Fortress of the Stone Giants, Prologue 2

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The Sandpoint Devil!

Balekh’s spending all of his time making magic items, teaching classes, and hanging out with his fiancee. Taeva’s out in Magnimar on an errand of reconciliation. Veshenga’s still plotting to achieve romance. Haggor’s boat isn’t ready yet, even though he’s becoming a deft hand at sailing. He gets bored one day and decides to go mountain climbing.

The townsfolk warn him that the Devil’s Platter is aptly named. They tell him that’s where the evil beast that stalks the town makes its home. They say that to see it means tragedy will come on swift wings. He shrugs, and goes mountain climbing anyway. About halfway up the cliff face, he sees an immense, winged shadow out of the corner of his eye. Then he worries, a bit.

A simple act of tracking on the clifftop takes him through scrub woods and into the obvious site of a grim ritual, probably goblinoid, he thinks. There is no sign of the fell beast. A perfect Spring day ruined by the dark creature, he heads back down the mountain and shares his tale with Balekh. Amused, Balekh assures the monk that the rumors synch with his understanding of myth, and he has to destroy the beast lest it keep its dread curse upon him. But Balekh can’t help, he’s too busy making magic items (he chuckles, quietly, to himself).

So, dragging Veshenga up the mountain and getting confirmation that the rumors of the beast also include bugbear cults that worship the infernal creature, they stake out the ritual site. But, overnight it was wiped clean. Yet goblinish tracks lead across the sparsely wooded mesa, and it is easy work for the two to find a warren of caves a mile away in the area aptly named The Pit. They lurk and wait, and are rewarded at sunset by a trio of bugbears walking with purpose.

Following the chanting bugbears to what appears to be a new ritual site, the duo wait to see their results but the call appears to be for naught. Stepping in, they begin assailing the humanoids with questions, and the bugbears seem off-put by a half-orc with a half-elf, unsure if he is an ally and she his prisoner. They refuse to share their sport, and a brief fight ensues, one bugbear dead, one unconscious, and the last swearing that he tried to summon the Devil but it does not always come when called.

They send the mewling goblin back to its tribe with warnings to flee and never worship such an evil creature again, but little hope that their admonishments will stick. They troop through the moonlit dark back towards the cliff and town. But all is not well with the world. Mists close in. A terrible baying fills the night sky. Then dark wings blot out the stars only to light up the sky with sickening, greenish flames that pour down upon the heroes. Rearing on its terrible hooves, the foul monster snorts hellfire and tramples its way across them, leaving searing rents in their flesh. But they fight back with abandon, and the grim terror that stalks Sandpoint finds itself no match for the seasoned adventurers. Just as Haggor thinks it is about to fall, it disappears in a blast of foul smoke and he hears it baying and flying away deep in the sky.

Sickened by the near escape of the beast, they return and share their tale with their lorekeeper, who is pleased to suggest that merely defeating the beast will prove to have undone its curse (he says with as straight a face as possible, and no small measure of approval). Haggor, forgetting the other rumors about the fate of proof of the Devil, or not caring, commissions a painting of his victory over the beast.

Some days pass, and Veshenga grows weary of circumspect flirtations. She decides upon the direct approach and walks deep into the town’s school, suggesting that the headmaster court the object of his affection, Arika Aventin. She leads him through the protocols then watches as he finally works his way to the bakery and successfully woos the young lady. She congratulates the unsuspecting sister, then pulls Aneka aside and suggests that now it is her turn to woo her own object of affection.

Despite her beauty and head for the foibles of others, Aneka proves almost as afraid to pursue her love as the schoolmaster. Veshenga hatches a plan for her to take fresh cookies to Belven and insinuate that he take her on a double date with her sister and Ilsoari to the theater. As Aneka fumbles her way through a conversation with the workmanlike but noble scion of the Valdemar, Veshenga whisperingly coaches her through the open window. Finally, Belven takes the hint and acquiesces to the date, perhaps accidentally, and the girls skip away before he can change his mind.

Returning to Madame Mvashti, Veshenga explains that she has matched the components of fire and water, but earth eludes her. The old woman has a solution, perhaps not one which Veshenga wanted. It seems that Vhyal Mvashti, her son, died many years previously, leaving no child or bride. Her own fine home is scheduled to revert to Sandpoint when she dies, for she has no heir to fight the claims of the town. But an old law of the Varisians would allow her to marry off her son posthumously, so that he need not walk the lands of the dead as a bachelor. With Veshenga’s pull in the town, such a loophole might mean that she would stand to inherit the old woman’s house, keeping it in Varisian hands. Veshenga is somewhat shocked, but is willing to do such a thing for the beloved tribal elder. Mvashti insists that she discuss it with her own clan before making the decision, and Veshenga agrees that she will have made up her mind when she returns from visiting her father.

Meanwhile, Haggor meets a tearful painter who insists that his studio caught fire and nearly burned when he neared completion of the painting, and he has told this to all the other artists in town. Annoyed but undissuaded, Haggor visits Magnimar to commission a sculpture in unyielding stone, cursing the Devil the whole way for souring their victory over it. Surely, he thinks, a marble statue cannot burn.

And the days pass…

Veshenga follows the signs of her tribe across the land.

