Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Amazon's: Session 3 (GM's notes)

Happy Thanksgiving...let's go kill some PCs...

It was the dead of winter and the city Phlan had basically shut down. The streets of the slums were basically impassable masses of snow, the surrounding farmers had bought their supplies months ago and holed up, the harbor was too choked with ice for the fishermen to work, and the gates were shut more often than not. In one corner of the city, however, seven women were sitting down to breakfast.

Following their success against Noriss the Grey, the Amazons had moved up in public opinion from being oddly-attractive mercenaries to being local heroes. So, today, they found themselves sitting in the drawing rooms of Councilwoman Elissa Bivant-Mondaviak sipping tea, eating scones, and discussing local gossip. It was all very boring until the Councilwoman handed over a flier for the girls to look at.

"WHAT?!" was the general outcry.

"That will be publicly posted tomorrow on the doors of the Council Hall, the Training Hall, the Temple of Tyr, and every gate." Elissa responded.

"But...we just saved them..." Battle Cry said. "Now they are wanted criminals?"

"Yes," Elissa's voice betrayed her calm outer demeanor. "We have been hearing odd rumors from Kryptgarten for some time. Councilman von Urslingen has traveled there numerous times and reported that the Squire had been forcing the people to wash, ordering strange religious accouterments, and even feeding the people the flesh of dead orcs..."

"They eat orcs?! I think I'm going to be sick..." Princess interjected.

"Yes. When we first crossed over from Hillsfar, many people on the boat had the ague." Had Enough, said. "The captain of the ship stopped on Thorn Island to enforce a quarantine, and Grminir and his companions did, in fact, boil the bodies of dead orcs to feed us all..."

"The city watch also caught one of the Squire's wards setting up an illegal gambling operation in the middle of the market, in broad daylight, not once, but three times, including taking bets from the orcs and goblins as to how long it would take them to destroy the city. Then people started turning up with odd wooden coins, saying they were promised free drinks at Kryptgarten..."

" that scrip? Are they printing their own money now?" Worthy of Armor looked confused.

"Nothing wrong with free drinks," Hot Flanks said.

"No, there is nothing in the law against offering free drinks. However, it seems that they were offering free drinks to the Orcs...and...other things. Deliberately inviting the most degenerate of the city's enemies to drink at their keep." Elissa took a sip of tea, the cup rattling against the saucer from her hands shaking. "Then there were complains from the fisherman's guild against one, Master Delbar, claiming that he had somehow massively undercut their prices and was creating a monopoly. This Delbar was arrested and admitted to working with the Squire and his companions to establish an agreement with xvarts, kobolds, and bugbears to provide him with fish at criminal rates so as to ruin the economy of our city. This testimony was corroborated by citizens of Kryptgarten, who reported large shipments of fish being delivered to the keep's tavern regular by blue-skinned goblinoids..."

"So, we've got some weird cult activity, illegal gambling, and some economic shenanigans. That hardly seems worthy of a death sentence," Battle Cry said.

"Yes, were that all, I am sure the Council would have called the Squire in to discuss his crimes and arrange reasonable restitution." Elissa put down her cup and looked at the ladies, her face deadly serious. "Two weeks ago, a number of Kryptgarteners came before the council complaining of unfair and torturous treatment at the hands of the squire. What they brought as evidence was truly shocking..."

"What?" asked Hot Flanks, sitting on the edge of her chair and looking excited in precisely the wrong way.

"...the boiled head of a woman." Elissa choked on these last words.

"WHAT?!" Worthy of Armor shouted.

"Apparently the Squire threatened to 'make soap' out of any settler who questioned the Squires arrangements with the cities inhuman enemies. Those that continued to question him were either boiled alive, publicly, or else found dead in their beds with their throats slit..."

There was a long silence before Elissa continued. "The settlers brought many other pieces of evidence--plans for a strange columnar temple with a mass water-heating system that the Squire was forcing them to build, strange plush idols of a great crocodillian monstrosity, and a strand of some fifty human fingers which were part of a collection kept by the Squire's hobgoblin groom. There can be no doubt that the Squire of Kryptgarten is not only a traitor in league with Phlan's enemies, but a brutal and sadistic killer in league with the forces of Hell."

At this point Princess did retch and Worthy of Armor pounded her fists on the table. "Allow me to seek out these murders, Lady Councilwoman."

Battle Cry chimed in, "Yes, Assuran demands that we seek his vengeance against any who would commit such atrocities," and Hot Flanks nodded.

Don't Fail stood up and handed the flyer back to the noblewoman. "It seems that we are all in agreement that these criminals must be stopped. We will go to Kryptgarten at once. If they are there we will bring them to justice. If not, we shall see to the aid of the people they have mistreated and secure the keep until the Squire and his allies should return..."

Elissa nodded, "The Council would be most greatful for your assistance. We are prepared to offer..."

"No," Worthy of Armor said. "Do not even offer. We must do this as penance for aiding and abetting these traitors. Had we known any of this we would have left them to their fate when Noriss the Grey's army attacked them..."

Princess looked up horrified, though whether from the thought of facing the demon-worshipers, or the thought of not getting paid for it was anyone's guess.

Their was a wrap on the door and the girls looked up to see the Councilwoman's young husband walking in. "Forget the Council's posted reward then, ladies." Markos Mondaviak said. "Squire Grimnir's lands are forfeit. The keep and its lands once belonged to my family, and the people of Kryptgarten deserve caring and law-abiding rulers. If you deal with the Squire, all of his lands and possessions are yours." He smiled. "And I will not take no for an answer..."

"Yes," Elissa said, rising and taking his arm. "My husband is quite right. Given the Squire's breech of faith Kryptgarten does need defenders, and I can think of no one better than you girls."

Princess stood up, smiling now, and extended her hand. "Very well. We'll catch this guy for you."

"Dead would be preferable." Markos said, bowing and kissing her hand, "No need to put yourselves at additional risk trying to bring these ruffians in alive."

"May we have a copy of the official, signed notice?" Don't Fail asked. "It may be helpful for encouraging cooperation from the Kryptgarteners."

"By all means," Elissa handed the document back to Don't Fail. "We can have the clerks draw up extras if you need them..."


The ladies asked around the town for more information about Kryptgarten, but heard much of the same--racial tensions, weird cults, angry fishermen, free booze. Had Enough, feeling some kinship for the ex-Hillsfaran settlers in Kryptgarten urged them to move immediately, but Don't Fail managed to hold them in check.

"These are clearly dangerous folk," she said. "The announcement will not be made until the morning, and it will likely take some time to reach them given the snow. There is no reason to rush into it."

"What about those funny coins?" Princess asked. "Maybe we can find some of them floating around and avail ourselves of Kryptgarten's hospitality to get closer and learn more." The others agreed that this was not a bad idea, and so spent the afternoon asking around in the taverns and inns, looking for some of this "Krypt-Scrip". By evening they were able to round up one wooden coin a piece and agreed to set out in the morning.

They slipped out of the city gates just as the first notice was being nailed up, leaving their horses behind in care of the liverer rather than force the creatures to wade through knee-deep snow. The path between Phlan and Kryptgarten was well-marked and well-traveled these days, but still covered in deep drifts in many places.

The walk took all of the morning and it was past noon when they heard the deep echo of Kryptgarten's black-iron church bells, and almost an hour later before they reached the small settlement (for it was now much more than a keep). The tavern and church both appeared to be bustling, even at this early hour, though several guards were posted at the doors of both.

"What kind of a tavern needs chain-clad, sword-wielding soldiers?" Battle Cry asked.

"The kind that has orcs for regulars..." Hot Flanks suggested.

They walked up to the doors of the tavern, flashed their funny-munny to the guards, and strode in. The place was an odd mix. Farmers and settlers kept to the shadows around the edges, huddled in small, quiet groups. The center was taken up by orcs, goblins, and other things, all chatting happily in their strange tongues and drinking heavily, one orc even stood on a table reciting something that seemed like poetry (judging from the meter if not the words). The bar staff all wore armor, seeming to eye the farmers with more suspicion than the rowdy monsters. The bar itself was a tall wooden affair, behind which were three great tuns of mead (it seemed that the bar served nothing else) and a large black board on where were listed all manner of commodities commonly traded in Phlan and their prices.

Hot Flanks looked around then whispered to the others, "There is not a single woman in here..."

"Probably because orcs are serial rapists..." Had Enough whispered back.

Sure enough, the orc poet on the table spotted them and said something very loud, gripping its private parts (which were unfortunately not covered by the orc's short tunic) and drawing the attention of the crowd towards them. A couple of orcs advanced menacingly on the girls.

