All posts for the month October, 2015

[This is the third post in a series of session summaries (i.e., a play report) for the first campaign I have run in the Curabel setting. Each summary was written by one of the players, but I am adding my own ‘DM Annotations’ on these write-ups before uploading them here. These annotations will mostly call attention to bits of the summaries that will be significant later in the campaign (with links to relevant summaries to follow as they are posted) or else explain my rational for my game-mastering choices.

Please note that the summary will be displayed as regular text and my annotations as block quotes throughout.]

Session Three

Bullywugs, by pachycrocuta-d51ltb8

Bullywugs, by pachycrocuta-d51ltb8

It’s my turn to recap, so here we go!

This summary was written by Antony, who still plays the dwarf fighter Axel. He did not have much tabletop RPG experience, but picked it up very fast. This ability to pickup the game so quickly is especially noteworthy because he lives in England and plays from 1am to 5am his time and has rarely missed sessions.

We continue where we left off, outside of Desric’s shop after collecting the reward for handing him the plans to Talessin’s automatons. He told the party to go and see Elspeth [the proprietor] at the Cock & Bull.

All the names of NPCs and establishments in the City of Midmark were generated using a variety of random tables and scripts, most of which have now been posted to this blog.

Primarily, this happened one of two ways: for NPCs and places I know will be significant (or at least mentioned), I do the generation beforehand and flesh out some further unique details – this was the case for Elspeth and the Cock & Bull. For ‘surprise’ NPC appearances, like the random encounter with Ede Kynge mentioned in the next paragraph, I create large text files consisting of hundreds of NPC records. In that case, I just grabbed the first likely entry, which happened to be for a lamp maker. Alternately, though, I will take just the name and description of a random NPC from my list when the party seeks out a specific vendor or other individual (e.g., they want to find a locksmith, which shouldn’t be impossible in a large city, and I don’t have that specific NPC type at hand).

Before head over to the Inn, Galron stops an older man, hoping to procure a map of the city. The man, Ede Kynge, tells us that we are currently in the Adventurer’s Quarter, and that we can basically find anything we need along the main road here, West Copper Street. A paper market and bazaar are back towards the harbour, and Threehorn Way, an alleyway next to Desric’s shop, has an Alchemist’s.

Kynge, the proprietor of ‘Kynge’s Lanterns’, also urges Galron to try his shop as the Paladin is looking for a custom lamp. Further conversation reveals Talessin’s supposed involvement with foreign contacts, strongly hinted to be elves and perhaps not a good thing.

The party misread Kynge’s hints here – which were aimed at Talessin’s Imperial connection, although there was no reason for me to correct their mistake. The NPC, certainly, would be reticent to make such an inflammatory claim about a well-known wizard any more explicit.

After this, the party enters the Cock & Bull, where we find Elspeth the landlady. She doesn’t seem to think much of us, apparently having seen many a group in the employ of Desric, but offers us the townhouse behind the Inn, which we can rent for 30 Gold a month. The house, though sparsely decorated, is often used by adventurers helping Desric.

While renting rooms at an inn would have been adequate and within the party’s means, I thought it would help the group view Midmark as their ‘home’ if they had a more private (and somewhat more permanent) residence. At the same time, in more practical terms, having them rent a house also meant that NPCs hunting for the group could more easily track them down.

After some discussion, the party decides to trial it for a single night, paying a single gold (though Axel elects to stay in the Inn due to a lack of beds).

After a quick tour, Axel and Galron head out to run some errands, whilst the rest of the party stays at the Inn.

In this time, Ir’Alle approaches an elder elf, a sage called Ferri. He learns the location of a House of the Brotherhood [the temple for clerics of Xen’Teler, the dwarven deity], down at the harbour. In asking for people of importance in Midmark, he learns that Ferri is not a friend of Desric’s and suspects the Dwarf may be a supporter of the unease in the city towards its authorities.

This is an explicit reference to the tension between native islanders and colonial humans in Midmark. Ferri, whose mother killed herself after a long imprisonment by imperials prior to the liberation of the islands, is a strong advocate of the colonial aristocrats and their institutions – a ‘law and order’ type who sees any sacrifice of liberties as justified to prevent the return of the empire; Desric, on the other hand, is more understanding of the grievances of the native islanders (based partly on his research into the ancient dwarven empire’s treatment of their underclass as mentioned below).

Outside, Axel and Galron head first to the Alchemist’s. The shop is closed, but the owner, a rather attractive Halfling lady, humours us. Axel enquires after healing potions, but they are too expensive for the party to currently buy (450g each). The Alchemist begins to get annoyed, but calms down when we reveal our naiveté of such things, being new adventurers.

I tend to agree with DMs critical of ‘Magic Shops’ as something that cheapens the fantastical element of settings. There are always those who will purchase artifacts and magical items, collectors or various sorts and researchers, but having such items on shelves for the public to pick over seems wrong. However, I exempt from this items that could be explained via other means – like healing potions whose efficacy depends on alchemy rather than magic. These things are still expensive given the rare ingredients and secret knowledge needed to produce them, but they are completely natural phenomena.

We then head to the local Ark, whereby Galron donates a portion of his earnings to a friendly female cleric, hoping to secure discounted healing for the future. Axel matches the donation as a show of goodwill.