Aneka and Belvin kiss against the hull of a rapidly forming ship.

Balekh works away at his mystical craft.

Ilsoari and Arika walk along the shore hand in hand.

Haggor finally gets his ship and sails it off into the mysteries of the nearby islands, only to see a mysterious vessel leaving an isle terrorized by wyverns… just as Veshenga crests a hill and finds the wagons of her family arrayed beneath her…

Wizard’s Death Curse

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This weekend I watched Tamara. It’s not that great of a movie, but has an interested premise for its horror villain: the girl had been working on a  magic ritual prior to being killed, and her own life blood catalyzed the spell. This reminded me of Discworld where, if I recall correctly, there’s a chance that a dead wizard’s spells will try to cast themselves. That all led to…

When a wizard (or other spellcaster) dies, roll 1d10 on the following chart. A wizard that was aware of the death blow and its source can adjust the result up or down by 1 after rolling.

  1. Wizard’s most powerful AoE triggers on his location.
  2. Wizard’s most powerful AoE triggers on his killer’s location.
  3. Wizard’s most powerful AoE triggers on his nearest ally’s location.
  4. Wizard’s most powerful buff spell triggers on his nearest ally.
  5. Wizard’s most powerful buff spell triggers on his killer.
  6. Wizard’s most powerful debuff spell triggers on his killer.
  7. Wizard’s most powerful single target attack spell triggers on the nearest target.
  8. Wizard’s most powerful single target attack spell triggers on his killer.
  9. GM’s choice of something bizarre happening with the wizard’s most powerful spell.
  10. Reroll. Roll again after resolving the first reroll.

Fortress of the Stone Giants, Prologue 1

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Game Time: Spring through Summer, 4708
Real Time: January, 2010

A Quartet of Matrimonies

It’s Spring in Sandpoint. Haggor is cleaning out his cave. Taeva is building a fence around her new upturned ogre-pot home. Balekh and Veshenga are riding back to town with a cartload of mystical supplies acquired in Magnimar. It’s the most time without a crisis the party has had in a while, and they’re determined to use the reprieve to get some things accomplished.

While Balekh sits down to what looks to be around a dozen weeks of crafting magic items for the party, Haggor wanders down to the town docks to inquire about getting a sailboat. Time spent fishing the lake outside Turtleback Ferry has made him long for a ship of his own, able to explore and fish wherever the wind takes him. Waving to a drinking buddy who’s apparently building a boat on the drydock, he wanders into the offices of the shipyard owner, Bevelin Valdemar. The redheaded young man, noble of stock but harried of expression, pours over a seemingly disorganized pile of documents, but is pleased to see the monk. They discuss what kind of ship he wants, and Belvin promises to draw up some options for Haggor to check later in the week. After Haggor mentions his plan to hunt a kraken using the giant hook (or anchor) on the boat, Belvin suggests he take some sailing lessons before his ship is finished. Haggor takes this under advisement.

Meanwhile, Veshenga is visiting with her favorite Varisian elder, Madame Mvashti. The old woman makes pleasantries, then launches into the interesting things the cards told her recently. Apparently, Veshenga and her friends will benefit from arranging four marriages, with each featuring a groom representing a different element. Veshenga isn’t sure what to make of this mission, but knows that her friend Balekh is in a serious relationship, and is, himself, a member of the Wind clan of his people…

And, also meanwhile, Balekh has cornered his girlfriend’s father, the local general store owner, and asked for permission to marry Shayliss. Ven seems concerned: either that Balekh will take his daughter far away, or will settle down in Sandpoint without a trade. Somewhat nonplussed by being questioned on his earning potential after dropping more money than the Vinders have seen in their lives on crafting supplies, Balekh promises that he does plan to settle down after the crisis they’ve been investigating, and that he’ll do so in Sandpoint. As far as earning potential, he’s put some thought into opening a school and becoming a teacher. Ven points out the existing school/orphanage across the street, and Balekh begins to consider how to become gainfully employed/take over.

A few days later, Taeva is putting finishing touches on her iron-walled home, painting the sides to blend into the nearby woods from her vantage point near the town’s south bridge. Sheriff Hemlock knocks on the dome and asks for her help in a quandary that cropped up while they were away: several homes and businesses were broken into over the winter with no sign of forced entry despite their expensive security precautions. Taeva agrees to consult, and the two of them begin visiting crime scenes.

The first stop is Sandpoint Savories, the local bakery with which she is quite familiar, and Taeva strikes up a conversation with the proprietresses, Arika and Aneka, exchanging smalltalk before they realize she’s there on police business. They explain that the bakery was robbed of cash and valuables multiple times before they stopped leaving anything of worth there overnight, despite their high-quality door lock. Taeva checks out the new mechanism and tries her picks on it, finding it highly challenging even for her prodigious skills. Something about the lock troubles her, but she can’t quite put her finger on it. The girls explain that they got it from a locksmith’s stall in Magnimar. Taeva is familiar with the place from her time in the Bazaar of Sails, and knows that it went out of business like many shops during the Star Killer murders, and failed to reopen.