"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea..." Princess said.

"Really?" Battle Cry grinned. "A bar fight sounds about perfect right now."

Just then, the door behind them opened and a short, scrawny hobgoblin, dressed in robes and bedecked with strings of severed fingers walked in. The hobgoblin glared at the orcs and grunted something in their language and the excitable creatures returned to their drinking.

"My deepest apologies ladies," the hobgoblin said. "If you are here for drinks I'd suggest you visit the keep, we are serving drinks inside for those who would prefer more polite company."

"Are you in charge of this establishment?" Don't Fail asked, trying not to look at the strings of fingers.

"No. I am but a humble priest." The hobgoblin bowed, "My name is Grinkle, priest of the betrayer in battle, chef to Lord Grimnir, and steward of the Kryptgarten."

"Betrayer in Battle?" Battle Cry said, trying to sound polite, "I am not familiar with goblin religion, who is the betrayer in battle?"

"Why our Lord Grimnir, of course."

"Thank you sir," said Don't Fail, "I think that is enough, we will come back for our drinks at a more opportune time."

The girls left quickly and adjourned to the edge of the nearby woods to talk.

"The Squire has priests?!" Worthy of Armor looked appalled.

"So he makes himself out to be a god?" Battle Cry said, "And thus claims power of life and death over his subjects. Cute..."

"Looks pretty cut and dry," Hot Flanks sighed. "Farmers cringing in fear on the edges of a building they built themselves, orcs running amok with their cocks out, hobgoblin stewards sporting chains of severed human fingers, commodities price fixing, creepy churchbells...Fuck!"

Princess's face was white, "They....they...had barbs..." She looked ready to throw up again. "Why do orcs have barbs on their cocks?!"

"Let's not even think about it." Battle Cry suggested. "Let's just go kill them all."

"We've certainly confirmed much of what the Councilwoman said. I presume that their investigation was thorough, and we do have a warrant for the Squire's execution." Don't Fail pulled out the rolled up and sealed notice and tapped it against the back of her hand. "There are too many orcs in there, though. And civilians. And our goal is the Squire and his co-conspirators."

"Yes," said Worthy of Armor, "we need to find a way to get the settlers to safety before we unleash hell."

"Once they are out though," said Hot Flanks. "We torch that faux-church, torch the tavern, and hang that screwy squire by his own entrails in Hoar's name!"

"Hang him by his entrails?!" Princess asked skeptically.

"It's a figure of speech," Battle Cry insisted. "Hoar's will is that we kill him in the manner in which he killed his own victims. Which in this case means that we, literally, boil him in his own pudding..."

(GM) "Hiiiiiissssssssss."

"Hey the joke wasn't that bad," Battle Cry said.

(GM) "No...that was the giant white crocodile-scorpion monster standing behind you."

The girls turned to see a massive albino crocodile, easily 20-feet from its nose to the tip of the stinger on its segmented, scorpion-like tail. Long boney spines jutted from the creature's back, decorated with impaled skulls and strung with entrails. The thing reared up on four hind-legs and swiped at Battle Cry with its two fore-claws. The first blow tore open her right shoulder, the second ripped out her throat. Battle Cry fell, bloody and broken, soundlessly into the snow.

Worthy of Armor gave a mighty shout and threw her scimitar at the thing's head. The monster ducked just in time, but the whirling, magically sharpened blade cut off a dozen of the beast's spines, which rained clattering down onto its back. Had Enough charged the thing with her greatsword, hitting hard, but the blade simply struck a ringing note off of the monster's stone-hard hide without leaving a dent.

Don't Fail pulled her elven cloak around herself and dropped down in the snow beside Battle Cry, practically vanishing. Under this cover, she searched through Battle Cry's possession, finding her potion of regeneration it pouring it into the gaping hole that had been her friend's throat.

Hot Flanks quaffed a potion, then glared at the creature, focusing her rage at the death of her friend at the thing and willing it to suffer incredible pain. "Now!" she shouted at Princess, calling on tactics they had used often. Princess, who had maneuvered around to the thing's side, leaped on its back through the opening in the spines that Worthy had made and jabbed the Handsome Prince deep into the creature's neck.

The creature roared in pain and lashed out with its tail, driving the spine clear through Princess's back and out through her chest with her heart still impaled on the point.

Had Enough, more brave than wise as usual, swung again and again failed to penetrate the beast's hide. "Stop that!" Don't Fail yelled, "you clearly need magic to harm that thing." Had Enough nodded grimly, tossed her sword aside, and jumped up on the creature's back, grabbing for the Handsome Prince.

Worthy of Armor threw her scimitar again, this time gouging a bloody line all the way down the creature's left side, nearly severing its foreleg. Don't Fail rolled away from Battle Cry's body and pulled a torch from her pack, lighting it with a simple spell. "Shall we see if fire works?"

Hot Flanks smiled, "YES!" She pulled out her iron club, leveling it in the monster's direction.

"Wait!" Don't Fail yelled, you'll hit Had Enough.

Hot Flanks hesitated just long enough for the beast to strike Had Enough a powerful blow with its tail. While it failed to impale her, the blow was strong enough to send Had Enough flying. She slammed into a tree several feet away.

"Now!" Don't Fail yelled.

"May you burn in the fires of Flandal’s forge!" Hot Flanks screamed in response, and a massive ball of flame blossomed over the monster's shoulder, searing the skin of its back black. "Looks like that works." She said smiling.

The creature, howling in pain, surged forward, lashing out at Hot Flanks with four of its claws, tearing through her leather cuirass and leaving large bloody gouges in the flesh beneath. Hot Flanks, enraged, drew her club and shoved her hand into the beast's mouth. "May you burn in the fires of Flandal’s forge!" she screamed again. The monster happily closed its jaws on her arm, shielding her and the rest from the fiery detonation that followed. The crocodile-monster appeared to expand, slightly, then smoke poured from its nose, ears, and eyes. The thing collapsed into the snow, unmoving.

Hot Flanks collapsed right beside it, cradling her arm which had been severed just below the elbow. Don't Fail rushed to her side, laying hands on the wound to stop the bleeding, while Worthy of Armor walked over and stabbed the thing several times with her magical scimitar for good measure.

"What in Hoar's name was that?" Hot Flanks said once she had composed herself.

"Some sort of demonic mascot I presume," said Worthy of Armor. "The same was depicted on their flag as we came in."

Had Enough walked over and retrieved Princess's body, and pulled the Handsome Prince not at all gently out of the beast's back. "Hot Flanks handless, and Battle Cry and Princess dead, and we haven't even reached the Squire himself yet..."

"Nor dealt with the orcs and goblins." Don't Fail added. "Though, Battle Cry will recover." She pointed to where the wounds on her neck and shoulder were already closing. "Those potions work wonders. As soon as her trachea is repaired she should start breathing again, and be fully functional shortly thereafter. I only wish we had more than just the one..."

"Great, we're still five where we were six, and most of us injured," Worthy of Armor said, fighting back tears. "We should withdraw, see Princess laid to rest, then make a proper plan of assault. Dealing with these treasonous heathen will not be an easy task."

"Yeah, that fireball may have drawn the attention of some in the keep," Don't Fail added, "we'd best move fast."

They gathered up their weapons, made a makeshift stretchers for Princess and Battle Cry from branches and cloaks, and hightailed it back to Phlan.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

An In-game Proclamation:

From the City Council of New Phlan to all brave and hearty adventurers:

Proclamation CCXX
Be it known that Lord Grimnir, Squire of Kryptgarten is a traitor to all good and peaceful people of Phlan. Hear now his crimes!

Firstly, Squire Grimnir has been found guilty by the Council of conspiring with the the monstrous enemies of Phlan to undermine the economic and gustatory lifesblood of Phlan’s fishing industry. Secondly, Squire Gimnir has been found guilty by the Council of offering shelter and solace to diverse murderers, rapists, thieves, and thugs who have plagued our fair city. Thirdly, Squire Grimnir has been found guilty by the Council of murder, by means brutal and torturous of his own citizens. Lastly, Squire Grimnir has been found guilty by the Council of consorting with fiends from the lowest planes, sacrificing his own people to their demonic hunger, and forcing his citizens to pay tribute and worship to these dark beings.

By the law of of the Council of New Phlan and the law of Tyr, Squire Grimnir is henceforth divested of all lands and titles. Also, by proclamation of the Council, Squire Grimnir and his companions are hereby banished from the walls of New Phlan under pain of death. A bounty of two thousand gold crowns each is hereby placed on the heads of these traitors. A commission for their elimination can be obtained from the Council Clerk.


