Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 2

In which items of value are inadvertently devalued. 

Brands are struck, and their feeble light illumines a circular chamber, near the center of which is a stone statue of an elf maiden holding a large urn at her hip. Water pours out of the urn and into the channel cut in the floor, which runs to the slot in the north wall and thence down to into the caves and tunnel the PCs just traversed. A careful examination of the statue determines nothing unusual; it appears to be an elaborate outlet for a natural spring somewhere beneath the chamber.

The group moves down the passage to the east, toward the glowing red light. They see the fallen bookshelf, and books and papers scattered everywhere. Perry examines the three pools and decides he’s going to test their effects, so he grabs three random books off the shelves and drops one book into each pool. I ask him to make a Luck roll, to see if he accidentally grabs one of the six things you can find if you search this room, and he rolls a 20. Rolling a 20 on a luck check has to be really bad luck, right?

He drops one book in the red pool and nothing happens to it. He drops another book in the middle pool, and nothing happens to it. He goes to drop the last book in the acid pool, and just as it leaves his hands he notices how the cover appears to have been tooled from some kind of scaley hide, how it is inscribed with golden runes in intricate patterns, how it feels pregnant with untold power. But it’s too late: the heavy tome plunges into the acid bath and is rendered useless in a storm of fizzing bubbles. There is much groaning and forehead slapping. From my description they get that the book was probably something valuable, but they don’t know it was a wizard’s grimoire that would have been the perfect foundational text for any budding wizard in the party.

Finmunni searches the room and discovers Sigbert‘s discarded, acid-eaten shirt amongst the debris on the floor. Their friend came this far! There is hope that he still lives.

Meanwhile, Durwen and Wilfred find the alcove, and notice that the two curtains meant to conceal it are drawn back. They speculate as to the presence of some sort of secret door. Perry takes the cue and begins pulling things off the shelves, thinking one of them might be a hidden trigger for the door. I have him make a Luck roll again to see if he finds one of the five remaining special items. He rolls another 20. I tell him that he goes to pull out a book and tugs on a piece of vellum next to a book instead, with such force that he tears it in half. It’s a translucent sheet covered with translucent, inscrutable writing. Perry shrugs and drops the pieces to the floor. Unbeknownst to him, it was a scroll of Eel’s Grasp, a custom wizard spell.

Durwen and Wilfred locate the stone that triggers the secret door, and it slides back to reveal a dusty stairwell, running up to the west and down to the south. Before they step out, however, Oswald gives the room one last once-over, wondering if there is anything that has escaped Perry’s inadvertent destruction.

He rolls a 16, and I tell him that, under a heap of miscellanea, he finds a massive square book, about 16″ x 16″ and 6″ thick. It is bound on front back, and sides by heavy pewter plates, hinged on one side, and secured with an intimidating lock. It’s icy cold to the touch, coated in a thin layer of frost, and engraved with an intricate ice crystal pattern. Hm.

Durwen happens to have a set of thieves’ tools (random starting equipment), and tries to use them. I grant that in his work as a tanner he uses fine tools to scrape and clean animal carcasses, so I allow a skill check against the lock’s DC of 20. He rolls a 19, +1 for his AGI,  and opens the lock. Oswald tells him to set the book on the floor, and everyone stands back as Perry uses his spear to flip open the cover.

The sound of howling wind issues from the open “book,” and a few scraps of loose paper on the floor are immediately sucked into it. The pull is strong, but not irresistible, and a few of the PCs take a step closer to peek inside. It’s like a window into a dark night, through which flurries of snow whip with great speed. They feel the freezing cold and howling winds of another, distant world. Perry levers the book shut, and everyone ponders this unusual discovery.

“Might come in handy some time,” says Oswald. He cuts a couple of strips of cloth from Sigbert’s old shirt, uses one to pad the lock (in order to keep it from locking inadvertently), and wraps and ties the other around the outside to hold it shut. Then, he carefully places the book into his chest (inherited from Colby the Butcher), and places the chest back in his burlap sack.

Durwen steps out into the stairwell and inspects the floor for signs of anyone’s passing. He picks out three sets of footprints heading up. The consensus is to follow them, since that’s clearly the way their friends went, but Finmunni wants to investigate the chamber she sees down the stairs first. So she, Durwen, and Oswald cautiously descend.

They step into a chamber that seems to have been untouched for ages. In the wall directly opposite is a closed wooden door set with an iron ring, but what captures their attention are the two humanoid skeletons, one dangling in each of the near corners of the room. They are wearing armor and holding swords, and appear to be suspended from the ceiling by wires. Closer inspection reveals that their bones, armor, and weapons are completely fabricated from papier-mâché; they’re oversized puppets. The wires holding them up run to a central pulley mounted on the ceiling, and then into the wall above the door.

Oswald ties the end of the rope to the iron ring, and returns to the side of the room opposite the door. The three companions take hold and pull. The door pops open, and as it does so the puppets leap forward in a clatter of limbs, weapons flailing, toward the open doorway, before reassuming to their limp attitude. Finmunni crosses to look through the door, and sees a set of very stairs descending away into the darkness. They surmise correctly that this bizarre puppet trap was designed to startle intruders into falling down the stairs. They count themselves lucky to have found their way in through the back door of this dungeon.

Despite the protestations of her comrades, Finmunni decides to take advantage of her dark vision and explore a little further on her own. She creeps down the steep stairs to a corner, and peers around. 10′ ahead, the stairs reach a level floor, which gives way to a dark chasm before continuing on the far side. The chasm is thick with webs, enough to discourage her from proceeding further. She turns back.

Finmunni, Durwen, and Oswald reset the the skeleton puppets by pulling them back into their original positions, figuring that if the dog men ever decide to come after them, they’ll get a nice surprise. The skeletons click into place, and the three return to the rest of the group.

At the top of the stairs, they find the iron rungs that ascend into the chimney. Everyone packs up their belongings, and Finmunni leads the way up.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 3, Part 1

In which a wooden dragon refuses to yield its secrets.

Our group of seven is arranged around the stairs leading up from the totem cave, weapons at the ready, waiting to ambush the dog-men when they enter. Perry takes up position in full view, his back to the stairs, pretending to inspect the dead witch doctor in hopes the enemy will take the bait. Unfortunately, Oswald is not quite out of sight when the first creature turns the corner into the stairwell, so the thornling freezes for a split second, lets out a frightened yap, and retreats the way it came. There are grumblings about Oswald’s oversight.

The yapping and howling of the thornlings is audible and frenetic; they are clearly having a heated argument. As the PCs try to formulate a new plan, they hear a deeper, barking growl that silences the other voices and speaks with commanding authority. I have decided that the surviving members of the thornling honor guard went to summon their king, who is enraged at the presence of intruders. But he will not risk leading the attack himself, so he berates the honor guard to mount an assault on the beach. All the PCs hear is growling and barking, but I play through it in my head so I have a clear idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. Due to previous deaths, there are 5 members of the honor guard remaining, and those now obey their king’s command and charge down the passage toward the stairs.

The PCs have been busy, though, throwing a dead thornling and half a dozen pieces of Oswald’s firewood onto the stairs to create an obstacle. The first enemy rounds the corner, sees the pile, and jumps over it, making a DC 10 Reflex save to do so. Snarling, it lunges at Thelma with its crude spear and hits for 1D6 damage, which I roll in full view: a 1. The spearhead grazes her side, cutting through her jerkin and leaving a nasty gash.

The next thornling leaps the obstacle and lands between Thelma and Wilfred, jabbing at the scribe and missing. More thornlings would follow, but there is no room to move forward onto the crowded beach.

I can’t remember who lands the blows, but surrounded by seven villagers, the two engaged thornlings don’t stand a chance, and quickly go down. When the first one dies, I roll to check morale, and the honor guard maintains its resolve. The third thornling vaults the obstacle, manages to keep its footing between its brothers’ corpses (success on a DC 5 Reflex save), and thrusts its spear at Finmunni. A miss. Thelma takes it down with a critical hit to the eye socket from behind, and is forced to pause for a moment to put one foot on the creature’s head so he can use both hands to yank the axe back out.

Three dead members of the honor guard is more than half their number, so I make another morale check, and they fail. There’s the sound of scrambling back up the passage as the last two retreat, to be met by the incensed bellowing of their king.

Quickly, the PCs strip the dead thornlings of their bucklers, and Finmunni recovers an intact suit of hide armor, which she dons. Thanks to being small of stature, and thus able to wear thornling armor, Finmunni and Gareth now have AC 16 and 15, respectively; not bad.