Back at the Inn, Thorfus asks a blacksmith [drinking in the common room] about acquiring better armour. The smith, Tylic Eraclid, admits he can only really do repairs, but recommends an elven armourer, Orsabet, down by the bridge.

I know some DMs and players look at this kind of ‘shopping simulation’ and see a giant waste of time. However, my experience is that when this type of play is used strategically, it enhances the players sense that they are dealing with a living world rather than a convenient backdrop for their heroics. Sometimes it is enough to tell players they can buy anything in the PHB for a 5% markup from nearby vendors (usually after they have already become acquainted with a city or town), but, as any traveler knows, shopping can be an adventure in itself and tell you quite a bit about a location. By the time they left Midmark, this group had a mental map key neighborhoods in the city and a list of contacts they could ask about items recovered in their adventurers — they treated it like a lived in place rather than a menu.

Sthorm also approaches Ferri, asking the Sage to appraise the book and wand he ‘acquired’ in secret from Talessin’s tower. He is unable to identify the wand, guessing that it could be defensive in nature. The book, he identifies for 70g, and cautiously reveals it to be a basic spell book, and offers to buy it for 270g. Sthorm keeps it for now.

The next morning, Axel ribs Galron about his actions towards the various women the previous day. Although he claims he is just trying to haggle and charm, we all know the young Paladin is a horny teenager. Axel offers to take him to a brothel, but he declines.

The party returns to Desric, where he offers us a job. After some bad luck, a party he sent to Xen’Khel half a year ago went missing. They had been on a mission to open a previously locked up area, but their disappearance destroyed any hope of finding it, as they had the only known key. Desric’s research turned up a second key though, and, several weeks ago, he sent Galdor’s Free Company to collect it from a tomb deep beneath the University in Midmark.

These paragraphs describe the moment when I introduced a rather big adventure hook – one that would eventually bring the party to the nearest mega-dungeon (the Xen’Khel ruin mentioned here). As the game approaches eighty sessions, the party is still dealing with the fallout of their acceptance of this job.

It is significant, though, that the hook actually consists of two parts – a starter dungeon located inside the current city and the mega-dungeon of Xen’Khel. That was purposeful and accomplished two things: first, it made the mission seem doable to the group despite their low level; second, it provided a natural place for a break from dungeon-delving between the starter and mega dungeons if they grew tired of that activity.

The tomb, a remnant of the ancient Dwarven city Midmark is built upon, is supposedly that of a high-ranking family. Galdor’s men managed to locate it, but turned back after they lost a man to trap.

Desric says that if we can finish the job, he would pay us 200g for the key, giving us looting rights to anything else we may find. The key is a disc, roughly 1’ in diameter, engraved with Ancient Dwarven runes. It is likely buried with the family matriarch. He gives us directions to the tomb, and also tells us that Galdor is staying at the Flotsam and Jetsam, near the harbour, should we need any more information.

Having some adventurers the party could pump for information before beginning their quest turned out to be a very good idea. When I ran this starter dungeon the second time, the group ignored this lead and had a much rougher time of things initially because they found themselves walking into the middle of a complex situation with no clues.

Sthorm privately asks Desric as we leave if he wants the book or wand, but the dwarf can only offer 50g for the un-appraised wand.

Following the main road towards the harbour, we stop of at Orsabet’s, where Thorfus commissions some chainmail, to be ready later that evening.

At Kynge’s Lanterns, Galron purchases a hooded lantern, made to hang from a pole, and several flasks of oil.

Next, the party stops at the paper market, where Sthorm seeks out a mage called Velten. He exchanges the spell book in order to get the wand appraised. Velten identifies it as a Wand of Magic Detection, and despite having minimal remaining charges, is probably worth 1000g or so.

The rest of the party finds Garviso, who sells maps, from which we purchase maps of the city and the island of Curmidden.

The group caught me a bit unprepared here – I hand-draw all my maps and didn’t have any scanned copies to share immediately. In addition, the city map contained a bit too much information and needed to be redone for their consumption. Since we were playing online, it wasn’t possible to scribble something for reference while they waited, so I apologized and promised to upload the documents to our campaign’s G+ community page during the upcoming week (which I did).

Ir’Alle takes us then to the House of the Brotherhood to pay his respects. The dwarven cleric he speaks to seems to have heard of him, as a human in a dwarven religion is a bit of an oddity. When asked if Ir’Alle can offer any assistance, the dwarf asks that we see if we can uncover a missing group of surveyors, patrons of the House, lost in a swamp near the city of Vargen.

Although I thought the starter dungeon was the natural next step for the group, the campaign is not a railroad and it was important for me that they had other choices. This adventure hook gave them another choice, although they never followed up on it.

After asking for further directions, we reach the Flotsam and Jetsam. Enquiring after Galdor, the man is brought to us. When asked about the tomb, he tells us it is dangerous, and it is probably better not to go at all. His group, although used to lighter work, are veterans, but they still lost a man to a revolving floor trap.

Further questioning reveals that they had to drive out a Goblin settlement in order to get to the tomb and that their path was marked in chalk, denoted by the initials GFC. He also claims the tomb was weird, full of odd stains and strange noises.

