Monday, 22 March 2010

4ed Campaign -- Session 44 -- Sunday 7th March

In which the true cost of a rendezvous with Pargsmeer's whores is revealed, temptation is laid at the feet of the righteous, and the beneficiary of Pargsmeer's unearthly bargain is finally held to account...

Roster (Party Level 8th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard
Finial - Half-elf Paladin
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger

Various theories are tossed about regarding the visions in the crystals, but ultimately it is decided that the mystery is only likely to resolve itself by uncovering the rest of the house. The spiral stair is found to ascend another level, but emerges in a room infested with vermin, lapping at pools of blood dripping down from the ceiling above, and the company decides that another route may be preferable.

Adjacent to the room with the crystals is an all-but empty apartment, pale light filtering in through several thin windows, with a tight spiral stair in one corner. Pacing around the place is the ethereal image of a human cleric, his face bearing the scars of a ferocious beating, his eyes writ large with sadness; he moves to-and-fro, stopping in a far corner to put his head in his hands and weep.

Finial enquires of the apparition as to the source of his distress, and the ghost turns his forlorn expression upon the paladin.

"They're dead... those children, I should have been there... but I was weak, tempted by sins of the flesh... I should have been there for them, I would gladly have given my life for them. But it was taken from me, and now all those souls are lost..."
-- The ghost of the dead cleric, Pargsmeer House

Elumai recognises the cleric -- it's the very same man from the vision. He reveals he was once an aspirant to one of the churches of the plain, but prior to a life-time of celibacy, succumbed to a moment of weakness here at the Atoll. Rumours of his lapse in judgement raced ahead of him to the dioces and a notoriously unforgiving bishop, and he was summarily refused his robes. A few months later he was attacked by bandits on a distant trade-road, killed for the few coppers in his pocket.

He knows little of the church or deity he once worshipped, that solace having been stripped from him, and much less of his life before the Atoll; he is even ignorant even of his own name. He knows only that he is cursed to wonder this place until the devil that tempted him has been killed, and pleads with the adventurers to help him shake off his purgatory.

The adventurers come to a sudden realisation about the cleric and the images they have seen: Pargsmeer's whores did not, in fact, augur the future for the cleric... they *stole* it, pilfering a potential future from him as if it were payment for the deed. How many fates have been stolen in this way? How many people denied their rightful futures? Finial thinks to smash the globe containing the cleric's vision, and cracks the glass sphere in two, but the effort is useless, and the ghost merely shakes his head in sadness.

Jonas scouts up the stairs and finds himself emerging into a richly-appointed bed-chamber, apparently as pristine as the day it was built (though of course he doesn't believe the evidence of his own eyes). On the nearby four-poster, tossing and turning under a cover of silk sheets, is a pretty young woman, the very image of Eleanour Pargsmeer. She appears deep in the throes of a terrible nightmare, and utters "Father! What did you do? My sister..." as Jonas looks on.

The others join him but are unable to wake her. Thinking that removing her from the enchanted bedroom might be of some help, Finial scoops Eleanour out of the bed, and she reflexively puts her arms about his neck and her head to his chest. He carries her downstairs... but the ghost of the cleric is suddenly stricken with terror as he sees her. "Witch! Demon! Paladin, you know not what you have done!"

Finial turns to Eleanour to see she is awake, smiling alluringly at him. She places one cool palm upon his cheek and turns his mouth to her own. "Don't listen to him, my love. A kiss for your beloved?" Finial is entranced, and their lips meet.

Suddenly awake to the subterfuge, the others attack Eleanour -- or whatever she is -- and try to pry the two of them apart. After a judicious application of Force, Elumai manages to tear her off the paladin, and she lands on all fours, face rippling with devilish features, barely concealed. "Sisters! To my aid!" she screams with an ear-piercing shriek, and the upper floor suddenly erupts with the sound of footsteps pounding over the floorboards.

The succubus has many "sisters", grotesquely deformed ghouls dressed in rags that might once have been silk, but they are easily dispatched by way of a defensive line around the base of the stair, and although Finial remains under her away for the first few seconds of the fight, the devil herself is unceremoniously sent back to whatever hell spawned her when the paladin regains his senses.

