Monday, January 30, 2012

Play Report: Mysteries of Jzadirune Session 1

It was a slow day at the offices of Inspectors Holmes and Raske, it felt like weeks since any leggy dames had come through their door complaining of a dead-beat husband or missing heirloom. D.I. Asgeirr Raske handed a date to the golden-furred monkey perched on the edge of his desk and examined the note it proffered him.

He looked over the paper at Holmes, “Looks like the Golden Galleon needs some errand boys…something about additional security for a shipment. Why are we even looking at this stuff, we should be out chasing Crimson or some other villain.” Holmes grunted an unintelligible response, tapped out his pipe, and headed for the door.
“It’ll pay the bills…you coming, Raske?” Lenny, their assistant and discount bone-merchant, quietly followed Holmes out the door. Raske burned down one more cigarette before grabbing his coat and hat to follow them, the monkey, a black-scaled adder, and a large gyrfalcon trailing along behind.

Holmes and Raske, met up with Mosin Zahad, the paymaster for the Galeon to procure the shipment in question, a crate of vanilla ordered by an up-town bakery. Raske argued rather considerably over the price before settling on 50gp, while Lenny set to work preparing their “security”…a quintet of animated and none-too-fresh-smelling zombies and a fake papers identifying the crate as a “parts” shipment from the Legion of Evil’s necromancers.

Hiking up the Promenade from the docks to the Wafts, the district selling fine-smelling specialty goods, was long, but uneventful. Raske stopped several times to admire the ladies, all of whom seemed oblivious not only to his presence but also to the small squad of undead following him, and to examine the days broadsheets. “Look at this Holmes!” he said, pointing to a headline with a jovial flourish. “That fool Saint-Demain has failed to catch Crimson again! I promise you, it won’t be long before the crown calls us in, and then we’ll show that puffed-up windbag how real detectives do it!”

They reached the bakery and Lenny stepped in to complete the delivery. Outside Raske’s hawk, Orm, noticed a number of winged, simian creatures in sailor’s outfits perched on the roofs nearby. Orm screeched a warning as the creatures dove en masse into a nearby alley, brandishing knives. Raske raced around the corner, drawing his dragon pistol, to see the winged sailors descending upon a tattooed and mustachioed dwarven slave standing guard over a richly-dressed merchant. Firing a warning shot at the creatures, Raske rushed to the heroic defense of the two men.

Lenny sent their undead minions charging into the fray as a pair of the creatures broke off from the main group to intercept Raske. The first was dispatched easily, tricked by Raske’s magic into handcuffing itself and summarily fleeing when it had realized its folly, while Holmes stepped in to engage in fisticuffs with the second. Just as the fight was turning their way, a massive, lumbering, rust-bucket of an ironborn careened off of the roof, crushing one of the monkey-sailors under its great weight and destroying a crate, sending a thick cloud of baker’s flour into the air, obscuring the melee.

When the cloud subsided, Holmes and Raske found themselves facing the ancient iron behemoth, three unconscious sailors bloodied at its feet, and a swarm of Peacekeepers rushing into the alley behind them. At the sight of the cops the construct burst through a side-door into the bakery, overturning and wrecking several cases of donuts and pastries, much to the dismay of the cops, in its rush for the front exit. This was to no avail, as the thing tripped over one of the Peacekeepers just beyond the door and sprawled helpless on the pavement.

After Holmes and Raske had sorted out the whos and whys of the situation for the leader of the Peacekeeper force, a shifty-looking lady by the name of Irini, and paid the baker for the damage to their shop and inventory (and indirectly claimed ownership of the construct in the process), the merchant, one Cathcalen by name, offered to hire the two. It seemed that one of his servants, a journeyman by the of Galead, had gone missing while on some errands the day prior, and, more distressing to the merchant, many of Cathcalen’s contracts had been lost with him. Raske and Holmes, along with Lenny, the construct, and the Peacekeeper Irini, agreed to search for the missing boy for the price of 300 gold sovereigns per day, plus expenses, with the added promise of hazard pay to the sum of 150 gold pieces per day should any fighting be required.

As the Peacekeepers took custody of the sailors, Raske and Irini interrogated the one that seemed to be in charge of the group, learning that they had been hired by a Minotaur down by the docks to steal several jars of Royal Jelly from the merchant. Once they had this information, Raske retrieved his manacles from the chained one, and they all headed off to meet their new employer at the Roasted Grouse Inn, but not before Holmes and Raske had taken a smoke break.