Councilman Werner von Urslingen, sponsor

Councilman Markos Mondaviak, co-sponsor

Councilman Ulrich Eberhard

Councilman Porphyrys Cadorna

Councilwoman Elissa Bivant-Mondaviak

Bishop Braccio of Tyr

11 Hammer, Year of the Helm

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Justification for Your Paranoia

Here is your weekly dose of security tech thoughts...

1) The Cyber-War in Real-Time:
Sometimes a job in security can be very boring. No signs of hackers, nothing to break into, no one really doing anything malicious on the network you are protecting.
Well, if it seems like nothing is happening, you can always open up Kaspersky's Real-Time Cyberthreat Map on a spare screen and watch all kinds of intrusions and malware all over the world as they happen.
It's also a very impressive thing for any non-security people walking by to see on your screen...
Yep [random dude standing behind me] Jordan is having a bad day...
And yes...someone in Antarctica has some spyware on their machine... 
2)  Encrypt all the things...
"Just make everything encrypted" is not bad advice for security the global web, but it has always had certain limits of practicality. That encrypted communication has to have a key to allow the end-client to decrypt it, which is currently handled through PKI certificates, which need a certificate authority to issue them...
While some companies (like Microsoft) issue their own certificates, most developers rely on public certificate authorities which usually cost $$ (such as Entrust). Even if the site does claim to have one of these "trusted certificates", you cannot always trust them. The certificate may be fake or the issuing authority may be compromised or insecure (such as India National Informatics Centre earlier this year).
So, in order to actually follow through with the "Encrypt Everything" idea, the world needs a trusted certificate authority that is can somehow managed to be well policed (and therefore trustworthy) AND cheap enough that every last kid running a website out of his mom's basement can afford to have a root certificate. 
Thankfully, that may be coming soon. Thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with the likes of Akamai, Mozilla, and Cisco have released Let's Encrypt, a non-profit CA with a free, open-source certificate manager (that will, among other things auto-install the certificate for you and update/renew the certificate when needed).
"No validation emails, no complicated configuration editing, no expired certificates breaking your website. And of course, because Let’s Encrypt provides certificates for free, no need to arrange payment."
So get out there and ENCRYPT EVERYTHING! Because now we can.
3) Password Managers? Yep, they can hack those too...
One common piece of advise from security experts is to use a password manager (like KeyPass or Password Safe) to store all of your passwords. This is good because...
  1. It lets you have a unique password for every site you visit while only remembering one password (for the safe).
  2. The software will usually test the strength of your passwords or even create random passwords for all your sites.
Don't take the rest of this note to mean that you should not use a password manager, because it is still a good idea if you are not the kind of person who can remember twenty or more long, randomized passwords. But password managers, even those with strong encryption, are not foolproof.
Password Managers are, in fact, the new favorite target of malware such as the Citadel Trojan (which specifically targets both KeyPass and Password Safe). Then you've got vulnerabilities in other PM tools like LastPass which could let malicious code on one site steal your credentials for all of them. 
This paper, presented at USENIX security back in August, points out all kinds of vulnerabilities in at least five different Password Managers. Then you've got things like ClipCaster (an Android app that specifically sniffs the clipboard feature so that you can see that LastPass and similar apps transmit your password in plaintext between the app and your browser when you use autofill features).
So...lessons learned? Don't use LastPass (for anything). Do use a password safe. BUT make sure to get good intel on the password safe you are using and always keep in mind that even these tools are vulnerable.
4) Robocop!
Yes, robot security patrols are no longer a thing of the future. The five-foot-tall "Knightscope K5" comes equipped with four cameras spread at 90 degree angles from each other, along with a weather sensor, a microphone array, a separate "license plate camera," a GPS sensor, LIDAR, and a Wi-Fi-enabled system to transmit live video and keep track of other nearby K5s. Cute huh?
Knightscope (the company that makes the robots) claims that its mission is to "cut crime by 50%". While this is an admirable ideal, keep in mind that these things are not equipped with weapons of any kind, weigh 300 pounds, and has a max speed of about 5 mph....
So...yeah. If you are doing anything nefarious, just walk away briskly...
Anyone who plays video games has had years of training at avoiding exactly this kind of slow, awkward crime-deterrent AI.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Third Party: Session 10 (GMs notes)

In which the party puts down a popular uprising through excessive force, gets lost in a teleport maze, and leave the wizard to fight all the monsters on his own...

9 Uktar

The party returned to Kryptgarten late in the evening to find the citizens of Kryptgarten arrayed for battle, armored and torch-wielding, surrounding Melastasya's Tavern and engaged in a shouting match with a large contingent of orcs, xvarts, and other "monsters" who had come to avail themselves of their free drink tokens. They arrived just as things were about to come to blows and stepped in quickly.

Melastasya snuck into the Tavern, conveniently built right on top of the secret passage into the Keep, through the back door. She offered more free drinks and convinced all of the tavern's patrons to follow her down into the secret passage and into the keep, where she opened another tun of mead.

Grimnir and Ash called all of the human settlers into the bathhouse, saying that they needed to have an important meeting regarding dire threats nearby that were able to age a man by half his life instantly. This, plus Grimnir's obvious state of decrepitude, got their attention and they, somewhat reluctantly and still with a great about of "rabble rabble" made their way to the bathhouse/meeting hall (because where else would Grimnir hold a meeting).

Grimnir started pontificating, trying to calm the crowd and talking about "cleaning up Kryptgarten". Ash (hooded) slipped through the crowd and pulled three of the loudest rabble-rousers up to the front of the crowd. He insisted that he needed to show them something, pulling out the basilisk eyes, and was sad to learn that the eyes no longer possessed the power to petrify. He was even more disappointed to learn that the hyper-xenophobic ex-Hillsfarrans recognized his long, slender elven fingers as being "NOT HUMAN".

One of the three rabble-rousers grabbed the front of Ash's tunic and poved to punch him, only to get repelling blasted into a pot of boiling water by Grimnir. "I dub thee, Irish Spring," said the squire, who then proceeded to explain that anyone who committed violence in Kryptgarten without his express order would be boiled and rendered into soap and used to, quite literally, clean up Kryptgarten.

Meanwhile, Melastasya tried to communicate with the, now quite drunk, orcs and other things. The especially orcs, it seemed, were itching for a fight. She tried to pick out a leader among them to make an example of, only to learn the hard way about the oddly-egalitarian horde mentality that all orcs possess. The orcs jostled to show that they were all equally strong (accompanied by many grabbings of their manly bits and offers to rape the old woman to prove it).

Finally Melastasya managed to re-direct their attention away from her, first by saying that they should attack the humans gathered in the bathhouse. She rethought that and tried to convince them to go loot the unprotected hobgoblin holdings, but the aggressive, blood-thirsty orcs were already in motion, charging out the front doors of the keep. She ran alongside, trying to talk them into another target, only to be rebuffed by suggestions that "yes, but there are women right there". Finally she gave up on diverting the orcs and messaged Grimnir, telling him that he should just let the Kryptgarteners kill the orcs.

Which is exactly what happened. The excited and drunk orcs charged into the bathhouse to find themselves outnumbered 4-to-1 by armed, armored, and battle-tested humans, who were ready and waiting with vats of rendered, boiling lard. Grimnir gave the order, and the melee was brief and vicious.

In the end, fifty orcs were turned into soap, with only three of the Kryptgarteners being killed (by a rapier in the back from the blind Kevorkian hoping to make more Zombies). Kevorkian also collected several orc zombies, who he dressed up with trophies and arms to make it look like they had been engaged in a fight with Hobgoblins (complete with cutting off their left pinkies) and dispatched to walk as far back towards their homes as they could before the animation wore off.

Melastasya returned to the keep and asked the other tavern patrons to leave, discreetly, out the back, while Grimnir gave a few more speeches about order obligation to his serfs.


10 Uktar...and later

The next morning, Traithe (as Elaira) grabbed the Manual of Gainful Exercise and headed for Phlan to seek out Werner von Urslingen for further training. On his/her way into town, she witnessed the corpse of Noriss the Gray being hung from the wall over the Traitor's Gate, attended by the entire Council and with much fanfare. Councilwoman Elissa Bivant-Mondaviak made a speech claiming responsibility for bringing the infamous bandit to justice. Then her husband made an official proclamation declaring the establishment of a fund to reimburse the victims and that the Council was attempting to repatriate stolen possessions to their rightful owners.