Oswald and Wilfred pick up the thornlings’ bodies and throw them into a heap at the top of the stairs, placing the witch doctor’s corpse on top. Thelma takes a sheaf of straw out of her pack and stuffs it under the pile, and Oswald uses his brand to light the tinder. In short order, the sickening stink of burning flesh and fur drives the PCs away from the stairs, and flames rise from the gruesome pyre. Oswald and Thelma set about making a couple more makeshift torches from her straw and his firewood.

While the rest of the group prepares to defend against another potential assault, Durwen takes one of the brands and explores further upstream, searching for an alternate route, until he finds the sheer wall and the waterfall that courses down it. Scanning for the source of the waterfall in the darkness above, he holds the brand aloft, and the faint firelight reveals the edge of the slot from which the water emerges.

Meanwhile, Finmunni sniffs the cold cave air and detects the warm scent of gold. She follows her nose to the foreboding dragon totem, but is reluctant to approach closer than 5′, since it emanates an unnatural cold and fills her and all who come near with a terrible feeling of dread. She asks Oswald to tie the silk rope into a lasso, and they toss it over the head of the totem, managing to pull it tight across the dragon’s open mouth (DC 15 AGI check). The rocky bed of the stream is slippery, so they back up to get better footing on the beach. Thelma joins in. I don’t tell them, but I decide they have one shot at a DC 22 STR check to pull hard enough to break off the top of the totem. Finmunni rolls a 20, +1 for her STR, +2 for the assist (+1 per assisting PC, to a max. of +2), = 23. The totem cricks, cracks at the base, then topples monumentally into the water, making a huge splash.

Wilfred, Daisy, and Perry are still gathered as close to the stairwell as they can manage, given the choking stink of thornling barbecue, weapons at the ready, but there is no sign of the opposition. The foul black smoke from the pyre is being drawn out the passage from which the thornlings made their attack.

Finmunni, Oswald, and Thelma pull the totem to shore and drag it up so that it lies flat on its back. The PCs are unaware that there are three pressure plates running down the spine of the totem: pressing #1 triggers a magical illusion of a black dragon attacking; pressing #2 opens a secret compartment containing 14gp, 137cp, a pot of poison, a healing potion, and a magical pearl; #3 triggers a poison needle trap. I decide that each time they move it with its spine on the ground, I will ask for a Luck check to see if one of the pressure plates is accidentally triggered. When they move it onto the beach, the Luck check is failed, so nothing happens.

First, they examine the head and eyes for buttons, latches, etc. I ask for some red herring rolls, and tell them they find nothing unusual. Thelma and Oswald use their axes to hack off the totem’s lower jaw, looking for treasure in its head. Nothing. Finmunni walks the length of the totem, sniffing, and I tell her that the smell is strongest in the middle, but she can’t pinpoint it further. Thelma and Oswald begin hacking into the belly of the totem, and each time I ask them make an attack roll against AC 12. Their axe heads glance off a few times, they get one hit that does 3 hp (“You knock out a wood chip the size of your hand.”), before they decide to abandon the task (the totem is about 3′ thick).

Much grumbling and frustration as they lever the wooden dragon back into the stream (failing another Luck check to accidentally trigger one of the pressure plates), in an effort to put some distance between themselves and the cold aura of doom emanating from the thing.

Still no thornlings. It’s agreed that they are most likely lying in wait. Durwen reports in on the waterfall, and everyone sloshes to that end of the tunnel. Perry ties one end of the silk rope to his spear and hurls it up at the slot, rolling a 20. It goes through, and upon being pulled back wedges across the slot, creating a climbing anchor.

Durwen hands someone his brand and scales the slippery wall (DC 12 AGI check), pulling himself through the slot into the pitch black chamber at the top.

The Tramp

This entry originally appeared on my previous blog, back in 2008. I’m reposting it here for other DCC RPG fans who might have a similar appreciation for the man it is intended to honor.

The impression left on me (and hundreds of thousands of my geeky peers) by Dungeons & Dragons was indelible. Ironically — given all of the Satanist paranoia at the time — D&D was my salvation from the soulless suburban wasteland where I spent my teen years; it not only inspired my friends and me to heights of imaginative collaboration, it empowered me to be a creative person. Without Gygax & Arneson’s strange vision, and the love of games and improvisational storytelling that it instilled, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the cartoonist and teacher I am today (for whatever that’s worth).

Perhaps the most indelible aspect of all those books and modules was the art. All of the images in the AD&D publications that I owned in the 1980s — especially the ones in the Monster Manual — are etched into my brain. In a fit of nostalgia after Gygax’s recent passing, having not looked at the TSR library since I left home for college in 1987, I bought all the old rule books off of Ebay so I could run some of my students through the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. Leafing through these tomes was like looking through an old yearbook filled with the scrawlings of a madman: page after page of familiar faces surrounded by Gygax’s strangely antique prose and table after possibility-laden table. Those familiar faces, though — the Owl Bear, the Mind Flayer, the Catoblepas — are the things that have never left my head. Whether it’s one of the amateurish, Peechee-worthy dragon portraits of David C. Sutherland III, or the definitive renditions of Cthulhu creatures by Erol Otus, the summary of Armor Class, Hit Dice, and No. Appearing might as well read, “Have a great summer vacation! K.I.T.!” I love all of these old drawings, without exception, and didn’t realize how much I had missed them.

I love them all, but some more than others, and the best ones are all by the same guy. David A. Trampier, who signed his drawings either “DAT” or “Tramp,” was (with all due respect to his peers) far and away the most talented of all of the artists who ever worked for TSR. His pen-and-ink drawings were fully-formed and beautifully precise, as if the imaginary creatures and scenes they depicted had a long visual history, when in fact they were being realized on paper for the first time by his hand. Sure, there had been folk renditions of the Rakshasa, the Ki-Rin, and the Minotaur, but in Trampier’s hands they took on an archetypal solidity, and he made real such fits of Gary Gygax’s imagination as the Ankheg, Black Pudding, Intellect Devourer, and Thought Eater. Intellect Devourer and Thought Eater? Gary, do we really need two monsters that dine on psychic energy? Well, if the Tramp is drawing them I’m not going to complain, especially if one is a quadrupedal glowing brain and the other is “a sickly gray, skeletal-bodied, enormous headed platypus to those who are able to observe it.” Thank you, David Trampier, for being able to observe it.

Left to right: Basilisk, Wererats, Medusa, Fire Giant.

Trampier dropped out of the gaming scene in 1988, two years after I graduated high school, an event marked by the abrupt halt of Wormy, the beloved comic he drew for Dragon magazine. Payments sent to his last known residence were returned unopened, and further investigation revealed that he had moved without leaving a forwarding address. Some presumed him dead, but the great game designer and cartoonist Tom Wham, Trampier’s brother-in-law, believed him to be alive and well and living somewhere in Illinois.

The photo at the head of this post is from a February 15, 2002 article in the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper of Southern illinois State University. Even without the confirmation of Gygax and Wham, who say that the man pictured is in fact the Tramp, you can tell it’s him: he looks just like one of his drawings. After the article ran, people began tracking him down, but he made it clear that he just wanted to be left alone. For whatever reason, he left the gaming world behind and now wants nothing to do with it, which somehow makes me respect him even more.

You probably don’t remember me, but I was the guy who pored over your drawings between classes in the quad, lying on the grass behind my best friend Eric’s house during summer vacation, late at night when I couldn’t sleep because my imagination was running wild with the possibility of imaginary worlds.

Thanks for the memories, Tramp.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 2, Part 5

In which the undertaker is taken under.

Our group of nine climbs back up the slope from the stone dock, leaving the Lake of Mists behind. Shortly, they arrive at the treacherous ravine, and are dismayed to see Colby‘s corpse again, lying on the wet rocks below, now buzzing with flies. Looking up and down the ravine, they deduce that downstream, to the west, the water must empty into the Lake of Mists, and upstream they see the spire rising above the treetops. So instead of trying to cross back the way they originally came, they decide to descend into the ravine and move upstream.

They take such care arranging a rope-assisted descent that I waive the ability checks and tell them they are all standing on the rocks alongside the stream in short order. Stillman leads the way upstream.

As they are rounding a bend, they hear growling from above and behind them, and they stop their march to assume defensive positions. Two thorndogs come into view, racing along the top of the ravine on the north side, passing, and disappearing out of sight upstream. The group remains cautious, with half of its number scaling the south rocky wall to see if anything is chasing the dogs. After a few minutes, nothing unusual is detected, so they continue on their way.

