Fortress of the Stone Giants, Part 1

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Massive Attack!

And, like all vacations, Summer is gone. The party members find themselves a bit surprised that it’s already time for the harvest festival; with all the buildup for Balekh’s wedding, they’d forgotten that he’d scheduled it for the day before. It’s been a year since all of this started, and, once the casters finish their honeymoon, it’ll be time to get back to investigating the giant threat at their borders.

For now, however, it’s time to party! This year, the town has planned the theme of the festival to be “Goblin Day,” celebrating the party’s victory over the threat to the town last year. The festivities are, over all, very similar to the Swallowtail Festival of last year, but with more children in goblin costumes running amok (Haggor is specifically cautioned to try to avoid punching kids). The party is invited to give speeches after being talked up as having saved the town at least twice in the last year; Balekh tries gamely, but creates a rambling and depressing speech once put on the spot. Talk turns to the impending giant threat, with Taeva predicting doom, and the locals begin to share the rumors they’ve heard about the giants.

It’s not enough to truly dampen the mood, however, and the roaring party filling the town square continues until late at night. Taeva, Balekh, and Shayliss leave not too long after dark, but Veshenga and Haggor are dedicated to the idea of closing the party out. However, Haggor makes the mistake of challenging Veshenga to a drinking contest, and passes out after midnight, leaving a barely conscious Veshenga to try to sober up enough by the end of the party to drag him home. Perhaps, had they only been slightly inebriated, they would have seen the dark shadows against the moonlit sky…

A reverberating crash echoes throughout the city.
Veshenga stumbles, orients, believes it came from the gate.
She shakes Haggor, yells “Giants,” races off.
He staggers up, barely conscious, and dashes to the church.
Somewhere, sleeping deeply, the other heroes wake.
They wonder what is going on.

Rushing north through Sandpoint, Veshenga wonders:
Should she try to get her weapons? She forges ahead.
Haggor, quickly gaining his footing, dashes upstairs.
With a flying leap, he begins ringing the church bell.
The others, in their bedrooms, confirm the threat,
and begin struggling into clothing and gear.

The wall looms ahead, but Veshenga can make out little;
the city has enough torches for navigation, but not for combat.
Haggor sprints back down the stairs, trying to catch up.
Taeva throws on magical items and grabs swords.
Balekh and Shayliss are slower, grab less, head out.

Veshenga is almost to the wall, sees guards rushing about.
Haggor can barely make her out ahead, running fast.
Hasty barricades are forming against the gate.
Taeva grabs a few more things, then heads out.
Balekh and Shayliss hit the street, try to find a direction,
and begin casting spells as they move.

Veshenga hits the wall at a run, grabbing a bow from a guard,
Haggor close behind and running at full tilt.
Another crash as a boulder smashes into the gate, splinters flying.
They can make out three giants against the sky. Veshenga shoots,
while Haggor taunts the creatures. The others begin making their way,
still barely cognizant of the threat to the town.

The giants rush the walls, into a hail of arrows, moving slowly to speed.
Balekh and Shayliss know only that the church bells were ringing,
can’t pinpoint the sound of boulders, so heads that way.
Taeva leaps onto her horse and dashes down an embankment,
catching movement to the south of town: Giants!
She kicks her horse into a trot, riding hard into town.

As the rain of arrows hit the charging giants, Haggor braces for impact.
They are almost to the wall, and tower over it by head and shoulders.
Balekh and Shayliss finish their preparations and begin to run.
Taeva sees the panicked faces of the townsfolk as she rides,
she wonders if she should turn and fight the giants behind her.
But for now she rushes on.

The giants hit the wall with the force of a ram, it shudders.
Two wield massive clubs, another begins to climb the very wall,
swinging at the retreating Veshenga who has nowhere else to go.
She and Haggor fight off the beasts, the monk dazing one it his fury.
Balekh and Shayliss charge through the city, passing terrorized people.
Taeva considers turning, only to spot more giants to the east.

In a storm of arrows and fists, one of the giants falls,
but not before both ranger and monk take serious hits.
They duck and weave as best they can against the onslaught,
as the guards fortify the gate below.
The casters make out the looming form of the church ahead,
while Taeva slips off her horse to spy on the new threat.

Furious battle continues atop the wall, and a second giant,
stunned and battered, falls with a mighty thud.
His last fellow considers flight, but instead attacks,
his rage dealing painful blows to Haggor.
Balekh and Shayliss reach the church yard, casting about,
as Taeva sees five towering forms across the Mill Pond.

The last giant at the wall falls but not without a fight,
and Haggor grabs Veshenga, leaping down, starting to run,
worried about the other, less defended town entries.
The casters could confirm the danger: at the pond,
two giants and three dire bears run screaming into town,
driving panicked citizens before them.

As the monk flies south, dragging his arrow-laden cargo,
the casters move to overlook the oncoming enemies;
they unleash fire and magic upon them, gaining screams of rage.
Two giants and two bears scramble at the cliff to get to them,
while one bear continues chasing civilians…
unaware that Taeva is even now bearing down upon him from the shadows.

The enemy begins scaling the cliff wall, and two quickly reach the top.
Balekh and Shayliss continue to rain magic upon those they can see.
Haggor and Veshenga round the corner into the cemetary,
eye-to-eye with a giant and a bear across the open expanse
They let out a battle cry and rush forward, not seeing their friends,
but hearing the sizzle of magic nearby.

Haggor launches himself at the foes, arrows flying around him,
as the gigantic creatures rush forward to meet him.
On the ground, a giant begins hurling rocks and Balekh,
wounding him even through his magical protections,
but withering under a hail of missiles. The second bear reaches the top,
while the third continues to terrorize the city.