After a few more stops at crime scenes, including the local armory, the town boutique, and the Valdemar mansion, Taeva has arranged a wedding dress for Balekh’s anticipated nuptials, noted a persistent and troubling illness in the elder Valdemar, and come to a conclusion about the crimes. Each crime scene boasted a lock from the same defunct shop, and each seemed to contain a mechanism for bypassing the primary, incredibly secure lock, probably via a master key of some kind. Someone in town was in league with the locksmith, and Taeva is determined to get to the bottom of the problem.

However, while Taeva considers the possible culprit, Balekh is hatching plans of his own. He and Haggor discuss meal plans for his upcoming proposal to Shayliss, trying to decide what to serve for dinner and whether he should rent out the entire local theatre for a private show on his big night. Haggor suggests salmon, and begins trying to convey to Bear that he wants to be led to the best fishing spot on the river. Fortunately, Taeva wanders up to tell the two of them about the local crime spree and uses her Gnomish gifts to talk to the animals. The troupe heads down the river, where Haggor catches several salmon bear-style, by wrestling them bodily out of the water. Meanwhile, Balekh tries to convey that his proposal is a secret, and worries that his friends aren’t taking that as seriously as he is.

Speaking of marriages, Veshenga is somewhat adrift trying to play matchmaker around town. She’s been hitting up the upper crust, finding out that Kendra, the mayor, is single but still potentially mourning her lost love (the brother of the local bakers), Ameiko, the owner of the Rusty Dragon and the Glassworks, is thoroughly uninterested in anyone in town, and Belvin, the shipwright, is too wrapped up in his work and caring for his sick father to respond to anyone’s advances. Belvin does appear to be the loneliest of the group, and admits that he worries that, with none of the other major families in town doing a good job of procreating, the Scarnettis stand to take over the town in the next generation. Veshenga considers matching the scion of the Scarnettis before finding out that not only is he generally reviled, he’s also married and out of town. She goes back to the drawing board.

Worried about the tales of the elder Valdemar’s recurring illness, Balekh heads back to their house with Haggor and Taeva. He uses his magic to cure the man’s current symptoms, and can’t find anything else wrong with him. They pile all the suspect food from the kitchen and divine for poison, but can’t find anything wrong. Meanwhile the man gets to talking about how he worries that his son, Belvin, works too hard and spares too much time caring for him, and doesn’t have time to date. Meanwhile, Veshenga is learning from Ameiko that one of the girls at the bakery, Arika, has a thing for Belvin. They meet back up and compare notes, and Veshenga and Taeva go to discuss this with the Avertins. Arika eventually admits to a crush on Belvin, but has no plans to do anything about it while her sister remains without prospects. Interestingly, Aneka has a crush on the headmaster of the school, who Balekh had talked to about a job just recently.

However, Balekh, finding the secret of his upcoming proposal getting harder and harder to keep, scraps his elaborate plans for a picnic on the beach. With Shayliss agreeing to marry him without too much debate, the party seems to have one wedding prepared, two more prospects, but one more with no real clue how to proceed…

Sandbox D&D: Weariness and Foraging



  • Traveling the wilderness is exhausting. Sleeping on the hard ground is bad enough without the constant fear of attack interfering with restful slumber. After days in the wild, only the most enduring heroes don’t begin to long for a soft bed or at least a night without having to go on watch.
  • To reflect this, rest is separated into two types:
    • Restful sleep is sleep in a secure location and/or in a real, comfortable bed or the equivalent. Essentially, the character must either have a truly comfortable rest or at least not have any fear of being attacked in the night.
    • Tiring sleep is sleep in a location that does not meet the qualifiers for Restful sleep: the character is sleeping in an uncomfortable location and has the stress of potentially being attacked in the night (this applies whether or not someone is actually put on watch).
  • Every night of Tiring sleep gives a character one Weariness token.
  • Once a character has Weariness tokens equal to or greater than Level + Constitution score, he becomes Fatigued until Weariness is again below this score.
    • The Endurance feat adds +4 to this score.
    • Temporary Constitution increases (such as from Rage) that push the character over the Weariness threshold remove the fatigued condition while the character’s score remains higher than the threshold.
  • Every night of Restful sleep reduces the character’s Weariness tokens by an amount equal to level.
  • Essentially, low level characters can spend 1-3 weeks in the wilderness before becoming Fatigued by the ordeal, and recover slowly in civilization. Higher level characters can be in the wilds for longer, and recover more quickly when given a momentary pause in their hectic lifestyles.
  • In general, Weariness tokens will be tracked for the entire party as a unit, as they are likely to raise and lower at the same rate for all members.


  • Characters gain an additional Weariness token for each week spent with rations as their primary food source.
  • Characters with Survival can use the normal foraging rules for the skill:
    • The entire party moves at half speed for a day that is spent foraging.
    • A character makes a Survival check (this counts as teamwork, not independent rolls, if multiple people make the check).
    • If the check meets DC 10, enough food is found for a single individual for one day. Every 2 points of success past the DC is another person/day of food. Essentially, food found equals (Result – DC)/2 + 1.
    • The base DC might vary in areas where food is easier or harder to find.
  • Characters with food-related Professions (such as Cook or Hunter) may use the Profession in place of Survival for foraging when relevant (e.g., Cook might not be relevant if the character is the sole food provider and there are no ingredients, but certainly would be if at least one other person is foraging and the cook is merely making the results go further).