Around the bend they find themselves at the foot of the spire, and in front of the cave mouth from which the stream spills. The players discuss their position in character, pretending they don’t know that the other PC group entered the cave the day before, and decide to search the base of the spire for other points of entrance.

They leave the ravine and move along the stone face until they reach the dragon-mouth entrance. It looks too spooky and dark, so they bypass it and continue exploring, soon finding themselves between a rock and a thorny place — a single-file procession squeezing between the sheer wall of the spire and the threatening vines of the forest.

A howl goes up from close to the south, and Stillman, still in the lead, stops. Thorndogs have picked up their scent. Other howls answer from the east. Some panicky words are thrown around, and the group starts to shuffle back the way it came.

Stillman’s attention is diverted to the sound of something rapidly approaching from the east. He turns, scooping up one of his pigs from underfoot, in time to see the mangy thorndog sprint into view, racing towards him with its fangs bared. Asking for forgiveness, he hurls the pig in front of the dog as it nears. I give the dog a DC 10 Will save to avoid taking the bait, and the dog makes it, leaping over the terrified pig and right for the irresponsible swineherd. Stillman staggers back and cries out in pain as the dog’s teeth sink into his left leg below the knee for 2 hp of damage.

Durwen, next in line, picks up Stillman’s other pig and hurls it directly at the dog, but misses. Both pigs run squealing for their lives, threading their way between the legs of the adventurers, frantically fleeing the scene, never to be seen again. Stillman tries to strike the dog with his staff, misses, backs up screaming into Durwen as everyone moves as quickly as they can back toward the front of the spire.

The dog releases its grip on Stillman’s leg and goes for his throat, ripping his cry for help into a strangled, wet gurgle. Durwen, sweating profusely and terrified, turns and runs for his life. Luckily (Durwen makes a Luck check), the dog pauses to dine, giving him time to escape.

Illustration by Stefan Poag.
They find themselves back at the dragon’s maw. Milling about nervously just outside, everyone peers up into the dark. Devon, specifying that he is scanning the stone steps that lead up to a set of double doors, makes a DC 15 INT check and notices an ‘X’ struck in charcoal on the seventh step. Finmunni peers up at the roof of the maw, trying to discern anything unusual above that step. She makes a DC 15 INT check, and doesn’t notice anything about the roof, but does see two figures lurking in the shadows at the top of the steps. Why didn’t she see them with her darkvision? I rule that the bright sun outside the maw interferes with her ability to see in darkness (phew!).

She tells Oswald to chuck a piece of his firewood up at the top of the steps (?!), and the anxious woodsman obliges. I ask for a Luck check to see if he manages to hit one of the figures, and he fails. The figures respond to this provocation by firing crossbow bolts out of the darkness. One of them whizzes by Durwen’s head; the other strikes Devon dead-center in the chest, forcing out a wheeze and dropping the incredulous undertaker to his knees, eyes wide open, heart thumping out its final, erratic beats.

Everyone breaks and runs to the north, but Durwen has enough of his wits about him to yank the greatsword from Devon’s hands before he takes off after the others, invoking the mercy of Arimar over and over.

They reach the cave mouth and scramble up as quickly as they can. Everyone makes the DC 5 AGI check to climb the slippery rocks, and they dash splashing into the darkness of the underground stream until they are a good 20′ inside. There’s a brief pause to catch breath, and figure out how to light their way. Oswald uses his hand axe to hacks a wedge out of one end of one of his sticks of firewood, and stuffs a couple of handfuls of Thelma‘s thatching straw into it. The straw is lit, and burns well enough to catch the piece of firewood. This makeshift light source is passed to Perry, at the head of the group, and they continue sloshing up the narrow tunnel.

After ducking under a stalactite, Perry is confronted by the head of Hunwald, impaled on a wooden spear thrust into the streambed. The old watchman pauses, but remains expressionless as he moves past. The others are horrified by the sight of their former companion, and have to shake off paralyzing fear before sidling by this gruesome warning. Durwen makes the sign of the oak leaf as he passes, averting his eyes from what remains of the dead herald.

There are no thornlings in sight on the beach or near the dragon totem, but there are signs of a fight on the sand, and some sort of mound covered with a crude hide blanket. Perry leads a cautious approach out of the water, and the seven villagers gather in a semi-circle about the mound at Thelma’s instruction, preparing to yank back the blanket and kill whatever it conceals.

Suddenly, a thornling appears at the top of the stairs to the south, rounding the corner with a spear in one hand and an armful of what looks like expensive red cloth. It freezes at the unexpected sight of seven more interlopers. Initiative is rolled.

Durwen, at the top of the order, dashes straight up the stairs, holding the greatsword straight and low, and drives the silvered blade right through the creature’s small ribcage. As he yanks it back out, the thornling lets out a final half-howl and pitches forward onto the stairs, dropping the spear and bolt of cloth.

Thelma yanks the hide covering off of the mystery mound, revealing the corpse of the witch doctor. There is some speculation that the bolt of cloth was being brought as a fancier shroud for the dead spellcaster (true).

Howls echo through stone corridors; Durwen retreats to the beach, and the party arranges itself in a semi-circle around the stairwell. The pitter-pat if thorny paws grows in volume. Nervous glances are exchanged. Hands are shifted on weapons for better grips, in anticipation of what is to come.

May Arimar bless Stillman the Swineherd and Devon the Undertaker, whose fates aligned with misfortune. Stillman, who in his final moments abandoned his responsibility to his herd and fell prey to a twisted dog; Devon, struck through by a thornling’s crossbow bolt without ever having a chance to swing his sword.


Here ends the second session.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 2, Part 4

In which the players feel like they are stuck in Zork.

As the sun dips below the western horizon, and the sky over the Thornwood shifts from blue to rose, Oswald the woodsman awakens to the sound of laughter. He sits up, rubs his eyes, and looks around. His eight companions on the Isle of Mists are also beginning to stir, emerging from a six-hour enchanted sleep (the length of which was dictated by a roll of 1d6, as per the module’s instructions). Oswald hears the laughter again, and surveying his lush surroundings, catches a glimpse of two female figures gliding through the mist to the south. He hops to his feet and gives chase.

The figures are lost to the mist, of course, but following their laughter leads him to the south shore of the island, where he is surprised to see a delicate silver bridge rising in a graceful arc and leading away across the waters of the lake. He is surprised because the bridge was definitely not there when he had scouted that side of the island earlier.

He hollers for the others, and they gradually gather at his location to observe this strange phenomenon. There is some fearful discussion of elfin enchantments, and what might happen of someone set foot on the bridge, interrupted by the impetuous Thelma, who strides down to the water’s edge and up onto the bridge. She gives everyone an irritated glance over her shoulder, and, one by one, they follow.

The bridge delivers them to a peaceful glade on the far side of the water, high with green grasses and thick with bluebell flowers. A semi-circle of towering old-growth oaks encloses the glade, somehow protecting it from the encroachment of the thorny vines that choke the rest of the Thornwood. In the center of the clearing stands a striking statue of a woman, carved of white marbled stone. Closer inspection reveals her pointed ears, which provoke some murmuring about her heritage. Her hair is elaborately braided, and she wears a long robe. Curiously, she holds one arm extended before her, palm up, as if holding something, and her blank stone eyes appear to be focused on that open palm.

It doesn’t take long before the party tries to put things in her hand. Coins, single, stacked, by the purseful, weapons, flowers, grass. It goes on for a good 20 minutes of real time, reminiscent of nothing so much as being stuck in a text adventure game wherein every combination of inventory item and location detail must be exhausted. For naught. Something does in fact belong in her palm, but that thing is in the possession of one of the thornlings who absconded into the thornling lair with Osric‘s body.

Eventually, now well after dark, they give up, start a fire, and sit down to a meal in front of the statue. Colby’s salted beef is sliced up and passed around, and with a little encouragement Daisy opens her cask of ale, which is swiftly depleted. Between the eating and drinking, some speculate on the fate of the other group. Some stare into the fire pensively, others wander the glade and look up at the vastness of stars in the spring sky. Despite the circumstances of their coming to the Thornwood, they feel peaceful and relaxed in this place.

After this pleasant repast, everyone starts packing up to head back to the island, but just as they’re ready to go, they hear a cry from Thelma: the bridge is gone!

Sure enough, the silver bridge has disappeared as mysteriously as it came. What strange magicks are at work? Some of the villagers voice distrust of this place. Soon enough, Stillman volunteers to swim back to the island through the mist, and Perry and Durwin tie one end of the 50′ of rope around his waist as a safety line. He dives into the cool water of the lake and swims out into the mist-filled darkness. The island should be about 20′ away. After a few minutes of swimming, all 50′ of the rope have been played out, and Stillman is nowhere near dry ground. He turns back.