Over the next two months, things got colder, and wetter. Traithe trekked into town daily for his/her training and exercises. Ash holed up in the keep, pouring over the books they had collected from Mendor's Library, looking for clues as to what might heal the party of their various ailments--learning that Ra-Khati vellum was made from the hides of a particular breed of sheep raised by the Eraka, and that Lake Longreach was also in Eraka terrirory.

Grimnir continued to enforce strict  discipline, boiling any settlers that raised any kind of ruckus outside the tavern...Melastasya 'helped' by murdering any that even congregated outside the tavern in their sleep. After twenty-three such deaths, the Kryptgarteners seemed to finally get the picture and, quietly and grudgingly, accepted the visitors to their little polity.

Kevorkian tried to make friends with Pooky (the giant six-legged, scorpion-tailed, spine-backed albino crocodile-like monstrosity which Grimnir and Melastasya had summoned). It seemed mostly willing to engage with the blind cleric, until Kevorkian tried to put a collar on it. That last him a hand.

They waited out much of the winter, remaining holed up in the keep throughout the entire month of Nightal, through the celebrations of the Feast of the Moon and the Winter Solstice. By mid-Hammer, though, when the snow lay thick on the ground, the adventurous rulers of Kryptgarten started becoming stir-crazy, until one day they struck out, heading north through the deep snows, following the Stojanow River.


11 Hammer

It was a bright, clear winter day in the cold north. Grimnir, Melastasya, Ash, Traithe, Kevorkian (still blind and one-handed), 'Ginger', and a strange dark-skinned elf who had taken refuge for the winter in Kryptgarten, answering to the name of Megri (or some such) found themselves standing on the shores of Lake Kuto, about 30 miles north of Kryptgarten.

In the center of the lake was a small island, maybe a half-mile north to south, covered with snow and vegetation. The north end of the lake was crystal clear, save for a few flows of ice drifting slowly downstream. Starting just south of the island, however, the waters were the familiar black, toxic sludge of the River Barren (as the Stojanow was more commonly known these days).

The party made their way across the river, from the north, using their rings of water walking and out to the island, sure that the island must somehow be the source of the river's pollution. They searched the island thoroughly, finding no structures, until Melastasya found a smuggler's hole (a wooden trapdoor concealing a 6 foot deep pit) beneath the snow. They carefully cleared the snow away and examined the door for booby-traps, then lifted the hatch. Inside was a bare, sandy pit with a single, old jug of rum.

Melastasya jumped right in and vanished.

The others, suspecting some sinister and destructive magic may have taken Mel's life, took some time  experimenting with the pit. Lowering a rope (of which only the portion in the pit disappeared), dropping stones, and finally dropping Traithe's greatsword, which he was able to summon back, thus proving that it was not destroyed. At which point, Kevorkian cannon-balled into the pit, and vanished.

Traithe, still curious, fired one more arrow into the pit. He then convinced Grimnir, Ginger, and Megri to join hands with him and leap in together...


Alone, Ash finally worked up the nerve to leap into the pit. Suddenly finding himself standing in the corner of a hallway, next to a pile of debris (including an arrow and six feet of rope). He waited for some time, calling for his companions. He received a brief message from Grimnir informing him that the rest of them were together and that they too were in a maze of some sort.

With this knowledge he struck out, as always to the right. He navigated a series of switchbacks, then came to a long corridor with an open archway to his right and a bend to the left at the end. Ash again received a message from Grimnir and cast a thunderwave spell in the hopes that his friends would hear it. Which they did not.

Something else clearly had, however, as he soon heard the sound of hurrying, heavy footsteps coming in his direction from the south and west. Ash set a single dancing light well ahead of himself and hid in the gloom near the archway. A moment later he saw a man, nearly eight feet in height, with the head of a bull and a large axe come around the far corner and stare confusedly at the small magical light.

He, of course, blasted it with a lightning bolt.

The minotaur charged, only to have Ash teleport behind it at the last minute and launch it headlong into a wall with yet another lightning bolt. Rather seriously scorched, but not learning, the thing charged a second time--with identical results.

Three lightning bolts weaker and back where it had started, the minotaur dashed around the corner to the left. Ash gave pursuit, only to take a greataxe to the arm as he came running around the corner to find the minotaur waiting in ambush. Wailing in pain, Ash tossed his Monkeys of Blinding and Deafening at the minotaur. The monkeys did their work, gouging out the beast's eyes and handing them to Ash (where they were added to the basilisk eyes).

The minotaur, blind and very weak, fled. Ash followed, at a safe distance, through a series of winding passages. Finally he saw the minotaur charge at a blank wall and vanish. Ash took a deep breath and charged after it, only to appear back in the sandy smuggler's hole, staring at the bottle of rum and the sun above.

Ash climbed out, jumped back in, and found himself elsewhere...


Meanwhile, Melastasya found herself at the end of a short passage, which appeared to double-back on itself to the left just ahead. She waited as first a rock appeared beside her. She experimented a few times with the rock, throwing it at various walls and the ceiling to see if it would fly through and back to her friends--to no avail. She moved away just in time to avoid being hit by Traithe's oversized sword, which promptly vanished again.

Then Kevorkian appeared. Then a minute later Grimnir, Traithe, and the others. All save Ash.

They waited for Ash, who didn't come, then proceeded along the hall, which spiraled outwards for five turns before ending at a four-way intersection. Grimnir regularly called to Ash using his message spells, finally making contact around the last corner of the outer spiral. They experimented with shouting and making other noises, but it was clear that Ash could not hear them through mundane means, and vice versa.

They explored a bit more, making contact one more time, at which point they told Ash to stay where he was and wait for them to find him. They found another passage to the right which spiraled inwards to a wall through which anything they threw vanished. Traithe, practical person that (s)he was, marked the walls with chalk to identify where they had been.

From the teleporter, they backtracked and took the next right, then another right, and found a second teleporter. Grimnir re-established contact with Ash, who informed them that he was engaged in battle with a minotaur. Hoping to reach Ash as quickly as possible, the others linked hands and leaped into the wall...

...only to reappear standing at the top of a set of stairs. They tested the walls, and found neither door nor teleporter, and so proceeded down the stairs. They tried a few more times to re-establish contact with Ash, to no avail.


Meanwhile, Ash suddenly found himself standing next to a few stones, at the center of a corridor which spiraled outwards. Noting several chalk marks in Traithe's handwriting he followed the marks, coming first to one teleporter, then another. When he found no more marks, he presumed that the others had vanished through the last teleporter. Not knowing really how the things worked, however, and not expecting to actually end up with his companions if he followed them, Ash instead struck out in the direction they had not yet explored.

He took the next right, then followed the passage as it curved around to the left to find himself in a long corridor with a familiar-looking archway on the left and the smell of ozone in the air.

Hearing the sounds of someone whispering, he ignored the arch and proceeded to the end of the corridor. In the corner, where the corridor doubled back on itself, he found a very old looking man, dressed in tattered robes, sitting on the ground with a cup of water and a bowl of porridge next to him, muttering to himself.

Ash greeted the old man, who, between snatches of conversation with either himself or some unseen entity, responded in perfectly accented elvish, offering Ash some porridge of his own. With some coaxing, Ash was able to learn that the man knew of the minotaur, as well another threat (described as a large half-man, half-spider), and that the porridge "tasted only slightly better than feces".

Ash accepted the man's hospitality, but not the food, and sat down to rest for about an hour to recover his strength after his encounter with the minotaur.


From the bottom of the stairs, Traithe and the others circled around to the right until they came to a large iron door. Mel noticed some strange runes around the handle and decided to saw away that portion, in case it represented a trap of some kind. Grimnir simply shot a repelling blast over her head and blew the door off its hinges.

Beyond this, Megri found a secret door. The door opened inward easily, revealing a large, empty cell with a few bones and other food scraps and five very hungry looking lizardfolk cringing in a corner. They tried, unsuccessfully, to communicate with the creatures. Ginger finally charmed one. While unable to speak, she was able to convey the party's general good will. Then, of course, Traithe noticed that the door was closing, by itself, with no apparent handle or latch on the inside. He caught it in time and wedged it open. Realizing that the lizards were prisoners, the party ushered them out and offered them some rations.

The lizards followed them into the next corridor, where they found another iron door and then a secret door at the end. They opened the secret door first, revealing a small fortune in ancient, corroded silver coins of unidentifiable mint, and three strange magic items: a glass bauble, a rusty-bladed dagger with a jeweled hilt, and a plain-looking wooden shield.