At the Inn the party learned what they could from the merchant about his missing journeyman and collected their initial retainer-fee of 150 gold. The monkey, Pansen, made a rather indecipherable sketch of the missing man, but the key details, his thick black beard, white Amnian-style robes, and dark hair were recorded at least somewhat faithfully…at least enough that Raske was able to correct it later.

Taking Cathcalen’s dwarf slave, Cindry by name, with them, the group took the train down to the docks to see if Galead had met with the people of the Golden Galeon Trading Company as he had been ordered. At the Galeon, they found an auction of vanilla beans going on, with individual beans going for such ludicrous prices as 5 gold a bean, if not more. Pansen procured a hefty purse from one of the nobles in the crowd. Meanwhile, Raske and Cindry met again with Mosin Zahad, learning that he had met Galead the day before, but that the boy had not appeared for their follow-up appointment that morning. The party thanked him and decided to go ask Madame Phaedre, mistress of the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers (Holmes’s favorite brothel), if her girls had seen anything of Galead.

On their way out Raske was accosted by an old gypsy woman telling fortunes on the street-corner. Not wanting to be impolite, he paid her one silver fee and listened to her rather bad performance. On their way out, his snake, the adder that is, not the one in his pants, deprived the old gypsy of her purse, netting the group 19 gold coins and a pair of magical scrolls (sleep and hypnotic pattern).

Before they had walked not more than ten paces more, Cindry caught upon an idea and asked Pansen to break into the Golden Galeon offices and procure their half of Cathcalen’s contract. Pansen was quite excited at this idea, and dashed into the building, a whirring blur of nigh-invisible fur. A monkey monk. A skill monkey. A ninja. The monkey slipped into the office unobserved, picked the lock on the drawer where the contracts were kept, and absconded with the document before anyone could see him. All witnesses that might have been died, but since there were no witnesses no murders had to occur. Or so Pansen ensured Raske when he delivered the document.

Tucking the contract safely away, the party headed for the Street of Silk Flowers and the Court of Night-blooming Flowers to speak with the madame. Raske got rather distracted along the way, turning over the fat purse that Pansen had acquired to a pale-skinned maiden, no maid really but she played the part well. Raske, Pansen, the courtesan, and the snake adjourned to an upper room to do what a man, a woman, a monkey, and a snake do.

Roughly an hour later, or so it must have been according to Raske’s reckoning, the man and his familiars regrouped with the party, who explained that they had learned much concerning Galead. That he had been often to the Street of Silk Flowers to meet with one girl who was a particular favorite, that he had a friend, Gil by name, who made arrangements for their rendezvous, and that Galead had last been seen going off with Gil and the girl for a tryst in a garden somewhere.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Way of the Wicked Play Report: Session 1

Branderscar Prison is not considered the best (or worst if you are a criminal) prison in the world for its security, but rather for its efficiency in dealing with prisoners. No one is held in Branderscar for long. It has few cells and when those are full, the executioner comes, and a sentence to Branderscar Prison is a sentence of death.

Only the worst of the worst criminals end up in Branderscar...

To many, Lydia tops that list. At her trial this young girl, only 15 years old at the time, was convicted not of one murder, but of tens of thousands of murders. Even her prosecutor barely believed the tales of this child calling meteors, earthquakes, and colossal beasts from beyond space and time to crush entire cities. However, when her defense was eaten by a giant snake while trying to prove how little power she actually had, everyone was convinced.

Lydia, in addition to being the worst mass murderer in the history of Branderscar Prison, was also an exception. Two years have ticked by since her trial. Two years of sitting chained hand and foot to a wall. Two years of sitting in a pool of her own filth, as the terrified guards refused to approach her to clean her. Two years of getting a single spoon-full of gruel a day (the typical meal for a prisoner in Branderscar), and then only when a particularly brave or kindhearted guard was on duty. Two years of sitting in absolute darkness with no-one to speak with...

Except the rats...

Branderscar Prison had been filling slowly over those two years, but, with the purges of the previous decade, heretics, murderers, and witches were becoming ever harder to find in the fair land of Talingarde. While the prisoners trickled in over the two years, Lydia sat, and sat, and inevitably the rats came. They crawled on her while she slept. They nibbled at her fingers and toes. They talked to her...and she understood...