Understanding the significance of the chalk marks and not being surprised by the goblins’ presence were the big advantages of the party speaking with Galdor. The latter fact was probably especially important to making the party’s deal with the goblins possible and letting them avoid an unnecessary fight.

The party decides to spend the rest of the day preparing. We hire a pair of crossbowmen on Galdor’s recommendation, Sturloc and Kottar. The barkeep also points us towards an eager young boy, Kilmar, who we hire to be a torchbearer. Galron promises to buy the boy a proper weapon after the mission.

The party’s first hirelings! While my games as a teenager rarely (if ever) involved hirelings, I wanted this campaign to be a more authentic 1E AD&D experience in this regard – fortunately, some of the more experienced players already understood the benefits of hirelings. These two crossbowmen have been with the party ever since (although one has been possessed by an ancient Devil Fish spirit for the last twenty or so sessions) and the original players are very attached to them despite the fact that they rarely contribute except as treasure bearers. Kilmar’s fate, on the other hand, was not as fortunate.

Returning to Desric, the dwarf admits the tomb possibly could have automated guardians and strong magical protections and traps. In this time, Sthorm sells Desric the wand for a large sum. After Thorfus collects his armour, the party stays again at the Cock & Bull, finally deciding to rent the house for a month.

The next day, we meet the hired help at the sewer entrance, supplying Kilmar with a lantern and a backpack. Entering the sewer, the party finds itself in a chamber housing the remnants of Galdor’s camp, denoted by GFC C1/30.09 written on the wall. Following the only tunnel in single file, we head roughly south, following further chalked signs and descending deeper until we find a cave-in mentioned by Galdor.

Climbing down a steep incline, we see the beginning of the ruins, with what looks to be the mosaic walls of a dwarven bathhouse. The party notes the smell of salt water and something else more foul. Entering a large chamber, we can hear the sound of falling water, and (momentarily) the keen of what could be a wounded animal. Opening a door, Goblins suddenly appear behind the group, brandishing weapons and calling for us to leave.

The summary here glosses over the details, but I used these mosaics (and other architectural features of the bathhouse) to begin establishing the nature of the ancient dwarven empire. Primarily, I wanted it to be clear to the group that those dwarves used humans (and perhaps other races) as slave labor and had little respect for their dignity. This speaks to the importance, I think, of making sure important clues are repeated to emphasize their significance — as later comments reveal, the repetition of the motifs in the mosaics elsewhere eventually caught the party’s attention.

The goblin speaking members of the party manage to talk to the Goblin leader, discovering that we were thought to be Galdor’s men returning to finish them off. Because of this, and the loss of several warriors, the goblin tribe had lost its home to a band of ‘Frogs’, led by the ‘Bad Fish’.

This would be a large group of Bullywugs led by a Devil Fish. As mentioned in my notes on the first session, I had already established the threat posed by the Devil Fish via the wrecked ship encountered as the party entered the city. Meanwhile, I decided to use some of the racial notes on Bullywugs published on Hack & Slash’s blog, making them misogynistic sadists. Hack & Slash’s ecology piece on Ixitxachitl also figured into my conception of the Devil Fish.

After some discussion, the Goblins agree to let us into the tomb, but only if we help them retake their home in the main bathhouse from the Frogs. Following the leader into a smaller chamber, a second band appears from the room we tried to enter, effectively surrounding us.

The Goblin tells us how they have blocked most of the passages after several skirmishes, trying to force the Frogs into attacking from only a single direction. If we attack the Frogs, the Goblins will unblock one of those passages and ambush them from behind. In this time, we see another room with mosaic’s depicting the place of humans in the ancient dwarven kingdoms, that of possibly slaves and servants.

Here it starts to become clear to the players that they cannot make assumptions about who is an ally or enemy based solely on alignment – it’s probably also true that this is when the Galron the paladin’s player began to consider rolling an alternate character. I would not have actually penalized his character in this case — allying with the goblins served a greater good — but it’s possible he saw this situation as indicative of future problems.

As mentioned earlier, this is also where the benefit of repeating important facts/hints is made evident – the subject matter of the initial mosaics did not make enough of an impression for inclusion the summary, but the repetition of the theme caught Antony’s attention here.

We decide to assist the Goblins, and the leader takes us to a set of double doors to the East, following the flow of water. At the door, Galron sense evil beyond, and we push them open to reveal a balcony from which the water falls [into a pool in the large room below]. Upon the balcony, a rather crude and disgusting statue made from the body parts of slain Goblins sits directly in front of the doors along with a Frog.

The first evidence of the Bullywugs’ sadism in the form of some (goblin) body horror.

We attack it instantly, and, after a few seconds of struggle, the Goblin leader caves the creature’s head in with his morningstar. During the scuffle, Galron is able to detect the Goblins alignment. The Goblin turns out to be evil, rendering the paladin unable to assist it in any way, for fear of losing his powers.

At the beginning of the next session, this goblin will leave to accommodate the paladin’s restrictions, although the indirect help provided by the goblin’s flank attack goes ahead (with no penalty to Galron).

We end the session stuck with that dilemma, hearing a final croak from the darkness in the room beyond.

A little bit of a cliff-hanger to end the party’s first real dungeon-delve session.