He climbs back ashore at the glade, reports the lack of island, and the three men stare out into the mist, shaking their heads. They return to the rest of the group with this disheartening news. It’s agreed that, come morning, if the island is still being withheld by some eldritch enchantment, they will try to wade along the lakeshore back in the direction they came from. Watches are assigned and everyone beds down in the grass.

Oswald is again the first to wake to the sound of laughter, this time distant and fading to a memory even before he opens his eyes. The first rays of the sun are just touching to tops of the trees, and when he gets up he sees that the mist at the water’s edge has withdrawn to reveal the silver bridge, returned. Hurriedly, unsure of how long it will remain, he alerts his companions and starts gathering up their belongings. With some still rubbing sleep from their eyes and yawning, the nine stumble out of the glade and back across the Gloaming Bridge to the Isle of Mists, perhaps never to solve the mystery of the white lady.

Back on the island, once everyone has gathered their thoughts, Finmunni thinks to ask if she can smell any gold or gems. Now, I don’t know how the rest of you are playing dwarves at level 0, but their unique olfactory ability seems like it should be innate to me (as opposed to learned at level 1), so I’ve been allowing 0-level dwarves to use it. It is pretty powerful, though, so I do require that a dwarf must specifically state that she is smelling for gold.

I inform the dwarven stonemason that she smells something to the northwest, and her nose leads her into the high reeds along the shore. There, with assistance from Devon the undertaker, she uncovers the remains of a wooden longboat, half sunk into the mud. A search of the aged craft turns up nothing of interest, but face down in the reeds alongside is a skeleton, clad in embroidered cloth and clutching a greatsword with a silvered blade and golden hilt. Finmunni contemplates what it would take for her to use this blade, but I rule that it’s too unwieldy for one of her stature, so Devon (he of STR 14) eagerly snatches it up and takes a few practice swings. 1d10 damage! Holy crap!

Meanwhile, Durwin has climbed one of the fir trees at the center of the island to see what he can see. From near the very top, over the thick mists that cling to the island like cobwebs, he can see the stalwart oaks of the secret glade, but aside from them only the twisted trees of the Thornwood, spreading in all directions. To the southeast, thrusting up from the treetops, is the stone spire that is the object of their quest; they have journeyed far astray. Little does Durwin know that, even as he scans the fortified keep high atop the crag, his eyes pass over Gareth, Esma, and Sigbert, hidden from view by stone walls and several hundred feet of distance.

Back in the direction they first came from, he can make out the pale fires of the braziers on the dock, still burning. He climbs back down, sticky with fragrant sap, and tells the others that the fires appear to have remained lit since their initial passage to the island. Perhaps they can return by way of the “path” that allowed them to walk on water?

Everyone gathers at the eastern shore and forms into a single-file line. Oswald takes up the rear, tasked with making sure no one strays from between the two flames, which are clearly visible even through the otherwise opaque mist. The group proceeds carefully back the way they came, marvelling at the feel of the water underfoot as they stride back across the lake.

As Oswald, the last of them, steps onto the stairs that lead up to the dock, the brazier fires go out, and he feels his trailing foot briefly break the surface of the water. Standing on the dock, everyone takes one last look at the otherworldy Isle of Mists before turning to their next task: the spire of stone and whatever it may hold.

Halls of the Minotaur, Session 2, Part 3

In which a chimney is climbed.

The stalwart three, accompanied by the bat-winged, horned, clay-skinned creature known as Horpt, make their way up the cobweb-filled stairwell, quickly reaching a landing that ends in a blank stone wall. But it’s not a dead-end: set into the wall is a column of rusted iron rungs. Gareth raises his glob of candles and looks up to see that the rungs run right up past the ceiling, along one face of a square chimney that rises out of sight.

“Can you see in the dark?” Sigbert asks Horpt, who is perched on the fisherman’s shoulder.
“Would you please fly up there and tell us what you find?”

Horpt’s known world is getting bigger by the second, and he hesitates for a moment, a look of doubt and concern creasing his brow. Then he shrugs and bounds into the air, his little leathery wings flippy-flopping in the stale air to carry him upward. He disappears into the dark. Esma makes a comment as to how they shouldn’t trust the creepy little thing. Five minutes pass.

“Horpt?” Sigbert shouts, concerned.
“Yes?” comes the faint, echoing reply.
“What do you see?”
“Hole goes up and up and up!”
“Okay, come on back.”

Five minutes later, Horpt flaps back out of the chimney, exhausted. He lands on Sigbert’s shoulder, breathing heavily. Gareth drops the remains of one of his candle globs, now useless, but not before lighting another with its dying flame.

Climbing arrangements are made. Everyone goes through their gear and figures out how to arrange it in order to be able to use both hands for climbing. They lost a number of items in the hurried escape through the water slot, but they still have to juggle a fair amount of equipment:

Gareth’s gear: Hand axe, golden scepter (from totem cave), catseye ring (from raven familiar), 3 black arrows (from wizard’s lab), 2 candle globs (10 minutes of light each), 1 torch (10 minutes left), flint & steel, coin purse. Most stuck into his belt, flint & steel in one pocket.

Sigbert’s gear: Morningstar (from witch doctor), knife, small hammer, jade dragon amulet (from witch doctor), fishing net, 30′ silk rope, pouch of herbs (from witch doctor), 2 waterskins (1 full of water, the other from witch doctor, full of weird liquid), 2 clay dragon figurines, coin purse. Big items in his fishing net, which he is using as a sack, smaller items stuck into his belt.

Esma’s gear: Black dagger (from wizard’s lab), 5′ pole (née spear), 4 glass flasks full of acid (filled up in wizard’s lab), 3 clay dragon figurines, coin purse. Everything on her belt, but there’s no place to carry the pole, so she drops it.

After arranging themselves for climbing, there’s the question of how they will light their ascent into the dark chimney. They solve the problem by having Horpt perch on Gareth’s shoulder, carrying a lit candle glob. Up they go!

Gareth is counting rungs, which are about 1′ apart. He reaches 100 after about 2 minutes of climbing. At 4 minutes, he passes rung #200. Everyone is beginning to sweat, and droplets of wax from the candle glob are spattering Sigbert and Esma. It’s hard not to feel claustrophobic, 200′ up from a stone floor, clinging to the wall of a 5′ wide chimney.

At 300′, I make everyone make a DC 10 Fortitude save. Gareth and Sigbert fail, and each lose 1 temporary point of Stamina as their arms and legs begin to tire. They pause to catch their breath for a minute, but are concerned about the time limit on their light source, and the fact that it will be hard to strike flint and steel while on a ladder.

At 400′, everyone makes another Fortitude save. Gareth and Sigbert fail again, -1 Stamina each. That Esma is a powerhouse! Even so, everyone is breathing heavily and pausing occasionally to wipe the sweat from their eyes.

At 450′ feet, Horpt says that he sees that the chimney ends up ahead. There’s a moment of anxiety over the possibility that it could be a dead-end. At 500′, in the last flicker of the candle glob,  Gareth sees that the iron rungs end on the underside of a wooden trap door. “We’re there!” he calls, and Sigbert and Esma are bolstered by the thought.

Gareth has to wait for his labored breathing to calm before he can listen carefully at the trap door, and detects the rush of wind beyond. Nothing to indicate danger. He heaves the trap door open, and is blinded by the ambient sunlight in the large room beyond. A sudden gust of air rushes up the chimney past the climbers, whipping through their clothes and hair, extinguishing the candle. Horpt lets out a shriek into Gareth’s ear, terrified by the bright light and open space, drops hurtling back down the chimmey.

“Horpt!” cries Sigbert.
“He’ll be fine,” says Esma, rolling her eyes.

One by one, the three pull themselves out onto the floor of the square chamber, blinking in the bright light. About 15′ up, the building’s structural timbers are visible, and beyond that the ceiling is lost in shadow. Once their eyes adjust, they realize that the light is not actually that intense, leaking in through arrow slits lining the walls, and through a set of half-open double doors on one side. In one corner of the room, three aged barrels are stacked on top of a large wooden crate.

“Horpt, it’s okay!” Sigbert shouts down the chimney.

Esma gets up and walks over to one wall, where she peers through the arrow slits. Even though she can only see a sliver of the view, it takes her breath away: they are hundreds of feet above the Thornwood, which stretches out like a green carpet into the distance before giving way to open grassland. And miles beyond that, the glitter of sunshine on water. Could it be the sea? This is the first time she’s ever seen the sea.

