Sunday, March 29, 2015

Worthy of Vengeance

What better way to honor a fallen PC than by turning them into a sentient weapon? This weapon was devised by The Amazons when the party paladin Worthy of Armor died. Rather than raise, or give up on, the paladin, they used a magical forge to purge the sentience from two other magical weapons and then trap the paladin's soul in her katana.

Worthy of Vengeance

Worthy of Vengeance is a two-handed longsword of eastern design--a katana. The blade is white silver, inscribed with runes of rage and triumph, and glows a brilliant blood-red when drawn. The hilt it made of heat-fused ivory and linnorm bone, wrapped in red silk taken from Worthy of Armor's tunic and dyed with her blood, with a cross-guard of blackened gold. The sword radiates a powerful aura of evocation magic and of good.

Worthy of Vengeance was forged from the remains of the sentient blades Weasel and Corthalis over a Forge of Repentance found in the midst of the Quivering Forest. Using the combined magic of six of the Amazons, Worthy of Vengeance was imbued with the soul and sentience of the paladin known as Worthy of Armor.

Worthy of Vengeance is a sentient item, having the spirit and personality of Worthy of Armor. It is Lawful Good in alignment, with Intelligence and Wisdom of 14, and a Charisma of 15. Worthy of Vengeance speaks with a feminine voice, and is conversant in the Common, Turmic, Sespechian, Tharian, and Mulhorandi languages. The weapon can see and hear as well as a normal human, and can continuously detect evil out to a range of 60 feet.

When held in hand, Worthy of Vengeance constantly sheds a deep red light, providing illumination equivalent to a torch. In the hands of any female wielder, Worthy of Vengeance can conjure hail (centered on itself) twice per day, as the ice storm spell cast at 9th-level. The summoned hailstones are always a deep red in color, like chunks of frozen blood and viscera. In the hands of a Paladin, Worthy of Vengeance projects a circle of power, as a holy avenger, dispelling hostile magic of a level up to the paladin’s experience level in a 10-ft. radius.

In combat, Worthy of Vengeance functions as a katana, gains a +3 bonus on attack and damage rolls, and counts as magic, silver, and good for determining what creatures can be harmed by it. It's bonus to attack and damage increases by +3 (for a total of +6) when in the hands of a female with an Charisma/Appearance score of 17 or greater. The bonuses increases by an additional +2 (to a maximum of +5 or +8 if wielded by a female) when wielded against any bird or snake, including magical creatures that take the form of a bird or snake such as rocs, phoenixes, nagas, or linnorm dragons.

The Amazons: Session 7

Catching up and changing rosters.

Hammer 19

Seeing the undead hordes, the girls turned and ran back down the far side of the mountain, past the giant's cave, down the cliffs, and back to the village of Varawa as fast as they could through the snow, rubble, and gathering dark, the earth trembling all the while.

"Hoar's bloody coin!" Hot Flanks exclaimed when the got back to the small village. "Did you see the size of that force?"

"It would appear that the Squire is out of our league," Don't Fail agreed. "Raising and commanding an undead army of that magnitude would require magic of godlike proportions."

"So what, we just quit?!" Battle Cry sounded angry and incredulous.

"No," Don't Fail said. "We return to Phlan as quickly as possible and inform Councilwoman Bivant of what has occurred. An army like that can only mean that the Squire has declared war on all the good peoples of the north. This is no longer a personal matter, tens of thousands of lives are at stake."

"Gods," Had Enough groaned, "there were more undead there than the entire population of Hillsfar, Phlan, Melvaunt, and Thentia combined. There is no way the Council could raise an army large enough to oppose that..."

"All the more reason to warn them as quickly as possible," Worthy of Armor said. "The Council may be able to send to Cormyr, Sembia, or Glister for reinforcements. If not they'll need time to evacuate."

"I'll come with you," Hira remarked. "They were heading north into the Ride. That army will have to swing out past Lake Longreach, and then probably follow Toranth's March rather than the pass, so Varawa should be safe. If we hurry down the river, we should beat them to Phlan by a matter of weeks."

Don't Fail nodded, "It's decided then. We leave immediately."

They borrowed what food and mounts they could, sturdy ponies from the steppes north of the mountains, and rode out in a hurry.

Only an hour out they ran right into the teeth of a powerful snowstorm. Luckily Hira knew the area well and was able to use the guidance of her goddess to avoid getting lost. They rode through the night and well into the next day before making camp in a sheltered glen near the riverbank. They took only a short rest to feed and magically rejuvenate the horses before mounting and continuing on. The snow did not let up for three days and each day their progress became slower.

Hammer 23

On the fourth day, even with Hira's magic protecting them, the cold and fatigue was starting to get to the girls again. They neared Lake Kuto and Hot Flanks reminded them of the forge they had found in the woods and suggested that they take advantage of the warmth and try to get some serious rest. There was some mumbling about the urgency of their journey, but the cold won and they all agreed to stop by the forge for the night.

They rode into the glade where the forge lay in the early afternoon. The snow had stopped, but the ground around the magically heated forge was a muddy mess. Battle Cry, in the lead, muttered a loud "Woh!" as everyone approached, calling for them to stop and pointing to large, sinuous furrows in the mud, as if a gigantic snake had repeatedly circled the site. Curses were muttered, weapons were drawn, and the girls fanned out to make sure the area around the forge was secure.

As they started looking around, there was a rush of air, a slight roaring noise, and a cloud of intensely cold ice particles suddenly filled the clearing around the forge. The cold of the ice cloud tore through their clothing, shattered the protections laid on them by Hira, and chilled them to the bone.

Hot Flanks spun into the face of the wind and spotted a massive beast, like a huge pearly-white snake nearly forty feet long, with a covering of downy fur, two scrawny fore-claws, and a large crocodilian head, crawling from the it's mouth open wide to exhale its icy attack.  She looked disdainfully at the creature, despite her shivering and shouted, "There it is girls. Kill it with fire!" She glanced to make sure none of the others or their horses were near the creature, leveled her club at it, and, true-to-form, unleashed a fireball at the wyrm.

The flames rolled over the beast and it laughed, a deep and pleasant, "Oh, kill it with fire? How original. How very droll...I believe I shall enjoy this." The huge creature coiled itself, ready to spring at Hot Flanks.

"Oh, it's on!" Battle Cry said thrusting a hand into the sky and summoning forth a shimmering hawk-shaped construct of magic force which whirled up into the air, ready to dive at the giant snake-thing. Hira began casting a spell to restore the party's protection against cold. Had Enough shot the thing with her crossbow, then tossed the weapon aside and drew her sword.

Worthy of Armor sighed, pulled out her katana, and charged, shouting a powerful "Kiai!" She jumped at the last minute, reversing the blade and putting her full weight behind the strike, plunging the full two and a half feet of steel into the creature's bulk. Then wrenched the sword free in a spray of blue-white ichor.

"Ummm...dragon..." Don't Fail managed to say before the thing's tail whipped around, sending her sailing through the air to slam into a tree, unconscious. The creature's jaws then descended on Worthy of Armor, biting her clean in half, swallowing her head and torso without even bothering to chew.

The girls stared at the monster in stunned silence.

There was a sudden shout of "Gotcha!" and a strange wild-eyed, metallic-skinned, spike-covered woman burst from the trees, sprang on the dragon's back, wrapping her arms and legs around its neck. At the same time, Battle Cry's magical hawk dove, gouging at the dragon's eyes with its nearly invisible talons. Then the metal girl drew a long, bloody smile across its neck, right beneath its jaws, with a short-handled spear. The dragon reared back, opening its jaws as if to roar or unleash its breath, but neither sound nor its frigid winds came forth. "Yeah, suck it! No breathing for you Nanabolele!"

The dragon slumped to the ground, dead. The girls stared at the monster, the new one that had just assassinated a dragon, in stunned silence...

The metal girl continued to cling to the dragon's neck for a few moments, her form changing to that of a lovely dark-skinned girl with neat corn-rows and a flowing blue cloak. "Thanks girls! I've been hunting that bastard for weeks," she said, finally letting go and casually stepping over Worthy of Armor's still twitching legs to walk over to them. "The name's Thákane," she said extending a hand to Hot Flanks, "but you can call me Dragon Bait."

Image and character concept courtesy of Jason Porath
at Rejected Princesses

The tension broken Had Enough finally stammered, "D-d-d-did anyone notice that that thing just BIT WORTHY IN HALF?!"

Thákane looked back at the dragon, "Ouch, yeah...sorry about your friend..."

Battle Cry walked up to the dragon and knelt beside what was left of Worthy of Armor. She said a prayer dedicating Thákane's slaying of the beast that killed Worthy to Hoar's vengeance, then turned back to the others. "Do we have the funds to raise her?"