Haggor and Veshenga send their giant toppling to the ground,
and the bear that just topped the cliff runs away in fear.
The casters unleash another barrage of magic upon the other giant,
who begins to consider his options. Two bears remain standing,
one continues to claw at Haggor, dealing minor wounds,
while the last rushes into town, right where Taeva wants him…

The last giant realizes his predicament, suddenly, wounded and exposed;
he dashes back out of the city the way he came in.
The first bear falls to the ground full of arrows and fists,
while the last, completely unaware of its danger,
passes a shadowy corner where a small gnome is waiting;
it doesn’t even time to roar in pain as she cuts her way through its flesh.

Finding themselves suddenly ahead of the attack, Haggor and Veshenga take a moment to breathe and rush to where they think Balekh is standing. He furiously expends healing magic, as Taeva shouts at them that there are more giants coming, before rushing up the cliff herself. Less than thirty seconds after the last visible enemy fell, they’re ready to take on whatever happens next…

They didn’t exactly expect it would be a dragon.

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Splitting the Party… in time

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We just finished a very awesome penultimate Pendragon session. Our GM has to move, so is in the position of having to resolve the Great Campaign a little over 40 years from the end (on our second batch of characters, we’d just reached about the year the standard campaign starts). It was essentially handled by setting up two quests that the party had to split to pursue: One drove the group into Faerie, where they were time shifted and slipped forward to the final year of the campaign. The other sent the group to become guardians of the Gnostic Gospels (that had been recovered in game dozens of sessions previously). The knights that slipped in time emerged as they had entered (with a Glory bonus for being presumed dead in the pursuit of a quest). The knights that guarded the holy texts were able to either accrue standard yearly bonuses but have to counteract several decades of aging penalties, or take a greatly reduced influx of character traits due to spending most of their time working at rites of life extension contained in the books. The final game should see the return of great knights thought long dead and very old and decrepit/weirdly monkish knights to engage in the final fight for Britain. We’re all very excited.

The whole thing, however, leads me to consider other options for handling the situation. Pendragon offers a built-in tradeoff, as any year without an adventure drastically slows character improvement and moves the characters closer to decrepitude. However, few other systems have such an innate mechanic: if one character has an active downtime and the other an inactive one, the active character should logically come out more powerful based on previous adventuring. This could be anything from cryo-sleep in sci-fi to torpor in Vampire, but players will very likely be upset if their characters spend several sessions growing quickly in power and then a long period with no advancement purely to retain party balance.

The following options can be used, individually or mixed together, to create a logical but acceptable divide between those who stayed active and those who slipped in time.

  • The vigor of rest/youth: Also popular in some games that allow players to choose between callow heroes and experienced veteran, this system presumes that those with a fresh outlook on things will gain more from adventures, quickly catching up with the elders that spent much of their years with limited accelerated-learning opportunities. The GM determines how much advancement was accrued by the active characters for the long downtime, splits it up into gradually shrinking packages, and awards it to the inactive players as bonus advancement for each session, likely with a small bonus. This means that, after a certain number of sessions, the inactive characters will again be of equal (or slightly greater) power than their counterparts, but the active characters will have an advantage for several sessions.
  • Can’t forget what you can’t ignore: Characters that are active through a downtime will typically accrue “background” traits as part of their advancement. In addition to positive growth, the GM should layer on a number of new enemies and troubles that have plagued the active characters over the years. These will be issues that should serve to harass the active characters in the new adventures while mostly leaving the inactive characters unscathed. Meanwhile, if the time slip is long enough for the inactive characters to be presumed dead, or at least not a threat any longer, their personal demons should fade in threat, allowing them several sessions of additional effectiveness at surprising the foes who were not expecting them. Further, active characters shouldn’t lose too many background traits that aren’t easy to recover if desired, particularly if they were not at fault for slipping in time.
  • Unexpected vigor: Many situations that split a party in this way will be extremely unusual in nature: walks through Faerie, stasis or cryosleep, supernatural torpor, etc. Inactive players in these situations might actually gain equivalent advancement to the active characters. However, these points are allocated, as directed by the GM, to buy only traits that might arise from the condition: psychic or supernatural powers, unexpected physical traits, or other traits relevant to the reason for slipping. The players that lose time don’t lose stats, but simply emerge with unexpected new capabilities.
  • Fortune and background currency: Each character gains a certain number of Fate or Drama-point-esque tokens for the downtime. Those that slipped in time can use this currency to buy minor alterations of fortune or bonuses in the standard way for such points, to represent reality refusing to cause them to suffer extreme misfortune again so soon after losing time. The active characters can use their points for minor but beneficial declarations about the setting based on things that might have happened during the period that was glossed over (e.g., “fortunately, I visited here often in the past few years, and can find a contact to help us.”).

Fortress of the Stone Giants, Prologue Vignettes 2

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Dearly Departed (by Veshenga’s Player)

Sandpoint was glowing that night with celebration, and the taverns overflowed, much like the tall pints being served. A foamy head would rock back and forth in the mugs, bulge over the rim, crawl down the sides as the floor shook with dancing, and the rafters flooded with laughter.

Far off, Mvashti’s home was instead a series of mystery shadows in the wake of fluttering candlelight. These shadows were cast by whatchamcallits, widgets, thingamajigs, all a chaotic nest of whosits only Mvashti could identify, navigate. The smell of tea was unchanged, probably the only constant in her ever changing museum, though the blend was off. Smelled like Mvashti was working her way through a new batch of some unknown concoction.