Megri pointed out that the strange glass bauble radiated a powerful aura of Evil. Intrigued, or afraid (it is so hard to tell), Grimnir commanded the others to stand watch as he took the time to identify the thing. It appeared to be a small glass orb, about three inches across, with some sort of diorama inside. On closer inspection, Grimnir found the diorama to be a miniature replica of Kryptgarten Keep, complete with all their recent construction and renovations, but without any people in it. The thing showed no movement, and no amount of concentration of experimentation would cause it to show other scenes, only a static Kryptgarten in miniature. Likewise, his spells were unable to penetrate its secrets. After a tussle with Kevorkian over who could keep it, Grimnir stashed the evil orb in a pouch to deal with later.

Megri grabbed the dagger and shield, Mel and Traithe scooped up the coins, and they all headed for the door they had skipped. Inside was a workroom--part Grand Guignol torture chamber, part Frankenstein’s laboratory. Everything in it seemed to be designed to restrain or cause pain. The walls were lined with bottles and flasks filled with bizzare powders, oils, ointments, and draughts, and a collection of scalpels, forceps, and strange pointy things of all kinds.

Grimnir again took some time examining a large table, complete with manacles and fresh blood, which radiated magic, determining it to be a device to assist in humanoid transmutations. He then conjured a floating disk, which Mel loaded up with alchemical gear to start building a magical laboratory for Ash.

Stepping out into the hallway, they saw a heavily scorched, eyeless minotaur stumbling up the corridor. Grimnir put the poor creature out of its memory and they backtracked to another side passage where they found two more alchemical store-rooms. The loaded up more alchemical gear for Ash and also took a large sheaf of papers bearing alchemical formulae and experimental notes such as:

Subject 213: Progressing well, scars healing. Unable to talk yet.
Subject 214: Died when treated, failed again... 
At the final dead end of the hall, they found another teleporter, with a similar large iron door next to it. Behind the doors, they found a large room filled with four massive (ten foot tall and four foot diameter) glass vats, filled with the same black sludge as the river. A large pipe ran up out of the floor, and branched, pumping the sludge into the vats.

Mel walked up and drummed on one vat, causing a strange, six-armed lizardman-like creature to appear in the sludge, throwing itself against the sides of the vat. They looked around and decided to leave through the teleported, determining that the pollutants must be coming from a lower level. But not before Mel suddenly started spouting random syllables a strange, hissing language.

They waited as Mel tried to carry out a conversation with the thing in the tank, which seemed to be speaking directly into her mind and somehow unable to distinguish between her thoughts and its own. The things message was very direct, "Let me out, " though it seemed unable to articulate anything much more useful than that.

Eventually Mel agreed to leave the thing in the vat to its own devices and stepped through the teleporter with the others...


Meanwhile...Ash finished resting with the strange, ratty-clothed old man, and rose to leave. After a few pleasantries and some more warnings about the spider-monster, Ash grabbed his wand and marched the direction of said spider-creature.

After winding through a series of switchbacks, he came to a 'T' intersection. To the left her heard the scrabbling of insectile feet, to the right he saw a pile of human excrement in a bend in the passage. He went...right...towards the excrement, and stopped to examine it (guessing correctly that the runny stuff was the end result of the old man's porridge).

Ash continued on down the right-hand passage for a ways, navigating another switchback then heard the spider-thing's feet clicking on the stones behind him. He ran on ahead, to a four-way intersection and hid around a corner. Only to have a trio of magic-missiles come streaking after him.

He blocked these with a shield spell, then stepped out to unleash a lightning bolt at the thing which had been following him--which looked like the upper torso of a dark-skinned elf joined at the waist, centaur-like, with a giant spider. The thing took the lightning bolt full in the chest, then retreated back around the corner at the far end of the hall.

Ash, again, gave pursuit, rounding the corner to see....nothing.

Then a blast of cold struck him in the chest, knocking the air from his lungs, and the spider-thing appeared out of thin air. Ash retaliated with yet another lightning bolt, only to be knocked down by another blast of cold.

Ash was frozen from the waist down, barely able to breathe, and could feel the hypothermia setting in as the spider thing closed in, drawing a blade for the kill. With frost-bitten fingers, Ash weakly raised the point of his wand and, through chattering teeth said what he thought would be his last words..."Lightningbolt!"

The drider was blown to bits by the third bolt, splattering charred spider-ichor all over the walls of the passage.

Only then did Ash allow himself to lapse into unconsciousness.


Traithe, Mel, and Grimnir appeared in yet another passage. Kevorkian, Megri, and Ginger were nowhere to be seen. Shrugging at being divided yet again, the three followed the passage to the right, until it dead-ended, then backtracked and took the left, then the next right-most passage.

After many twists and turns, they smelled the tell-tale scent of ozone and scorched hair and came to an archway opening on their right. Past the archway, they saw signs of a struggle--chipped and dented walls at either end of the passage, streaks of blacked stone on the walls, and a pool of blood at one end. Traithe identified the larger blood-stain as belonging to Ash, and smaller drips as belonging to the minotaur that Grimnir had so recently dispatched.

They followed the trail, hoping to find Ash, and stepped through the teleporter that they found at the end. This time appearing in largish room that opened into a twisting corridor. They took a LEFT this time (violating all their well-established navigational plans) and, after many twists and turns of the corridor, saw a flash as they were walking, and found themselves back at the top of the stairs they had visited not so long ago.

They rushed down the stairs and proceeded to the far teleporter by which they had first left this level minutes ago. This time they reappeared at the end of a long corridor which, with no intersections or distractions, ended at a secret door with yet another set of stairs leading down.

At the bottom of the stairs, they found another large iron door, this one with a small eye-slit at a height of about eight feet. Melastasya approached the door and a deep voice said "What is the password?" She blurted out a few random things, all of which were not the password. Finally the door opened and the four well-armed ogres behind it informed the party that they were "supposed to hit anyone who didn't speak the password."

One blow of the first ogre's sword sent Melastasya flying halfway back up the stairs. And one blast of Grimnir's eldritch fury sent the sword-wielding ogre flying backwards to sprawl on top of his fellows. Traithe followed up with a witchbolt.

Seeing that Mel and company were not advancing, another ogre calmly closed and barred the door. This did nothing to help poor 'Fred', who lay jerking on the ground for a good minute after Traithe's witchbolt had electrocuted him. Finally Mel walked up and knocked on the door, bringing a similar response of "What's the password?" from the not-very-bright ogres. When the ogres opened the door again to crush the people giving the incorrect pass phrase, Grimnir called forth a crown of jagged metal on the head of the lead ogre, driving it mad and causing it to turn on its allies.

As two of the ogres fought amonst themselves, Mel dashed into the guardroom and through an open archway on the right. There she saw a massive chamber, with a huge (10 foot diameter or more) clear pipe filled with the black sludge rising from the center of the floor. Numerous smaller pipes snaked off of the main one in every direction, and all about the room were valves, gauges, petcocks, handwheels and other examples of arcane plumbing. Standing in front of the massive pipe, apparently oblivious to the melee behind him, was an old, decrepit looking man in tattered robes, holding a bowl of porridge and mumbling to himself about how "everything was going well."

One ogre managed to disengage from the intra-ogre melee and leveled a massive, loaded crossbow (more a balista actually) at Grimnir and Traithe as they stepped into the guardroom. Only to be hurled out through the archway, tumbling over and become entangled with Mel, by another of Grimnir's repelling blasts.


Meanwhile, Ash awakened to find the old man standing over him. The worst of Ash's wounds had been healed and the rest of him had been thawed out. The old man offered Ash a bowl of porridge and informed him that they "were being invaded," but that "everything was going well." Ash tried, unsuccessfully to get the man to clarify. Finally the man offered to show Ash and offered him a hand. Ash accepted...


...and appeared standing beside the old man staring up at a giant pipe flowing with black sludge, as Melastasya wrestled with an ogre on the ground behind them.

Mel clung tightly to the ogre's leg, punching several times up into its groin. Grimnir commanded the ogre wearing his crown of madness to tackle its opponent, allowing Grimnir and Traithe to run into the main room past the melee. Grimnir then blasted the ogre that was entangled with Mel with yet another repelling blast. The ogre's head was blown clean from its body, the ogre's crossbow went off shattering one of the pipes and spilling black sludge onto the ground, and Mel and the ogre's body went sliding across the floor towards the old man, who casually leaped over it without looking back.