One rat, calling himself Asmodeus, made her a deal. All she had to do was escape and they would both have their vengeance. She never asked what the rat wanted vengeance for. She didn't care. After two years she could still feel the searing pain in her arm from where they had branded her. As long as she had her vengeance, she didn't care what the rat wanted...

Two years passed and Lydia found herself with a new cell-mate. Another girl her own age, red-eyed, dark of hair, and calling herself Talia. Talia talked a lot. She talked to Lydia, she talked to the roaches crawling on their cell floor, she talked to the flies buzzing around the heaps of feces left by Lydia, she talked to the fleas infesting them both...but she didn't talk to the rats. She did know the name Asmodeus though, and when Lydia began singing the songs that the rat had taught her Talia joined in.

Talia spoke about her family. How they worshiped an ancient god called Asmodeus. How the people of Talingarde turned from Asmodeus to the worship of Mitra. How the Mitrans hunted her family and other worshipers of Asmodeus, driving them underground or killing them outright, purging them from the land. Talia and her family were the last cell of the ancient religion left, she claimed. And, she claimed, they had been caught. The last remnants of her ancient religion and the last survivors of her family, herself included, were going to be burned publicly in a fortnight.

A few days after Talia arrived the two were joined by another girl, slightly older and strangely pale. No mass-murderer or heretic, the new girl, called Heather, was a pretty thing, quick and subtle. She claimed to be "in the slammer" for having seduced the son of a mayor, though the official charge was sedition and inciting riots. Regardless of the reason for her incarceration, the three girls hit it off surprisingly well, given their conditions. When a fourth cell-mate, a goblin said to have been caught eating a baby, joined them, they paid him little mind.

In four days the executioner would come. That is what the guards told Heather and the others when she was thrown in. Four days.

That night Lydia wept. She wept and she sang the song the rat had taught her. Talia joined in the singing. Heather joined as well...and rather than a prison cell, they found themselves chained to trees. Clean. Naked. Alone in a wooded grove with the light of the moon pouring down on them as they sang praises to Asmodeus. Three girls, three witches, a coven joined together...and their power was great.

When the singing stopped, the girls were back in their cell, but with a new understanding. Alone they were prisoners. Together, they would burn the world. But first they needed to escape...

The next day the guards came for Lydia. A dozen guards entered the cell and took the girl. For the first time in two years, Lydia saw the outside of her cell, though only briefly as she was led to an interrogation chamber. Within was an attractive middle-aged woman with the same platinum-blonde hair as Lydia, her features so similar that she could easily have been mistaken for Lydia's mother, her eyes red and wet from weeping. The guard captain bowed and deferred to the woman, who clearly had some power over him, and allowed her to be alone with Lydia.

With the guards gone the woman dropped all pretense of grief. "Call me Tiadora," she said. "We possess a mutual friend who would like to meet you and your fellow cell-mates. Unfortunately, our friend is unwilling to visit you in your present rather shabby accommodations so it seems you must escape. If you manage that, cross the moors on the outskirts of town. On the old Moor Road you’ll see a manor house with a single lantern burning in the second story. There our mutual friend waits. He did want me to give you this."

The guards returned and Lydia was led back to her cell with no answers given, though she clutched a lacy, white veil in her hand. Back amidst the rats and her chains, she examined the veil and found it to be enchanted, containing many useful items work in fine embroidery upon it.

This was their chance.

Mustering her strength, Talia worked a spell to coat Heather in slippery grease, allowing Heather to slip free of her manacles. Within the veil Heather found a set of lock picks, which she quickly used to free the others. Talia took another patch from the veil and created a window-like opening into an adjacent cell, this one housing a large, powerful ogre by the name of Grumblejack. Lydia healed the ogre while Heather went to work on the lock of his cell door.

But they were seen...

Spotted in her act of sabotage by a pair of guards, Heather stepped aside and allowed Grumblejack to pry the bars of the cell open as four more guards rounded the corner into the cell block, trumpeting an alarm. Talis attempted to stop the guards with a spell, but the strange magical emanations around Branderscar prison caused her magic to summon a rain of overripe fruit down around the heads of the prisoners. Lydia stepped forward and summoned a blast of chaotic force, knocking the guards down and entangling them in their own weapons, as Heather and Grumblejack pelted them with fruit.

Gyxx, their goblin cell mate, charged towards the guards but was met at the cell door by a pack of guard dogs and had his throat torn out. With his last wheezing breath the goblin pronounced a dying curse upon the dogs, melting the flesh from their bones and sending the guards fleeing, terrified.