"Feiernde Bauern" ("Celebrating Peasants"), artist unknown, 18th or 19th century

“Feiernde Bauern” (“Celebrating Peasants”), artist unknown, 18th or 19th century

Today I have posted a new Perl script to my blog that will generate hundreds of random non-leveled (i.e., commoner) NPCs in a plain text file, including basic physical characteristics, psychological features, and information about employment (the script is available here and from the header menu above). The program is a companion piece to the leveled NPC generation script previously published on this blog. While that script was for creating rival NPC parties and the like, this one is primarily for generating NPCs to drop into your campaign whenever your players drop into their local tavern to collect rumors or stop a random passerby on a city street.

Notes and Caveats:

  1. It would be remiss on my part if I didn’t acknowledge the influence on this script of Richard J. LeBlanc Jr.’s NPC generation charts in his D30 Sandbox Companion publication. I strongly recommend clicking that link and buying all of his D30 products in both PDF and print (the latter available here).
  2. There is one more NPC generator script yet to be uploaded: one that generates the entire population of various types of city districts including both leveled and non-leveled NPCs and using some of the demographic assumptions introduced in third edition Dungeons and Dragons. I will post that within the next month or so (it needs a bit more polish).
Jungle River, by i_netgrafx

Jungle River, by i_netgrafx

[This is the seventh post in a series dissecting the campaign ‘bible’ document I drafted while planning my AD&D 1e campaign. See here for an introduction to this series of posts.]

Island Hopping: Adventure Locales

The last section of the campaign ‘bible’ detailing the physical aspects of the Curabel setting consists of a collection of minor islands that were intended to provide several different adventure locales for my players. However, I have not done much with any of the setting’s locations outside of Curmidden (the central island) since it has provided more than enough room for adventure through seventy-six sessions. This means that, with the exception of Lonely Isle, there is not much to say about these locations other than in terms of my original intentions in creating them.


This island is where Imperials first landed. Now called Watcher’s Island, though no permanent settlement has existed here is more than a century.

My campaign has featured some intrigue involving the human empire located across the ocean to the east (albeit not as much recently), but the Watchers mentioned in this brief description have not been a presence at all. It was my thought that, if this semi-secret cabal dedicated to protecting the islands from Imperials had interacted with the party more, the existence of an unsettled island that this group intermittently occupies and located at the eastern end of the archipelago might prove an interesting adventure locale.

Serpent’s Tooth

This island is one of the most inhospitable of the islands, although ancient ruins still draw adventurers. There is one permanent settlement on the island’s western coast called “Poison Spit” that serves as the launching point for most expeditions into the interior. Most residents of this town are native humans who have been fishing the waters here since the ancient dwarven empire, although each failed expedition tends to add a few survivors to the local population.

Conceived as an area for higher-level adventure in a truly wild jungle setting, it hasn’t been necessary to flesh this island out any more than the above blurb. The dwarven ruins, imperial forts, and jungles of Curmidden have been sufficient to occupy the players to date. A secondary campaign that I run for middle school students (my wife is their teacher) will be headed here soon, though, so I will have a chance to fill in some of the blanks.

Crescent Isle

This is the breadbasket of the islands and home to the second-largest human city-state, Feldmark. Compared to Midmark on Curmidden, Feldmark is a small town with a modest harbor. There is not the same strict division between districts and modest residences can be found side-by-side with industrial and civic buildings.

The Feldmark city-state was intended to serve as a foil to the larger metropolis of Midmark — an agrarian society with stronger democratic (as opposed to aristocratic) traditions. However, neither of my campaigns have delved much into the tensions between the various human city-states. It is possible that this will change in my primary campaign, though, when the United Council of the Marks (mentioned later in the campaign bible) has their annual meeting in two months in-game time.

Agmar’s Folly

This island was a thriving rival to Midland and Crescent Isle until all the settlers disappeared under mysterious circumstances several decades ago. It is now avoided by all but the most desperate scavengers and pirates.

Somewhat of an homage to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, this locale was created as a straightforward adventure hook — a mystery for the players to solve, whether they sought it out on purpose or found themselves there while interacting with “scavengers and pirates.” I strongly suspect, though, that my players feel they have more than enough mystery on their plate right now between imperial spies, ancient dwarven gods that are less dead than previously thought, and slavery rings tied to corrupt guild, companies, and politicians on Curmidden.

Lonely Isle

This is a blasted and desolate island is often subject to geological instability.

It figures that this blank slate of an island, which just has a vague hint of adventure related to its “geological instability,” has become the one location on this list that figures prominently in my primary campaign. Part of this was anticipated during the initial design of the setting when I decided this island was an important location for the ancient dwarven empire that my players have been doggedly investigating. However, there was also a bit of serendipity owing to collaboration with one player who wanted to play a monk. Originally, this class was not part of my conception for the setting, but, since it was never explicitly banned from the campaign, I let this player help integrate it into the world. During that process, we decided together that this island would be the original headquarters of the Order of the Celestial Dragon, a fierce anti-imperial counter-espionage force. This Order recently abandoned their headquarters, though, in a diaspora intended to be an opportunity to find a more appropriate home after the island was overrun by a company interested in mining its resources. This company is the same one involved with the slavery ring and other shady business and its very likely that the campaign will eventually make its way to this location.