Veshenga stood in front of a dusty mirror. Her reflection turned experimentally, watching how the white dress’s skirt flowed around her ankles, how the overall fit was surprisingly snug and attractive. The dress was old, smelled like an attic, or the backstage of some old theatre. Still, the lacing and pearls along the hem were charming, even in the face of their own antiquity. The fabric was comfortable, and amused Veshenga to no end when she would pat the skirt and watch a few plumes of dust curl into the air. There was a red scarf draped over her head. Had her mother worn it this way when the weather was too cool, or the wind unfriendly? The garment framed an exotic face masked in thought. Down turned dark blue eyes sank a deep thread of musing into the cracks of the floor, her smile slowly faded over the hour.

Her wandering retrospective turned her thoughts on her mother, and limped to her father standing in the morning fog only a few weeks ago. A small fire crackled close by, red and orange flakes were shed by the conflagration into the misty morning surrounding them. He told her everything, and her heart sank, seemingly stumbled into her stomach and bubbled away with the acids. There was so much love and pain and anger in him at the moment, but all this churned beneath the calm waters of his voice, the kind of peace only a parent could speak, even when describing something as terrible as the Purge.

As her mother’s seduction, and such a bloody murder.

As the mysterious Hellknight.

As the months spent running, and running…

Mvashti led the way to the cemetery once preparations were all in order. A lantern swung back and forth in her bony hand. Shadows stretched around this constantly shifting perimeter of light, they swayed and danced, a tiny troupe that followed and then grew as the two passed among the headstones.

They were met with Varisian witnesses, those Veshenga had seen in the village, even had a drink with from time to time when she was not off fighting Sandpoint Devils, playing matchmaker, or solving murder mysteries.

The ceremony was short. Her braids were undone, and her dark hair fell in wavy ribbons around her shaking shoulders. It was not the process that bothered her. She and Mvashti had already discussed the parameters of it all, but she could not get her mother out of her head. Her father’s story had finally picked its way through. She had managed to not think about it all too much, thanks to the minor excursion taken to the edges of the Storval Plateau. The weddings had been formidable distractions as well. In the quiet of the graveyard, however, it all struck home, and she wept freely.

She told Mvashti everything once the ceremony was complete. How she wondered if her mother knew how much her father – Danel – loved her, if she was waiting for him. How unfair it was. How she knew it was childish to say that, but that she didn’t care. It was the truth! What had her mother – her people! – ever done but dance and entertain? Tessa had not died in childbirth…

Desna, she saw me. She held me, she saw me. She lost me. She watched me ride away…

The rest was lost, Veshenga had dropped to her knees, wept into Mvashti’s dress.

Oaths, Fire, Tattoos, and Cake (by Balekh’s Player)

Balehk swore to her. “My life, yours to take or spare. My power, yours to use or let rest. Till the mountains grind to sand, my blood for you.” Balehk drew his blade, razor sharp and gleaming in the afternoon sun, across his palm. Shayliss wasn’t entirely happy with this part of their ritual, a collision of Shoanti tribalism and Chelish customs. They had agreed on a beach wedding. They had no problems with the guest list or the slightly unusual vows. They had agreed on the bonfire, and the menu, and the after-party. But Shay was not thrilled to see Balehk spill blood, whatever the cause. Balehk had insisted, though. They would be bound by both the laws of her people and his.

A few of the older people in the audience looked a little uncomfortable at the sight of his blood dripping into the sand, but they remained silent. Father Zantus, who had been warned of this little alteration in the script ahead of time, continued with his blessings over the couple, in the name of all the major gods and goddesses of the land, as well as Nethys thrown in for good measure.

Balehk wrapped a red cloth around the hand quietly as the proceedings wound down. He would pack it with ash from the bonfire later to seal the oath, but for the moment his attention was all on Shayliss. Her father had offered the use of her mothers white-and-blue wedding dress, and, with a little work from the seamstress, Shayliss looked like a ice-draped dream. His own outfit—simple black robes with a single falcon’s feather sown into the shoulder—was muted enough to allow all the focus to be on his new bride. His heart pounded, but not with fear.

Haggor had already gotten the bonfire blazing by the time the everyone started to party, and the scent of the roast boar being carved led to cheers from the crowd. Ameiko Kaijitsu had set up a small bar at one of the spare tables, and the Avertin girls had brought a huge cake in from Sandpoint Savouries. The whole party cost the young couple a healthy chunk of the money they had saved up, but they both loved a good festival. It was coin well spent.

Shayliss and Balehk waited until everyone else was stuffed, drunk, and a little tired before they sneaked off for the other part of the Shoanti ritual that Balehk had insisted on. This part Shay had agreed to readily, which didn’t really surprise Balehk. She was an adventurous woman, and it was something he’d always suspected she would want to try, at least once. They met with Risa Magravi, proprietor of Risa’s Place, at a stone near the beach, a few hundred yards from the revelers. They had asked around, and had been directed to the old blind sorceress as THE woman to speak to about getting a good tattoo in town. Balehk asked for a candle flame on the inside of his right arm. Shaliss wanted the wind symbol of the Tamiir-Quah just beneath her collar-bone. The tattooing was a Shoanti practice that Balehk should have begun after he finished his rite of manhood, but being banished prevented that from ever taking place. He would instead start what should have been his life anew. Here, now, with this woman, his wife, Shayliss.

Fleeing the Battlemat: Chase Mechanic for D&D/Pathfinder

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In normal circumstances, whether or not a character in D&D can catch up to another is based purely on the available battlemat and movement rates. But what happens when an opponent flees off the edge of the map and the GM doesn’t want to set up an entirely new map just to make interesting terrain for the chase? We ran into just such a scenario in my Kingmaker game last weekend, and this system is designed to model attempts to run down that last guy before he reconvenes with his friends or just gets away with the treasure. It can also be used for any kind of chase scene where the GM doesn’t have a miniatures-scale map handy. It is based on the car chase rules for Spirit of the Century.

