle of wine was presented to Rameria Callinova. Together, they laughed happily over the letters of introduction. They were kind and full of praise, the sort of words that made Veshenga blush, but eventually claim with a proud grin. She raised a glass with Callinova, before they walked arm-in-arm to the garrison to meet the Black Rangers. Their introductions were brief, and Veshenga was beaming with excitement. Could these be new peers?

Not everything will seem fair, in fact, sometimes you will want to give up. The answer to the question cannot be worth so much heart ache. Some men become obsessed, others distressed. Others… you never see again. It is important though, Veshenga, my sweet girl, you must listen.

The sun was close to setting. She had bid farewell – for now! – to the rangers before walking the winding streets to the docks. The final ship were being tied off to the piers, and the last parcels and crates of goods were being taken from the others. It would not be until the morning that the ships would hoist anchor, break from the docks, and fill their sails in an effort to touch the horizon again. Veshenga was sitting in the last trails of the day, watching the sunset. She looked down to the piece of parchment in her hand. Her own handwriting was scrawled top to bottom, detailing Mvashti’s reading.

It is not so much that you are lucky to be part of the world, but that the world is a part of you too. You can never stop, you must keep moving, you must keep going, even if the very roots try to stop you.

She was late meeting her friends, she remembered the promises of rich food and well-earned drinks and folded the parchment quickly. There was a new bounce in her step, her doubts were pushed aside as she stepped into the tavern, and opened her arms wide to her friends. She laughed loudly and the first round of drinks was on her own coin.

Because there is so much worth fighting for.

Balekh (by his player)

Their friends having separated to contact the various individual trainers they were seeking out, Balehk and Shayliss found themselves alone on the streets of Magnimar, an uncomfortable position for Balekh, but strangely not for Shayliss. He’d assumed that she was a small town girl, and the magnitude of hustle and bustle would be far beyond that of her native Sandpoint, but she seemed to take to it very like a cat suddenly given a bigger territory. Balekh spent about four hours enduring the circuit from shop to monument to tourist trap before convincing her that they had plenty of time. He figured he had probably seen more new people so far during his first day in Magnimar than he had in the previous year all put together.

Shayliss had been less subdued than he would have expected during the trip, considering the events of the past week. Between the murder of her sister and the revelation of the dangers that her sorcerous aptitude might pose, the young woman had been holding up surprisingly well—her native recklessness and joie de vivre allowing her to quickly shake off both clouds. He did get the sense that she was covering her sense of loss over her sister’s death, but she seemed to have little concern about the tense discussion regarding her future training. Her father wasn’t comfortable with her traveling to Magnimar, even in Balehk’s care, but her resolve to remain with her tutor and lover was adamant.

By midafternoon, the pair blundered aimlessly through the streets, getting lost repeatedly, sometimes within blocks of the last time they had pestered a new stranger for directions to the school. Crossing the majority of the city took hours longer than it should have, but they finally entered the grove of trees that stands guard around the Stone of the Seers. The School itself was little more than a few pavilions scattered around an immaculately kept wellspring in the middle of the glade. A lecturer and a few students, all finely dressed to the eyes of a barbarian and a country girl, occupied one of those pavilions, and the pair politely wandered the gardens, waiting for the teacher to finish. Introductions were made, eyebrows were raised over the resume, race, and apparent relationship between Balehk and his pupil, but they were accepted into the school with little difficulty. The teacher, a Master Nivlandis by name, was kind; Balekh got the impression that he was a bit taken with having both a barbarian interested in magic as an experiment and a pretty young sorceress to have hanging around. He helped them locate a few shops where the scroll they needed to finish their business with the Lich might possibly be obtained.

One of the lesser aspirants of the school was dispatched to show the pair to the inn they had chosen, where they awaited their friends. The wilds of the city were daunting, but the pair were not without allies, and as they discussed their plans for the next few days over tart wine and a spicy stew, the excitement of their adventure began to bring the first real smiles of their trip to the surface. Tomorrow they would return to Misgivings and clean away that tainted place. After that, their true adventures in the big city could begin.

Haggor

The burly young man looked like a complete idiot in his pasteboard claws and fuzzy hat, but he tried his best to move like a cat anyway.

“Alright, now let’s say Jimmy here is a tiger…”

“Gunthor, sir,” said the tiger.

“Can’t you hear me trying to talk?” snarled the old dwarf. “Jimmy, here, is a tiger. Now the tiger will come at you low, and from the side if he can. And if he gets a hold there are any number of vicious things he can do to you with all four legs and his fangs. So you’re going to need to…”

“Ow, sir,” said the tiger, from the ground.