"Not at all," Don't Fail said. "It took every last centime we had to bring Princess back after the Squire's pet killed her."

"AND," Had Enough interjected, "someone here insisted that we had to hunt down the Squire for free after that. So we're not getting paid any time soon."

The girls decided to give Worthy of Armor a funeral. Thákane helped them vivisect the dragon, extracting the remains of her torso, wrapped her arms around her daisho, and carefully carried her torso and legs and placed them both into the forge, stacking all of her possessions save her magical scimitar and bokken with the body. Battle Cry then said a few words sending her spirit on to her god as Hot Flanks stoked up the forge (with an extra fireball for effect), reducing it all to a pool of molten metal and a whiff of carbon.

Meanwhile, Had Enough found a small, haphazard pile of coins, gems, and weapons (though still not half enough to have repaired and raised their friend) half-buried in a snowbank near where the dragon had appeared from, and Thákane in cutting up the dragon, found a pair of magical rings on the beast's scrawny arms.

They checked one more time to make sure the dragon did not have friends, then settled down to pitch their camp and get some rest. Thákane treated them to some surprisingly not-very-filling dragon steaks, over which they got to know the strange dragon-slayer. The Amazons then explained their situation. Thákane seemed inappropriately excited by the thought of fighting an army of a hundred thousand undead, as well as Phlan's other troubles, and agreed to accompany them to the city.

The rest of the trip back to Phlan was uneventful, but slow. It snowed intermittently, but the blizzard of the previous week had piled up drifts as high as five to seven feet, forcing them to take long detours and walk most of the way, beating or digging paths for the ponies they had brought with them from Varawa.

Midwinter Day

They reached Phlan eight days later, shortly after dawn on Midwinter Day. Thákane, mounted on Worthy of Armor's horse, Mfara, and Hira seemed simultaneously horrified by the squalor of the humans living in the slums to the west, and fascinated by the battle lines drawn along the riverbank between the New Phlan in the south and the monster-held older city on the north bank. Given the urgency of their mission, and the delays they had already suffered, the girls did not allow much time for sight-seeing. They headed strait to the Council Hall and demanded an audience with Councilwoman Bivant and any other council members that would listen.

The Council was not in session, but the guards sent for Lady Bivant, who joined them less than an hour later in the Council's chambers. Elissa listened patiently as they described their encounter at Kryptgarten, their trip north, the earthquake, Princess's banishment, the Squire's legion of undead, and Worthy of Armor's death at the hands of the dragon.

Elissa seemed deeply saddened by the loss of their sisters and concerned by their tale of the Squire. She said she would summon the Council immediately, and that they should rest, recuperate, and take as much time as needed to train and prepare themselves for the coming battle against the Squire's armies. She dismissed the girls with letters for the administrators of the Training Hall and the Bitter Blade Inn, informing them to charge all of the Amazon's expenses directly to Lady Bivant. "You have done us a great service in bringing this news, anything you need to prepare for the coming battle will be provided."

As the girls walked out, Had Enough stopped them. "Hey...I've had enough of this..."

"Pun intended..." Hot Flanks quipped.

"I'm serious. Cold. Starvation. Weeks of walking through snowstorms. Undead armies. Dragons the bite people in half. Getting knocked halfway across the kingdom by every monster we meet. I was expecting to be on highly paid guard duty, not fighting giant monsters for pennies." Had Enough shook her head, "I'm out. I'm done. I'm taking my share of the cash we found at the forge and I'll be on the next boat south..."

"You're sure about this?" Don't Fail asked.

"But what about Ven..."

"Don't even." Had Enough said, cutting Battle Cry off. "Your weird religion is also not my problem."

"Have a nice life then." Hot Flanks said, giving Had Enough a tentative hug.

"Alright," Don't Fail sighed. "Let's see if we can sell those gems so you're at least getting your fair share..."

They walked down to the docks and found a money changer, then said their good-byes as Had Enough went to book passage out of town. After she left, they headed to the Bitter Blade, took out rooms, signed up for classes at the Training Hall, and settled in to start preparing for war.

10 Alturiak

The next tenday was quiet. There were flurries, but none of the great snowstorms of the previous month. No travelers came to Phlan, no refugees, and no other signs that the largest undead horde the world had ever seen was marching across the northlands--maybe the snows had stalled them as well. The girls dedicated themselves to their training, and steadily grew more comfortable with Dragon Bait's company.

By the 10th of Alturiak, the snows had stopped and the sun once again shone upon the northern Moonsea. Hira informed the girls that she needed to get back to Varawa, and make certain that the undead had not attacked her people. She bid them fairwell, loaded up the five ponies with all the goods they could carry--having stocked up on provisions to bring back to her village--and headed out.

When the girls returned to the Bitter Blade after wishing another friend farewell, Don't Fail remembered that she had the other half of Princess's scroll of communication. They wrote to find out that Princess was, as expected, in her father's palace in Threskul, apparently betrothed to a not-entirely-objectionable nobleman from Soorenar and kept under close guard by her father's men. When they told her about the Squire's army and what happened to Worthy of Armor, she promised to try to speak with her father and see if he could raise some forces to send to Phlan's aid, and to try to escape to join them, though she said it would probably have to wait until after the wedding--she suspected that if she played the dutiful daughter and fiance until then, her new husband's security would likely be more lax than her father's.

1 Ches

As spring came on, rumors began to trickle down from the north of a massive army of the undead being spotted north and east of the Quivering Forest. Settlers fleeing to the safety of Phlan's walls told of rank upon rank of marching skeletons tearing through the forest. Despite the girl's repeated warnings, the Council seemed to be moving slowly in mustering it's defenses.

The girls sought out all new visitors coming into the city for any news. Varawa, it seemed, was safe, and no undead had been seen in the vicinity of Dragonden Pass. The army also seemed to be giving farms and homesteads wide berth, and, other than a wide path cut through the fey forest towards the river, there was no reports of burning, pillaging, or conflict. The undead needed no supplies and seemed content to simply intimidate settlers with their numbers and let them flee before them.

Then, word of the horde simply stopped. Settlers reported that they had seen the undead to the west of the forest, near Sorcerer's Island...then, nothing. Settlers merchants continued to come in. Eraka merchants rode down Toranth's March and reported no sign of the army. It was as if the entire force, all of the hundreds of thousands, had simply...vanished.

The girls, for their part, continued training, not trusting that the army could have simply ceased to exist and sure that the Squire was planning some kind of surprise attack. Phlan also continued on its way: new homes were built, walls were raised, the north shore of the river was pacified, and repairs began on the recently reclaimed Cathedral of Tyr.

During the weeks of training, Dragon Bait spent some time working the forge at the Training Hall. When the girls saw that she was rather handy, Don't Fail explained her theories regarding the magical forge they had found in the Quivering Forest. Dragon Bait, who was less in need of organized training than the others, said that she'd like to try the forge--and also hinted that a trip to the forge would give them a chance to scout on the undead army for themselves, since it was last seen not far from there. Don't Fail, having finished most of her training with Professor Manabu, agreed to accompany Dragon Bait on the combination scouting and research mission.

The two of them rode out, Dragon Bait on Mfara, who had taken a shine to the new girl, and Don't Fail on a horse purchased from Ernst's Livery, who she named Hope for Success. They took the hammer taken from the giant they had fought in the Valley of Thorns, as well as many of the party's extraneous magical swords, including an annoying talking one they had found with the dragon, hoping to construct something powerful enough to stand against the Squire's apparently god-like power over the undead.

The ride to the glen in the woods was surprisingly peaceful. They found some signs of the undead army's passage, a few downed trees, muddy tracks beaten into the formerly snow-covered ground, but no actual undead to oppose their passage. They stopped on the shores of Lake Kuto. Here they found real signs of the army, including hundreds of corpses--both ancient humans and strange lizard-like and fish-like creatures--and signs of others having recently been dragged into the water. They spent a day searching the shores and the nearby woods, but the army, it seemed, was gone, maybe even destroyed by whatever had been in the lake. Stranger still, the waters of Lake Kuto, that had only very recently been black and toxic, looked almost clean.

Rather than continue on, they turned and rode back to Phlan with what they had discovered.

7 Ches

On the seventh of Ches, Lady Bivant invited the Amazons to a party hosted by her husband on the newly opened patio space on the rooftop of the Bitter Blade. Many people were in attendance, including a strange halfling epicure who her husband had taken a shine to.