Ash suggested to the old man that they should put a stop to whatever was going on with the pipes, which apparently raised the man's ire. The old man leveled a spoon at Ash, transforming him into a Half-orc.

Grimnir, Traithe, and Mel ganged up on the old man and beat him to a pulp.

Once recovered from his sudden transformation, Ash levitated Grimnir up to mend the busted pipe. Grimnir managed to seal the leak, but not before getting a face-full of the black sludge, causing his already aged joints to lock up and giving him a sudden, very serious, fear of lizards.

Traithe pointed to a number of doors on the far side of the room and suggested they check them out next...

To be continued...

Friday, November 21, 2014

This(ese) (Three) Week(s) in Gaming

Okay...I suck at regular, systematized updates to this blog. Maybe I should just give up. You should expect round-up updates like this to keep coming, I will find a new name for them that does not try to imply a specific time frame...

...On the plus side, I've been too busy with actual gaming and game logs to worry about these. So, on with what my gaming life looks like these days.

Regarding Video Games:

Magical Diary
While most of my gaming life is fantasy RPGs, my guilty-pleasure is Anime-inspired visual novels/dating sims. Especially ones involving young, female protagonists. Two of my past favorites in this genre, Long Live the Queen and Spirited Hearts are from Hanako Games, so I was pleased to get turned onto another of their offerings called Magical Diary on Steam (though I am not usually a fan of Steam since you cannot play games purchased from Steam when not connected to a network -- which means I cannot play from behind the firewall at work).
Magical Diary can basically be interpreted as a Harry Potter fan-fic Anime with a Magic The Gathering "pentachromatic" magic system tacked on and a few weirder elements of pseudo-Wiccan religion and ceremony thrown in for good measure. Game play is standard for a visual novel (pick weekly activities to train attributes of your choice, with interspersed scenes to advance the plot which often require checks against certain of those attributes). The deviation from the norm in Magical Diary is that at certain times of the 'year' you have to take magical exams -- which take place in the school dungeons and take the form of puzzles (which can be solved in a variety of ways depending on the selection of spells you have learned from your classes). 
On my first play-through my young, New Hampshire born protagonist became class treasurer (sadly it looks like there is 0% chance of becoming class president) and ended up forced into an arranged marriage with one of her professors (who is clearly a Snape knock-off) after an unfortunate run-in with a poorly controlled summoned creature. There are also the obligatory lesbian romance possibilities, the chance to sell your soul to a Cambion, and of course, getting kicked out of school for sleeping through all of your classes for a week.
There, confession made. I play girly Anime games. It was fun.
Recommended Reading:

Proper Schooling for New GMs:
I haven't found any good, new (to me) blogs in the last couple of weeks, but this post from Scrap Princess over on Monster Manual Sewn from Pants does a very good job of capturing the true nature of the exchange between players and GMs when planning for a campaign. As they say:
"This is an example of the other type of questions players will ask you and you should get some practice answering them now before all those bright keen faces are turned [to] you."
You really should get used to this...
Maybe if I get really bored/really stuck for a post idea I will answer these specific questions some time... 
 Player-driven Travel Narratives:
I, and my players, often complain that D&D (and its derivatives) is not a good format for telling travel tales. Sure, you can do a hex crawl and describe some terrain and roll some random encounters, but it seldom captures the feel of something like The Hobbit, where you spend 90% of the story getting from point A to point B, and then only a couple chapters fighting the dragon and looting his cave.
The article Getting from There to Here on Gnome Stew proposes a great compromise to the normal stagnant travel scenes in D&D (or Pathfinder in this specific case). Simply giving the players turns having complete narrative control (one at a time, round-robbin style) to describe what kind of events happen on the journey. 
Definitely trying this the next time I need to move the PCs from one place to another and don't feel like just handwaving it story-wise.
A Review of D&D (All of it):
This one is a month old already, but so perfect it's worth repeating. Zak S. over on Playing D&D with Porn Stars, has managed to capture exactly why I play tabletop RPGs and also exactly why I bad-mouth all other forms of games and media in this single post.
"...the potentia is always there, never quite dwindling into clarity because theme, or unity, or even meaning, implies an ending--and an ending is a limit. And the power of it is equal to the ability to suspend you in its limitlessness. You are ... standing continuously and absolutely genuinely on the brink of what art can only fake: the infinite."
What I've Been Playing:

Kobolds...kobolds EVERYWHERE!
We're finally starting to see some unified themes in the many Ruins of Adventure games I'm running. Kobolds are a big (and growing) problem in Phlan and all of the parties are starting to deal with that. In addition, all three of the major parties (face-to-face, G+, and play-by-email) have just gotten into their first real dungeon crawls (unknown subterranean environments filled with monsters and traps).
The play-by-email squad originally met Hrud while chasing some kobolds, and more recently have been ambushed by koboldsfortified a village against an anticipated kobold army, and now are taking the fight directly to the kobolds. They found a nest of kobolds lurking in the petrified corpse of an ancient black dragon and are now plumbing its depths, and trying not to be eaten by giant weasels.
Awesome sketch courtesy of Tony DiTerlizzi
The face-to-face group recently fended off an army of kobolds that attacked their keep, then encountered another kobold force invading some bugbear caves, and finally ran into a small, ragtag group of kobold leftovers hiding in an old library. The relative number of kobolds encountered seems to be decreasing steadily...maybe they've finally suffered sufficient attrition.
The G+ group of players have been through several parties, two of these (The Bitter Blades and Noriss's Boys) actually had kobold PCs. The newest crop of characters, The Amazons, got to help fight off the full-scale kobold army invasion of Kryptgarten. I'm still plotting what to do with them tomorrow evening... Hopefully it won't involve kobolds directly....

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Razbojk's Finger

I give out a LOT of magic items in my games, but have a strict "no +1 swords" rule, which is to say, I hate boring, repetitive, mass-produced magic items. Everything needs a name and everything needs to be fun.

Here is one of the latest creations (written for use with AD&D 2nd edition):

Razbojk's Finger

The pinnacle of orcish wit, this short, smooth, wooden staff bears a head carved into the likeness of a hand with the middle finger extended. Crafted by Razbojk, the mother of the infamous bandit Noriss the Grey, this staff’s hand-motiff can likely be taken as a direct insult to the priest of Iyachtu Xvim (who have a clenched fist as their symbol), by the traditionalist priestess of Ilneval.

Razbojk’s Finger can be wielded in combat as a club, but gains no bonus to attack or damage rolls. It’s other powers, however, are both considerable, and prone to error in untrained hands. Rather than command words, this staff is controlled by gesture alone. Any time someone carrying the staff in hand rolls a natural 1 (on any d20 roll), he has accidentally moved the staff the wrong way, activating one of the staff’s abilities at random (roll 1d4 on the table below for effect, select the target at random).

Because it is controlled by gesture only, deliberately activating the staff’s powers carries no initiative modifier (instead of the normal +2 associated with activating a magic staff). Each activation (including accidental activations) consumes 1 charge from the staff. The staff has 5 charges which renew each day at midnight.

d4 roll Gesture Effect
1 Grasp the staff with one hand. Hold it parallel to the ground with the finger leveled at a target. One target within 60 feet feels a sudden sucker-punch from an invisible hand. The target takes 5d4-5 points of damage (save vs. wands negates).
2 Grasp the staff with one hand. Hold it perpendicular to the ground and make three quick upward thrusts. Harsh, irritating smoke billows out from the staff, filling a 10-ft. radius centered on the wielder. Anyone in the area not touching the staff must make a save vs. wands or suffer a fit of coughing and choking for 1d4+1 rounds. Affected creatures suffer a -2 penalty on all die rolls and are unable to cast spells with verbal components. Anyone in contact with the staff when the smoke appears is unaffected. The smoke disperses and becomes harmless after 1 round.
3 Grasp the staff with one hand. Hold it over your head, parallel with the ground. Up to five severed limbs within 60 feet are immediately animated as crawling claws. The claws always act in concert and obey the telepathic commands of whoever is currently holding the staff. Any number of claws can be animated through repeated use of this ability, but the staff can command no more than five at any given time.
4 Grasp the staff with two hands. Hold it perpendicular to the ground and strike the ground with the butt. All undead of 5HD or less within 500 feet are immediately compelled to move towards the staff’s location by the fastest means available to them (no save). Once the undead can see the staff, they are free to act normally. The staff grants no additional control over the creatures.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Bit of Inspiration

Being a collection of weird things from non-gaming news which may prove useful for future campaigns...

This issue is brought to you by Beetles and temple artwork...