“Alright, I see you’ve gone past what we can do with people. Okay. Let’s get the actual tiger…”

“Can I leave first?” asked Jimmy, or Gunthor, scuttling away.

“Yes, yes. Now, you see, this is Steve, an actual tiger. He’s been fed today, so he’ll probably take it easy on you. Just tap out if you have a problem and the trainers will…”

“Mroow!” said the tiger, from the ground. The “sir” was implied.

“Alright. I see you’ve figured that out, too. Now let the poor beast up. Cats are graceful creatures. He probably didn’t know he could bend that way until today. Who trips a tiger? Adventurers, that’s who. The best fighter I’ve seen in years, and I can’t put him in a show because nobody will believe it isn’t fake. Can you believe it?”

“No, sir,” said the hippodrome functionary, obviously bringing bad news into an existing one of “Axetongue” Droaeb’s rants and not wanting to.

“Spit it out.”

“Sorry, sir. We won’t be receiving Master Tiberius’ levy of horse this week. Sorry, sir.”

“What? What’s the old skinflint’s excuse this time?”

“He’s dead, sir. Murdered.”

“Another one? Any more nobs get knocked off and we’re going to have a hard time finding anyone to buy the boxes next season. Go tell our other sponsors to stop being idiots and hire more security.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. Haggor, m’boy… how do you feel about bears?”

Taeva (by her player)

It has only been an hour since I rented this tent in the Bazaar, but I am hopeful that my business will see more luck here than it did in Sandpoint. Already I have been approached by one man inquiring as to my capabilities. While he was far too disreputable a sort for me to even consider working with him, it was still more luck than I had in the entire time I was at Sandpoint. Note to self: Follow the disreputable man, catalog misdeeds, and turn in to the local law enforcement. I’ll not have some layabout thug besmirching my name to his friends simply because I wouldn’t help him rob some old lady of her baubles.

My “interview” earlier this morning with the Mistress of Sails went well, I think. She showed some concern about a person opening a public lock-picking practice, but after we discussed my firm view on what clientele I am willing to accept, I think she was set more at ease. She has said that she may be willing to commission my services soon. I’m sure she understands that she’s not going to get any special treatment in regards as to what jobs I will and will not accept, regardless as to whether or not she has her bodyguards help me practice.

The next order of business, after we sort out this entire thing with Aldern’s apartment in the city and whoever put him up to making a nuisance of himself back in Sandpoint, is to acquire permanent lodgings. The first inn we tried here was intolerable. The second was better, but intolerably expensive. I have heard from my neighbor in the next stall that some nice apartments may be available over near the base of that ruined bridge. Hopefully they’ll have the appropriate roof access. If we are going to be here for a while, I’ll want a place to stay where I can come and go as I please…

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D&D: Minions for Skirmishes

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(Originally posted September 2009)

The following ideas are heavily derived from Spirit of the Century but inspired by my evening session of the Last Remnant.

This system is intended for skirmishes that are somewhere between a typical D&D fight and a full on battle of a war. It’s meant to simplify situations where the PCs have ready access to lower-level assistants and/or are fighting enemies with lots of mooks, such as when defending a town.

Each PC or significant NPC threat forms a unit with one or more NPC assistants. The maximum number of assistants is typically equal to the number of NPCs that can stand adjacent to the character and still allow attacks (typically up to 5 for melee and 9 for ranged). This number might increase in special cases (such as well-trained units, units with reach, etc.).

Assistants have their contribution to the battle holistically determined. They are essentially doing their best to use Aid Another on the leader and getting in the way of attacks to some degree. In general, they will cease to help after a certain amount of wounds (either being taken out but not killed, fleeing, or simply going fully defensive).

Each assistant provides an attack bonus and temporary hit points to the leader (both of which stack for each additional assistant). In general, each assistant provides either:

  • 1 HP/level* and +2 attack (for rogues and other light skirmishers)
  • 2 HP/level* and +1 attack (for standard militia)
  • 3 HP/level* and +0 attack (for heavy armor or shield types)

* NPC’s level, not leader’s level

These numbers are reduced by one step for ranged assistants.

The temporary HP added are doubled if the assistants are willing to fight until gravely wounded (such as when truly loyal or defending their homes) or tripled if the assistants are willing to die before giving up (more typical amongst enemies that will be killed if they fail anyway).