One last note on this collaborative world-building: typically, I am not a fan of letting the players contribute to the design of a campaign setting. The world and how it works is part of the mystery that players uncover as they play and that mystery is impossible to have if the eventual investigators design it. In this case, however, I was able to give the player the ability to make certain choices — like the name of the order and its headquarters — without telling him the significance of those choices or how they fit into the world (i.e., that the location was an important site already and that the order was a ‘reformed’ offshoot of the dervishes who served the human empire). In essence, the player chose some facts but I gave them the significance. This has happened a few more times in the campaign since then and I will definitely be experimenting with this approach more in the future.

Detailing the Heavens Above: Basic Cosmology

  1. Meidia has a single sun that travels east to west. Curabel’s days and nights are roughly equal year-round given its proximity to the equator.
  2. Meidia has two moons:
    1. Imperial: Cinthal, Cinmar (Shadow-son and Shadow-daughter)
    2. Dwarven: Fathil, Fatha (Dark hunter and Dark huntress)
    3. Elven: Mithilun, Cithilun (Silver-lady and Dark-lady)
  3. Currents and winds run east to west; since Midland straddles the equator, currents break to the north on islands north of that island and south to the south (on the eastward side) and flow around the top and then back either south or north (on the westward side)
  4. Storms are frequent but generally mild in this equatorial region
Suraya Bay at Night

Suraya Bay at Night

There is not too much to say about this bit of the campaign bible. With the exception of the double moons, most of these details reflect with information taken from the Wilderness Survival Guide or my own research into the tropical islands/climes. Looking back on the names of those moons, though, I am reminded of a linguistic connection intended between the imperial and Elven nomenclature — specifically the purposeful similarity between the “Cin” element in one and “Cith” in the other. This builds on the bit of historical lore I drafted about how the empire’s home in the east originally belonged to the elves before that latter groups conquest and exile to Curabel.

Quick Note About Upcoming Installments in this Series:

The next section of the campaign bible is about the setting’s various races. This is information I have covered already in my discussion of the individual islands in Curabel (see the posts on humans, elves, and dwarves). Rather than skip this section, though, I will be revisiting the peoples of Curabel and posting some tables of random backgrounds for new player characters that take into account both race and island of origin.

Dwarven Overseer (just ignore the skull part)

Dwarven Overseer (just ignore the skull part)

[This is the second post in a series of session summaries (i.e., a play report) for the first campaign I have run in the Curabel setting. Each summary was written by one of the players, but I am adding my own ‘DM Annotations’ on these write-ups before uploading them here. These annotations will mostly call attention to bits of the summaries that will be significant later in the campaign (with links to relevant summaries to follow as they are posted) or else explain my rational for my game-mastering choices.

Please note that the summary will be displayed as regular text and my annotations as block quotes throughout.]

Session Two

This summary was written by James, who played the dwarven thief named Sthorm. James lives in Australia and was a great player while we had him. He left the campaign somewhere around session ten due to scheduling issues.

We continued from where we left off with Thorfus wounded and unconscious and Galron in possession of a restrained simian automaton. Sthorm noticed another of the monkey automatons perched on the catwalk near the ladder leading upwards but this one made no move to attack, content to merely observe us.

The creepy monkey construct’s staring and the bit mentioned in the next paragraph about a “sound from below” did a nice job of ratcheting up the tension. The party already knew that the automata could hurt them, so hinting at an imminent attack but holding off on pulling the trigger was fun. It also cemented in the players’ minds that these enemies were not mindless obstacles, but crafty foes working on their own agenda. I have actually returned to this tactic a few times in the sessions since whenever the party seems to be getting a little too confident and it always seems to unsettle them.

Thorfus was attended to and back on his feet when we heard a sound from below. Galron went to the open hatch leading downwards to look but saw nothing aside from crates. He then threw a heavy chunk of scrap down the opening and the resulting noise caused the other sound to halt but otherwise had no known effect. We decided to head down.

In this new room there were numerous crates with markings indicating that they came from the Silver Throne, the largest Dwarven trade company. Some of these crates were open and we saw they were filled with automaton parts. Galron placed the monkey automaton on a crate facing a wall before we advanced cautiously through one of the doors.

The incidental detail about the Silver Throne Company represented the party’s first real contact with the work of a major NPC faction that the party is still tangling with after 75 sessions of play. It would be 30+ sessions before the party identified them as a possible threat, though.

This led us to a hall with yet more doors on either side. Galron pushed at the closest one with his pole and felt a force pressing against it. He tentatively pressed it open just enough to look in and found that a cabinet had been pushed up against the door but there was nothing else of note in the room.

This barricaded room is where poor Osric, Talessin’s missing student, tried to hide before meeting his grisly end (see below for details).

This was the not the case with the next room as upon opening it we immediately spotted yet another monkey automaton though this one was cruder and more simple in make than the others. It spotted us also and began to throw itself at Galron who swiftly slammed the door shut and beckoned to Thorfus, the key holder, to lock it. He did so and the simian was now safely locked away however it continued to make a tremendous racket from within its cell.

Further exploration of the lower level revealed nothing so the group decided to head upwards. The lone monkey automaton was still in the same spot guarding the ladder and watching us intently. Galron decided to restrain the monkey as he had done with the previous one but it was not to be. Sthorm and Axel stood well back on the catwalk with their missile weapons ready, assuming this would be an easy task which would likely not require their efforts. Galron and Thorfus moved up to capture it with Ir’alle behind.