Image and character concept courtesy
of Jason Porath at Rejected Princesses
Elissa introduced the girls to a couple of recent arrivals in town, whom she said might make useful additions in their continued hunt for the Squire. The first introduced herself as "Finds Them and Kills Them", was from the island nation of Lantan. The second, called Abyssinia, was from a neighboring island called Nimbral. Both had arrived on the same ship and seemed both capable and eager to help.

The girls agreed to take on Finds Them and Abyssinia as new members, and chatted amiably for several hours, learning about their new companions skills and interests. Finds Them and Battle Cry in particular hit it off. There was some considerable discussion about what to call Abyssinia, which finally settled, with some reluctance on her part, on the phrase with which she had first introduced herself: "I don't shake hands" or "Doesn't Shake" for short.

Once the party was in full swing, and all the introductions had been made, Elissa called the girls together again, along with Faelana, the assistant clerk of the council, and presented them with a new adventuring charter. The new documents, specially drawn up for them, identified the Amazons as official agents of the Council, reporting directly to Councilwoman Bivant, and gave them full and open access to the Council Chambers, free to come and go whenever they chose, so as to provide Councilwoman Bivant with intelligence in as timely a manner as possible.

Late in the afternoon, the strange halfling, one Monsieur La Bouche, called everyone over to the edge of the roof nearest the river, and directed their attention to a huge white-capped wave that was suddenly rushing downstream. Ahead of the wave the river was as black and polluted as ever, but behind it, the waters were clean and fresh. When the wave had passed, all of the pollution that had choked the river had been pushed out into the bay, where it quickly began to disperse into the sea.

There was a mixture of cheering and stunned silence from the people crowded on the roof watching the river. When the wave had passed and it was clear that the river was, in fact, clean, Elissa's husband, Markos Mondaviak made his way over to La Bouche to congratulate him and offered to personally escort the halfling back to the Council Hall to see to his payment. Elissa and the assistant clerk excused themselves, having to attend to Council business, leaving the girls to look down and marvel at the river.

8 Ches

With still no reports of undead hordes marching on Phlan, Don't Fail called the girls together the next morning and once again proposed making a trip out to the forge in the woods. This time describing a new theory. The forge, she said, clearly had the power to take the powers of multiple magical devices and fuse them into one. It also had the power to unmake magical intelligences, she said, effectively beating the brains out of sentient items.

Don't Fail hypothesized that by combining all of their talents, the girls might be able to make the forge do the opposite, imbuing a sentient soul into a new item. More specifically, she suggested that since they had cremated Worthy of Armor on the magical forge, along with her ceremonial weapons and armor, some fragment of spirit might still be tied to the metal. By combining Hoar's, and therefor Battle Cry's, ability to create revenant spirits, Hot Flank's ability to tap into other beings' minds and emotions, and her own research with the power of the forge, she suggested that they might be able to bring Worthy of Armor (or some fragment of her personality) back in the form of a sentient weapon--thereby allowing her to continue her work in this world.

The girls, especially the two worshipers of the Vengeful God, were all for that, and so they gathered up what they thought they would need (as well as provisions for several weeks of work) and rode out to the forge. The newest Amazons, Finds Them and Doesn't Shake, while not knowing Worthy of Armor, accompanied them out of curiosity--offering their own magical talents to the experiment.

With the weather finally in their favor and the way clear of undead menaces, they reached the forge late that evening and immediately began setting up for the ritual Don't Fail proscribed. Dragon Bait collected the still molten mass of metal from Worthy of Armor's swords and armor from where they still rested on the forge, along with the pair of sentient blades they had collected: Weasel and Corthalis and began the process of smelting them together (to the accompaniment of much complaining from the two swords), heating them in the magical forge, beating them with the frost giant's hammer, and cooling them in the still icy blood of the months-dead linnorm.

7 Tarsakh

Late on the night of the 7th of Tarsakh, after weeks of work, under the bight, clear, first full moon of Spring, they finished. Finds Them and Kills Them sang prayers to Mielikki, goddess of Forests and Maidens, for guidance in a place of her power and work done by her daughters. Dragon Bait hammered out the final edge of the new sword she had forged. Hot Flanks scribed runes of rage and triumph, victory and vengeance into the blade. Don't Fail and Doesn't Shake worked spells of hardening and binding over the forge. And Battle Cry called out to Hoar-Assuran, decrying the evils of foes left unvanquished and work left uncompleted, and invoked Ishtar-Inanna, Worthy of Armor's goddess of love and warfare, pleading for them to release her soul to continue to do their work in the world.

Suddenly, the girls voices were silenced and all other sounds ceased. A wind rushed down into the clearing and the fires of the forge flared brighter than ever before. Then it subsided and the new sword that sat resting on Dragon Bait's anvil, forged in the likeness of Worthy's own blade, glowed a brilliant red and spoke, introducing itself as Worthy of Vengeance.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Justification for Your Paranoia

It's one of those weeks... Rather than spend more time trying to stop my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law from listening to tales of upcoming financial ruin from shysters trying to sell their latest nonsensical book, how about I take some time to write about more crazy things in the security world...

1) Keeping your phone from acting on its own...
I often say that I want my devices "to do exactly what I tell them to, only what I tell them to, and nothing more." While there is an argument to be made for the convenience of allowing your phone or computer to detect and make inferences about your current location or situation and immediately launch applications or tools that may be relevant to that situation or of having certain applications and bootstrappers running in the background, allowing computers this kind of autonomy is exactly what allows most malware to exist and operate undetected. I have a background in scripting and automation, and, again, it is wonderful to be able to kick off a script and then walk away and let the computer handle what would otherwise be an hour-long manual task, but those kinds of scripts are something you expressly launch and give permissions to each time they are needed.
As mobile phones increase in functionality, these devices also are becoming easy targets for malicious activities. Even the best informed users can not guarantee that every app they download and install is free of malicious payloads. Once on the user's phone, malware can potentially access the smartphone’s resources to learn sensitive information about the user, activate the camera to spy on the user, make premium-rate phone calls without the user’s knowledge, or use a NFC reader to scan for physical credit cards within its vicinity.
So what if the phone could distinguish between when a human user tells it to launch a tool or service, versus when an application tells it to do so? 
A study presented at this week's IEEE Conference on Pervasive Computing by members of the University of Alabama's SPIES program explains how natural hand gestures associated with three primary smartphone services—calling, snapping and tapping—can be detected and have the ability to withstand attacks using motion, position and ambient sensors available on most smartphones as well as machine learning classifiers. If a human user attempts to access a service, the gesture would be present and access will be allowed. In contrast, if a malware program makes an access request, the gesture will be missing and access will be blocked.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach, researchers collected data from multiple phone models and multiple users in real-life or near real-life scenarios, simulating benign settings and adversarial scenarios. The results showed that the three gestures can be detected with a high overall accuracy and can be distinguished from one another and from other benign or malicious activities to create a viable malware defense.
“In this method, something as simple as a human gesture can solve a very complex problem,” Nitesh Saxena (director of SPIES) said. “It turns the phone’s weakest security component—the user—into its strongest defender.”
 2) Measuring password strength?
These days, the red/yellow/green bar that rates a password's strength is almost as familiar as the prompt to create that password. But when those meters give the go-ahead to passwords like "Password1!", their effectiveness is seriously called into question.

Mohammad Mannan at Concordia University sent millions of sucky passwords through meters used by several high-traffic web service providers including Google, Yahoo!, Dropbox, Twitter, and Skype. He and collegues also tested some of the meters found in password managers, allegedly designed with the relevant expertise. 
"We found the outcomes to be highly inconsistent. What was strong on one site would be weak on another," says Mannan. "These weaknesses and inconsistencies may confuse users in choosing a stronger password, and thus may weaken the purpose of these meters. But on the other hand, our findings may help design better meters, and possibly make them an effective tool in the long run."
On the plus side, they also revealed some decent password checkers out there. Dropbox's rather simple (and open-source) checker is quite effective in analyzing passwords, and is possibly a step towards the right direction. At the very least, it does dictionary checks and automatically flags passwords that include recognizable words.
If you are just trying to create a decent password for a website you use and do not want to open a Dropbox account or check out their code to do so, there are a few other decent sources out there. My two favorites are:
Howsecureismypassword: This one provides a calculation based on length and complexity of how long it would take to brute-force your password, and also highlights common mistakes you may have made, such as using recognizable words, using common patterns, or excluding certain character sets. As an added bonus, for those of you who want to share everything on social media, it lets you tweet a picture of your results (but not your password) to your friends so you can brag about it (or paint a target on your forehead). Hint: the time estimates are based on a standard laptop, to avoid getting pwned by a hacker with a dedicated password cracking machine, you want the number to be in the Millions of years or better.
Passwordmeter provides more detailed feedback, giving you a weighted breakdown of your password's complexity based on length, character set, and whether or not you have things like repeated characters, sequential number, or consecutive characters of the same type. It does not do dictionary checks, and will still rate passwords like "1234Password" as "very strong", but the things it does highlight are quite useful. Hint: if anything gets flagged as orange (warning) or red (failure) by this tool, you should definitely fix it.