Unlike normal temporary HP, leaders can opt to take half the damage dealt before it is applied to the bonus unit HP. This decision can only be made on the character’s turn, not decided with each attack.

The unit attack bonus ceases once the bonus HP from the unit are used up.

Assistants move with the leader to the limits of their movement rate and the allowance of the space, and act at the same time as the leader (so the entire unit can move and then attack with the full bonus). If a unit is separated from its leader and must field attacks alone, the highest level member uses his attack bonus, saves, and AC (treat him as a Warrior of the appropriate level) and the rest of the assistants help him; the unit maintains its current HP. Unless so separated from a leader, assistants generally cannot be specifically targeted by any attacks, and are not affected by AoEs beyond the amount of damage they take for the leader.

The Skinsaw Murders, Part 8

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After a few more days of recovery, Taeva hears a rumor one morning in the inn that a Hellknight has been seen with a retinue heading up the road from Magnimar. She goes to gather the rest of the group over this information, sampling the flapjacks that Haggor has made up in his cave. Finally deciding amongst themselves that anything unusual probably concerns them, and is at least something they’d like to know about sooner rather than later, they head down to the southern gate and wait as the city welcoming committee. Not too much later, a very imposing looking young woman—built like a gladiator and wearing spiked plate that is both apparently functional and aggressively sexual—rides into town with a pair of henchmen and another pair of what could only be lawyers.

Surprisingly, she barely spares a moment for the party, even on hearing their names, simply asking them direct her to the mayor. She and the lawyers enter the city hall, while the henchmen wait outside. The party questions them, learning that they’re simply hired help to carry baggage; apparently, the lawyers are there to present a subpoena, and there’s a chance Mayor Deverin will be going back with them. Taeva has, meanwhile, climbed a nearby roof to look in the mayor’s office, and can make out an argument inside.

Soon after, the knight and lawyers exit the building, and the party suggests they have a meal at the Rusty Dragon before leaving town. The knight volunteers that they will be wintering in Magnimar if the party can convince the mayor to change her mind. They quickly question the mayor to make sure nothing unacceptable has just happened. According to the flustered woman, they had come to deliver a summons all the way back to Cheliax to work out some ancestral land claim. She’d told them that they could just have it, as her family had no intention of ever going back, but apparently their arcane laws required the presence of the landowner. The party is uncertain if they can contribute further at this point, but checks back in at the Rusty Dragon. Ameiko says that she didn’t see them doing anything shady while they were there. The knight did, however, ask about Haggor specifically, and Ameiko thought the tone was more of appreciation than business interest.

Another few days later and Veshenga remembers that she wanted to try to get another Harrow reading from Madame Mvashti. The old woman offers her tea, but then encourages her to come back the next day with all of her friends. Apparently, the seer feels that their fates are so intertwined that she will have to do individual readings for all four to allow Veshenga a glimpse at a future unmuddied by the party’s overall fate.

So, the next day, they all assemble in the Varisian matron’s house and are given readings from her deck.

  • Haggor’s reading comes first, seemingly focused on himself: a past of luck, performance, and strange secrets, a present balanced on a knife edge of making the most of or squandering his gifts, and a future where secrets are revealed at the hands of a tyrant after a great journey.
  • Balekh’s reading comes next, seemingly focused on his growing relationship with Shayliss: hints abound that encouraging her to pursue the magical arts has unlocked a transition that he must manage carefully, lest she succumb to the power inherent in a Chelish bloodline steeped in infernal pacts.
  • Taeva’s reading is third: it seems to speak to strange dreams she’s been having lately, and tells of a woman of great valor and power brought low by evil, caught in a dark web, but with the potential to free herself with Taeva’s help.
  • Veshenga’s reading comes last, and is perhaps the most confusing, centered on a card of loss: it calls back to the past of a dancer, a birth, and a terrible tragedy, a present of secrets and danger, and a future where a survivor, a bear, and a keep can lead her to the solution of the mystery.

Before they leave, Niska gives them one last piece of advice: their talents have outgrown easy learning opportunities within Sandpoint, and they must venture elsewhere to find training to improve their skills into the specialized adventuring roles they’ve assumed. This is yet another hint to the party that finally confirms their intentions: they’re going to Magnimar.

Consciousness Twinning

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(Originally posted August 2009)

I had an interesting idea for a weird-sciencey explanation for respawning in a scifi videogame context:

Late in the 21st century, we figured out transportation. You know, like Star Trek: the state of all your atoms and molecules and stuff is determined and replicated somewhere else. The method for doing it wound up being quite elegant, if you’re a big-brained string theorist guy. But, the interesting part, was the first guy they tried it on raised the obvious objections: “don’t I just die here and a copy of me is made somewhere else?” He made them see if they could create the copy somewhere else without destroying his current body. And damned if they couldn’t. But there was the weird part.