Carefully pushing on through the now-empty third floor, the party ascends a final staircase to what was once the bed-chamber of the self-styled Lord and lady of this manor... and is now the lair of the devil to whom they sold their souls. Duke Venerix lounges on the massive bed, his huge frame smothering even the king-sized four-poster which dominates the room. His body is wrapped in a comically close-fitting smoking jacket, and his features are feral beneath jet black, swept-back hair and a pair of long horns which curve back from his forehead.

Reclining on the bed with him, resting their heads on his chest, are two female devils, and although their faces are now angular and monstrous, they were once undoubtedly the fair Pargsmeer daughters, now utterly transformed by the bargain their father made with the Duke. Their tails swish across the silk bed-sheets as they fondle Venerix and smile at the adventurers as they arrive. When he speaks, there is laughter in his voice as it thunders across the room, shaking the dainty statuettes still arranged on the dresser.

"Thusly arrive the bold adventurers, come to cleanse this den of iniquity from the earth! Cast down shall be the evildoers, lest they enjoy a moment of earthly pleasure!"
-- Duke Venerix to the company, Pargsmeer House

Although the devil appears in the mood for parlay with his unexpected guests, the company is having none of it, and spring to the attack. Barely able to stand in the confined space, Venerix rolls off the bed and begins pounding his fists at Berend, as Braid and Eleanour send waves of energy across the room, agony and ecstasy in equal measure which disorient their enemies and make it easy for Venerix to find his mark.

Suddenly the devil wraps his hand around Berend's throat and grins a mouth full of shockingly white teeth at the dwarf. Berend vanishes... and from inside Venerix's chest, the shape of a dwarven hand can be seen pushing feebly at the red flesh, trying to escape imprisonment in whatever hellish prison he has been entombed.

The battle in the attic bedroom is short, loud, and deadly. Berend asserts himself over Venerix's will and escapes to continue the fight, Jonas is able to duck in and out of cover with impunity, and Finial sears the devil's flesh with the light of his God. The Duke's destiny, it seems, is to be defeated at the hands of these explorers, and both he and his concubines are soon banished from the mortal realm.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

4ed Campaign -- Session 43 -- Sunday 28th February

In which a distant past reaches out to the company, and the tragic secrets of Pargsmeer House and Gardens finally begin to reveal themselves...

Roster (Party Level 8th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard
Finial - Half-elf Paladin
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger

The adventurers familiarise themselves with Pargsmeer House's history before venturing across to investigate. Owned by the self-appointed Lord and Lady Pargsmeer almost 150 years ago, where they lived with their two daughters Eleanour and Braid, the House was built as a counterpoint to the more stately mayoral manor and then, soon after its completion and much to the surprise of the township, it was opened as a brothel to the burgeoning foot traffic passing through Crow's Atoll.

By repute, those who availed themselves of the House's services would have their fortune read as part of the 'service', and business was good. Still, Arnold Pargsmeer managed to bankrupt himself by attempting, a few years later, to buy himself a popular mandate to take over the mayorship of the town from the Crow family.

Despite completing several essential public works (the Pump House among them), he never achieved the momentum necessary to win the people's vote and was soon in dire financial trouble. When his daughters were reported to have died in an unspecified accident, the family shut themselves away for good, and not long after that, the earth tremors which collapsed the land-bridge to the Needle struck the atoll.

No-one has ventured across since then, but Berend applies himself to the problem of actually reaching the Needle by designing a winged harness... a complex contraption that not one of his friends, colleagues, or the hundred-or-so spectators who gather around the pump-house think has a hope of working. With bets being taken and the odds tumbling by the hour, he straps himself in, and launches himself over the gulf.

The flight is spectacular, the view even more so. Updrafts from the gulf keep his little glider in the air long enough for him to reach the walls of the needle, a quartz-encrusted cliff-face that promises to smash him to smithereens and dump his body into the mists below... but as he makes contact, he hits the
quick-release on his harness, and latches on with two specially-crafted rock-hammers strapped to his hands.

Memories from long ago, of Teremoen Crow and his team of mountaineers risking life and limb to build the cable-way, rise unbidden to the minds of the older members of his audience and a smattering of applause slowly rises, climaxing in an appreciative crescendo as he hauls himself up the cliff and collapses over the edge. Stringing a make-shift line across the gap, the rest of the party soon joins him.