1) A Kingdom of Cave Beetles?
A recent study out of China is vaguely fascinating from the standpoint of discovering new species--specifically 7 new species of blind cave beetles. The title however, A Kingdom of the Cavernicolous Dongodytes sounds like an awesome adventure title...
The new beetles belong to the genus Dongodytes whose members are easily recognizable by their extraordinary slender and very elongated bodies (very ant-like). Members of this genus are usually very rare in caves, with only five species reported from China before now. The recent study of the cave systems in Du'an Karst drastically changed these numbers however. Out of the 48 visited caves 12 held populations of trechine beetles. A total of 103 samples were collected, out of which the team of scientists determined ten different species, seven of which are new to science.
2) For religion, art history, or awesome ancient temple buffs...
Some research out of the University of Alabama Birmingham has shown a clear meaning and order to the sculptures of Hindu gods adorning the iconic Virupaksha Temple in Pattadakal. The discoveries identify images that glorify the king by referencing his family, conquests, and accomplishments, as well as other sculptural elements that offer religious guidance. Cummings describes one series of sequential inscriptions that depicts taking refuge in a deity, showing faith and then salvation. Dr. Cummings also published a book about it.
Why do I care (other than it being an awesome looking temple)? Because the core idea--that sculptures and artwork on temples are not just random depictions of the deity but actually tell a story and provide guidance for worshippers--is one that could breath a lot of life into the religions in a game world. What if, instead of the standard, pseudo-Christian "here is a generic iconic image of the saint/deity, now go look in a book for the doctrine", you instead could describe a new cult's doctrine and ideals and ceremonies to the players by describing a series of detailed images? What if the players find the old temple but start with the wrong image when trying to decode the secrets of its powers? What if they describe a unique spell or ritual that could have horrible consequences if the PCs get the order wrong? Or maybe detailed analysis of the images would let the party successfully masquerade as worshipers and infiltrate an enemy faith?
I am not artist myself. I couldn't draw or sculpt something like this to use in a game. But gamers are used to getting vivid verbal descriptions of visual scenes, and such descriptions might be an interesting way to indirectly infodump about a religion in the game.
3) A new addition to the Roman pantheon?
In other ancient temple news, some archaeologists from Munster discovered a five-foot tall basalt relief of a previously unknown Roman-era fertility/vegetation god in an ancient site in Turkey sacred to Jupiter Dolichenus (a.k.a. the Baal of Doliche), near the remains of the medieval monastery of St. Solomon.
The basalt stele shows a deity growing from a chalice of leaves. Its long stem rises from a cone that is ornamented with astral symbols. From the sides of the cone grow a long horn and a tree, which the deity clasps with his right hand. This is some awesome iconography...
...maybe combined with the above idea?
Other gaming potential (beyond, "Hey, a new god") is the idea of the overlapping place of religious significance. "New" (medieval) monastery built over/near the remains of an ancient place of fertility-god worship. Druids vs. Monks territorial dispute anyone?

So I somehow managed to never hear about Tiger Beetles before. How have a not heard about something that is (relative to size), the fastest creature on earth? Not only do they run at 480 scale miles per hour (120 body lengths per second) when pursuing prey, but when they do this, they move so fast that they cannot actually see said prey.
So, seriously...why, amidst Giant Rhinoceros Beetles, Giant Stag Beetles, Giant Water Beetles, Boring, Bombardier, etc. has there never been a Giant Tiger Beetle for D&D?! Seriously, I want giant beetles that run at 480 miles per hour running down PCs and eating them alive...
Sorry, the full article is behind a paywall.

So...underground complex filled with blind, superfast beetles...which was once sacred to a fertility cult...and plastered with complex bas-relief iconography depicting the proper forms of worship of that god...buried under an old monastery...which needs the PCs to go down into said cavern complex to decode the artwork to find the proper ritual for halting the super-fast beetle attacks...

5) And last, just for fun...

...High-precision, Katana-wielding Robots!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bitter Blades (Flashback): Martha vs. The World

A brief, unpublished play-by-post in which Martha joined the party...immediately prior to them all getting killed by shadows. Following the same format of other play-by-post logs.

Martha stood on the docks, staring at the small boat that had so recently arrived from Thorn Island. She recognized the misshapen form of Jack, but she did not know any of the other misfits who were unloading her father’s corpse from the boat. She was too much in shock to cry just then, instead she just stood there in silence, glaring at Jack and the others.

What do I do? she thought. Her father was dead. He had been paying for her apprenticeship at the grocers, not the other way around. Without his income, she had no job, no prospects. She had her little house in the slums. Perhaps she could hang out a red cloth like so many other girls and invite the men of the slums in with her, it would help her feed herself, but she had no wish to give herself to the likes of Jack, or the other slums dwellers. She scratched at her lice-ridden dress and tried to think of any way out of her predicament.

It was then that she noticed the well-dressed officials assembling on the docks to greet Jack and his companions, and the huge pile of weapons, armor, and other items brought back from the island. Somehow, only then did the tears start.

Wiping her eyes, she stalked up to the strange white-haired woman with the scar on her face and pointed at her father’s holy symbol sitting on the pile. “THAT’S MINE!” she said firmly.

Hazel looks at the girl with unconcealed disdain. “Yours?! Who are you? I did not see you swinging a sword on Thorn Island.” She walks over and unceremoniously shoves the little girl away. “You’ve got spirit.” She says with a half-smile. “But I’ve never seen your face before and that bounty is ours.” She smiles more broadly, “Of course. If you really think you have a claim to that old cog, you could fight me for it.”

Martha rankles at the injustice of the scar-faced woman’s taunts. She wants to cry, but instead forces herself back to her feet. She stands there glaring and shaking her fist at the woman for a moment before pointing at the body being carried out of the boat. “That’s my father!” she says. “If you went out to that island, in that boat, then it was because he made you. Surely he deserves a share of what you brought back, and barring him, his kin!”

“Hey!” Tamn steps up between Hazel and the girl, broken stick in hand. “First,” he says indignantly, staring up into Hazel’s good eye, “y’ve got no right t’ be shoving the girl. Second, the girl’s right, her da’ died fighting at yer side. At the least she deserves something t’ member him by. It’d be more proper for ye’ t’ take care of his kin. At least, make sure she’s got a place t’ sleep an’ some food…”

Ada walks over to stand behind the young girl, and nods vigorously.

Hazel stands there looking at the girl for a moment longer, then walks over to the pile of loot and gathers up the things that Martha had indicated. “Tom was your dad, huh?” She hands over the wands, weapons, and jewelry. “These aren’t toys girl. If you’re going to be carrying around stuff like this, you better learn how to use them…”

She gathers up a few items herself, then looks around at the others and smiles. “That was fun. How bout we all go get some sleep, then meet at the Council offices in the morning to get paid and see what other trouble we can get in to.” She pauses for a moment, staring at Martha. “You too girl. Meet us in the morning and you can have your dad’s share…and come along to gut some monsters if you like.”

She turns to leave, then stops, “Hey, what’s your name girl?”

“Martha.” She says, finally breaking down and crying as the woman hands her the items.

She runs back to Mr. Cockburn’s grocery, tears running down her face. She had to take care of herself now, and she was determined to never be hungry again. Outside the grocer’s she put on her father’s holy symbol and the amulet, tucking the later inside her dress. Inside she stashed her new wands and weapons, and went to talk to Ian.

Her master soon learned how shrewd of a negotiator she really was.

By the time the group reconvened in the morning, she had arranged to use her father’s share of the pre-pay her apprenticeship for the full seven years, with additional time allowed for her to go adventuring with her father’s friends, had arranged for an extended line of credit with Mr. Cockburn to make sure she was fed, had bought outright the house her father had been renting in the Slums, and had hired a contractor to start making repairs to the place…


After the party visits the Council Clerk to get paid, Tamn eyes as wide as saucers, heads strait to the Cracked Crown and orders a huge breakfast. When he finishes breakfast he heads to the Laughing Goblin for elevenses. After that he heads to the Bitter Blade for lunch, then to Ian Cockburns to buy a couple bottles of wine, which he takes back to the Bitter Blade and drinks until time for tea. At tea time he heads back to the Cracked Crown, downs a couple of plates, then back to the Laughing Goblin where he buys supper for his new friends…

Having thus eaten more in one day than he probably has in the last two years combined, Tamn, bloated and barely awake, buys a room above the Laughing Goblin (probably for two or three times what it is worth), stumbles up the stairs with his riches, and passes out. After throwing up much of the previous day’s repast some time in the middle of the night, Tamn wakes up late, aching and groggy. He leaves his room late in the afternoon and begins wandering through the small town.