The following episode encapsulates what I find most endearing about low-level play with early edition D&D. Everything goes wrong in such delightful ways – the collapsing catwalk, the friendly-fire, the absolute chaos — before the last-minute lucky strike to avoid a TPK. Please enjoy.

What followed was an embarrassing and lengthy attempt to grab perhaps the most dexterous monkey construct ever created. It easily avoided all attempts to grab it and at one point even managed to overpower Galron causing the Paladin to bang his head on the ladder’s edge and leaving him stunned. Worse still the monkey had access to a number of flasks filled with acid and the clever little automaton repeatedly threw these flasks at the catwalk supports. His first attempt missed but otherwise he threw with precision and eventually that section of catwalk collapsed sending Galron, Thorfus and Ir’alle careening to the lower level. Sadly, the fall knocked out Ir’alle.

Galron being stunned during an attempt to grab the monkey represents a successful use of the house rules for grappling (which involve rolling d6s for each hit dice/level). These rules specify that if the defender wins, the attacker is stunned for a number of rounds equal to the margin of victory.

Axel and Sthorm, suddenly realizing that this was by no means a simple battle and being the only ones still on the catwalk with the monkey, decided to fire their weapons. Sthorm struck it well with his sling, but this only attracted its attention and the monkey leapt upon his head and raked at the Dwarf’s face. This hurt him badly. Sthorm dropped his sling and grabbed for his long sword, but, with the blood in his eyes, was unable to strike the monkey. Satisfied with the hurt that it had inflicted upon Sthorm, the Automaton then focused on Axel and struck him down easily.

Meanwhile Galron and Thorfus were on their feet and headed straight back up the catwalk. Galron fearlessly waded back into the fight, but Thorfus didn’t want to engage the creature in melee again. He drew out his bow, but was unable to find a good shot on the small creature with his allies in the way. Hurt as he was, Sthorm decided to disengage from the fight and left Galron standing against it alone. This gave Thorfus a better shot and Galron called out for him to take it.

Thorfus fired, but the arrow struck Galron in the back and he went down. The situation was dire with three men down and the remaining two heavily wounded. The monkey launched itself at Sthorm who swung at it with his longsword. Miraculously the blow struck, parting the automaton’s head from its body. Thorfus and Sthorm immediately went to check on their comrades and performed some basic first aid to stop their bleeding.

Relieved but exhausted, the two discussed what to do next and they decided a tactical retreat was the smartest option. Thorfus first gathered up the monkey’s head and body and then they carried their fallen friends with the help of Uthrak, who had been surprisingly useless so far, to the tower’s entrance where they momentarily set the bodies down. Thorfus went to unlock the door and, whilst he was doing so, Sthorm snatched up the lockbox that Galron had prevented him from taking earlier and stowed it in his backpack. The door was now open and the men once again gathered up their allies and headed back to the Lucky Gam tavern.

I took it as a very good sign that these players were smart enough (and humble enough!) to know that retreat is sometimes the best option. That’s not always the case, especially now that many players’ expectations for RPGs are shaped by video games. Also, as mentioned in my last session summary post, Uthruk’s player left the group after the first session due to scheduling conflicts and didn’t return for almost an entire year. The aside about his uselessness references this fact. He did, however, end up acting as nurse to the injured characters and, when we retired him from the party after this session, I decided he would pursue his new passion for tending the sick and injured. When he rejoined the group this led to him having some minor healing abilities.

Talessin and two of his students were in the Gam’s common room. They saw the group arrive immediately and their looks of disappointment were obvious. Thorfus told Talessin to wait whilst he saw to getting the wounded accommodations and then generously paid for two private rooms. Axel, Galron and Ir’alle were sent to bed with Uthrak watching over them whilst Thorfus and Sthorm went to talk to Talessin.

When appropriate, the disappointment of NPCs can be a powerful tool for motivation – much more so than ridicule.  Talessin and his students don’t belittle the party or call their skill into question, but still let the group know that they have failed to meet the expectations people have for heroes. Those other possibilities allow the players to respond aggressively to the NPCs questioning their abilities; that’s not as much an option when there’s no direct insult.

Thorfus explained the situation and showed Talessin the automaton they had destroyed. Talessin was interested in the intelligence the monkey had displayed but was disappointed that it and the Dwarven automaton had been destroyed. Sthorm suggested that they could still complete the job if Talessin would give them time to wait and rest, but this idea was received coldly. Thorfus then suggested that healing could be purchased so that we could get to work sooner, but that our funds were limited. Talessin offered an advance payment of 150 gold pieces for the one automaton we had left undamaged and Thorfus gratefully took this and asked for directions to the nearest Ark temple. It was very close so Thorfus set off with the money whilst Sthorm stayed behind in his room and smashed open the plundered lockbox. He was delighted to see that it contained 300 gold pieces which he stashed in his pack before kicking the broken container under his bed.

Much like the free healing the party earned last session for their merciful treatment of the street thugs, this bit of negotiation (and Sthorm’s thievery) rewarded the players for using smart tactics while avoiding the unrealistic notion of everyone waiting around an entire week to heal while the automata were left to their own devices.