Gareth investigates the double doors. I ask him to describe his actions, and he says he stands about 5′ away from them, peering through the opening to see what he can see. I tell him that some sort of wooden bridge or walkway arcs away across open space into the distance, and about 15′ away he sees what looks like a stone gatehouse. And I ask him to make a DC 10 INT check, which he passes, so I tell him that, due to his height and where he is looking, he notices a thin tripwire across the doorway, about 1′ off the floor. He follows it to the stone door jamb, and sees that on the right side it disappears though a tiny opening into the masonry. Gareth shares this information with the others and everyone agrees to proceed with caution.

Sigbert manages to coax Horpt out of the chimney, and closes the trap door behind him. Horpt refuses to look out the arrow slits, and just sits on top of the trap door, clearly anxious.

Sigbert goes over to check out the view to the south. He is dumbstruck by the vast world stretched out before him, and thinks that one distant body of water may even be Blacksalt Lake, where he plies his trade as a fisherman. An eagle careens over the treetops far below, before wheeling and ascending on an updraft. At first Sigbert thinks his eyes are playing tricks, but then he realizes that the eagle is far larger than it should be — its wingspan must be at least 12′! The bird rises and swoop around the east side of the tower before disappearing from view.

After picking his jaw back up off the floor, Sigbert joins Gareth in investigating the containers in the corner. Two of the barrels are empty, but one contains 6 ballista bolts, which are not described by name, but identified in short order. They crack open the crate and a bunch of mice run squeaking across the floor, abandoning their nest. the rest of the chamber is searched, but nothing unusual is discovered.

No one has eaten in six hours, and no one has any food. They’re not starving yet, but after all of their exertions and near-death experiences, stomachs are growling. Sigbert passes around his water skin and everyone takes a mouthful. Since Gareth and Sigbert are injured, and the tower they’re in seems safe for the time being, they decide it’s as a good a place as any to recuperate. As the sun lowers and the sky begins to darken, watches are divvied up, with Esma taking the first.

Gareth and Sigbert try to get comfortable on the cold stone floor. Horpt and Esma stare at each other distrustfully. A time for rest has finally come.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 2, Part 2

In which an unexpected acquaintance is made.

Between lungfuls of chill air, our survivors make a plan for their next step. Sigbert unravels about 30′ of the rope, gives one end to Gareth, counts back 15′, and has Esma hold on to it at that point. Then, Gareth feels his way to the right (east) side of the slot, and Sigbert finds his way to the left side (west). Cautiously, wary of stepping into empty space in the pitch blackness, each begins to feel his way along the curving wall. Holding on to the middle part of the rope, Esma moves up the water channel, roughly between the two men. Soon, Gareth reaches a corner and calls out that fact. Sigbert continues to make his way around the circumference, until he comes back on the other side of the same corridor that Gareth has found. Esma makes her way over to them.

They have a rough conception of being in a circular chamber about 15′ across, with water starting somewhere near the middle of the room (no one investigates closely enough to be sure) and draining out the slot in the north wall by way of a 6″ deep channel cut into the stone floor. A 5′-wide passage opens to the east. As the trio rest for a moment, their eyes adjust, and they see a faint red glow coming from further down the passage. Quietly, they advance, with Gareth in the lead.

Gareth notices an object ahead, about 5′ high, protruding from the right-hand wall and silhouetted against the source of the red glow, while the passage opens up to the left; they’re approaching some sort of room. At the same time, Esma, with her big ears, hears a low muttering coming from that direction. Gareth waits, letting his eyes adjust more, until he can make out the light shapes of some books crammed into the object. It’s a bookshelf. And now he can hear the very low muttering too, from just on the other side. He creeps slowly forward, trying not be heard. I give him a DC 12 Agility check to stealthily approach (figuring in noise from the waterfall, darkness, and being obstructed by the bookshelf). He rolls a 15 and gets up against the shelf.

From there he can see more of the room: walls lined with shelves, crammed floor to ceiling with tomes, scrolls, piles of parchment, odd gewgaws. Overhead, two iron chandeliers filled with unlit candle stubs hang by chains from the ceiling. Gareth tries to understand the muttering, but it seems to be in another language. He decides he’s going to make a surprise attack on the thing, and Gareth’s player describes how he’s going to climb the bookshelf and jump down from above on the mutterer. Esma’s player points out that unless the bookshelf is attached to the floor, it might topple over on him. Gareth doesn’t think so, takes his axe in one hand, and begins to climb. I have him make a DC 12 Reflex save to jump free as the bookshelf topples over on him.

He leaps backward far enough to get out from under the shelf, which comes crashing down to the floor, revealing a tiny humanoid, about 8″ tall, sitting on a cushion with a small book open in its lap, facing the explorers. “Unh?” the creature says, and its bat wings flare out from their folded position. Details are hard to make out, since it’s so dark and the creature is backlit by the red glow (which now is seen to be emanating from a circular pool of red liquid just beyond), but they can see that it’s unclothed, and has two small horns on its head. Initiative rolls are made.

The creature rolls highest, and, letting out a high-pitched squeal of surprise, drops the book and flies into the air, flapping immediately out of sight around the corner to the south.

Gareth looks around for a a long-handled candle lighter that could be used to light the chandeliers — and I have him make a Luck roll to see if the chandeliers are in fact lit that way. He makes the roll: leaning between two bookshelves on the north wall is a 4′ iron rod used for just that. He spends his turn running to get it. Sigbert climbs carefully across the bookshelf into the middle of the room, no weapon ready, and says, “We mean you no harm!” Esma spends her turn getting into position behind Sigbert, spear at the ready.

Now they can see the entire, red-lit room. Aside from the piles of paraphernalia, there are three circular pools along the length of the room, each about 4′ in diameter, cut into the stone floor. The glowing red pool, and two others that contain some sort of liquid but are not glowing. The tiny bat-winged humanoid is crouched at the edge of the third and furthest pool, dipping a glass flask into the liquid. In the southwest corner of the room, a hanging curtain conceals an alcove or passage.

The creature caps the flask and hurls it wildly at Sigbert. It shatters on his chest and covers his shirt with foul-smelling acid that begins to crackle and smoke. The acid does 1d4 points of damage, but I decide it does 1 point per turn, and will take 1 turn for it to eat through Sigbert’s clothing. So he has to spend his next turn getting his shirt off or he will start to suffer damage.

Gareth spends his turn using his flint and steel to ignite the candle-lighter. Esma leaps across to the far side of the pools and charges the little winged man, spearing him for 3 points of damage. He lets out a shriek of agony. I describe how the spear cuts into his side, how the flesh slices open cleanly but does not bleed. Sigbert hurriedly strips off his smoking shirt and hurls it aside, avoiding the acid damage.

The creature, threatened by Esma, flaps shrieking across the acid pool to the other side of the room, lands, and ducks behind the curtain. Gareth manages to light a couple of candles on one of the chandeliers, and in the low light the PCs take a moment to glance into the pools. Esma sees a golden crown resting at the bottom of the pool of acid; Sigbert sees 3 black arrows resting at the bottom of the middle pool, and Gareth sees a black dagger resting at the bottom of the glowing red pool.

Gareth gets a gleam in his eye at the sight of the dagger, and uses the lamplighter to fish it out onto the floor. He snatches it up eagerly and examines it closely: needle-like blade of black, glassy steel, black iron hilt crafted in the shape of two serpents coiled around each other. Gareth grins madly.

Esma uses her spear to poke at the crown in the pool of acid. The crown disappears as soon as she moves the tip of the spear through it (it’s an illusion), and then the top 1′ of the spear, weakened by the acid, breaks off, leaving her with a 5′ long pole. The acid bubbles and fizzes as it consumes the spearhead.

Sigbert ignores the pools and cautiously approaches the curtain. He hears the faint whimpering of the little winged man. He carefully pulls back the curtain, revealing a second curtain, and pulls that back to expose the creature, huddled in the corner of he alcove, looking at Sigbert fearfully.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” Sigbert says.
Esma objects: “Yes we are — that thing tried to kill you!”
“What are you doing here?” Sigbert asks the little man.
“I wait for Master.”
“And what does Master call you?”

With Esma looking on disapprovingly, Sigbert converses with Horpt. The creature allows him to get close, and Sigbert sees that, while his wings appear to be actual bat wings, Horpt’s flesh is claylike, to the degree that the fingerprints of whoever modeled him are still visible. This gives Sigbert the idea to close up the flesh around Horpt’s wound, and I allow him a Personality check to convince Horpt to let him try. With the creature wincing, Sigbert pinches the claylike flesh closed over the bloodless wound. I allow this creative attempt at helping the creature, healing 1 hit point of the damage he has suffered, and winning the little creature’s trust.