At the beginning of a chase scene, establish the initial distance between the target and the pursuer. If going from a battlemat to this system, the distance can be determined based on the squares between the characters before the target makes its first move that takes it off the map. Otherwise, choose an arbitrary number based on the likely encounter range. This distance can remain relative, or be set up on a mounting scale of total distance traveled. Any number of pursuers can chase the same target (or group of targets trying to stick together), but as soon as targets split up, split the chase into multiple chase scenes (and if there are more targets than pursuers, some targets will likely get away easily).

Each round, the lead target describes a stunt designed to open up his or her lead: zig-zagging through trees in a forest, leaping a low wall, rushing through a row of houses in a city, or so on. The stunt can be anything appropriate to the terrain that might give a runner an advantage over his or her pursuers. The target then picks a difficulty for this stunt.

All characters in the chase roll an appropriate skill against the difficulty:

  • Acrobatics: Leaping or diving through obstacles
  • Climb: Climbing a wall or cliff
  • Knowledge: Local: Moving through a city
  • Ride: Riding a horse
  • Survival: Moving through the woods
  • Swim: Crossing a body of water

If the skill is especially appropriate or inappropriate to the terrain, impose a +2 or -2 to the roll or disallow it entirely. If no skill seems appropriate because the terrain is mostly open, all characters are automatically assumed to make a normal success: escape or capture will come down almost entirely to movement rates.

Each character that succeeds at the roll advances an amount equal to his or her movement rate. Failure means no progress is made this turn.

Any character other than the primary target can attempt a “raise” to catch up faster (or catch up at all if the target has a greater movement rate). The character must declare this before rolling, along with an idea of how he or she might move closer to the target than pure speed would indicate. The character rolls at the difficulty +10. Success means the character advances at twice his or her movement rate this round. Failure, as usual, indicates no progress.

Escaping

Any round in which the target has a significant lead (60-180 feet, depending on how many hiding spots are available in the terrain), he or she can attempt to escape by hiding. The target simply declares an attempt to escape and makes no progress this round. All pursuers then make a Perception check against a difficulty equal to the target’s Stealth + 1 per 10 ft. of the lead (with a bonus or penalty of up to +/- 6 based on how open the terrain, based on the spread for the initial lead, above). If any pursuer makes this roll, the target did not escape and the Perception check’s success is used for progress this turn (i.e., any pursuer that made the check advances his or her movement rate).

Once the target successfully escapes from all pursuers, the scene leaves rounds and the pursuers will have to resort to tracking or information gathering to hunt down the target.

Catching Up

Any pursuer with a ranged weapon can forego movement for the round to take a standard action (use a ranged attack or spell against the target). The number of obstacles in the terrain may set an effective maximum range for this attack, and attacks at half that range or greater grant partial cover to the target (e.g., a chase in a crowded city may have a maximum range of 60 feet because the target is running up and down alleys, and the target will have partial cover at more than 30 feet). The distance includes the amount advanced by the target this round.

Any turn that ends with the pursuer within five feet of the target allows the pursuer to make a single melee attack or combat maneuver against the target (as a charge with +2 attack).

Any turn that ends with the pursuer more than five feet ahead of the target allows the pursuer to make a full round action against the target (essentially, the pursuer anticipated and intercepted the target). Next round, both character start back at 0 feet apart if the chase continues.

If the target elects to turn and fight after the pursuers catch up, rather than trying to break away again, the chase returns to a normal fight scene.

Any kind of movement-impairing effect (tripping, holds, dazes, etc.) has the appropriate effect, likely preventing the target from running for at least one round and allowing all pursuers to automatically make a double move to catch up for each round the target can’t move.

Extended Chases

If a chase continues for more than a few rounds, it is likely that the characters are evenly matched and it will come down to stamina more than speed and tactics. Keep track of the total number of rounds spent on the chase. Any character for whom the total rounds is greater than Constitution becomes Fatigued: in addition to the effective -1 penalty to most chase rolls (due to Str and Dex being reduced), the character moves only half as far as would be indicated. If the chase continues even longer, once the number of rounds is greater than double the character’s Constitution, he or she is Exhausted and has the requisite -3 penalty to most chase rolls (from -6 Str and Dex), as well as moving one quarter the distance indicated by the rolls.

Unless the characters continue the chase for a long time after becoming Exhausted, the conditions will disappear far more quickly than normal. The character loses Exhausted after a number of rounds of rest equal to the total rounds of the chase, becoming Fatigued. The character loses Fatigued after eight times the length of the chase (e.g., 16 minutes for a 20 round chase).

Characters with Endurance treat their Constitution as +4 for purposes of when they become Fatigued and Exhausted, and recover as if the chase was four rounds shorter.

Characters with Run gain +4 to Acrobatics, Knowledge: Local, and Survival rolls during a chase.

Playtest Notes

In order to prevent the lead character from attempting to stall out pursuit by setting a DC only he can hit, if the leader fails, the result of his check becomes the new DC for all pursuers that round.

For example, the leader has +14 and has deduced the pursuers only have +10, so sets the DC at 31 thinking that even if he fails, everyone else will too. However, the player rolls a 10 (for a result of 24) and all pursuers actually make their check at DC 24 this round.