Thorfus went to the temple and got a priest to come back with him, though the price was left unclear until the priest had seen how much healing would be required. He examined the wounded and noticed that one of them was a Paladin of his faith. He declared that the cost would be 75 gold each and that the price had been discounted for having a champion of the faith amongst our number. Talessin’s payment was nowhere near enough for all five men, so Thorfus took all the gold he could find on the unconscious members and pooled it with his own gold and Talessin’s. However, we still we came up short. Sthorm finally volunteered 100 gold pieces out of the 300 he had recently accrued and we had the money. Ir’alle was brought to consciousness, but the other two after healing were still out of it. Ir’alle shared some kind words with the priest and Thorfus thanked him and sent him on his way.

Typically, I assume the cost for having spells cast is 100GP * Spell Level + component costs under ideal circumstances (with further premiums depending on the spell). Knocking an extra 25GP off because the party’s paladin shared the cleric’s faith seemed reasonable and not too much of a giveaway. It’s also my experience that being a paladin often means forgoing the monetary rewards available to other adventurers, so this kind of “payment in service” arrangement helps offset that a bit.

We rested the night and, in the morning, Ir’alle prayed for healing powers which he then used on the wounded. He brought them to consciousness, though they were still exhausted. Galron was feeling melancholic after our humiliating defeat and tried to drink the pain away, but even after 4 drinks he felt no different and went back to bed. Thorfus spoke with both Talessin and one of his students, asking for any knowledge or advice that could aid us, but learned little of use. We slept another night and woke feeling refreshed and healthy enough to go back to the tower.

I believe the paladin’s attempt to get drunk was handled with a constitution ability score check that increased in difficulty with each drink (3d6 vs. con, 4d6 vs. con, etc.). His inability to become inebriated was one of those funny things that happens when you leave this kind of stuff to chance – the humor of this, much like the comical attempts to grapple the monkeys, helped the player group bond a bit more — especially since Galron’s player was a good sport about it.

The group went back to the tower and made our way to the double doors leading into the catwalk room. Thorfus and Sthorm listened at the door and heard some distant banging that sounded very much like the banging they had heard previously when the monkey automaton was at the table constructing its fellows. Thorfus opened the doors and we headed through into the catwalk room but fortunately nothing appeared to be different and aside from the destroyed Dwarven automaton there was no others we could see. Galron sensed an evil presence above and immediately made for the ladder leading upwards with the group following behind.

I had decided when the party left the tower that what they found upon their return would depend on the amount of time that had passed. Since it was only the morning of the second day after their last foray, no new enemies were in the lower levels of the tower. If they had needed another few days to recover, that would not have been true.

Galron made his way up the ladder and saw at the top that there a trapdoor with no discernible lock. Holding onto the ladder with one hand he grabbed his trident in the other and used it to lightly press up on the trapdoor. The door began to lift but then Galron felt a sudden force push down upon it so heavily that it knocked the trident from his hand and sent it crashing down to the floor. Galron took out his long sword and pushed back at the trapdoor but this time with as much force as he could muster so that the trapdoor swung up and open. Galron climbed up the rest of the way and found himself in what looked to be Talessin’s personal quarters, with shelves stacked with many thick books, a bed, and a desk. More importantly, in front of Galron was a sort of pedestal upon which was a clear dome topped with a circlet and what appeared to be a brain suspended in liquid within. Behind Galron was another Dwarven automaton and a human boy, but Galron ignored them and charged straight at the pedestal.

My model for these “overseer” enemies were the Daleks from Doctor Who and the Brain from DC Comics (especially as illustrated in the original Teen Titans cartoon). I really wanted something creepy and alien to foreshadow some of the other science-fantasy elements that would eventual arise in the campaign.

Thorfus came up behind Galron and to his horror got a proper look at the boy. The top half of his head had been removed and the brain scooped out. The boy’s cranium was filled with wires and bits of metal and his stare was empty and soulless. The boy punched at Galron and hit him lightly, but he seemed to have no awareness of what of he was doing. Axel came up the ladder and went for the Pedestal with Galron whilst Ir’alle and Sthorm ascended and moved east towards the bed where it seemed safest.

This cyborg-like reimagining of the zombie allowed me to introduce a bit of body horror into the game and foreshadow the way the Ancient Dwarven empire treated the other races who were their servants and slaves. It also let me know that this kind of violation of the individual would be a powerful motivator for my player group — something I would see again when they became aware of a slave-trading ring.

Galron arrived at the pedestal and grabbed for the circlet, remembering Talessin telling them that without it the overseer would be unable to control the automatons, but somehow he missed it completely. The Dwarven automaton behind him did not miss, however, and Galron was knocked unconscious to the ground. Axel then attempted to grab the circlet and managed to put his hands around it. As he lifted it, though, a surge of energy struck him and knocked him out cold. The circlet settled back into place on the dome.

Sthorm attempted to trip the slow and clumsy automaton by wrapping his rope around the construct’s legs and pulling its feet out from under it, but the rope failed him and snapped in the attempt. Having seen
his allies go down and having no fear of magic, Thorfus approached the pedestal and grabbed the circlet. He ripped it off, and, since the pedestal had not been able to recharge, there was no energy outburst. With the circlet removed, both the Dwarven automaton and the boy collapsed lifelessly to the ground.