They learn that Horpt was created by his “Master,” and has spent his entire existence in this chamber. His Master departed without explanation at an indeterminate point in the past, and Horpt has been waiting for him to return ever since. Sigbert asks about the book he was reading, and Horpt says he can’t read, he was just imitating his Master. Sigbert asks how his Master left the chamber, and Horpt says he went past the curtains, but when Horpt tried to follow, all he found was the blank wall of the alcove.

Meanwhile, Gareth has recovered the 3 black arrows from the middle pool, noting that the head of each is inscribed with an unknown rune. Then, he and Esma search the rest of the room. I decide I will allow each PC three search checks, but don’t tell them that, or the DC (15). Gareth and Esma each make two checks, and fail them, so they give up. Which is too bad, since there were a total of 5 special items waiting to be found among the librams and codices, the first of which was a grimoire that would have been perfect for a fledgling wizard! Ah well.

Following Horpt’s hint about the alcove, Esma goes to search it. Abiding by the DCC credo of “favor described actions over DC checks,” I have her explain exactly how she’s checking out the alcove, and she finds a stone in the wall that slides inward, causing the whole rear wall of the alcove to grind to one side (cue stock sfx).

Sigbert invites Horpt to join them, over Esma’s objections. The creature is reluctant, having never been out of the chamber, but Sigbert tells it that its Master may never return. Horpt thinks for a moment before flapping up to perch on Sigbert’s shoulder.

Before they venture forth, Esma points out that her spear has been turned into a 5′ pole by the acid bath, and that Gareth has his hand axe and the black dagger from the pool. Reluctantly Gareth, who had been collecting all of the candle stubs and fusing them together into clumps to use as light sources, hands over the dagger to the large-eared swineherd.

Gareth pokes his head out of the alcove, holding a clump of lit candles. The secret door opens onto a landing in the midst of a long stone stairwell that wraps around down to the left, and up to the right. He asks for silence, listens carefully, hears nothing.

Figuring that the dog-men must be below them at this point, the party sets off up the stairs.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 2, Part 1

In which the judge’s poor memory has screwed up the narrative.

Yeah, I screwed up. It turns out that in my recollection of events, I had Sigbert with the group that went to the Isle of Mists,  but he was actually with Gareth and Esma. So there are three alive in the depths of the spire, not two. Apologies for the recalibration. Luckily, Sigbert hadn’t done much of note up until this point. But he is about to get his moment in the spotlight (or utter darkness, as the case may be).

While the larger group of nine slumbers amongst the bluebells, Gareth, Sigbert, and Esma find themselves in a 20′ x 30′ stone chamber with about 10 minutes of torchlight left. One thornling lies dead at their feet, alongside poor Hunwald’s corpse. The floor is scattered with crude clay figurines apparently intended to represent dragons, and built into the west wall is a wood-fired kiln. Next to the kiln is a loose stack of firewood.

Gareth and Esma quickly set about starting a fire in the kiln for light (and heat, since everyone is freezing from wading in the underground stream). Sigbert cautiously moves down the southwest passage as far as the ambient light will allow, and reaches an open door, beyond which it is too dark to see. He hears the barking and yipping of thornlings in the near distance, and a deeper growling mixed in with their voices. The sounds grow louder. They’re coming back, with reinforcements!

Sigbert calls out to Esma for iron spikes, and she runs to his position. He slams the door shut as the howls of the thornlings ring out clearly just ahead in the darkness, grabs a piece of loose stone off the floor, and begins to hammer the spikes between the door and its stone jamb. He gets two spikes in before something hits the door from the other side. The door holds. Sigbert and Esma hear the deep growling again, look at each other, and run.

There’s a big thump on the door, louder than before. It’s the bugbear that killed Osric, but they don’t know that. I roll the bugbear’s Fortitude modifier against DC 15 for the spiked door. The door continues to hold.

They have a hurried exchange with Gareth in the kiln room (now quite warm and glowing with orange light from the fire), and decide to run back to the underground stream. Gareth grabs a burning brand from the fireplace to use as a temporary torch, Esma gathers up as many of the clay figurines as she can carry — who knows, they may have some significance — and Sigbert grabs the buckler off the dead thornling. As they flee back up the passage toward the totem cavern, they hear the door splinter and break (the bugbear made his next Fortitude check).

Our heroes barrel down the steps to the beach, and there’s a moment of hesitation in the midst of the bodies of Pierce, the witch doctor, and the mangled raven: back downstream and out of the darkness, or upstream? “This way!” shouts Gareth, and runs to the east, upstream. Esma thinks to scoop up Pierce’s fishing net as she and Sigbert follow Gareth’s lead.

Gareth leads the way into the water at the east end of the beach, passing the dragon totem on their left. They splash upstream about thirty feet, to a point where the tunnel dead-ends in a sheer vertical wall. By the feeble light of Gareth’s brand, they see the wall is covered by a sheet of downward-rushing water.

Frantic, they search everywhere, pushing and feeling the slime-coated wall. Sigbert takes the brand and holds it high over his head, looking up in an effort to see where the water is coming from. About 20′ up, he sees a horizontal slot in the wall, about 2.5′ wide and 1.5′ tall, from which the icy water issues. He hands the brand back to Sigbert, unlimbers his coil of silk rope, and ties his knife onto one end. They hear the echo of the thornlings spilling into the totem cave, then shrieks and howls as the body of their revered witch doctor is discovered.

Sigbert whirls the knife on the end of the rope and throws it upward at the slot. It’s too dark to really make a clear throw, so I rule he needs to make a Luck check. He rolls a 2, and his Luck is 9. Incredibly, the knife lands inside the slot at one side, and the rushing water wedges it into a corner. Sigbert give sit a tug and it feels secure.

Gareth, realizing their pursuers can see the light of their brand in the otherwise dark cave, takes the rope in one hand and drops the burning piece of wood into the water, where it sizzles out. Utter darkness engulfs them.

Gareth, the lightest of the three at 4 and a half feet tall, scrambles up the rope. The vertical face is slick with slime, and the sheet of water complicates things, so I give him a DC 12 Agility check. He rolls a 15, and scrambles up to the slot, showering water on Sigbert and Esma with each slippery step.

Sigbert and Esma hear thornlings splashing into the stream, barking and growling as they make their way past the dragon totem and toward their position. The dog-men must have seen the light of the brand before it was extinguished. Sigbert braces himself, readying his newfound buckler, and Esma starts to whirl Pierce’s net in front of her, hoping for some defensive benefit. They stare into blackness, listening for the splashing footsteps of their hunters.

Gareth reaches the slot and climbs through, and, trying to sort out his physical surroundings by touch, finds himself in a stone channel through which the water flows at a depth of about 1″. He rolls around, braces his feet on either side of the slot, grabs the rope, and tugs on it as a sign to Sigbert.

There is a loud bark as the thornlings sight Sigbert and Esma (darkvision). Two primitive wooden spears come whistling through the darkness. One strikes the stone wall over Sigbert’s shoulder, and the other is deflected by Esma’s spinning net (a straight up miss, narrated for color, although I had given her a temporary +1 AC bonus for creativity). Both of these ranged attacks were made at a +2 bonus for Sig and Es being effectively blind.

Sigbert hands the rope to Esma and shouts “Go!” She drops the net and ascends as quickly as she can, making the DC 12 check. Leaving Sigbert alone against unseen enemies.

He hears the splashing as the two nearest thornlings rush at him. Having thrown their spears, they only have claws to attack with, but he doesn’t know this. He sidesteps as one attack misses, and on the next attack I roll a 20. I lift my judge’s screen to show him the roll, and tell him that he can sacrifice his buckler to negate the hit before I roll the result. Having 2 hit points left, he chooses to do so. I rule that the thornling’s claws rake into the buckler and tear it from his arm.

He tugs on the rope and Gareth and Esma pull with all their might, lifting him free of the fray. One of the creatures gets a free attack because Sigbert is disengaging, and misses. Between climbing as best he can and being pulled, Sigbert makes it to the slot and through.

The three flop out of the water channel onto a cold stone floor, soaked to the bone and shivering. The chamber echoes with their gasps, along with the the sound of flowing water and the distant howls of frustration.

All is black.