You’ve heard of quantum entanglement? The little quarks bouncing up and down one place and affecting their brother quarks across time and space with no regard for the speed of light? It turns out consciousness is like that. Something about your brain state, when it’s copied exactly, results in you basically being in two places at once. The first guy had to be put in sensory deprivation to deal with it, but he had two bodies and was aware of them at the same time. You have to be a special kind of person to be able to deal with that much sensory overload, though, and nobody’s figured out how to effectively use two bodies, yet.

Anyway, the persistence of consciousness issues aside, they tried a standard transport: kill a guy here and build him there. That worked out less well. That guy showed up at his destination with nasty gaps in memory and personality shifts. Turns out, without his consciousness holding the wave state open or whatever for even a moment, when they recreated him his brain pathways collapsed just a bit. They figured if they tried to clone someone out of cold storage that way, he might just wake up a vegetable. Religious folks rejoiced that there was something special about sapience, even if it was just the weird quantum wave form generated by the flow of electrons through your nerves.

There was a solution, for the wealthy or the special: a brain in a jar. You selectively clone someone’s brain, drop it in a nutrient bath, and go about your business. The guy dies or needs to be transported, there’s still a brain in a jar in a lab somewhere holding open those consciousness pathways, seeing everything the guy saw up to his moment of death, creating a stable platform to resurrect him on. Plus, if you stick a couple electrodes in the jar brain, you have a completely secure way of communicating with agents in the field by giving them the information in a locked-down facility and twinning it over to the live dude.

And that’s how the elite agents operate. They have a backup brain in a jar somewhere. They can receive orders deep in enemy territory, be transported willy-nilly wherever there’s resources to do so, and even be recreated with full memories after the moment of “death.” I hear it’s an awesome insurance package… if you trust your boss to own a working copy of your brain.

The Skinsaw Murders, Part 7

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Slippery Slopes

After Balekh hurriedly patches up Veshenga’s wounds from the spectral ghouls—and worries about what strange haunted infection the ghouls might have given her—the party rushes down the stairs into what appears to be a massive limestone cave system beneath the house. Everywhere, there is the sound of a thudding heartbeat, or perhaps just the sound of the waves smashing against the cliffs. Parts of the caves look carved, while others appear natural, but all are coated with the undead mold that has infiltrated the house above.

Veshenga quickly tracks Iesha’s footprints, and the party rushes into the next room, where ghoul guardians spring an assault and cry for aid in their unholy tongue. Veshenga pincushions the first ghoul before they swarm in, taking swipes and bites. Haggor and Taeva tumble through, smashing and stabbing at ghouls. Just as the first three are defeated, the reinforcements come howling into the room. Balekh drives two away, but is bitten by one that could not be turned, while Taeva has a frenzied battle with one that she stabbed from behind as it ran past. Eventually, a running battle finishes the last of the ghouls at the door to a huge, vaguely luminescent cavern, where the late afternoon light filters in to give an impression of a massive, slick, mold-slimed caldera into a frothing ocean pit.

Across the room is a shattered door, and Veshenga is convinced that Iesha made for it, so Haggor rushes into the cavern, balancing carefully. He is swarmed by a handful of goblin ghouls that had been waiting in hiding. One is quickly grabbed and tossed down a tier of the cavern, and it thuds, completely dead, and slides into the pool at the center of the room. The rest of the party carefully makes its way into the room, moving slowly to maintain footing, and the goblin ghouls quickly are smashed, stabbed, perforated, and knocked into the pit. Haggor finishes the last goblin off by taking a flying elbow dive down a tier, landing with full force onto the ghoul that was struggling to climb back up to the fight.

As the rest of the heroes slowly make their way around the edge of the pit, Haggor takes the short way back up to the shattered door, and hears the sound of fighting within. Dashing into a smaller room, he has only a moment to take in its sheer monstrosity: fine furniture caked in blood, remnants of gruesome meals, a man-shaped pile of oozing mold on the wall, and two Ieshas—one cowering on the floor while the other cackles and chops at her with a war razor. Quickly recognizing the posture that the revenant had made when cowering from her own reflection, Haggor makes a snap judgment and charges what he assumes is a glamered Aldern, smashing the figure in the face in mid-cackle. He connects, and feels a strange leathery mask that is neither the illusory face or what he’d expect punching a ghoul. Meanwhile, Balekh, Veshenga, and Taeva begin to scramble across the slippery terrain to try to catch up to the monk.