Now free of their cell, the girls and the ogre worked quickly to free the other prisoners, snatching up keys dropped by the guards in the chaos or simply bashing down the doors of the other cells. As the prisoners shook off the aches of long days in shackles, the guards returned with reinforcements. Freed, the prisoners proved quite effective at once again routing the guards. Talia ignited the steps from the upper level in bursts of lightning and summoned boulders for the ogre to throw. Another prisoner called fire from the guards' lanterns, setting the corridor between them ablaze. Another grew to be of a size with the ogre and tore a prison door from its hinges to serve as a shield. Within moments twenty prisoners were free, armed with the leavings from the defeated guards, and considering how to proceed...

Then the fire came...

Friday, January 27, 2012

GM Questionnaire Answers

Answers for Zak:

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be? Fate cards. Players earn them by giving particularly dramatic descriptions of their actions or backgrounds and can then play them at any time to take over the game, either literally swapping places with the DM, giving the DM (highly-weighted) suggestions about what should happen next, or invoking some kind of deus-ex-machina event. It saves me some time on planning (since I can count on the players to give me ideas) and empowers the players to create the story they want to be playing.

2. When was the last time you GMed? Yesterday, lunch-time game at work.

3. When was the last time you played? Last Monday.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to. The PCs are hired onto a whaling ship, they discover that life at sea is mostly boring, and whalers have a short expected lifespan. Captain Ahab is not involved.

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things? Typically roll to see whether a wandering monster shows up, a nearby monster hears them, or something else calamitous happens while they are dithering. We even has a special 10-sided die with 9 blank sides and one side that reads "FWP" (F*ck with Party). Delay of game by player's being indecisive or getting side-tracked with out-of-character table-talk usually results in someone dying.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play? Thai or Chinese take-out.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting? No, I tend to be a physically passive DM. I find the comfiest chair in the room, grab my laptop, and leave the excited jumping up and down to the players.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing? In a recent, fairly high-level 3e game, a bard armed with Timpani of Building (as the lyre of building) being kept awake and playing by the party for 5 strait days to erect the equivalent of Notre-Dame Cathedral in a week. Yes, I do play bards and I like it.

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither? This depends on the players. Some comic relief is expected in any game, but some players certainly take it to extremes (such as buying thousands of livestock in place of gear and insisting on taking all of their sheep into the dungeon with them). In my experience there is at least one of these in any group of players...sometimes its best to just roll with it.

10. What do you do with goblins? Mess with PCs. Goblins in my games are highly-magical and have a tendency to explode with random magical effects when killed...

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)? Most of the religions in the world I am currently running are based on the writings of Mircea Eliade, especially on The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion and The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History. The campaign also borrows heavily from Dickens' Pickwick Papers.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now? I honestly don't know...I'm usually too caught up in what is happening in the game to notice what is going on at the table.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it? I can't think of a game book that I looked at without using it in a game shortly thereafter...

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator? I don't really think illustrations are necessary for RPGs. Like miniatures and maps, I tend to think of illustrations as crutches for the imagination. My apologies to all of you great artists out there, RPGs do include a lot of nice artwork, I just don't think its necessary for the game.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid? Regularly. I tend to be rather graphic (and anatomically accurate) in my descriptions of torture, violence, sexual encounters, nightmares, and what the various creatures do to their characters. Even the most light-hearted games I might run (My Little Pony?) include strong elements of horror.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? Currently running Way of the Wicked from Fire Mountain Games with a group from work. So far everyone agrees that it is the most fun they've had playing a pre-written adventure ever...

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in? A dimly lit room with several large comfortable couches and plenty of outlets to plug laptops into.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be? Zak's Vornheim: The Complete City Kit and the Burning Wheel Character Burner. The former gives the DM lots of tools to run a city-based adventure on the fly, with very little planning, using lots of random tables. The later allows a player to very systematically generate a character's entire background, from birth to old age (if necessary) in a very strictly planned, step-by-step manner.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be? The Book of Enoch and the Gunslinger Girl anime.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table? I like players who are willing to do their homework. Players who will sit down and do some reading and research to flesh out their characters (I expect someone playing a sorcerer to keep a copy of the Lesser Key of Solomon as handy as their Player's Handbook or character sheet or the player of a cleric to read some books on theology, philosophy, and cosmogony). The player doesn't have to be an expert on the topics that their character focuses on, but they should be able to "fake it" convincingly.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms? in 2007 I went backpacking in the mountains and rain forests of Costa Rica during the rainy season. My players have been complaining about their gear blowing away ever since.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't? I'd like to see the plays of Pam Mandigo converted into a world/adventure supplements for D&D. Since no one else is likely to do this, I might see if I can get her permission to do it myself...