The Hook Mountain Massacre, Vignettes Epilogue

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Fond Farewell (via chat with Veshenga’s Player)

Taeva was at it again, dancing in the drapes of red copper fire light, mixed with the silver gaze of the starry patchwork above the active swamp. Ever since the earlier reunion, the swamp had turned, and Veshenga had been spirited away with all the light and merriment. She slipped away from the group after a while, leaving the party behind her. She walked among the trees and along the dark bank, admired stars and occasionally drew on the flask of spirits she had plucked from her belt. There was only a night before they moved on again and she wanted to find one of the Rangers even if it was to say good bye. Her eyes wandered for Vale.

She soon found him. He was leaning against a silver-barked oak. The Shoanti ranger toyed fitfully with a half-emptied glass of some kind of faerie mead, apparently paying little attention to the party. There were more shadows this way, the only light occasional brushing fingertips of the celebration’s light. Veshenga ducked out of view, moved among the trees.

As the mead tipped back and forth in his glass, there was a slight hiss in the brances above him. The leaves rustled, a low branch gave a minor tremor. “Psst,” and Veshenga draped down, her legs hooked to the branch. Dark hair tumbled, a curtain of braids and loose locks. Her face was upside down, tilted like a curious owl. “Not really your scene, eh?” She asked with a welcoming smile, even playful.

Vale’s eyes focused on the girl in the tree from wherever he had been thinking. He smiled back, “No, I’m not usually one for parties even when I know where I’m standing. The swamp makes me uneasy.”

“Mm,” she nodded, watched his face in the semi-dark. She glanced back to the party, the brilliance cast from the fire at the center momentarily painted her cheeks orange and yellow before she focused on Vale once more. “It’s unlike any swamp I’ve ever seen, this much is true. Why do you not like the swamps? You know with Taeva, it is because of grinning crocodiles,” she chuckled as she let her arms hang.

“Too soft. Squishy. It’ll take your boot as soon as support your weight. Give me a good solid castle, then maybe I’d feel like dancing,” he grinned.

“A castle,” she was interrupted with her own laughter. “A castle? My, but I would build it brick by brick if it meant a jig from you,” she giggled and curled up to grip the branch, unfurling her legs to drop beside him. She leaned her head back, brushing hair away that had fallen over her face. “You must be happy for Tessa. I’ve never seen someone more deserving of their station. She fought hard, she went through so much.” Her voice tread softly off, and she cleared her throat. “So, what is your path after tonight? What happens to you and Tessa now?”

“That’s what I’ve been thinking about. I spent the last couple of weeks waiting to die like my friends. Then the last few days I was expecting the Commander to come back in with a plan. He’s a gnome, now. Weird. I don’t think the Captain… the new Commander… knows what we’re going to do either. I guess we staff back up and fix the damage. Thanks to you guys, we’ve got some breathing room to do it before the ogres reorganize. You heading back to Magnimar?”

She shook her head gently, and rest her shoulders against the tall oak. “Sandpoint,” she confessed, and took another small drag on her flask. It was refastened, her fingers seemed to work at a distracted, slow rhythm. A sheepish smile spread, and she took her eyes off him to take in the revelry just beyond their little place here under the oak leaves. “I like you, Vale, I think knowing you under different circumstances would have been more ideal, but I still like you.”

“And I, you, Veshenga. Even if you do believe there is any such thing as an ideal circumstance,” he added with a broad smile. “In my experience, ideal is the dream that keeps you from reality. It’d be ideal if I could live amongst my people without having to live in a tent. It’d be ideal if you could save the world from Fort Rannick.”

He listened to another chuckle, a sad smile. She would not trade a minute of traveling with her companions, but when it was time to move onto the next adventure, there were times when she would have to leave someone who had really move her. In his own silent way, Vale had done just that. There was a peace and seriousness to him that she greatly admired and gravitated to, one that did not threaten to paint disturbing pictures of her or watch her unblinking as she slept. In fact, since he had acknowledged his own likening to her, she had moved closer. “Knowing you in a world like this, beyond dreams and real enough to touch, makes such reality just that much more interesting.” Veshenga reached for him, touched his face in a thoughtful caress. “I am proud to know you, it was an honor to serve beside you.”

“You as well. You’ve got a great ways to go before you’re ready to settle down, I’m sure, but I hope you’ll consider the Black Arrows a home. I almost feel like your Erastil and Desna are sporting with you… one makes you a perfect place, the other makes sure you’ve got miles and years to go before you can stop there.”

“Then this place will be much more of a reward one day, I am sure. It is nice to know I have a home with the Black Arrows, though.” She smiled up at him, her hand dropped from his face to lightly take his hand. “If Desna and Erastil wish to sport with me, then I am game. That they pay such attention to me? Well, shouldn’t I be honored then?” A boasting beam, probably to cover up the damn truth of the irony presented. They both knew he was right. He would feel a light pull on his hand. “Stay with me tonight, and we will go our ways tomorrow.”

Vale looked at her for a moment, his eyes standing out clearly against the darkness, thinking. Then, there was a flash of white teeth, “As you wish… I guess there’s one benefit to being in a place where everything is soft. But watch where you place your feet.”