Fortress of the Stone Giants, Prologue Vignettes 1

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Answers

Darkness cleared. Where was he? His head hurt, and it was hard to breathe. Burning flickers of light fought with blobs of shadow across his vision. Cinnamon, armor polish, and sweat overpowered the smell of his own fear. All around him, he recognized his possessions, some of them overturned, most of them upside-down. He tasted blood. Finally, he heard a voice, insistent, over the throbbing in his head.

“Otho,” the voice was feminine, but powerful, compelling attention, “I’m going to shift my weight and let you breathe. Don’t try to move.”

A bit of the pressure on his windpipe eased, and his eyes finally focused. A metal boot with a deceptively frivolous-looking heel almost perfectly bound his neck to the floor. He followed it up a towering and flawlessly sculpted leg until his survey was interrupted by the line of a very sharp sword flickering with a very calm and deadly blue light.

“Otho. Pay attention. Attempting to escape a properly-announced Hellknight is only the latest of your offenses. Larceny. Extortion. Blackmail. Kidnapping. Murder. Over the last several decades, dozens of counts of each that we can prove, hundreds more we suspect. You’ve been a very busy half-elf.”

He frowned and finally ripped his eyes free from the edge of the very threatening weapon and continued up the line of the torso that was both aggressively armored and aggressively sexual. The woman that had him pinned and dead to rights would have been a fine trophy wife for some rich merchant had she been of a slightly smaller scale, he imagined, but the gold digging opportunities for women bigger than many half-orcs were very limited, even if they were built like a marble statue of Iomedae.

“For your crimes, the likely sentence is being devoured alive by salt mephits over several days. It’s not a good death, but I expect you’re a man with enough imagination to realize that.”

The Order of the Scourge found talent where others would discard it, though. It’d been one of the more progressive orders in the past twenty years; at the very least so far as allowing members to customize their uniforms to meet their most distracting potential. The last few minutes caught back up to him, and he remembered that it was a method he couldn’t exactly fault; the moment of pure appreciation as she kicked in the door had probably cost him his escape.

“I’m prepared to offer you a commuted sentence for services rendered if you tell me what I want to know.”

He met her eyes across the haze of the axiomatic blade and read only pure inertia there. If he held firm she’d move through him without a second thought. The next of his associates she found would have the same answers and a better example of what happened to those that got on her bad side. He grunted his approval.

“Your network has wormed its way deep into the flow of gold between the nobility and their disposable agents. I want to know everything you know about the crown’s pursuit of the remaining Bloodline holdings over the last thirty years.”

And an hour later, she did. A trickle of blood dripped from the edge of his neck as his head rolled to a stop, the arteries severed by perfect blue fire.

“Death by torture commuted to a quick and painless end. Thank you Otho. You were very helpful. Facilis descensus Averno; sed non commune mereri.”

Fishing Adventure (by Haggor’s Player)

The anchor tore through the greenish-blue ocean water with a large splash. The heavy anchor chain chased after its head like a metallic snake racing for the bottom. Soon, the chain ended and rope followed in its place. It writhed and jerked in its coiled nest, eventually becoming still, as if patiently waiting to strike.

Haggor picked up the rope and gave a stout pull on it; he could feel the anchor biting into the sand on the ocean floor below. Feeling it firmly in place, he tied the line off to one to the large cleats at the forecastle of his sailboat. The boat shifted in the slight breeze, and Haggor could feel the rope stretch taunt, holding the boat fast. It settled into a balance between the wind, currents, and the line holding it in place.

Haggor was happy with this spot—a nice, secluded, sheltered spot off the coast of one of the many small islands north of Sandpoint. He was anchored in a sandy-bottomed area off the edge of a kelp field not far from a small reef. There was plenty of variety in the ocean terrain for fishing here.

Though he loved to fish, Haggor still wasn’t familiar with the fishing practices on the ocean. He’d learned the wonders of fishing in a small, sleepy lake village far to the west, and what worked out there on the freshwater lakes didn’t really apply in the vast ocean of salt water.

Making his way back along the boat to the stern, he caught site of movement in the kelp fields: a dark, sinewy movement darting along the fields of green strands reaching up from the bottom. Some variety of fish, he momentarily hoped. Visions of mermaids, pirates, and giant kraken flashed in his imagination. A big grin crept across his face at the thought of that last one. Watching more attentively, he soon realized it was an animal—a sea otter, in fact. Seeing more movement, he noticed another, and then a much smaller one. It appeared a family of sea otters had made their home here amongst the green forest of the ocean.

He watched the otters play and hunt for a time. It didn’t seem to Haggor that the nimble otters swam so much as slid effortlessly through the water, as if the otters were so slippery not even the water could touch the playful creatures. The otters swirled and twirled in the water, occasionally chasing schools of fish. One could get dizzy just watching their antics. The smaller of the three otters appeared to be a cub. He lay on the surface with a length of kelp wrapped around himself like a blanket. Occasionally, one of the larger otters would return to the cub with some morsel of food. Haggor watched as the largest of the three returned with a large shellfish of some kind in it’s mouth. It splashed and twirled its way to the cub and rolled onto its back. In its small black paws it carried a worn stone. Dropping the shellfish onto its, tummy it pounded on it with the stone until it could get at the tasty meat inside. Eating some, it passed the rest to the cub and raced off in search of more food. Eventually, it was nap time as all three huddled together, wrapping themselves in blankets of kelp. Aww, such a cute, little, furry family, Haggor thought.

Realizing that he’d spent a good hour or so entranced by the hypnotizing creatures, Haggor decided it was time to get down to some serious fishing. Looking over the section of bait he purchased from a vendor near the docks, he selected a small mackerel, baited his hook, and threw his line out as far from the boat as he could manage. Sitting on one of the boat’s benches, he held the line, waiting for a tell-tale tug. The sun was high in the sky as he relaxed and enjoyed the solitude that sailing and fishing offered him. Pulling a straw hat on to shield his bald head from the bright sun, he thought about the future. Soon it would be time to leave Sandpoint again and head off to the Storval Plateau… see what shenanigans this army of giants was up to.