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go? My wife. She used to play, but has other interests that she'd rather spend her time on. She's always a useful sounding board for plot and character ideas though (her two Masters degrees in Shakespeare probably help with that). I do occasionally get some serious eye rolls when I get to excited about a game though.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What's going on

In order to establish the groundwork for some future posts, it is probably helpful for any readers to know about the games I'm currently involved in. So here is my current weekly game schedule:
  • Mondays (Player): "The Buoyant Republic". Pathfinder seafaring/nation-building game.
  • Tuesdays (GM): "A Week in the Life of a Witch Hunter". Homebrew D&D. Players are directly reacting to the actions of the villainous party from "Way of the Wicked". Via G+.
  • Wednesdays (GM): Unknown Ponies: Failure is Awesome. With thanks to Erin over at Lurking Rhythmically. Starting next week, we'll see how it goes.
  • Alternating Wednesdays (Player): Star Wars.
  • Fridays (Player): "Mysteries of Jzadirune". Pathfinder psionics-heavy steam-punk mystery game.
  • Alternating Fridays (GM): "Way of the Wicked". From the folks over at Fire Mountain Games. Homebrew D&D (see below).
Games I am running these days tend to use a jumbled mess of rules from various editions of the D&D game and some outside sources.

Character generation uses a mix of Pathfinder rules plus the Burning Wheel "Character Burner". Tends to make character generation a multi-day process, but my players like having complicated, well-realized characters.

For GMing I mostly grab the AD&D 1e DMG, Zak's Vornheim City Kit, monsters from any edition from 1e, 2e, 3e, or 4e (depending on the style of encounter I want to run), and anything else that comes to hand easily.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A new star shines in the night...Witch Contracts

Ok, it has been nearly a year since I posted last. Hopefully I'll be a bit better about this going forward. So, here the first of what I hope to be many future posts on my personal campaign world.


The number of stars in the night skies above Tel-Avi are highly variable. While everyone agrees that the stars are pretty to look at, they also know that the shining lights in the sky forebode darker things behind them...

Witches, it is well known, draw their power from pacts made with their inscrutable patrons. When a new witch makes a pact, everyone in Tel-Avi is aware of it, as, for each new witch, a new star appears in the heavens. Likewise, whenever a witch is slain a star falls from the skies, leading many to refer to the stars simply as "witch-lights". Whether the witch uses her powers for good or ill, her existence is so marked, and many astrologers will go to great lengths to find the particular witch to which a star of significance to them is tied.

The pacts are not without price. Another name that many apply to witches is "Contractors". True to this name, all witches must pay a price for using their powers, whether they wish to or not. The witch feels an uncontrollable need to perform remuneration, which is a bizarre, obsessive compulsive "payment" for the use of their powers. Moreover, it seems that the amount of payment required is dependent on how much the witch uses his/her power. Although this payment can be delayed, especially in the midst of combat, it is ultimately unavoidable. Each witch has a unique remuneration, reflecting the chaotic nature of the patrons. Remunerations are typically difficult for the witch and range in severity from irritating to painful. However, there have been a few witches who enjoy their remuneration and some who use it in conjunction with their abilities.

Known remunerations include:
  • Acupuncture
  • Alteration of age, swiftly growing older or younger
  • Arranging pebbles in meticulously straight lines
  • Baking
  • Drinking various fluids, such as hot milk, beer, or the blood of children
  • Earmarking the pages of a book
  • Inability to lie
  • Inhaling fumes such as perfumes
  • Ingesting and regurgitating objects
  • Kissing someone
  • Placing shoes upside down on the ground
  • Pulling out hairs
  • Revealing a secret
  • Self-mutilation or injury, including dislocating fingers or wrist-slitting
  • Singing a song
  • Sleeping
  • Smoking
  • Stripping
  • Losing function of body parts, such as legs
  • Writing poetry
  • Making origami sculptures
  • Revealing magic tricks
Some claim that it is also possible for a witch to fully pay off her "contract", but this is an incredibly rare feat, requiring a drastic and traumatic sacrifice.