Veshenga burst into laughter, and pulled him to her. She clasped the back of his neck to keep him close for a kiss humming with stifled giggles. She broke from this, her brow leaned against his forehead. “Well, Vale, at least I did not ask for a dance.” She took both of his hands. Her grin was a small crescent along the shadows and brief moments of light across her face, and drew him from the shade to find a private place away from the dancing party.

Questions (via chat with Balekh’s Player)

The morning light scattered across the willow bower, mist… or possibly marsh gas… giving the air an opalescent sheen. Moisture beaded on Balekh’s clothing as he trod into the clearing of the faerie wood. Starting towards the willow where he last saw the lady, he was startled by her voice emerging quietly from the wood to his right, “My love sleeps, still.” Clothed in fine fabrics that resembled the fog-bound forest itself, the beautiful woman became suddenly distinct from the background, barely an arm’s length from the theurge. “Of what did you wish to speak?”

“We rescued your love’s soul from a fate not of his own making,” Balehk began, “There is irony in this, because I may need help doing the same for my own love.” Balehk stared across the grove and waters, watching something only he could see. “Shayliss gains her power, as far as I can tell, from an infernal pact enacted by her forbearers. The pact, and the powers it grants her, have threatened to consume her.

“Power sought is often more dangerous than power gifted.”

Balehk nods, “True. It would be foolish to try to alter a pact I know little-to-nothing about. But there may come a time when we need to enact changes to save her. I will be prepared for that eventuality.”

The nymph arched a perfect eyebrow, bemused, “You have not asked a question.”

Balehk grinned, but it was the grin of a man burying his fear. “Trades always come with a price. If I find a way to shift the source of Shayliss’ power to the fae wilds, what might that price be? How might such a shift be enacted? These are my questions.”

Eyes the color of the morning dawn pierced deep into his, “You try to divert a river to put out a hearthfire that is out of your control. Is the flood better than the inferno? And have you asked the opinion of the holder?”

“I’ll take no action, one way or another, without her informed consent and blessing, but if there’s no hope for what I’m considering, I’ll not burden her with that dangled carrot.

“The contracts of Hell are in some ways similar to the oaths of the fey, ‘tis true,” she said. “They bind and transfer power, both explicit and implicit, and can follow blood even after the terms are fulfilled. Your friend does not labor under a pact unfinished, but draws upon the latent remnants of one bound to her line. Power taken is an oath implied. The source of the power determines the debt inferred. Her debts are not mine to forgive.”

“Then I will find those binding. I will find them, and I will do what must be done to keep Shayliss safe. But power such as hers, cut loose from it’s moorings, doesn’t simply dissipate. If the time comes, would you be able to act as a patron for her to the Fae powers? Would you be willing to?”

She shook her head, sadly, “Offer me not a lien on a soul. You see that we are fair, and believe we are just. For the debt I owe you, I will not tempt you into moving hell only to sell your love back into slavery. All power has a price. Yours is paid by long effort and by a god. Hers is paid by a less loving patron. But for all that, it is a source that respects bargains. What does it mean that she doesn’t have one? Would she be better off with a written deal than a handshake? Is it so important to you that she wield the powers of the weave that you would choose patronage and power over freedom and impotence? These are questions I cannot answer.”

Balehk was stunned, “The wisdom of your words shame me. Sometimes my thirst for understanding, and codifying, blinds my patience and faith. Thank you for your kind advice, I will stay my hand, and see what comes.” Balehk turned to walk back across the faerie bog to where his companions celebrated, “Rest assured though, I will remain vigilant. If my love wishes to be free of her ties, I will make it so. Thank you for your hospitality, my lady.”

Her words followed him, “There are answers for you in the infernal halls, be they the mortals that she hails from or Hell itself. Should you seek greater knowledge, these places, both dangerous, should be your goal.” As he turned, there was only mist and silence within the bower.

The Nemesis Matrix: Creating Villains

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I’ve been playing a lot of City of Heroes, Champions, and Batman: Arkham Asylum in the past week, and also watching things like Sanctum. That led me to think about ways to create memorable villains in a superhero RPG.

Essentially, the most memorable villains for a hero are those that in some way reflect his or her own morals, ethos, virtues, and flaws. The Joker is an inverted Batman: just as smart, but using humor and bright colors for evil while he uses fear and darkness for good. Dr. Doom and Magneto are very similar to Mr. Fantastic and Xavier, just taking the darker path. The Red Skull is just as much of a paragon of his country as Captain America is of his. And so on…

You can use this to create memorable archvillains for your heroes in a superhero game in a very simple way:

  • Have each player list the character’s core virtues and flaws (three of the first, two of the second is a good number)
  • Arrange the characters in a table with heroes that are the most likely to share opponents next to one another (e.g., if two heroes were partners before joining the team, they should be adjacent on the chart).
  • Randomize the traits the player gave you and list them next to the hero for each character.
  • Make boxes around one or more traits: the more traits in the box, the more often the villain will show up.
  • Turn each box into a villain by using the traits in the box either straight or inverting them and then making them the core attributes of the villain.