Haggor watched as one of the otters woke from its nap and made a great big stretch and yawn. Diving down deep into the water, it disappeared. Would we be able to sail to this plateau? Haggor thought, I’m sure the guys wouldn’t mind, right? The otter returned to the surface with a mackerel in it’s paws. Little hands, they looked like to Haggor. Tiny little black gloved hands. Even Taeva couldn’t match these little guys for agility. For a moment, Haggor tried to picture the little gnome in the water: somehow darting around like these furry little predators. But his imagination had a mind of its own and the image bent and warped into a vision that involved a lot more splashing, cursing, and sinking. Smiling, Haggor watched as what he was calling the momma brought the mackerel to the cub. It grasped it in its own little pair of black gloved hands and munched on it head first. Aww, soo cute.

Pulling in his line, he realized his bait was gone. What to try next? he thought, Let’s try some squid. The vendor swears by them. Baiting his hook with the small squid, he cast out his line. Haggor enjoyed being on the ocean at this time, with the sun high in the sky. Just the right amount of wind to create small undulating waves of sparkling blue green. Each wave like a brilliant scintillating diamond; you nearly had to shield your eyes from the brilliance or be blinded. In that respect, the water here was so different then the lake water where he learned of this obsessive fishing. That water was dark and impenetrable, holding its mysteries tightly cloaked in dark unyielding depths. A splash brought Haggor’s attention back to the little furry family of creatures who could swim and bend their bodies in unimaginable positions. This time, the speedy little predator returned with a tiny squid in her mouth. Its dead legs dangled along the side of the slippery little captor. Haggor watched as it gulped the tasty morsel down. Aww, soo cute, he thought with a smile.

As the sun moved across the sky, Haggor checked his line and realized he’d lost his bait again. This ocean fishing is much more of a challenge, he thought, So many varieties of fish to learn, strategies to master. If it took him a lifetime, he didn’t mind: he loved every second of it. Besides, with furry little acrobats to entertain you while you fished the day with, who could complain? His little furry friends bobbed and danced on the waves just lying there on their backs, chittering to each other, almost laughing, perpetual whiskered smiles on their faces. What wonderful fishermen these creatures were. He smiled at their antics as he baited his line with the next bait: some clam meat. Tossing the line in, he patiently waited.

Heading into the cabin he retrieved a small cask of freshwater, a small sack of walnuts, and a nut cracker he’d brought along. Returning to the deck, he fondly thought about the day Tiger, Bear, and he had collected the nuts from the forest around the cave he called home, the season before. Cracking a walnut’s shell, he scooped out the tasty nuts inside as he watched the line. Aww, look, the otters have gotten themselves… what is that… it appears to be some clam meat. Good for your little guys, he thought, Aww, it looks like they are waving at me now. Soo very cute.

Well, he wasn’t having much luck with any of these baits, it seemed. He was having a hard time just keeping it on the line. One last try, before he needed to head back to Sandpoint. We’ll try some herring, he thought, couldn’t be any worse then the rest of this bait. Casting the line, the herring almost hit the water not far from the reef. As the bait neared the surface of the water, the ocean beneath exploded into a dark, scaly fish. The fish leapt from the water, grabbing the bait and hook before furiously splashing back in. Now, this is more like it, Haggor thought. He could feel the excitement washing over him as he struggled with the line to bring the fighting fish closer to the boat. This is what it was all about: the relaxation, the patient waiting, and then the moment of exhilaration as you fought the fish. He wondered if those wily otters felt like this as they chased as school of fish or flipped over rocks to find a squid or octopus racing away. He admired his furry counterparts. Finally the fight was out of the fish—a sea bass, he realized as he hauled it aboard. His brain was already turning with ideas on how to prepare and cook this delicious catch. He quickly cleaned the fish, throwing the head and guts overboard; maybe his little brown friends would enjoy them.

Making his way forward, he attempted to haul the anchor up but it was stuck. He’d have to swim down and free it. Kicking off his sandals, he dove into the salty blue green waves. Hand over hand, he followed the rope down into the crystal clear depths. One of his little fisherman friends joined him, excited to see what he was doing, swirling and zipping around Haggor. He smiled as the little guy’s black gloved paws padded him. Like a little furry pick pocket. Sorry little guy, I don’t have any food for you, he thought, Sooo very cute! Freeing the anchor from the rocky ledge it had trapped itself under, he pushed to the surface. The sunlight cascaded through the waves in wonderful beams of bright light, penetrating the waves. Breaking the surface, the otter was waiting for him, circling him in fast tight circles. I wish I could stay and play, little guy, but I need to head back before it gets dark. I’ll come back and visit you soon. Maybe I’ll bring Tiger and you can play. The little guy clutched at Haggor’s robe, tugging lightly. Haggor heard what must have been the other otter splashing around the on the other side of the boat as the this otter reluctantly released Haggor’s robe. Climbing over the rail, Haggor turned back and waved bye to the friendly otter as he finished hauling the anchor on board.

Raising the sail and setting his course with the tiller he turned back to wave to his new friends. Aww look they caught themselves a sea bass, too. Soo cute! The other of the larger two was working on a small brown walnut like shellfish with something shiny. Clutched between the otters little black hands was a nut cracker. So industrious, he thought, Wait a second! A nut cracker and a sea bass!? Quickly glancing around, he realized his catch, nutcracker, and nuts were gone. “Hey you little thieves, that’s my fish!” he shouted back at the animated otters, who were waving and chittering back at him. Awww, so cute, he thought, then mentally slapped himself, Stop that! But he couldn’t resist and smiled at his little furry pirate friends. As he smiled at the quickly receding otters, he realized that he had a name for his boat now.