Inside the room, the non-Iesha turns to Haggor and rasps out in a ghoulish version of Aldern’s voice, “Oh, hey Haggor. Just give me a moment to finish her off then we can talk about this.” He then takes a couple more swipes at his murdered wife. Haggor, having none of it, switches to a wrestling hold, arms passing through the illusory image of a dead woman and feeling tattered finery and viscera underneath. He reaches up and rips at where he felt the leather before, flinging a mask of cured human skin across the room and revealing Aldern in all of his necrotic glory. Suddenly realizing his plight, as Iesha’s eyes glow in hatred and her wounds begin to close, the Skinsaw Man claws and bites to free himself. Haggor resists mightily, but cannot quite resist the venom from Aldern’s claws, feeling himself becoming paralyzed.

Aldern extricates himself just in time to receive a furious barrage of attacks from the revenant. Finding himself with no clear path from the room, he attempts to finish her off before she can finish him, getting in a few good but in no way mortal hits. Shifting a bit, he moves to put the paralyzed monk in between himself and the revenant, perhaps having the sense that she will kill anything in her way or perhaps just out of the overwhelming cowardice he exhibited as a mortal.

Just as Iesha begins to reorient—decayed, clawlike fingernails poised to rip the heavily-wounded Haggor out of her way—the rest of the party comes piling in through the door. Veshenga rushes in first. Aldern has a moment of realization. “Veshenga, my lov…” he begins, cutting to a strangled death-rattle as her arrow lodges itself deep in his throat. He falls back into the mound of mold, and Iesha, her murderer destroyed, closes her eyes and collapses into a corpse with her claws an inch from Haggor’s face.

Balekh begins healing Haggor as the paralytic venom wears off, then examines the man-shaped shadow of mold. The two conclude that this was Vorel Foxglove, now existing in some kind of partial lichdom. They find his phylactery smashed on the floor but cannot remove it, and burning the mold merely results in it quickly beginning to grow back. Balekh concludes that he’ll need to come back with more powerful consecration magic.

Veshenga investigates the room, finding a dressmaker’s dummy covered with stolen articles of her clothing, posed for a horrible painting of her that Aldern seemed to be making as much out of blood and excrement as from pigments. Claw-held charcoal drawings of her litter the impromptu studio, as if made from her bedroom window while she slept.

Meanwhile, Taeva sorts through the rest of the workspace, finding a few interesting keys and a very significant letter:

Aldern—

You have served us well. The delivery you harvested exceeds what I had hoped for. You may consider your debt to the Brothers paid in full. Yet I still have need of you, and when you awaken from your death, you should find your mind clear and able to understand this task more than in the state you lie as I write this.

You shall remember the workings of the ritual, I trust. You seemed quite lucid at the time, but if you find after your rebirth that you have forgotten, return to Magnimar. My agents will find you; no need to bother the Brothers further.

I will provide the list of proper victims for the ritual in two days’ time. Commit that list to memory and then destroy it before you begin your work. The ones I have selected must be marked before they die—remember that cutting the glyph is not strictly necessary, but if you must, try not to let them bleed to death before you finish.

If others get in your way, though, you may do with them as you please. Eat them, savage them, or turn them into pawns—it matters not to me. Perhaps you should claim this “Veshenga” whom you mentioned to me previously and kept calling for in your delirium; from what I have heard of the late goings-on in Sandpoint, you would be doing me a favor by taking her and her companions out of the equation.

—Your Mistress, Wanton of Nature’s Pagan Forms

Now suspicious that their next stop in this plot is somewhere in Magnimar, the party finishes looting the body and the remaining rooms in the basement, then heads out. The undead crows begin to give chase, but pull back as Balekh’s turning obliterates a wide swath of the storm of ghoul birds. They retrieve their horses at the nearby farm, and spend the night in the barn. Only Taeva gets a good night’s rest as the remainder of the party work to help one another medically with their ghoul fever infections. The next day, they return to Sandpoint and continue their ministrations to conclude their vulnerability to the illness. Taeva, while the rest sleep, debriefs the sheriff and helps him come up with a plan for ensuring that no more ghouls are loose in the countryside.