For example:

A list of virtues and vices for creating villains

The matrix above is broken into 11 possible villains. In the upper left is a major villain with Loyal, Cold, Lecherous, and Vengeful as major traits. Played completely straight, it immediately suggests a femme fatale character: an incredibly loyal agent of a rival group that uses sex as a weapon. The bottom right corner features two virtues: Trustworthy and Faithful; they might both work better inverted. Suddenly, the villain is a lying traitor: a good villain to spring on the group from someone they thought was an ally.

After creating each villain, remember where the villain’s informed traits came from. In many ways, the villain exists as a way to explore what is noble and flawed about the heroes, and get them to confront their own life decisions.

The Hook Mountain Massacre, Part 8

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Broken Bones

The party descends into the last path of the crossroads, passing a small and apparently little-used shrine to Lamashtu before exiting into an immense cavern with a ceiling open to the frozen sky. Carved faces of giants line the walls, and a path rises towards a rough-hewn dais upon which rests a giant throne. On it lounges a bored-looking stone giant flanked by two immense bodyguards. Barl Breakbones seems little surprised by their arrival, and taunts them, suggesting that if they leave now he won’t have to kill them. He says that they have done little more than disrupt and already nearly finished plot, and that they have done nothing to harm his master Mokmurian’s schemes. They aren’t inclined to bargain with monologuing giants, and he waves his bodyguards forward to attack.

Haggor and Taeva dash up the stony path to fight the giants, while Veshenga, Balekh, and Shayliss hang back to serve as artillery. Unfortunately, the giants have the same idea, and boulders begin to fly at the archer and casters. Meanwhile, Barl lounges on his throne casting spells, eventually levitating off of his throne to join the battle. As Taeva and Haggor tear into one of the giants, Shayliss and Balekh are forced to take cover from the continuing barrage of boulders while Veshenga unloads dozens of flaming, electric arrows into the enormous necromancer. For a moment, he thinks Haggor and Taeva are tied up with his remaining bodyguard, and descends to smash Veshenga with his massive earthbreaker, only to see his last guard fall and Haggor springing through the air. Barl manages to dodge the leaping half-orc, but puts himself open to a final barrage from Veshenga. She runs out of the way as his magics expire and he crashes to the ground.

The apparent lead villain dead, the party searches their bodies, makes sure they have the head of Lamatar to take back to the nymph, and make their way out. Taeva stops to co-opt one of the pots the ogres have been churning out; she thinks it will make her a fine house. Leaving these thralls behind to toil until another foreman makes his way back out of the mines, the party heads back to Fort Rannick with the assumption that the ogre activities will be disrupted for some time. The rangers agree, and the Captain, Vale, and Kibb travel with them towards the Shimmerglens.

As they travel into the marsh, they slowly notice insects being replaced by sprites, and they are eventually stopped by an array of tiny fey knights. After a moment of confusion, they remember the identity of their contact, and the tiny sprite they met at Fort Rannick leads them deeper and deeper into the increasingly fantastic swamp. They finally exit on a clearing, where an ankle-deep mire leads to an immense willow tree, within which a beautiful woman sits, weeping. The sprite goes to retrieve her, and she noticeably brightens, the plants of the glen blooming, and walks along the water to greet the party. They give her the head of her dead lover, and she asks them to wait as she completes her ritual.

A few minutes later, the head is placed on lily pads that have grown out of the mire, and they sink down with it into the muck. The water bubbles as a form begins to grow free of the water; it stops growing sooner than they expected, and a gnomish man rises to greet his lover. They talk quietly for a moment, then he turns to thank the party for their aid. He warns them that he was tortured by the giant, attempting to get military information from him about the disposition of Magnimar and its holdings, though he claims to have given nothing up. He again mentions the name Mokmurian as the apparent leader behind the giants, and points out that it is very strange that the stone giants would band together on such a plot, as they have always been antagonistic, but rarely so evil and motivated. He then turns to the Captain, calling her by her given name, Tessa, and asks her to take command of Fort Rannick. They talk for a minute more, sharing codewords and information necessary for control of the Black Arrow fort, and then he returns to the willow bower with Lady Myriana.

The heroes themselves are led to a fey party, where they can dance, relax, and look forward to their return home to Sandpoint.

The Transliteration Problem

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MMORPGs are in a weird position: halfway between multiplayer video game and virtual world.

A virtual world’s central tenet is immersion, in that it is trying, ultimately, to create something that feels like a real place, even if not a real world, to its participants. The goal is to get users to create a shared space that at least has verisimilitude, even if it doesn’t have realism. A successful virtual world is one where users log in consistently because it feels like a vacation spot where all their friends are.

Multiplayer video games have a different agenda, frequently: fun. The trappings of the system aren’t as important as providing an enjoyable game experience for the people that log in: either cooperatively or competitively. It’s a rare multiplayer game that actually achieves anything like immersion, as the kind of play that stands up to multiple players is hard to blend with true immersive touches: the chance that someone is going to do something out of character goes up exponentially for each added user.

Virtual worlds can sometimes bypass this problem by virtue that so many people will be there for the shared illusion, rather than any other motives: if the world doesn’t even have much gameplay, those there are the ones that want to treat it like a world.