3) Stealing your data with Heat.
Air-gapping is one of the simplest yet strongest defenses against network-borne threats--simply put, don't plug the computer into a network, and, if possible, physically isolate it. But even unplugging the network cable cannot offer perfect protection from network-borne threats. 
Researchers from the Cyber Security Research Center at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU) have shown how even two air-gapped systems can be breached using only the heat they generate and their in-built thermal sensors to establish a covert communication channel. The method, dubbed BitWhisper, is part of ongoing research on air gap security. Last August, security researchers at the university demonstrated another method called AirHopper, in which they showed how it is possible for someone to surreptitiously extract data from a system using FM waves.
What makes BitWhisper different from other air gap research is the fact that this is the first time that researchers have been able to establish a bi-directional communication channel between two air-gapped systems. Also important is the fact the method that was demonstrated does not involve the use of specialized hardware or peripherals. There are some caveats to keep in mind: for the method to be effective, the air-gapped computers have to be in close proximity to each other. The computers used to demonstrate BitWhisper for instance, were separated by just 15 inches.
Both computers also had specialized malware installed on them that was capable of hooking into the thermal sensors on the systems and also of increasing the heat generated by the computers in a controlled manner. The heat-based communication protocol demonstrated by the researchers supports a data transfer rate of a mere 8-bits per hour. So the method is unlikely of much use for stealing data in volume from air-gapped systems, but it is an effective way to hack into an air-gapped network, transmit commands to it, and to steal passwords, secret keys, and similar data. It can also enable attackers to remotely command and control an air-gapped system.
According to the research paper: "By regulating the heating patterns, binary data is modulated into thermal signals.In turn, the adjacent PC uses its built-in thermal sensors to measure the environmental changes. These changes are then sampled, processed, and demodulated into binary data. Once a bridging attempt is successful, a logical link can be established between the air-gapped internal system and the public network. At this stage, the attacker can communicate with the formerly isolated network, issuing commands and receiving responses."
Here is a video of their prototype.'s kindof boring (because, as they said, 8 bits per hour...)

4) This is just asking for an enterprising burglar to hack it...
Seriously...they're everywhere.
Self-service key making kiosks have stared popping up all over the place. They're proliferating, and there is probably one at a store near you. In theory, these services (such as FastKeyMinuteKey, or KeyMe) are really convenient. They can all duplicate a variety of keys, sometimes with awesome designs.
However, KeyMe is particularly interesting because it has a feature that’s a boon for absent-minded people but a possible security nightmare: users can store keys either using their nearest kiosk, or by taking a picture of their key with the mobile app and ordering up a replacement through the mail. 
That's can take a picture of your key and have someone make a copy remotely. Or you can store a digital image of your key in the kiosk, to have copies made at any time.
Now...if someone just happened to hack the kiosk...suddenly they could have keys to all sorts of interesting places...

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Kryptgarten Pantheist (2nd Edition)

Religions feature prominently in my campaigns, both as a GM and a player. Many of my the characters I have played have focused on the religious elements of the worlds they were in, whether they were founding their own sex cult or playing out the experience of a Chinese thief converting to Buddhism. Likewise, much of my time as a GM is spent experimenting with the nature of deitiesconcepts like syncretism, or fantasy riffs on real-world religions. So, obviously, I get excited when the players in my games take up the torch and start having their PCs found their own religions as a way to manipulate the world around them.

What follows is one example of such. The Sunday evening party took over a small keep, recruited some settlers, built a church, and founded a weirdly lawful religion dedicated to thievery, agriculture, and cleanliness. My Saturday group then picked up and ran with the idea with a couple of PC priests of the sect after the keep's fall. 

Here is a Priest Kit for use with AD&D 2nd Edition.


Kryptgarten Pantheists

Base Requirements

  • Races: Human, Half-Human, or Hobgoblin
  • Class: Cleric
  • Ability Requirements: Dexterity 12, Wisdom 12, Charisma 12
  • Alignments: NG, TN, NE
  • Starting Cash: As Cleric

Weapon Proficiencies

Kryptgarten Pantheists carry pumice
stones as the symbol of their faith.
  • Weapon Slots: As Cleric
  • Bonus Weapon Proficiencies: none
  • Allowed Weapons: As Thief
  • Allowed Armors: Any non-metal armor. No shields.

Non-Weapon Proficiencies:

  • Non-weapon Slots: As Cleric
  • Available Categories: General, Priest, Rogue
  • Bonus Non-weapon Proficiencies: Agriculture, Humanoid Grooming, Intrigue, Modern Language (Thieves' Cant)
  • Required Proficiencies: Religion
  • Recommended Proficiencies: Alchemy, Animal Handling, Appraising, Brewing, Bureaucracy, Ceremony, Cooking, Craft Instrument (Bells), Dark Lore, Diagnostics, Direction Sense, Disguise, Engineering, Fey Lore, Forgery, Gaming, Healing, Herbalism, Information Gathering, Looting, Set Snares, Tumbling, Winemaking.
  • Forbidden Proficiencies: None.

Priest Spheres: These replace the standard spheres for the cleric class.

  • Major: All, Chaos, Combat, Creation, Divination, Plant, Protection, Summoning, Sun
  • Minor: Charm, Elemental (Earth, Water), Healing

Something is not right in Kryptgarten, or so the people of Phlan say. Day and night the black iron bells of Kryptgarten ring out from a belfry made of accursed wood, warning of dark fey creeping about the edges of the Quivering Forest. Within the priests, acolytes, and supplicants hatch strange plots and perform dark sacrifices while scouring their flesh--or so the rumors say. At night a great beast prowls, devouring unwary humanoids who would threaten the small town, mounting their heads on pikes and sending their severed hands back as a warning to their loved-ones.
The official religion in Kryptgarten is one not practiced anywhere else in the realms--collectively worshiping Mask, god of thievery and intrigue, and Chauntea, goddess of agriculture, and Grimnir, Squire of Kryptgarten as their emissary or avatar. Combining a variety of influences ranging from bits of traditional Maskarran theology, local hobgoblin dragon-worship, crazed cultists of embodied "Chaos", and the simple faith of frightened city-dwellers turned peasant farmers, the resultant church is one of order, cleanliness, and control. A church of obedience to one's liege-lord and enforcement of one's will on the world.
The core tenants of Chauntea and Mask--agriculture, intrigue, and thievery--have been re-interpreted by High Priest Grinkle as acts of domination: Enforcing one's will on nature, Enforcing one's will through politics, Enforcing one's will on the economy, and Enforcing one's will on the body through a strict regimen of cleanliness.
Local Chaunteans and Maskarrans both consider the Kryptgarten Pantheists to be heretics, but the fact that these priests are able to use powers considered unique to the two parent religions has given some local leaders of the faiths pause and held-off any official declaration of anathema.

Ceremonial Mask
There are few priests in Kryptgarten, and most of those are reformed cultists of the minor Hillsfarran godling known as the Chaos Messiah. Thus most Kryptgarten Pantheists look like disaffected youth. The strict cleanliness enforced by the Squire of Kryptgarten is taken to its true extreme by these worshippers. Their skin, where not marred by tattoos and piercings, is always smooth, hairless, and pink from regular, harsh scrubbing. Their vestments are the plain, utilitarian clothes of a farmer, but always kept pristine and free of dirt or grime of any kind.
On ceremonial occasions, Kryptgarten Pantheists wear plain brown robes, similar to those favored by druids, and hide their faces behind featureless black-iron masks, in honor of the lady Tvoja who taught them the worship of Mask. They carry pumice stones as the symbol of their faith.