Ir’alle used his divine powers to restore Galron and Axel to consciousness. Galron got up and for the first time saw the boy and what had been done to him. This filled him with outrage. He felt certain that the brain in the overseer’s orb belonged to the boy and that the automatons could not have performed an operation as delicate as brain removal. He therefore presumed that Talessin must be responsible.

A nice example of paranoia and righteous indignation, another set of useful emotions for motivating players to act.

Galron went to the lone door in the room and beckoned Thorfus to open it with the key. Thorfus did so and Galron threw the door open revealing that it led out onto the balcony. Thorfus looked down into the street and saw Ethan, one of Talessin’s students, watching over the tower as he had been ordered to do. Thorfus called out and beckoned for Ethan to come up. Ethan seemed hesitant, but eventually made his way up.

Ethan arrived and was shocked to see what had happened to his fellow student. Galron and Thorfus questioned Ethan about Talessin’s involvement, but Ethan knew nothing. He could only say that no one had been allowed into Talessin’s room and that the students had no idea about what had been happening up here.

Galron angrily left the room to confront Talessin with everyone except Sthorm following. Sthorm took the opportunity to search the nearby desk and found a locked drawer. He opened thiss with his lock picking skills. Inside the drawer was a book with a silver clasp, a wand, and a pouch full of coins all of which he placed into his backpack. He also searched the bookshelves, but found nothing except some very thick tomes of no interest in him.

The coins stolen by Sthorm were specified in the session as platinum coins; this was significant because the players’ guide clearly stated that platinum currency was not used on the islands’ governments but rather by the human empire. This had already come up during character creation and while the players shopped for equipment, but they failed to catch the significance of this detail. Talessin may not have been a murderer (yet), but he had some unsavory ties that would become significant later. When that happened, it was nice to point back at this moment and show the players one of the clues they missed.

Meanwhile, Galron marched into the Lucky Gam and straight up to Talessin’s room, banging on it with his fist. Talessin opened the door and Galron could see behind him on a table was the destroyed monkey. Galron questioned Talessin about the boy and the brain, but Talessin denied having removed the boy’s brain. However, he did admit that the brain in the overseer was put there by him, but he preferred to not reveal where that brain came from. Galron was uncertain, but calmed down somewhat.

It’s interesting that no one thought to follow-up on where the brain inside the overseer originated. It was never revealed in-game, but Talessin had acquired the brain from one of the City Watch morgues where he sometimes volunteered his magical services to help investigate crimes (and spy for the empire). This connection to the City Watch, though, would become significant.

Talessin was pleased that the situation had been resolved and seemed unconcerned about his student’s horrific end. Galron asked why he should not just go to the authorities and tell them everything, to which Talessin replied that, not only did they have an arrangement, but if the guards were to take the student’s body then he would be unable to investigate the true cause behind all that had happened. Galron still felt uneasy, but suggested he would feel better about keeping quiet if they could find the boy’s brain. The group agreed to go back and look.

Back at the tower the group scoured for the brain, with the exception of Sthorm who said that he felt it was a waste of time. In reality, though, he was just avoiding Talessin. The group’s search took them down to the lower level where they had locked in the monkey (which was now silent). They opened the door and found the monkey on the floor, totally inert without the overseer to control it. A search of this room revealed a second brain, which eased Galron’s suspicions. Finally, with everyone satisfied, it was time to collect payment.

Talessin went to collect the money from his desk, but found the drawer unlocked and the contents missing. He questioned the group about this, but none of them knew anything about it. He seemed troubled by it, but believed them and asked them to wait outside whilst he got the money from his hiding place. Talessin returned and doled out the payment, a total of 400 gold pieces including the bonus 100 for the overseer and 300 for two preserved automatons (but not for the third, for which he had already given money to Thorfus). Talessin also noted that it would be a bad idea to disappoint Desric and so he would give them some — but not all — of his schematics. This would allow them to complete the job for the dwarf, which would serve as a bonus payment for a job well done and also protect their reputation.

Talessin totally didn’t believe the party, but was shaken up by their accusations earlier and threat to inform the authorities about his experiments (which might, in turn, reveal his connections to imperial forces). He was trying to placate them with generosity – the same motivation for handing over some schematics.

With the money and the papers, the group then went back to Desric and gave him the schematics. He was clearly suspicious at how few there were and questioned the party about it. Galron admitted that Talessin had given the schematics to them as a bonus reward, to which Desric asked if they had found any others whilst in the tower. The group honestly replied that they had not because they were more preoccupied with the automatons than searching for notes. Desric seemed displeased with this, as he had sent them specifically to search for the notes, but ultimately he paid the agreed price of 50 gold each which came out to 300 gold.

The interaction with Desric illustrates the drawback of having a paladin with you when trying to play both sides of a deal. Still, they did complete the task for which he hired them.

That concluded the introductory adventure, setting things up for the party to take on a more involved job for Desric beginning in session three. For two sessions of play, I felt it did a pretty good job of establishing player expectations, detailing the world and how it works, showcasing the rules (both standard and house), and allowing the party to coalesce into a more cohesive unit. Overall, I was pretty happy with the outcome and felt the foundation that had been laid for further adventuring was solid.

At this point the session ended.