MMOs try to straddle this line, and, going beyond, differentiate themselves on the third tier: entertainment (e.g., story). There are very few major MMOs on the market right now that aren’t based on recreating an existing IP (or, at least, an easily definable story genre). So MMOs are almost all trying to be a triple threat: an immersive virtual world where users will come just to hang out while creating an atmosphere of fun that has people exploring the game mechanics of the system together, all the while providing enough veneer of entertaining story to draw in those who don’t just want to escape, but to escape into their favorite story.

It’s next to impossible to do all three things right, because they’re all in some ways competing styles. The interesting thing is seeing what each MMO achieves, and thinking about why they did it that way (and whether it was a good idea).

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this due to the free City of Heroes weekend after several months of playing Champions Online.

City of Heroes is decently immersive: it works very hard to explain away as many gameplay conceits as possible within the setting, and create lots of opportunities for people to mingle. It has fun multiplayer gameplay: there’s good synergy between the character types without precluding having success with any random group, and everyone has something to do. But it’s a terrible transliteration of comics: no matter how much work goes into the mission descriptions, they’re still all about entering random buildings and obliterating foes in a craze of particle effects. It’s no more representative of comics than dressing up as your favorite hero to go bowling: fun if everyone is doing it, but not really the same as being a superhero.

Champions Online seems to have tried to do the opposite. The world looks, feels, and plays like an (admittedly farcically campy at times) four-color superhero story. Missions exist to do a variety of comic style things, combats are often clear and varied in ways similar to comics, and the art and VO are designed specifically to feel very similar to a superhero theme park, if not to a comic exactly. This is the problem, though: the game can’t be immersive because it’s not much deeper than the Marvel Islands of Adventure at Universal Studios. Comics can get away with only focusing on the fun parts, and skipping boring travel with, at most, a few scenes on the team’s jet. Champions tries to do this by squishing every significant area into a couple of square miles of each zone. Unlike CoH, there’s very little dead space on any of the maps: story content fills almost every place you can visit. Paradoxically, though, the dead space is precisely what makes the game feel like an actual world (which is full of space where nothing exciting really happens).

In the end, players are choosing between the two games based on graphics and loyalty and gameplay, but the real differentiating factor is immersion vs. story: one game made a somewhat functional world designed with superheroes in mind, while the other actually tried to tell superhero stories, no matter the consequences on the space.

Maybe when DC Online comes out it will do an exceptional job of feeling like both an exceptional comic story and a living, breathing world, but sacrifice gameplay to do it. Then players will really have an excellent trio of choices to meet their exact MMO needs.

The Hook Mountain Massacre, Part 7

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Taking the Massacre Home to Hook Mountain

A few days after the retaking of Rannick, Shayliss wanders down from guard duty on the tower and pops her head into the room where the others have gathered. “We, umm… have a visitor. He’s up on the tower.” Interested, the party follows her back up to the ramparts to find a tiny sprite perched and looking nervous. In a halting torrent, he explains that his mistress sent him to get help for her lover now that the tower is back in the proper hands. She is the same nymph mentioned in Commander Lamatar’s poetry, and she has apparently sensed that he was taken to the ogre clanhold in Hook Mountain and turned into some sort of undead creature. She asks, through her fey intermediary, that they party destroy the abomination he has become and return enough of his body to her to reincarnate. The heroes of Sandpoint and now Turtleback Ferry readily agree, and with the sprite’s help pinpoint the location of the ogre stronghold. The Black Arrows remain to guard Fort Rannick while the party goes to eliminate the ogre threat for good.

After a chilly two-day trek through the mountains, Veshenga leads them via the most direct route to a vantage point where they can spy a large cave opening belching smoke from within the earth. Hiding and watching, the party soon makes out two ogre sentries hidden within the mouth of the cave. Haggor and Taeva slink through the snow and get within striking distance before the oblivious and snowblind ogres have a chance and initiate a barrage of pain followed by artillery from Veshenga, Balekh, and Shayliss some distance away. Confirming that there are no other immediate sentries, the party regroups and begins working their way into the cave.

The ogre clanhold is immense, featuring a gauntlet of dragon ribs, intricate and ancient carvings, and a massive dead giant in full plate, being preserved by a Sihedron medallion the size of a shield. To Balekh’s trained eye, these carvings are clearly of Thassilonian inspiration, possibly even of Thassilonian origin, making this the only site they have yet encountered of Thassilon that was not simply a dead relic persisting through ancient magics.

Slipping further into the cavern, the party gives a cursory check to a charnel pit and finds nothing but burned waste. Below, they quickly wipe out another group of sentries, the trio again falling before they have an opportunity to sound the alarm or even register more than a blur of green skin and fists, a flash of blades and magic, and a barrage of arrows. From here they note three exits: a bright, loud tunnel from which the forge smoke appears to be coming, a silent route with nothing in evidence, and a dark tunnel leaking green fog and faint chanting.

Thinking that the forges will keep for the moment, the party sneaks forward to investigate the ritual. Unfortunately, Taeva is not prepared for an undead guardian lurking in the shadows, and she is quickly set upon by a terrible wight wielding a frozen blade, flashing with claws of frost, and bearing a crown of icicles. The chanting within reaches a fever pitch, and as Haggor and Taeva fight the frost wight, Balekh charges forward to see three terribly ugly, inhuman women gathered around a cauldron from which the steam erupts, gesturing down the corridor. He silences the room, hoping to halt the chanting, but they appear to be able to work silently, raising their gestures to a horrible, threatening pitch. He snaps off a counterspell and interrupts what they were doing, only to have one of them cause the cauldron to burst into a thick, impenetrable fog that quickly fills the room.