Kryptgarten's is a new religion and the faithful do much stumbling along in their attempts to piece-together a viable cult, taking their cues from their liege, Grimnir, and his companions. With one hundred and fifty faithful, or at least regularly attending nominal worshipers, and the backing of many of Phlan's most prominent citizens, this small upstart of a faith is surprisingly strong. 
Daily activities of Kryptgarten Pantheists are quite varied, reflecting the needs of their new community, but include tending crops and vineyards, overseeing construction projects (especially churches, shrines, and bathhouses), lumbering the Quivering Forest, keeping the church bells ringing, enforcing Lord Grimnir's policies (especially his strictures on personal hygiene), monitoring the population for signs of disease, maintaining relations with Phlan's thieves' guild, meddling in local politics, and performing weekly sacrifices to The Beast of Kryptgarten (which involves scalping and then slowly boiling a sentient humanoid--usually captured orcs or hobgoblins from the ruins of Old Phlan).
The Pantheists perform weekly sacrifices to The Beast of Kryptgarten,
by scalping and then slowly boiling a sentient humanoid.
Special Abilities:

  • Kryptgarten Pantheists have access to the religion-specific spells of both Mask and Chauntea. Which is taken as a tacit sign of approval from those deities.
  • Kryptgarten Pantheists can cast the Cantrip wizard spell a number of times per day equal to their cleric level. This can be used to produce one of the following effects: Clean, Dust, Exterminate, Freshen, Polish, or Shine (See Wizards Spell Compendium: Appendix 1).
  • The Kryptgarten Pantheist can give a special bless to a farm’s crops. This blessing will make the land produce at 150% its normal yield. A collective field of crops can only be so blessed once a year. 
  • Kryptgarten Pantheist  have a 10% chance per level of diagnosing a disease or identifying a poison. If the Pantheist has the Herbalism non-weapon proficiency, he can brew an antidote to any poison that is properly identified. This requires a successful Herbalism check, and takes 11 rounds minus the pantheist's level (minimum 1 round). 
  • Kryptgarten Pantheists can backstab like a thief of one-half their cleric level (round up).
  • Kryptgarten Pantheists have four thieving abilities: pick pockets, move silently, hide in shadow, and climb walls. These abilities start at the base values for a thief (modified by Race, Dexterity, and Kits as normal). At each subsequent level, the pantheist gets 7 points to assign these abilities as they see fit.

Special Disadvantages:

  • Kryptgarten Pantheists use the Specialty Priest chart for experience advancement.
  • Kryptgarten Pantheists cannot Turn or Control undead.
  • A Kryptgarten Pantheist may not worship a specific deity (at least not in the normally accepted way) and does not gain any of the special benefits of belonging to a major religion. As heretics, these priests never receive the shelter, sanctuary, or financial aid normally extended by temples of like-minded religions elsewhere in the realms.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Justification for Your Paranoia

A busy couple of weeks at work, plus no gaming in over a week means I'm pretty brain-dead right now. So this issue of  "why you should be lying online" features a couple of amusing or informative videos...enjoy!

1) A Love Song for Big Brother?
This is my new #1 favorite song. Enjoy.

2) Who owns your data?
This is the absolute core of why you should be paranoid. It's not you. Irene Ng and David Reynolds talk about privacy and ownership in the digital age in this video from PHD. Their answer for privacy is not to hide/delete your data, but rather to put you in control of your own data so it becomes an asset that you can use as currency to get goods or services out of the companies that want to abuse that data. For more information about their project, check out the Hub of All Things (HAT).

3) Library Freedom!
The Library Freedom Project is an initiative that aims to make the promise of intellectual freedom in libraries real--a partnership of librarians, technologists, attorneys, and privacy advocates to teach librarians about surveillance threats, privacy rights, and privacy-protecting tools (like TOR and Tails). 
Libraries have historically been staunch defenders of privacy, taking public stands against surveillance initiatives. Libraries offer public internet terminals, and librarians teach free computer classes to the public. But libraries tend to serve communities particularly vulnerable to surveillance (including immigrants, Muslim Americans, people of color, people who are homeless, and those who have been incarcerated) in higher numbers than in the general population. Thus, libraries are an obvious place to promote and protect online privacy and anonymity and fight against digital censorship and surveillance.
The American Library Association's code of ethics demands that library professionals "protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality" and the LFP is taking that very seriously. Their goal is to conduct 100 librarian trainings in two years, and build a website of resources for librarians who want to teach their communities how to protect themselves against online surveillance. These are people that definitely deserve your support.
And even for those of you who are not librarians, the LFP's privacy toolkit includes a pretty solid list of the tools that every conscientious internet user should be taking advantage of.

4) Because they really needed another way to track your phone...
"Our smartphones are always within reach and their locationis mostly the same as our location. In effect, tracking thelocation of a smartphone is practically the same as tracking thelocation of its owner. Since users generally prefer that theirlocation not be tracked by arbitrary 3rd parties, all mobile platforms consider the device’s location as sensitive information and go to considerable lengths to protect it... In this work we show that applications that want access to location data can bypass all these restrictions and covertly learn the phone’s location." -- Scary words, eh?
According to the latest research in the field of mobile operating systems, it was discovered that it is possible to track cell phones via accessing power usage log(s) or files of a device. This particular data set does not require user permission to be shared; it is already set to that status by default. This technique (created by researchers at Stanford), dubbed ‘PowerSpy’, is able to collect information regarding the Android phone’s location. It simply does that by tracking how much power was used at a certain time.
How much power is used depends on a variety of factors. For instance, the closer in proximity that the phone is to the transmitter, the less power is required to obtain signals but the further it goes from the tower, the more power it will require in order to keep itself connected. Objects such as buildings, trees and other things also have an impact on the amount of power needed from the battery, as these obstacles block the phones signals thus they are power drainers.
“A sufficiently long power measurement (several minutes) enables the learning algorithm to ‘see’ through the noise. We show that measuring the phone’s aggregate power consumption over time completely reveals the phone’s location and movement.” “If you take the same ride a couple of times, you’ll see a very clear signal profile and power profile. We show that those similarities are enough to recognize among several possible routes that you’re taking this route or that one, that you drove from Uptown to Downtown, for instance, and not from Uptown to Queens,” states Yan Michalevsky, one of the researchers from Stanford.
He further stated that if a person installs an application such as Angry Birds, that requires internet but does not ask for any location permission, it will still gather information and send it back to the hacker to track the target in real time, as in what routes one has taken and where did that person drive/travel too.
But with this entire hack, there is a loophole. Experts say that is impossible to gain data if the hacker has not used the same route before.
If a phone has only a few applications running then it would be easy to track the device as the power being used by the device is more consistent, versus phones with more apps as those apps use processor and RAM randomly, ending up with a data of unpredictable power usage.
This is not the first time that Michalevsky and his gang have used weird phone parts to disclose user sensitive details. In 2014, with the help of expert cryptographer Dan Boneh, they were able to discover a means in which they were able to exploit the gyroscope sensors in a phone and fashion them into crude microphones. They did that by picking up digits spoken in to the phone, and with this they were even able to distinguish between male and female voices by the vibrations. “Whenever you grant anyone access to sensors on a device you are going to have unintended consequences,” says Professor Boneh at Stanford University.
PowerSpy is just another reminder of the danger given to us by the un-trusted applications as we allow them to access a sensor that picks up more information than it was originally allowed to...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Third Party: Session 23 (GMs notes)

In which the party finds the second Pool of Radiance, kills its guardians, get the divine infodump on what the end-game might look like...and decide that they should all just go to Hell.

6 Flamerule

The party stood on a floor made of snakes, thousands of snakes, gray, cold, and solid. Damascena went over to one that reached the highest off the floor, a great asp that had raised it's head to Kevorkian's eye level before being petrified, and broke it off at the base. A fine staff. The others looked around but, as is so often the case with evil castles, found no logical explanation for the room being so full of snakes.

Melastasya headed to the far door and found it neither locked nor trapped. She opened it wide to find a wide, tall corridor, with a heavily armored, thirty-foot-tall giant looking strait at her. She stammered out a greeting and Grimnir stepped up beside her, rubbing the skull of his staff of enslavement. The giant's face went slack and he bowed stiffly at the waist, greeting his new master and introducing himself as Duolc.

Mel tried to strike up a conversation with Duolc. Although he was clearly not the brightest giant in town (and giants are not generally known for their intellects) she was able to learn some potentially useful information, like the fact that the "Boss" could take a number of forms ranging from fiery demons to dragons to a fellow giant, but very definitely never a young, human noblewoman. Which, Grimnir pointed out, pretty much guaranteed that Elissa was the "Boss" (via his particular brand of distrustful circular logic). Mel, for her part, seemed rather fixated on the fact that the giant seemed unable to discern between the various races of smaller creatures, not knowing the difference between humans or elves. Duolc told them that he knew where the Pool chamber was, and that the pool was not guarded by other giants, but rather by "little folk". So, of course, they asked him to lead them there.

The way to the Pool was winding and confusing, even to the Giant it seemed, and he had to double back and choose different paths several times. Eventually though, they came to a pair of large double doors, almost identical to those in Myth Drannor, with a familiar brilliant light leaking out around the edges.

They pushed their way in to find a large, high-ceilinged, circular room, just as before, with the blindingly bright Pool in the center. Eight plate-armoured human guards stood circling the pool, looking outwards. They stood stoic and unmoving, their hands resting on massive zweihander swords. Duolc waved and the guards did not react when the party approached them. Nor did they react when the party began examining the pool, or poking, prodding, and making faces at them.