The next day Haggor returned to the docks with a painter in tow. The painter set to work on the bow of Haggor’s sailboat. He patiently waited for the painter to complete his work. When complete, he examined the results, nodding appreciatively. Grinning, he turned his newly named sailboat, “The Otter Pirate.” Along with the name, in stylized letters, was a painted otter standing on its hind legs, striking a dashing pose, wearing only a black pirate hat with the skull and crossbones, a pair of black leather gloves, and a cutlass belted to its long waist.

Aww, so cute.

Theory: Stages of Characterization in RPGs

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I had a theory and would like to hear opinions on whether this matches the experience of other gamers:

Roleplayers tend to go through several major stages in roughly the same order as they enter the hobby and portray different characters. Some players very quickly move through the stages, while others will hit a particular stage and stick with it. Some players will even return to an earlier stage at times. No stage is intrinsically better than an earlier one, but there is a general trend along the line. Understanding what stage a player is currently in can give insights into how to make games fun for that player.

In order, the stages are:

  1. Roleplaying as Self Insertion: A player in the earliest stage is brand new to the hobby and most characters are intrinsically similar to the player. No matter which character picked (X), the character is actually “me as X.” This could be “me as Aragorn,” “me as a ninja,” and so on. How the character behaves is quite similar to what would happen if some magical event actually moved the player’s consciousness to a skilled body in a fantasy world: the character’s goals are intrinsically tied to what the player finds interesting. A player in this stage is able to be hooked primarily by intuiting what he or she would find exciting given a different set of skills and a consequence-free environment.
  2. Roleplaying as Wish Fulfillment: A player in the next stage has begun to craft characters with their own distinct motivations. However, the character’s goals have not become completely disentangled from the player’s own desires. Thus, the player is more likely to respond to goals in game that match his or her own longings in life (which may be anything from the ability to kick butt, create a stable home, or find true love). A player in this stage is able to be hooked primarily by intuiting what he or she is missing in actual life and providing it as escapism.
  3. Roleplaying as Personal Growth: By the third stage, the player has finished exploring insertion of self and personal goals within an RPG, and has begun to fully see games as a chance to deliberately deal with his or her own issues in a consequence-free environment. Intentionally or not, most characters created during this stage will reflect the player’s own insecurities or personal development goals, even though their other traits and goals might be quite different. For example, a player trying to develop leadership skills will make a lot of characters intended to be party leader and will try to take this role. A player with a passion for music but little chance to practice may make a series of musicians to see what life might be like if that path was pursued. A player in this stage is able to be hooked primarily by intuiting which personality traits the player is experimenting with and giving opportunities for those traits to shine.
  4. Roleplaying as Novelty Exercise: At the final stage, the player has portrayed a long series of characters and begun to crave roleplaying challenges. These players will often try to create characters that are interesting and completely independent from his or her own goals and desires; if the character shares traits with the player, it’s either coincidental, or the player is choosing to make some parts of the character easier to portray to better focus on the different parts. Essentially, the player is experimenting with bringing a three dimensional character to life. A player in this stage is able to be hooked primarily by intuiting what makes the character interesting to the player, and giving him or her chances to shine within that space.

Fortress of the Stone Giants, Prologue 3

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I hope we solve this mystery!

Haggor sees a strange ship leaving the Dragon’s Punchbowl; though he does not pursue, he thinks it’s very strange. He lands on the island, finding a spot on the beach that has been deliberately set up to moor a small ship. The beach seems disturbed, though he can’t be certain for what purpose, and he finds a number of cow bones littering the sand. One such set of bones isn’t yet completely stripped. The meat bears a greenish tinge that he can’t identify, but he does find enough of the cow’s brand to identify the owner later. He pockets both to take to Balekh.

The island itself is forested, and he sets off into the woods looking for clues, or for adventure. What he very quickly finds is the shrieking of wyverns around the tall escarpment that dominates the island, and he decides not to climb such a peak by himself. On the way back to the beach, he nearly stumbles over a grounded wyvern, sitting idly in a clearing in the woods and making odd noises, as if shaking off some ailment. Back on the beach, he up-close look at a wyvern leads him to believe the depressions in the sand of the beach closely mimic reclining wyverns; he thinks that’s strange. A tour around the island lends itself to no other mooring spots, so he heads back out.

Meanwhile, Veshenga is at the Varisian encampment of her tribe. They throw a large party to celebrate her visit, and she spends most of the night swapping tales and merriment with old friends. However, her tale of travel into the east worries her father, Danel, and he cautions her that the lands around Korvosa are dangerous to their people, for near on thirty years since the Purge. Not wanting to get into a heavy discussion at the party, she merely tells her father that she will be careful.

However, the next morning, thinking over the discussion, she decides to ask the specifics of this horror her father described. He makes sure she is ready for some life changing facts, and then launches into his tale. He is not her biological father, as he had led her to believe, but is instead the close friend (and possibly had hoped something more?) of her mother. She had been one of the tribe’s great performers, and had shortly before Veshenga’s birth become the favorite of a small court of elves in a freehold to the east of Korvosa. One winter night, the elf lord she had taken up with was murdered as they shared a private evening alone together, and a Hellknight that happened to be in court blamed it on her and the other Varisians in attendence.