Somehow, after sleeping off the pains of overeating, the facts of what he has just done start to feel more real. He is walking around a town, without minders or fetters. He is armed, properly armed, with two good swords at his side, and no humans are leaping to grab him and wrestle the weapons away. He wanders in a blissful daze, fat, happy, and free, for several hours, until he finds himself outside of the gates in the Slums near dinner time. This feels more like home. Poor, hungry, downtrodden folk living on the fringes. Feeling his stomach growl, he looks for a place to eat and finds the soup kitchen where the priests of Tyr and Sune are giving away meals for free. Seeing the long lines of emaciated people, and feeling the weight of his purse (holy shit, he has his own purse), he realizes that he really doesn’t belong here. Instead of queuing up for a bowl as he would have done only a few days ago, he walks to the back, finds one of the priests, and presses a fistful of platinum into their hands without a word—but in view of everyone present.


Ada stood patiently and quietly, not that she had a choice, as the Battle Chaplain yelled at her for three consecutive hours about abandoning her post. She was used to it, it wasn’t the first time that she’d gone AWOL for more than 24 hours and it wouldn’t be the last. She just stood there, as still as she could, and listened to the man ramble on about “not hot-headedly rushing off to wage war recklessly” and “considering the consequences of the violence you do before hand”. At least this commander wasn’t inclined to smack her around like the last one, and didn’t bother to look inside the strange leather satchel which came back slung over her shoulder.

Regardless of what her commander said, she knew she had done good. A risk to the city had been eliminated. She had made some friends. And, best of all, she had come away with a giant pile of platinum. That really was the worst thing about being a member of the Silent Sisters was that they didn’t get paid. Of course, she didn’t really have anything to spend the money on—her food, shelter, arms, and armor were all provided by the church. Still, it was nice to have.

When her hours of being reprimanded were over, and another four hours of penance sharpening spears in the armory done, Ada wandered back to her room and opened the satchel, spilling hundreds of coins out on her bed. She smiled broadly at the wonderful sound of the coins clinking together, and would have laughed if she could as they ran through her fingers. This is what violence, war, and adventure were all about, good, solid, cold cash.

After her little celebration, she carefully counted the coins and returned them to the small satchel. She really liked this new toy, it was bigger on the inside than on the out, never spilled unless she wanted it to, and the contents made no clinking noises. She hugged the bag to her chest, and laid down on her bunk. In two hours she would have to wake up and resume her guard duties, but she was used to going on minimal sleep, and she knew, if her new friends found something interesting to do, she would probably be abandoning her post again anyways.



Hazel, as the daughter of a queen (sort-of) and a raider of dragon’s lairs, is much less surprised by the sudden windfalls of wealth than her companions. After many months of travel and sleeping in common rooms, she was quite pleased to have the funds to live “properly”—renting the best rooms above the Laughing Goblin, opening a tab for their finest food and wines—and sharing quite a bit with Tamn during his first day binge.

After establishing her rooms, she spends a day seeking through the town for a proper tailor, and visiting the silver-smith and other shops to deck herself in the “finest and most impressive southern fashions”—which to her means bright colors, lots of metal, and lots of exposed skin. After several fittings and adjustments for her muscular build, she is soon seen strolling around town in a “classic” lacemail bikini and chemise.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Justification for Your Paranoia

October and November have been a bad couple of months for computer security. Flaws in Drupal, SSL, iOS, and everything else seem to have come even more regularly than usual these months. Top it off with last week's Windows SChannel vulnerability (note: if you are running any version of Windows and have not patched in the last week DO IT NOW!) and I bet a lot of security and operations guys are missing a lot of sleep lately.

Here is the latest small collection of bits and bobs from my professional world...

1) Cell-snooping Spy Planes?
Stories about the US Marshals Service using small aircraft equipped with so called 'dirtboxes' (Boeing DRT) to intercept cell-phone signals and locate people have been all over the news this past week. The 'dirtboxes' work by imitating cell phone towers and tricking telephones into connecting to them, which in turns provides the location of the phone user. The devices are even capable of collecting call and data information from the phones, Yet another wonderful example of the U.S.'s over-reaching dragnet style mass surveillance.
What the news has not mentioned this week, is that there does exist some small, niche protection from such snooping attempts... 
German company GSMK has patented a Cellphone Firewall which lets people know when a rogue cell tower is attempting to connect to their phone and turn off the movile network's standard encryption. The firewall, which is currently only available on GSMK's CryptoPhone 500 (which sadly costs $3K per phone and is mostly only available for enterprise customers)...
The CryptoPhone firewall monitors all connections to the phone’s baseband. It checks whether a particular cell tower lacks an ID like its neighboring towers—for example a name that identifies it as an AT&T or Verizon tower—whether it has a different signal strength, and whether the tower is operating as expected or trying to manipulate phones. It will also alert you when the mobile network’s encryption has been turned off or when the phone has suddenly switched from using a 3G or 4G to a 2G network—a less secure network that doesn’t authenticate cell towers and makes it easier to decrypt communication. IMSI catchers will often jam 3G and 4G signals to force a phone to use the less secure 2G network, and the CryptoPhone firewall will alert users when this occurs.
There is some talk, but no actual plan yet, for a consumer-level app with similar functionality to the CryptoPhone Firewall that could be used on other Android devices (though likely with only alerting of rogue towers, without the additional countermeasures). Until such a thing is available, if these stories really bother you, you can at least rest assured that it is not bothering the one or two people out there who have enough cash to lay down three grand for a phone.
2) WireLurker for Windows. Boring, but it's there...
Last time, I mentioned the WireLurker trojan infecting iOS devices. Unsurprisingly, that same malware has been discovered on Windows devices, only a day after the iOS news came out. The Windows version is designed with the intent of infecting your iOS phone or tablet when it is plugged into your Windows PC (such as to sync your iTunes or charge it).
The C&C servers used by WireLurker are currently inactive, and Apple has taken steps to ensure that its users are protected, including the revocation of the stolen code signing certificates used by the malware creators to run the malicious iOS apps on non-jailbroken devices.
3) Et tu Pidgin? Not quite.
I know tons of people who use the universal chat client, Pidgin. Well, Cisco reported three new vulnerabilities in the client this month. Which is not that unusual or surprising. One however, stands out as mildly can embed malicious code in "Smileys" (aka emoticons).
The smiley and theme packages, which are installed by users via drag-and-drop, are TAR files. On Linux, where TAR is a standard format and an unpacking application exists by default, Pidgin automatically extracts the TAR files to the folder for themes and smileys. However, on Windows, because the unpacking utility is not included, the developers of Pidgin have included special code for the operation. The problem is that in Windows the files can be extracted to an arbitrary location, allowing an attacker to write or overwrite any file depending on the targeted user's permissions. 
What makes the Pidgin team awesome though, is that these flaws which were publicized by a third party on Nov 7th, were already fixed in v2.10.10, which was released on Oct 22nd. At least one group of developers are on top of things...
Go Pidgin!
 4) News Flash! Hotel networks are still un-secure...
Back in July I mentioned a report about hotel business center computers being compromised with keyloggers. Well, a new APT called 'Darkhotel' is preying on business travelers connecting to the WI-FI network of a hotel (s)he is staying at. After the guest enters the last name and room number to establish a connection to the hotel network, the attack tricks the victim into downloading the Darkhotel backdoor masquerading as a software update for popular software tools. The attack team then uses the backdoor to assess the victim's job role to push additional pieces of information-stealing malware on to the computer.
The majority of Darkhotel-infected networks appear to be located in Japan, Taiwan, China, Russia and Korea, but there are plenty of victims in other countries such as Germany, the United States, Indonesia, India, and Ireland, according to a report published by Kaspersky. Targets have included corporate chief executives, senior vice presidents, sales and marketing directors and top research staff at companies in the electronics, defense manufacturing, finance, automotive and pharmaceutical industries, among others. Some law enforcement, military and non-governmental officials have also been targeted.
"The fact that most of the time the victims are top executives indicates the attackers have knowledge of their victims whereabouts, including name and place of stay," the researchers wrote. "This paints a dark, dangerous web in which unsuspecting travelers can easily fall." 
All the usual caveats for traveling and public networks apply and help here, such as using VPN tunnels when accessing public or semi-public WiFi networks at hotels and similar places, maintaining and regularly updating all system software, and when traveling, consider all update prompts as suspicious.