One did finally react when Ash tried to scoop up some of the water of the Pool using his soul-sucking urn. As soon as the urn crossed the line of the guards, a sword came up, impossibly fast, shattering the urn. Ash scooped the pieces, weeping for the possible loss of Zorch, back and Kevorkian repaired it with a mending spell.

Ash, not wanting to take any more chances with the receptacle that held Zorch's soul/body/form/whatever, considered blasting the Urn with lightning to see if he could resurrect Zorch again. Then he remembered that any electricity would go strait to Mel. He tried casting  remove curse on Mel, in hopes of ending her plight, though further experimentation (involving tossing witch bolts and lightning bolts across the pool and trying not to hit Mel) proved the curse removal to have been ineffective.

Experiment 321 walked up to one of the guards and began poking, tickling, and prodding some more, eventually eliciting a tiny smirk. Grimnir, walked up and, stopping just at the edge of the ring of guards, placed an Asgard Rune (in this case keyed to his own home plane) on the mouth of the Pool, unmolested. As Grimnir stepped back, Ash tried one last thing to test whether the repair of the urn had worked and whether the guards incredible stoicism could be broken. He touched one of the guards with the urn.

Of course the guard died, instantly, and that finally got the others attention. Swords came up. Experiment 321 stabbed the guard she had been prodding with a sword of biting. Dame laid down a field of spikes between the guards and the party. Then the guards vanished.

Ash locked down one, countering the teleporation he was using. The guard charged across the field of spikes and smacked Ash with his sword, cutting an impossibly deep gouge. The other six suddenly appeared behind the rest of the party, striking with similar results.

Grimnir activated the rune on the Pool and blasted his assailant through the one-way portal to Hell, then used a thorn whip to yank a second through. Mel and Experiment 321 dodged their attackers and rushed to Ash's aid, tagteam sneak attacking the poor sap. Ash smacked another one with his urn. Morgianna frightened one off with a wrathful smite. And Dame called down a wall of fire over her assailant.

Despite the party's best efforts, the guards continued to take their beating and beat them soundly in return. One even flew when Grimnir attempted to evade them by perching in the air. That one was also blasted down through the portal to Hell. Dame called down an ice storm on the one being jumped by Mel and the lizard-girl, finishing him off. With two urned and three stuck in Hell, the last two were cornered and outnumbered.

The one that fled from Morgianna rushed towards Dame, through the ice, and the spikes, and the fire. He got one hit in before Grimnir dropped down beside Dame and blasted him back the way he had come. Morgianna rushed in and pinned him between herself and the wall of fire, then Traithe laid him on his back with a grease spell, which subsequently also burst into flames. The poor guard died screaming horribly, scared stiff, coated in grease, impaled on spikes, and burning alive.

The last one, sensibly ran for the door. Melastasya chased him down and, once free of the Pool's light, clubbed him like a baby seal then shadow-stepped to the far end of the hall to block his path. Concentrated fire from the rest of the party dispatched him quickly. Once the guards were dispatched, the party rounded up their arms and armor and Grimnir set about identifying the weapons that had dealt so much damage to them.

As Grimnir's portal to Hell winked out, the party spotted a red metal triangle resting at the top of the steps leading down to the pool, with a small piece of paper under it. They collected the piece, which bore the sigil of death and read the note.

Found one.
If you find the others.
Meet me at the Abadon.
-- Mog

Ash, meanwhile, sensing the tremendous power possessed by the Pool of Radiance, took his urn with him and dove in. There was a flash of light the blinded everyone as energy surged into Ash as the soul-devouring power of the urn mingled with the absolute law of the Pool. With supreme focus of will, Ash harnessed and shaped the inflow of power before it could destroy him, focusing it back out through the sister Pool in Myth Drannor and into the Mythal. Ash watched through the Pool as time flowed backward within the Mythal, restoring the city of Myth Drannor, every building, road, stone, and tree to the state they were in immediately before the coming of the Army of Darkness.

As the spontaneous and massive undertaking of restoring Myth Drannor completed, the urn began to disintegrate. Ash cried out, focusing the last of the dissipating energies back into the urn and unleashing a bolt of lightning. Then the urn was gone. A moment later, as Ash climbed out of the Pool, he felt a jolt and a tap on the shoulder. He turned to find Zorch floating there.

As Ash and Zorch had their tearful reunion, Grimnir studied the Pool, realizing that Ash's little time-rewining trick had done nothing to deplete it's reserves of power. Wondering if the pool could be depleted, he started the Nogese ritual for transmuting water into liquefied time, then dove in himself.

Grimnir became immediately aware that the Nogese ritual was in fact how the Pools of Radiance were originally created, and that by repeating the process he had opened his mind to the inner workings of the Pools. The fact that the Pools were made of liquid time, combined with the resonance from the Mythal, meant that Ash's time-reversing trick, while it had exhausted the souls stored in the urn, had tapped only the smallest fraction of the Pool's powers.

Grimnir had previously suspected that the Pool, as a focus of pure Law, might be some extension of Tyr's power ("Tyr is the Law and the Law is Tyr") and was unsurprised to find that he was right. More surprising was to learn that Tyr was a girl, and that Tyr was somehow coterminous on some metaphysical level with Elissa Bivant. Looking deeper he saw that the metaphysical struggle between Law and Chaos was coming to a head, right here, right now. He also saw that the party's own actions had somehow awakened the key players of the last two major conflicts back.

Distant Past (Nog) Past (Myth Drannor) Present (Phlan)
Law The Blessed Afflictor Garnetallisar Elissa Bivant
Chaos Duvan’Ku Mog Yarash

There was some debate about whether Yarash should really be on that list. Ash in particular insisted that all the others had god-like powers, while they had actually killed Yarash. Until, of course, he was reminded of how many times they had killed Yarash, and that normal clone spells do not allow multiple copies to function simultaneously...

Grimnir also saw that there were two factions that stood apart from this metaphysical conflict, but at opposite ends of a different spectrum. First the Yugoloths, led by Lord Maram, who were egging both sides on towards a final throwdown, presumably as an extension of their eternal desire to see Law and Chaos both purged from the multiverse. The second was represented by Sorrassar, and desired to maintain the status quo, which Grimnir dubbed the "Anti-Ragnarok Party".

Melastasya didn't need any more convincing, she wrote to Sorrassar and told him where they were and what was up, and asked if it was possible to destroy the Pools. Sorrassar wrote back that he did not know if the pools could be destroyed, but that they could be hijacked. He sent instructions...

Grimnir took one look at the circles of runes Sorrassar had instructed them to draw around the Pool and saw how the magic circle might be modified with his own permutation of the Asgard rune. He told the others that he could take the Pool to somewhere where it would be put to good use. Ash understood where he meant and immediately responded by suggesting that this would give Grimnir a chance to show proof of his repeated argument that devils were performing a necessary service for the multiverse by keeping the demons in check.

And so, if the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the intentions of this party must be the best, for that is where they went...

To be continued...

Monday, March 16, 2015

Answering Other People's Questions...

So I fell down some forum rabbit holes lately, which is not something I often let myself do as I usually find the discussions to be rather inane. But hey, I did, so I thought to myself, "why not wrap up my lame responses to lame questions and share?" Maybe there will be some tidbit of thing that I said that I will find useful or desire to remember later. Maybe there will even be something that you who read this may find useful as well...if only to say to yourself "wow this Brandon guy sounds like a douche, I don't want to play in a game he's running..."

[Redacted writes] In the early 2nd edition books at least, experience points are awarded for magic items. How are people administering this? Are xps awarded for owning a magic item? Using a magic item? Each time an item is used? Never? If you've gotten xps for using a +2 axe, would you get xps for using a +1 axe? What if you got another +2 axe? I've worked out my own "rules", but I'd like to know what others are doing. Has this been eliminated in later versions?

I award experience according to tables 33 & 34 in the AD&D 2nd edition DMG. So experience is earned for a spellcaster going through the process of making a magic item, but not for anything else related to items.
Likewise combat only earns you XP if you are a warrior (or if you beat a creature one-on-one). Gold/Treasure only earns you XP if you are a rogue (and then only if you actively steal it -- not find it in a treasure hoard).
Most XP in my games comes from good role-playing, creative thinking, and story awards. Or I just do away with it entirely.