The tribe had played at the politics of the situation with their usual nonchalance for some time, but it slowly became apparent that the misunderstanding was becoming a witch hunt as the city of Korvosa was mobilized against them. They began to leave the area, slowly at first, until one fateful night shortly after the birth of the half-elven girl Danel would name Veshenga. Riding hard out of Korvosa came a pogrom of Hellknights and other hunters, and they began quickly culling the fleeing Varisians. Knowing that they would stop for her, Veshenga’s mother, Tessa, gave the baby to Danel and told him to ride hard, while she rode to draw off the hunt. The last remnants of a once proud tribe ran to the west, and joined another tribe, knowing only that Tessa had saved them, and that they could never return to Korvosa.

Back in Sandpoint, Balekh’s soon-to-be father-in-law, Ven, pulls him away from his work and asks him to take a walk. The old man explains that he has a hard time trusting, especially where his daughters are concerned, but that he’s come to realize that he mustn’t make the same mistakes with Shayliss as he had with Katrine, trying to over protect her and only risking her life and happiness in the process. He admits that Balekh seems a good man, and has gone over and above on his request to make a life in Sandpoint and keep his last daughter as safe as the situation will allow. He leads Balekh into his house and shows the theurge that he has cleared out Katrine’s room and turned it into an office for Balekh, and hopes that, once they are married, he and Shayliss will continue to live under his roof when they’re not out adventuring. Balekh gladly accepts.

Haggor is investigating the strange ship and incidents on the island. Having no luck tracking the boat itself to Sandpoint’s harbor, he follows up on the devoured cows. With the help of Balekh and some local alchemists, it seems likely that the entire cow was suffused with a huge dose of sleeping poison, likely enough to make a wyvern pass out. The seemingly drugged wyvern in the woods comes back to Haggor’s memory. He traces the brand to a small farm outside of town, and asks the old farmer’s wife who they might have sold a whole cow to. She only knows one place that buys whole cows: the Sandpoint candlery, which mostly buys beef tallow for candles, but sometimes buys whole cows (she doesn’t know why). Haggor thanks the woman and attempts to investigate the candlery, but gets nowhere with the scuzzy, uncooperative Varisian louts hanging around outside. He does note that the shop is very close to the harbor, and also to the least reputable tavern in town. He decides his best bet is to catch the criminals in the act, and sets up within sight of the island for the next several weeks, fishing and waiting.

As it is quickly becoming full summer, Veshenga decides to head home and begins bidding her tribe farewell. They leave her instructions on how to find them closer to the Mierani Forest: they’ve heard some disturbing things about giants raiding the lowlands near the Storval Plateau, and aren’t taking any chances. This bears investigation, and is essentially on her way back, so Veshenga heads east towards the plateau. There, she finds many stories of strange attacks from the mouths of frightened citizens, and traces the most recent to a farm. The farmhouse is smashed, easily by a giant, and the place seems ransacked for food and valuables; all of the livestock and grain appears to have been carried off. She identifies tracks, which she identifies as most likely several hill giants led by a stone giant, and follows them. They do, in fact, lead to the Storval Stairs, and she sees evidence of quite a lot of giant passage in the area.

Hiding in the woods nearby but off of the main areas of giant tracks, over the next few days Veshenga sees several giants patrolling the ridge and more than one raiding party of a half dozen giants heading up and down the stairs. When she sees a party large enough to make a fully formed scouting trip, provisioned for a journey, she decides that it’s time to warn the populace that the giants might be massing their army. She returns to Sandpoint.

Not long after she gets back, Haggor finally has some luck on his hunt. The same boat pulls into the hidden mooring on the island, and begins offloading a dead cow. Fortune favors Haggor, and they don’t notice him until he slips almost on top of him. He drops anchor as soon as he thinks it will reach bottom and then swims as stealthily as possible towards the brigands. They try to pull away, but he catches their ship and climbs aboard, noting a small band of scuzzy Varisians. They fight back with oars and hooks, and he’s forced to knock a few overboard before managing to capture one. Those that abandoned ship seem to be making a swim for his own boat, but he deftly turns their ship around and cuts them off. They swim back for the island, and he leaps back to his boat with the prisoner, leaving their ship to drift in the currents. He plans to maroon them on the island and deal with them later.

Returning to Sandpoint with the uncooperative prisoner, he turns the man over to Sheriff Hemlock with his story. While the Sheriff doesn’t know if drugging wyverns is illegal, whatever one would want to do that for probably is. Between the Varisian thug in custody, Haggor’s testimony about the candlery connection, and the Sheriff’s long suspicion that the shop is a Sczarni front, he thinks it’s at least enough to justify a raid. So, that evening, with a dozen guards and the party in tow and brimming with enchantments, they march through the town wharves, thugs and ne’er-do-wells evaporating like a mist. They burst in on an elderly Varisian candler, and Balekh is very quickly able to detect poison and find a secret stash under a shelf: a large quantity of sleeping poison, and several vials of an ichor that could only be wyvern venom. A batch of fancy candles seem to have the same toxin brewed in, and it doesn’t take long to isolate them as a regular shipment to the Valdemars, almost certainly explaining the old man’s persistent lung problems.

None of the Varisian thugs will talk, and those that Haggor had marooned on the island seem to have manage to swim to their ship and flee. They’re sent to prison in Magnimar with the expectation that whatever their plot is has at least been completely disrupted for the time being. The party, however, has larger fish to fry: all are worried about the giant activity to the north. They resolve to deal with it, but not before Balekh’s impending nuptials. Word is sent to Magnimar to increase patrols, but the party’s involvement won’t be available until after the Swallowtail Festival.

They hope that won’t be too late, but some things, like marriage, are more important than getting a head start on saving the world.

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