Hoyle’s D20, Final Version

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(Originally posted August 2009)

A few years ago, I wrote a system for using playing cards instead of a D20 to give more player control over the result and prevent players from feeling like they’re having large runs of bad rolls. I’ve now had the opportunity to use it as both GM and player, and found a few flaws: being able to hold a hand of cards and play the one needed resulted in several non-fun behaviors such as bad card hording, players getting stuck with only failing rolls, and fear of playing good cards for potentially inconsequential rolls. It also made PCs way too effective.

So I came up with a modified version that has most of the benefits and eliminates a lot of the flaws. I’ve been using this version in my semi-weekly D&D game for the past couple of months and it seems to play very well.

For this method, 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.

The DM’s deck works the same way, but the bank should typically only be used for important NPCs or “boss” monsters designed to challenge the party.

This system has several advantages:

  • Players are completely aware of their runs of luck. A series of bad rolls only makes the player realize that better cards are becoming more likely.
  • Players have a reserve of what are essentially rerolls and modular bonuses that can be used when a failure feels dramatically inappropriate.
  • Card flipping can be faster than rolling a D20, and is more visible across the table.
  • Despite the player controls, it maintains enough of a sense of randomness to feel comfortable for those that prefer dice.
  • It provides a convenient way for GMs to differentiate major threats from minor ones.

The Skinsaw Murders, Part 6

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The two remaining rooms are a study and an observatory. The study contains shelves full of books and collected memorabilia of distant travels, including a painting of some value by a Magnimarian artist, books on the Shoanti, and a pair of useful arcane scrolls. Taeva shakes off a compulsion here. The observatory features more stained-glass windows displaying a man and a woman of beauty and power. Taeva seems strangely interested in the window featuring the woman, but will not explain why. The man’s window is broken and boarded up, as if someone had crashed through it in the distant past; when Haggor finally risks entering the room, he has to resist the compulsion to fling himself through the window, wracked with the belief that he is on fire. Veshenga opens the tied-shut rooftop observing door and climbs out, but quickly retreats after the ghoulish crows begin to fly towards the roof.

Finally ready, the party waits in the observatory after rigging a rope to move the mirror in the next room. As they pull the rope, the revenant wails again, paralyzing them all with fear for a few seconds, and dashes down the stairs. Eventually, they recover and begin chasing after her, through all the floors of the house and down into the basement. As Balekh lags behind, Veshenga, Haggor, and the carried Taeva burst into what seems to be an old kitchen. Iesha is disappearing down a hallway, but she has disturbed what sounds like hundreds of rats.

As the three brace themselves, huge swarms of blind and cancerous rodents burst from one side of the kitchen. Half the swarm breaks to consume rations that the party threw into a corner, but the others roll over the three like a diseased cloud. They bite and tear as Veshenga and Taeva make slow work with their swords against the pile of beasts. Haggor does better, grabbing, crushing, and stomping, but is still being overwhelmed. Finally, however, Balekh rushes down the steps, assesses the situation, and produces the scroll he had found earlier. A sudden build-up of pressure is all the warning the rest have of the massive lightning bolt he flings across the room, obliterating most of the rats that had moved to consume the rations. With this group dead, the party is able to quickly dispatch the rest of the mess of rats, Haggor bodily rolling to crush more of them as they try to flee.

Rushing back after the revenant, they find her banging helplessly at a solid steel door right down the hall. They decide to explore the rest of the basement before letting her through, finding nothing of consequence in the old servants’ quarters and storage besides a few bottles of hidden, expensive wine. Taeva walks down the hall and carefully picks the lock on the door to let Iesha through, and the party examines the locked room beyond.

This was obviously a ritual chamber and study of a vile necromancer, and stained glass windows of Vorel undergoing a lich’s apotheosis cements the idea of what must have happened here decades ago. A vision assaults the party as Balekh leafs through old necromantic texts, of Vorel’s terrible transformation being interrupted by his wife—whose only thought was to stop this horrible ritual that he had hidden from her these long years. Taeva is overcome by a need to flee the house and find the long-dead child Lorey, but is restrained and eventually given a Protection from Evil to remove the compulsion.

As the revenant races deeper into the basement, the party turns a corner to find an old, uncovered spiral staircase to the deeps beneath the house. Veshenga is assaulted by a vision of a still-human Aldern digging this entrance free, with each strike chanting, “For you!” She knows that it was her of whom he was speaking. As he clears the last of the stones, ghouls surge up to drag him underneath, and then turn to savage the ranger. She is lifted bodily into the air, unable to snap free of the vision, and her friends look on helplessly as cuts and tears appear on her skin.

When the vision finally fades, she slumps to the floor… and begins to feel a touch of fever.

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