[Redacted writes]  Why do magic items become "cursed"? How can mages look at an item and make a guess about its properties (at least until an Identify spell is cast to be sure)?
Because some Wizard A hates Wizard B and knows that Wizard B likes shiny rings with rubies in them. So he lays a trap for Wizard B by making a shiny ruby ring that is cursed. Curse works. Wizard B dies. PCs find the cursed ring on the body of Wizard B while exploring the dungeon...
Or Wizard C sells magic items for a living. He realizes that he can mass produce them cheaply if he takes a lot of short-cuts in the manufacturing process...he calls them Amulets of Protection, but really they are Amulets of Vulnerability (for example). All of his customers (adventurers) go out and die because of his shody craftsmanship, but know one ever learns that because all the people who would leave bad reviews are dead. Since Identify does not reveal whether or not an item is cursed, he is able to sell lots of them and become very rich.
Wizard C takes his giant pile of money and builds a nice tower, grows old, fat, and dies. 
Centuries pass. PCs come, defeat his traps and loot his tower, and probably find some leftover inventory. Meanwhile adventurers everywhere find other dead adventurers in dungeons all over the world wearing his cheap, crappy, knock-off magic items and take them home...
90% of the cursed items in the world bare the same makers mark thanks to Wizard C's market dominance.

[Redacted writes] Making magic items, how are is it to make a cloak of the bat, a frost brand , a ring of elemental command? What must be done? What hoops do you make your players jump through?
Creating magic items should not be an "everyday" situation.
I've always gone with any given magic item needs 8 ingredients (this was pre-Dresden Files, but since those novels came out the ingredients now have to correspond to the 5 senses, mind, spirit, and a base -- ala Dresden's potion creation, because that feel's cool to me). 
First they have to have learned the 'Enchant an Item' spell. Then they have to research the necessary components (which can take several weeks of in-game downtime in itself) -- the exact list is always DM/Player collaboration. Then they have to collect them (usually requiring a couple of game sessions worth of killing rare monsters and looking for exactly the right meteorite). Then it takes ~1 to 4 months of actual crafting time (which requires at least one participant to havethe NWPs to make items of the specific type).
I generally do not require any "Rolls" or "Checks". If they go through the hoops of adventuring to find all the necessary components and then taking half a year of in-game downtime, then I'm not going to penalize them by have a random chance of failure.

[Redacted writes] Hey guys, I've finally gotten round to making my own world for D&D filled with all sorts of crazy and awesome stuff. I'm excited to get started but it will be my first campaign as DM so if any of you have any helpful advice on how to keep things more or less under my control whilst still giving the players the illusion of choosing their own paths that would be great :)
If you have a world filled with "crazy and awesome stuff" just let them explore that world. Don't worry about "appropriate challenges" or any such nonsense, the freedom for the PCs to get in over their heads is the only true freedom.
(1) Know your party's travel options. 
(2) Between sessions try to anticipate what they could reasonably reach within the next session (1-2 days walk/ride in any direction). Have some plot hook or interesting thing in any given direction (since anything to look at/interact with will slow them down and keep them from traveling to far afield).
(3) Random Encounter tables are your friend. Make sure they have adventure seeds as well as encounters (just little things to prod your creativity -- like random corpse with some treasure in the woods. Why is that corpse there?)
(4) Have a few prepared modules that you've read ahead of time ready to grab if they go completely off the map (I keep a spreadsheet or notecard with them sorted by terrain/main humanoid opponents/rough level/etc. to make grabbing encounters/descriptions from them easier).
(5) Remember that since it's your own world, you can make things appear anywhere. Also monsters have to move around too. If you really want them to meet a dragon this session, then the dragon appears in whatever direction they head in. Don't constrain yourself with keyed encounter locations.

[Redacted writes] Can evil aligned characters have true friends? Don't they just make friends out of necessity or for gain?
Even sociopaths (people incapable of empathy), which is one of the closest real-world parallels to "evil" as defined by D&D, can and do still have friends. Just because if your are completely (chemically/physically) incapable of empathizing with people and are ostensibly entirely selfish, does not mean that you cannot form lasting relationships of one kind or another.
The best "Evil party" game I ever had the pleasure of being a part of (played by a bunch of lawyers, theologians, and psychologists) basically centered around the need/desire of a group of "friends" to mutually support each other at the expense of the entire world around them. It ended around level 28 with the party magically fusing into a single being, destroying the world, and remaking it in their own twisted image (good times).
Of course, this also depends on how you define "evil" in your campaign. If evil is some kind of supernatural malignant force, then maybe not, but that would also probably preclude most mortal characters from being "evil" (maybe everyone who is not a god/demon is really just Neutral).
A very relativistic/nuanced/utilitarian idea of good and evil is baked into the game as written, in that RAW PCs are allowed to be defined as "good" rather than as "antisocial homicidal murder-hobos". 
If you go with a sense of absolute alignment defined by the actions, rather than the motivation, of the character, then ALL PCs are evil by default. Since they go around killing people and robbing them for a living...
For me, one of the coolest things about role-playing is that it encourages me to try to get into the mindset of other people (even horrible people). Even an assassin or anti-paladin still has a life outside of their job. They also both probably have some internal justification for their "evil" acts (even if that justification is simply "my god told me to" or "the pay is good").
If you were to go with a real-world example, the members of the group ISIS would likely be defined by most westerners as "Evil", and yet you can be almost certain that they all get together after a beheading and laugh and joke and have a good time together. Evil people who commit mass murder, torture, or other things that from the outside would be considered heinous crimes are still human. They still form bonds (otherwise you could not have a cohesive organization). They still have down time and need to relax. They still like to show off and enjoy the spoils of their conquests. They still form societies and operate within the bounds of some set of rules.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Those Left Behind: Session 3

19 Hammer

After returning from their first trip to Poppof's house, everyone was awake and ready to go by mid-afternoon the next day. There was some grumbling about the poor haul of the previous day and the lack of portable wealth in the necromancer's house, but given that their primary concern was the furniture anyways, they decided to go back. There was some discussion of whether Yury's teleportation abilities could be used to transport the desired goods, but he insisted that he was not really capable of bringing significant amounts of non-living matter with him.

Zander performed an augury to confirm, with relative certainty, that there was a path through the city's underground from their hideout beneath Kuto's well and the door they had found in Poppof's house. So, loaded up with spells that would allow them to home in on the lock of Isti's hair that she had left in Poppof's cellar, they set out into Phlan's ancient sewers.

While technically connected to the sewer system, the catacombs under Kuto's Well had been sealed off from the rest of the network several years earlier by Noriss the Grey, in order to make his hide-out more secure and harder to find. Isti cast the first locating spell and led the group to the a south-westerly corner of the catacombs, near to the rooms previously kept by Noriss's mother. She used stone shape to open the wall, leading out into a much damper and dirtier passage. Once everyone had passed through, she closed the wall again, shaping the surface on this side into a crude carving of a faceless mask, similar to the one worn by Grinkle.

The locating spell led them through many winding and criss-crossing passageways. At each intersection, Tamn pulled out his chalk and marked arrows, always on the wall opposite the way back to their base, and always pointing the way opposite the way the spell pointed them in.

After about an hour of twisting through the constructed sewers of ages past, with their elevated side walkways and channels down the center, they came to a place where an underground stream had carved a natural chasm across their path. The runoff of water and mud that flowed through the sewers poured over the edge and into the small river below. In spring, after the snow-melt, it would have been a torrent, but now it was just a trickle. The spell, of course, told them to turn right.

The drop was a little under twenty feet, and the sides of the chasm were pitted from uneven erosion, so it was easy getting down and they had little concern about getting back up (except maybe with a table, but that was a problem to consider later). Once everyone was down, ankle deep in the dirty stream, Tamn had Zander and Grinkle hoist him up on the other side so he could leave his backwards mark where the chalk was less likely to be worn away by the moisture (at least not for a while).

Roughly a hundred of Grinkle's paces down the stream, they came to an area where the stream cut into a deeper channel in the center, leaving the banks slightly higher, drier, and walkable without get mud in their boots. Overhead they could see another washed-out passage from the sewer system, this one with a fairly new-looking rope bridge strung across. Just beneath the bridge was a small pile of litter--bones, broken boards, old weapons, and even a few coins--presumably dropped by those passing above.

Yury strode up to grab the coins, because, hey, free coins. Suddenly, a human skull on the ground near him sprang upward, as if a geyser or volcanic eruption were impelling it explosively in a ballistic arc at Yury's startled face. The skull slammed into his nose, knocking his head backwards with an eruption of blood. Then he found that the skull was attached to a hook-clawed apparition of deadly muscle and sinew, its three hooked claws tearing into his flesh.