Campaign Setting: Making the World

The DCC RPG has been such a refreshing return to the excitement of my earliest days of playing D&D, that I wanted to maintain that feeling as much as possible in the creation of the world that would be the backdrop for our campaign. After many hours reading various old school blogs and a few false starts, I settled on an approach that uses a foundation of randomly generated elements, but relies on my own creative instincts to fill holes and bridge gaps in language, logic or continuity. This combination hits the sweet spot of allowing me the fun of “discovering” the world (by rolling dice to obtain results), and the pleasure of shaping it to suit my personal taste. Also, with my free time at such a premium, I wanted to be able to develop stuff quickly, without getting too bogged down in the details. So building off of a randomly generated framework was the right way to go for me.

The first thing I did was generate the planet by using the world generator at donjon, one of that site’s many terrific generators. Two cool things about donjon’s generator: it translates the fractal data into a hexmap, and adds names cities, terrain features, and adventure sites. I discarded the first two maps it gave me, but kept the third one, which looks like this:

Then, I chose an area of the map as the starting location for the campaign. I chose one of the smaller continents, since it seemed like a contained area would be easier to flesh out.

Next, I hit up the civilization generator at chaotic shiny, and copied down everything it spat out. I didn’t intend to stick hard by this stuff, but it was a great starting point from which I could draw associations and begin to build up an idea of the society. Out of this, in short order, I had a hereditary autocracy with strong political factions, a fairly stable political situation, and good foreign relations; where magic was believed to be “granted by spirits” (nicely in keeping with the DCC RPG), powerful in the domains of weather, illusion, and chaos, and used for travel. This last gave me the idea for a class of mage-navigators employed to safeguard the nation’s fleets, but I filed that way for future use. The cultural stuff the generator coughed up was such a random grab-bag of disconnected ideas that I just disregarded them. But I did like the national motto: “Ritual and morality,” and the note that the culture was “shaped by religious force.” A good thematic focal point.

So: autocracy. An empire? “Empire” is a word that implies great size, and my little continent didn’t seem big enough to merit the term. But I decided to stick with it for the time being. I can’t remember now where I got the proper name, but I decided to call the place Bramica, or the Bramic Empire.

The next step was to drill down to an area where my group of 0-level characters would be starting play. First, though, I took donjon’s fractal map and redrew it using Hexographer:

Oh, did I hunt around for a long time looking for a decent rpg overland mapping tool. I’ve actually owned Campaign Cartographer 3 for years, but the learning curve is too flippin’ steep for me — I needed a world, and I needed it fast. I tried the demo of Hexographer after seeing it mentioned on various old-school rpg blogs, and I liked what I saw, so I paid for the full version. It totally fits the bill. Eventually I will redraw local maps by hand, but this program did the job I needed it to do. I transcribed the donjon map hex by hex, making terrain type calls as needed, and retaining the city and ruin locations. I should note here that for this “atlas” scale map, and the smaller-scale maps that follow, I used the great hex templates created by Erin over at The Welsh Piper, an excellent resource for anyone who wants to develop a campaign from scratch.

After I had the three main cities from the donjon map in place, I connected them with roads that made sense in relation to the terrain, and added a couple of towns at what seemed like appropriate places. I didn’t really like any of the donjon fractal map names, so I discarded them and asked donjon’s town/city name generator to cough up a few, taking ones I liked, tweaking the spelling, and dropping them onto the map: Pamor, Galeah, and Zarakzund, City of Crowns. That last one is definitely the capitol, right? And it sounds wizardy and it’s a seaport, so that’s where my guild of navigator-mages will be (must resist tangent). The two towns I named a little differently: Moorford, because well, there’s a ford in the middle of the moor there, and Assalom’s Rest because it just popped into my head. Assalom is Bramica’s god of poetry, ghosts, and feasts, one of the deities birthed by chaotic shiny’s pantheon generator. Iffy names, a hodgepodge of details, but a good starting point from which to build a cast of higher powers. I’m actually super-picky about language and names in fantasy settings (thank you Professor Tolkien), but for an old-school hex-crawl, generic vaguely European-sounding fantasy names are part of the fun.

Okay, so now I’ve got a cartographic basis the Bramic Empire, but it’s still pretty high level. I need to choose a starting region — one of the squares on the atlas map — for the PCs. In the DCC RPG, all 0-level PCs begin their careers as lowly villagers or common citizens, so I want a humble beginning, somewhere in the sticks. But not too far from the big city, so they can get there relatively easily if they choose to. I settle on the region that contains Assalom’s Rest, because it’s within a few days’ march of both Galeah and Zarakzund, Assalom’s Rest itself will provide a good mid-sized town for them to visit, and there is a decent variety of terrain types: sea, inland water, grassland, moor, and forest.

Now I turn to the Welsh Piper again. I read a lot of different blogs about world-building before starting this campaign, and the Piper’s approach hits all the right notes for me: clean, succinct, and suggestive, building on the likes of that classic from my youth, The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, but smoothing out the edges and toning down the weirdness a little. Using his excellent 3 part guide to hex-based campaign design, I started by fleshing out the region map:

Click image for a larger view.

After laying in the basic landmass outlines and terrain, I draw in the rivers. The fractal map included rivers, but they’re more at the scale of the Mississippi or Nile, so I need to add all the smaller ones, following the simple guideline that water always flows downhill. There are no mountains in this area, just some scattered hills, so all I need to do is steer clear of them on the way to the sea. I make one river flow past Assalom’s Rest, because as a rule, for obvious reasons, most settlements grow up around some sort of watercourse.

Now comes my favorite part of randomized world mapping: generating the contents of individual hexes. After tinkering with a few different approaches, found online and elsewhere, I again find myself back at the knee of the Welsh Piper. His guide to generating encounters on per-hex basis was exactly what I wanted. Using the steps outlined there, I go through each individual sub-hex (the hexes that comprise the larger overlay of hexes, not the smallest hexes) and roll for major and minor encounters. I do this for the entire region, but here’s what I end up with in the upper left corner:

A) Monster lair. I decide to make this a burial mound with un-dead denizens.
B) Campsite. A way-station for hunters.
C) Religious order (Neutral). Maybe a monastery or nunnery.
D) Battlefield. The site of some historic conflict.
E) Religious order (Chaotic). Eventually I decide to make this the site of DCC Adventures #59: Mists of Madness. In the neighboring hex I rolled another hunters’ camp, which I decide to make a covert guard post for the isolated Chaotic temple. 
F) Settlement. The village of Hovick!
G) Sacred ground.
H) Dungeon. This is the only hand-placed encounter site in this area, and I added it after settling on DCC Adventures #35A: Halls of the Minotaur as the first adventure for my players.

I ended up generating several small villages over the rest of the region, but this one near Black Lake (since renamed Blacksalt lake) was the perfect place to start the PCs: on the water, two days’ march from Assalom’s Rest, and right next to a deep, dark forest. I had settled on adapting Halls of the Minotaur for our first adventure, so I plunked that down in the forest about 10 miles to the southeast of Hovick. And that module gave me the name for the forest: Wildthorn Wood.

And as far as the physical environment goes, that’s all I have so far. Much more than I really need, but I like to have some sense of context for the adventures, and I really enjoy random world generation. If the PCs survive this first adventure, they’ll have a whole world to explore, and I look forward to filling in the details as we go.

Halls of the Minotaur – Session 1, Part 7

In which the dung hits the windmill.

While the majority of the villagers succumb to a mysterious sleep on the island in the Lake of Mists, Gareth, PierceHunwald, and Esma make their way into the stone spire by way of an underground watercourse. With Gareth leading, torch in hand and up to his armpits in icy water, the four intrepid souls make their way slowly upstream. At times, in order to negotiate parts of the tunnel with particularly low clearance, they find themselves crouching and half-swimming with their heads just above water. Esma’s pigs squeal unhappily about the dark and cold, but stay close to their mistress as they splash along.

After a seemingly interminable slog through on the cold current, the tunnel opens up into a cavern, with a black sandy beach coming down to the water on the right. The wet woodsman pauses briefly before proceeding a bit further, to get a better view. The light from his torch reveals that the beach slopes up to meet a flat, worked stone wall that forms the south side of the cavern, punctuated by a doorway that contains a set of steps leading up and away from the beach. Past the doorway, further along the beach, he sees a cluster of stalactites and stalagmites where the cavern ceiling dips down. And in the midst of the stream ahead, the light catches some sort of thick pole sticking up out of the water.