Taeva and Haggor rush into the silent, impenetrable fog while the others finish the wight. Within a few moments, Balekh realizes his folly and dismisses the silence so they can hear the two teammates in a deadly battle with the hags, who have apparently been very successful at rending their prey nearly limb from limb. Veshenga fires into the cloud, hoping to hit foes and not friends, and those stuck in the fog coordinate as best they are able. Finally, the gnome and half-orc trudge out of the room, satisfied that they have secured all threats, and Balekh goes to work patching them up as best he can.

After a short break, the party heads down the trail of smoke and witnesses a massive forgework where armed and armored ogre foremen whip apparent ogre thralls into shape making massive ogre hooks and other weapons of war. Hoping the thralls won’t attack if they have no foremen, the party launches another lightning raid into the room. They have slightly less success than with the sentries, but manage to put down the ogres before they have had much time to act and the thralls have barely been ordered to guard their masters.

As the last foreman falls, Haggor puts on his most threatening face and immediately starts screaming at the thralls to get back to work, bluffing for all that he’s worth that this was an internal matter. Seeing the Sihedron runes wielded by the party, and knowing that the Hook Mountain ogres regard it unwittingly as some kind of personal crest, the ogres return to their labor. Haggor quietly questions one of the thralls to get as much information as he can to avoid blowing his cover, then tells them that they have enough weapons for now and need to work on cooking utensils.

With a bewildered set of thralls switching their forges over to pots and pans, the party turns and sets out to track down the master of these halls before he realizes he’s under attack.

Time Dilation and the Combat Event

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Say you’ve got an adventure that calls for a combat event: waves of trials are going to pour down on your PCs’ heads, and you want to keep the time pressure just the fun side of intolerable. But there’s a problem: you really aren’t positive at what speed your players will be able to cope. Unleash the hordes too fast, and they drown in monsters. Unleash them too slowly, though, and you’ll lose all your tension. It’d be even worse if you obviously revealed a new threat every time they defeated the last one: no hope of getting ahead with good tactics and, eventually, no pressure of finishing one wave off quickly.

This system aims to counter that to some extent. It leaves the flow of time within the event mutable, but still following a fixed system. The players may buy themselves some breathing room, but not too much, if they’re faster than you expect, but they’ll gradually build up some extra cushion if it turns out the combat spigot got turned up too high.

Step 1: The best possible scenario

Your first question is what you eyeball is the ideal case for your fight. Will the zombie outbreak take at best three rounds to clear out before the giant monster zombie breaks in? Should it take five rounds to put out the burning school before the dam starts to rumble?

List all of these times out on a rough schedule, for example:

Turn 1: Zombies attack
Turn 4: Giant zombie!
Turn 8: School on Fire
Turn 13: An ominous creaking
Turn 20: Undead Horror From the Briney Deeps!

Step 2: Threat Assessment

Now, break your threats up into their component parts. How many rounds do you estimate each piece of a threat will take? Set that information aside clearly so you can calculate it into your time dilation easily.

For example, three assumed rounds of zombies means that each 1/3 of the horde is a round. Four rounds of giant zombie means that each 1/4 of his HP is a round. Five rounds of the school on fire means each 1/5 of the successes to deal with it are a round. And so on.

Step 3: Make a Chart

Make a chart with each turn mapped out and space to list individual rounds under it.

In the example above, the chart would have at least 20 turns mapped out, with the significant ones noted.

Step 4: Bend Time!

Give each turn a number of rounds equal to the remaining rounds of threat. If the group reduces the threat as they go, reduce the number of rounds (or cut to the next turn). Whenever a significant event happens, add the rounds of threat for that event to the running total of rounds/turn. Have at least one round per turn, even if they clear the current threat. Go until it’s over.

For example:

Turn 1 is a 3 Round horde. It has 3 rounds.

  • On 1.1, the players take some hits.
  • On 1.2, the players manage to clear 1/3 of the zombies; since that was a threat marker, the rounds of threat is now 2 (so round 3 of this turn is skipped)
  • On 2.1, the players make no major progress.
  • On 2.2, another 1/3 are defeated, reducing the rounds to 1.
  • On 3.1, the players still haven’t finished the zombies.

It’s now time for turn 4 and the Giant Zombie. The players still have around 1/3 of the original zombies left, so our new threat is 5 rounds.

  • On 4.1, the players split their focus on zombies and the giant.
  • On 4.2, they players finally finish off the horde (reducing the rounds to 4)
  • On 4.3, they deal a major hit to the giant, dropping it below 75% (now there are only 3 rounds)
  • On 5.1, they deal another major hit to the giant, dropping it below 50% (now there are 2)
  • On 5.2, no big change.
  • On 6.1, a surprising focus fire happens and the giant zombie drops. The threat is now 0.
  • On 7.1, the players have a round to catch their breath before the next big problem…