Isti chucked her axe at the thing, hitting the skull right between the eyes and knocking it backwards off of Yury. Grinkle caught Yury as he fell backwards and immediately said a prayer over him, willing his wounds closed. The skull-creature bounded forward, the jaws distending impossibly wide and snapping down to bite hard into Yury's raised forarm.

Zander charged in, slamming the creature backwards with his shield, then crushing the skull with his flail. The creature slumped, the skull splitting open to reveal a tiny, leathery head, using the skull like a shell. He bashed it a few more times for good measure, just to make sure it was dead, then scooped up the coins, which only amounted to a small handful of copper.

They continued downstream, pausing briefly for Isti to cast a second locating spell. A short ways on the spell indicated another passage above them. The walls here were steeper and smoother, the passage above being one-way, instead of crossing the stream as before, and nearly 25 feet off of the floor.

Isti, the best climber, scrambled up, hammering a piton in the top and tying off a rope. Tamn marked the opposing wall before climbing up last, grumbling that there was no way they'd get that mahogany table home this way.

They walked a short ways, then rounded a corner to another drop, this one about six feet down to a large confluence where three crossing sewer passages met at a large cesspit. Faint light and globs of muddy snow dropped through grates from the street above. Next to the opening where they were standing was an old metal ladder bolted to the wall, going up to one of the street-level grates. Isti pointed to the third passage on their right

Zander climbed down first, the party's strongest fighter having finally agreed to take point, followed by the others. He circled to the right, trying to stay away from the cesspit, and chanting a litany of repentance against the stench and the grime of the sewers. He had just crossed the second passage when something burst out of the passage, slamming into his side and knocking him impiously close to the edge of the cesspool. A dozen other hunched humanoids poured out of the surrounding passages, blades in their hands and tails whipping behind them.

Three more of the creatures grabbed the already over-balanced Zander and all four of them pitched him headlong into the cesspit. His head broke the bubbling surface of the fouled water briefly, gasping, then sank out of sight again as his limbs thrashed wildly. Zander couldn't swim, especially not in his full chainmail.

Three more came out of the passage closest to Grinkle, stabbing with their filthy swords. The first caught him off guard, digging into his side. He swung his sword wildly, deflecting the second thrust, then fell backwards away from the third. When he recovered his wits and footing, he noticed that his assailants has elongated noses with long whiskers and large ears, like mice or rats. He hazarded a glance down at his bleeding side, his mind wandering to what Professor Aiderns had told him about rats and the plague...

Yury spotted five more coming from the passage on the far side of the room, across the cesspit. A wave of his giant arm sent streams of webbing flying towards them, entangling four of the creatures and holding them fast. Two more stepped out of the passage near Grinkle and came at Yury from behind, leaping on him and bearing him to the ground.

Tamn's hands went for his swords, until he saw Zander's helpless thrashing. With a mighty leap, for a halfling, he dove headfirst into the disgusting water, his form perfect and his lungs filled to capacity before he disappeared beneath the churning sludge.

The last rat-creature from the other side of the cesspit, dove ahead of the webs and sprang into the air, passing right over Tamn's head as he went into the water. It landed right next to Isti, grazing her arm with its blade. Isti's shout of alarm was also the last word of the spell she'd been muttering though, and suddenly the rat found himself surrounded by a half-dozen identical copies of the kobold.

A moment later, Tamn came back to the surface, the surprisingly strong halfling easily dragging his larger friend. As their heads come up though, they find four ratmen waiting for them. Tamn yelled at Zander to kick, and the tall man's legs shoved against the wall throwing the two of them further out into the middle of the cesspool, but not before they had each taken small cuts from the ratmen's blades.

The ratman facing the squadron of Isti's looked around frantically, then let out a scream of rage, swinging his sword in a broad sideways ark. Isti leaped backwards, but the blade passed through two of the images, causing them to wink out. The four remaining Isti's drew identical hooked bronze swords and lunged at the ratman from every direction at once. He tried to dodge, but the one solid blade hit him squarely in the back, cutting a deep gouge and eliciting a second scream.

Grinkle backed away from the three facing him, circling until he was in the wan light from one of the street-grates above. The rats pressed in, looking for openings. Grinkle hazarded a brief glance up and saw a faint slash of sunlight falling on the grate, just enough. He raised his pumice-stone holy symbol up towards the light, causing a beam of the light to bend, amplify and flash directly into the face of one of the rats with flesh-scorching brightness. The rat reeled back, clawing at his burned face and pitched into the cesspool. Its companion, however, took the opening Grinkle presented and plunged its sword into his armpit.

Yury, pinned beneath a pair of ratmen, tried to roll, flailing with his gigantic arm and prehensile tail. While not particularly strong, neither were the rats, and the shear bulk of his huge limb was sufficient to brush them aside. As he rolled away and stood up, his form began to waver, shift, into an insubstantial blur.

Tamn took a deep breath, calling up reserves of strength from his days of hard labor as a slave, dove, hitched his hands under Zander's rear, and practically threw the big man out of the water. Zander crashed into the feet of the waiting ratmen, forcing them to hop back several steps to avoid being knocked down.

The blurry Yury tossed a fistful of daggers at the ratmen nearest him. All three blades struck home, but the wounds closed as soon as they were made. They were at least enough to put the two ratmen off balance, making it all that much harder to strike Yury's unfocused form. Grinkle, watching from one side, growled out some obscenities about lycanthropes, and continued to fence with the two assailing him, though none of the three landed a blow.

The were-rat assailing Isti swung like crazy, causing another of her images to vanish. The three remaining Isti's though, danced around, keeping him guessing as to which was the real one. The real Isti, meanwhile, waited until his back was to her before swinging, one again plunging her hooked sword deep into the ratman's back. The dodging, weaving kobold images had edged the ratman just close enough to where Zander had just come out of the foul-smelling water.

Zander rolled, hit the stone floor with his shield, and came to his feet with his flail gripped backwards. He brought the silver pommel-spike up under the jaw of the ratman that was attacking Isti, dropping it. He then whipped the head around, planting the spikes deep in the chest of a second were-rat, and leaving a trail of glowing motes hanging in the air behind it. Two of the remaining rats came in right behind, stabbing him repeatedly.

Unable to harm them with his weapons, Yury focused his concentration on one of the two were-rats still threatening him and telekinetically lifted it off the ground, hurling the startled ratman into his companion and pitching both of them into the pool. Tamn, seeing them fall in, dove, then came up right underneath of them, disembowling both with his silver shortsword. As Tamn's head came up through the sheen of floating blood and viscera, Yury scooped the halfling out with his tail.

Halfway around the pool now, and almost to the webs, Grinkle continued to fend off his two assailants. He took a small cut above the eye from one of them, but they continued to fend off his own blows.

The three rats facing Zander lunged together, all three blades scoring hits, one just missing his kidney. Seeing him wounded, the trio of Isti's rushed between him and the were-rats, swinging their swords and trying to distract the rats away from the injured man. Zander took the opening provided by their distraction and whipped his flail over the kobold's heads, taking off the top of one were-rat's head and smashing into the snout of a second with the follow-through. The wounded rat and his companion broke and run, disappearing into one of the many side passages (luckily not the one that Isti had told the party they needed.

Across the way, one of Grinkle's assailants landed a solid blow. Grinkle stepped back and layed a hand over the wound. Frothing bubbles roiled up from his hands, cleaning and closing the gash. Unfortunately, his momentary distraction from casting the healing spell was just enough for the second rat to stab him in the shoulder.

Yury turned to see Grinkle be hit, twice, and telekinetically hurled Tamn across the breach. The halfling-missile took the head clean off of one of the rats with his silver sword, then barreled into Grinkle, knocking him backwards. Tamn rolled to his feet, planted firmly between the rat and his prey. Isti and Zander came running and quickly dispatched the last, frightened, surrounded were-rat.

As  the rest of the party patched themselves up, Isti lit a torch and walked around to the other web-encased were-rats. Her pet rat, Sıçan, climbed up on her shoulder and began translating her speech into rat. She threatened the were-rats, giving them the choice to either burn to death, or join the party's "gang". All of the others expressed their displeasure at this offer, saying they were better off just killing the ratmen who had ambushed them. Zander, having had some understandably bad experiences with rats back in Hillsfar, was the most insistent. Isti agreed with them and tossed the torch into the webs. None of the wererats were killed by the fire, but they were sufficiently injured that they scurried away as fast as they could.

Tamn suggested that, given the multiple changes in elevation, running sewer water, and the fact that they'd been jumped twice already, that maybe hauling Poppof's furniture back to their hideout through the sewer was not a great idea.

The others agreed, but Isti pointed out that one way or another, she needed to retrieve the lock of hair that she had left, since the necromancer would likely be able to use such a token to track them back to their home. So they pressed on.

To be continued...