Pierce and Hunwald reach Gareth’s position, and as they take in the scene, Gareth starts to move ahead toward the pole, getting close enough to see that it’s some sort of totem, crowned by the carved head of a beast. Suddenly, they hear a guttural bark from the stalagmites, and a figure steps into view: four feet tall, covered with leathery skin that’s broken in places by a weird thorny growth, with a shriveled dog-like head that looks more like a bare skull. Its matted white hair is twisted into a freakish tangle, and human finger bones are thrust through its nose and earlobes. A ragged black cape, fringed with raven feathers, swirls behind the thing as it dances haltingly across the sand toward Gareth, barking a chant while it waves its clawlike hands, one of which clutches a primitive spiked mace.

Being our second ever adventure using the DCC RPG (the first of which ended in a TPK two sessions in), this is actually the very first time someone has tried to cast a spell. The players are petrified as the thing’s chant reaches a crescendo, and it gestures fiercely in Gareth’s direction. There’s a pregnant pause while I make the spell check.

Nothing happens.

Gareth seizes the day, howling, waving his torch and hand axe, rushing the beach as fast as his little legs will carry him. But the water is waist deep, and well, he’s really short, so I rule that he can only move 10′, which just barely gets him out of the water. Hunwald, Pierce, and Esma spend their turns splashing through the stream as fast as they can, but they’re back far enough that they aren’t able to make it to the beach either.

The thornling witch doctor matches Gareth’s howl with its own and lurches toward him across the sand, dancing a crooked dance and striking a different weird pose with each step, emitting wild-eyed barks and yips, until just within arm’s reach of our little hero. It jabs its left claw toward him with a final guttural intonation, and I roll another spell check. A white mist emerges from the flesh along the creature’s arm, starting at the elbow, and swirls toward Gareth, sending a chill down his spine before dissipating.

Nothing happens.

Gareth, surging with relief, swings hard and sinks the head of his hand axe into the enemy’s shoulder, eliciting a scream of agony. Pierce rushes up out of the water, moving around between the creature and the doorway to stab it from behind with his fish scaling knife, and manages to get in a 2-point hit. Hunwald dashes around to Gareth’s left, raising his shortsword over his head, and uses both hands to plunge the blade into the creature’s chest, forcing a foul cry from its lungs as its small body is driven into the sand. The creature bleeds red, and the red turns black in the icy water of the stream. Hunwald has never attacked another living thing in his life. Hunwald is ecstatic and terrified. Meanwhile, Esma herds her little piggies into one corner of the cavern.

Suddenly, there is a loud squawk and a flurry of black wings as the witch doctor’s familiar — a great raven — attacks Pierce from behind. It had been perched in the darkness above the doorway, unseen by the PCs. I roll a hit on Pierce, and 1d6 damage for 6 points; a violent whorl of claws and beak rips Pierce’s neck open, and he grasps frantically at the wound as he pitches forward, gurgling his last breath and pulse into the sand.

While Hunwald and Esma are still in the midst of mouthing “Oh, shit,” Gareth takes a step and sunders the bird with a single downward blow of his axe (1d6 damage for 6 points, the raven’s total hp).

Everyone stands around in shock, struggling to absorb the rapid series of events. The pigs are squealing in terror, so Esma goes to comfort them. Gareth notices a gold ring around one of the raven’s legs, yanks it off, and holds it up to examine it by the light of his torch. It’s set with a cat’s eye gem, which fades to white as he looks at it. He puzzles over this for a moment, then puts it on, hoping for the best. Nothing unusual occurs. He shrugs and moves to examine the witch doctor’s corpse.

Hunwald moves back out into the water toward the totem, at the edge of the illumination cast by Gareth’s torch. Up close he can see that the top of the totem is a carved dragon’s head, jaws agape, while the wooden pole supporting it is carved to resemble scales. As he sloshes near, he feels a deep cold radiating from it, and with that cold a deep sense of unease. He stops about 5′ away, then walks around it, keeping his distance and examining it for anything of note. All he notices is that some ice has formed where the base of the totem meets the water. Sufficiently put off by the cold aura and bad feelings emanating from this object of worship, he decides to leave dark things to the dark, and returns to the beach. He and his companions will never find the three pressure plates concealed as scales along the dragon totem’s spine, or the secret cache that would be revealed by pressing the second plate. On the other hand, they’ll never suffer the ill effects of the poison needle trap that would be sprung by pressing the third plate.

Gareth unties the waterskin tied to the witch doctor’s crude belt, opens it, and sniffs the contents. It smells like rotting vegetation. He decides to keep it, then examines the stitched-together hides that constitute the thornling’s bodily protection. Is this armor intact? According to the rules, there’s a 25% chance of it being useless. I let him make the roll: 56. Gareth is about the same size as the creature, so he takes 5 minutes to strip off and don the hide armor (+3 AC, raising his AC from 11 to 14).

Hunwald returns, and leans down to relieve the witch doctor’s neck of the jade dragon charm tied around it with a dried animal tendon. He picks up the spiked mace and hands it to Esma. She takes it, dropping her swineherd’s staff to the sand. She looks over at Pierce’s corpse. She tests the sharp points of the mace with one finger.

Gareth says he’s going to check out the stalagmites where the witch doctor had been hiding. There, behind the limestone formations, he discovers the carcass of a strange beast, resembling a giant armadillo with two long tentacle-like appendages. It’s been dissected, and some internal organs have obviously been removed. This is a rust monster, but I don’t name it, I only describe its anatomy. The woodsman has never seen anything like it before, but he wastes no time speculating on its history, because his eye is immediately caught by a gleam of gold to one side of the thing. There, lying in the sand, is a golden scepter.

Gareth snatches it up excitedly, and sees that the head of the scepter has six faces, each of which is inscribed with a pictogram of an animal: dragon, lion, horse, hawk, snake, and spider. He waves the scepter about, pressing and testing the different pictograms, trying to trigger some kind of effect, but to no avail. It appears to be just a golden scepter.

The three remaining companions regroup in front of the portal and gird themselves for their next step. They’re all shivering and dripping wet. I think to myself, Guys, this would be a good time to maybe go back out through the tunnel and find those other ten friends of yours. But I say nothing. They have the dungeon bug.

We’ve been using one of Kiznit’s cool torch cards to track the time limit on Gareth’s one and only torch, and he has two checkboxes left, so they feel pressed for time. Gareth cedes the lead to Hunwald, taking the rear so that Esma and her pigs will be between them. They climb the stairs out of the cavern with hearts pounding.

At the top of the stairs, a passage leads to the right (west) about 20′, before disappearing into darkness out of the torch’s light radius. The stone of this passage is expertly worked, the corners are filled with cobwebs, and grit and grime coat the floor. Hunwald presses cautiously on, clutching his shortsword, mind still spinning with the thrill of slaying that twisted terror in the cavern.

Ahead, the passage leads into small chamber. What Hunwald can see of the floor of the chamber is littered with small clay figurines, crudely shaped to resemble dragons. Hunwald cautiously approaches the corner, concerned that the room may be occupied. He crouches down and peers around into the room. I ask him to make an initiative roll. I do the same.

Esma, close behind Hunwald, sees the business end of a serrated spear pop suddenly out of the back of the hapless herald’s head, and his instantly lifeless body is yanked around the corner to the floor, leaving only his twitching legs visible. A cacaphony of triumphant yips and snarling barks erupts from the darkness beyond, and Gareth and Esma realize that these bloodthirsty foes had been lying in wait, no doubt (no doubt) alerted by the light of Gareth’s torch!

Close to panic and not knowing how many fiends lurk in wait, Esma kicks one of her pigs forward into the room and waits a beat. The pig’s terrified squeal is met by another chorus of yelps, and Esma chooses that moment to step around the corner, with the mace of the witch doctor raised to strike.

The three thornlings in the room failed their Will save to resist the piggy ploy, and are in the midst of attacking the poor animal when Esma steps out over Hunwald’s body. She swings immediately at the thornling right in front of her — Hunwald’s killer — and bashes its head fatally against the stone wall. The other two thornlings turn from the pig they have just speared to death (grimaces all around the table) and freeze for a split second as I roll their morale check.

The thornlings cut and run, bounding down the far passageway, their howls echoing after them. Esma, sweating, stares down in disbelief at Hunwald’s punctured skull. And then at the bloody remains of her pig. Gareth steps to one side as the other pig runs squealing back into the cavern.

May Arimar bless Pierce the Fisherman and Hunwald the Herald, two poor souls who got only a taste of adventure before adventure tasted them. Pierce, rendered unfit for the world by a murderous raven on the black beach of the dragon totem; Hunwald, speared by a member of the thornlings’ honor guard.

Here ends the first session.