Pargsmeer gardens have gone to ruin, a colourless, overgrown waste-land of dead or dying plants surrounded by a rusting
iron fence. The house itself, a stone fortress with thin stained windows like arrow-slits, and crumbling walls, is no more inviting. Jonas scouts to the top of the highest tower, and though the view across the plain is a good one, finds no means of ingress other than a few shuttered windows, which though he might be able to de-glaze and squeeze through, would leave him far too vulnerable.

Below, the party investigates the inner courtyard. On the cold wind, it seems voices are rising from the well there, moaning in rising ecstasy and then cut abruptly off in strangled screams. A light lowered into the depths shows a deep layer of leaves and other detritus, and feebly clutching skeletal hands which the party decide to simply ignore.

Above, looking down on the c
ourtyard from a mezzanine reached via a thin flight of steps, is an intricately carved stone statue. It shows a man and a woman arm-in-arm, and two younger girls crouching at their feet: the Pargsmeer family. It's a pleasant enough portrait, except for the fact that the faces of both daughters have been desecrated by clawed hands. Pieces of rubble around the base of the statue are all that remains of their features.

Entering the house through a collapsed doorway, they find a large reception area, it's once-plush red carpet now mangy and stained, and the whole interior reeking of decades-old entropy.

A door to one side leads to what might have once been on office of some kind. Hung askew on the wall is the original portrait on which the status outside was based, this time with the beauty of the Pargsmeer daughters intact, and on the opposite wall, hanging above two fallen candelabras, is a framed picture of nothing but purest black, the brush-strokes thick and purposeful. Elumai identifies it as a Null Portrait, a magical device whose real picture only becomes clear after the repayment of some old debt.

Amongst a pile of broken wood like an unlit bonfire, the party finds the remains of a ledger describing the last few years of the brothel's business. The numbers become gradually fewer, and smaller, towards the back of the book, and the last few pages seem to have been ripped out. Beneath the family portrait, a loose corner of dried carpet is lifted to find a simple message etched into the wooden floorboards: "I'm sorry".

Continuing their investigation, they're enticed to a room in the north-west corner. Jonas is first to take a peek inside, and he sees the ruined remains of what was once a boudoir, with several rotting beds, a few mildly pornographic portraits at crazy angles on the walls... and lying on one of the beds, a beautiful young woman, who slithers across the filthy sheets and beckons for him to enter. The rational part of his mind screams a warning, but it is overcome by the glamor and, utterly entranced, he moves towards her.

The rest of the party are somewhat dismayed to see Jonas break from his customary stealth and stroll with a dopey smile into the heart of the room, and they rush to follow. Unfortunately, they then all find themselves under attack by the wraiths, appearing in various guises as beautiful woman designed to entrap the minds of the party. Not so easily does an adventurer's will succumb to such trickery, however, and although the lingering undead enjoy brief success, rationality soon asserts itself and the denizens of the boudoir are handily dispatched.

Finding a spiral iron stair, the party ascends to the first floor. In a room overlooking the rearward garden, they are attacked by a poltergeist which flings porcelain figurines about the room with vicious force... and are privvy to an echo of the past, as two ghostly figures can be seen rushing through the gardens, pausing for a last embrace at the cliff's edge, before flinging themselves off to certain death below. Such, it appears, was the final fate of Arnold Pargsmeer and his wife Pondra.

Next-door, they find a room with a bay window which has been removed or which has simply disintegrated with the passage of time. Four pedestals arranged near the back wall carry shrouded glass globes like crystal balls, their interiors opaque and cloudy. Elumai volunteers to examine them, resists a powerful assault on her mind, and sees a distant image within the globe, a scene played out for her alone:

...the face of an overjoyed prospector, staring in disbelief at an uncut gem the size of his fist, its unrealised beauty reflected in the flickering light of his candle...

Similar visions play out from the other globes, as the rest of the party step up to search for clues to the mystery:

...a battered-looking cleric, his robes soaked and dishevilled, holding a glowing holy symbol aloft as a horde of ghouls, their ripped flesh entwined in rotting seaweed, converge on a schoolhouse to feast on the terrified children cowering within...

...a beautiful young woman, flushed with excitement and pride as she is led by a handsome prince along a procession of courtiers to meet a white-robed king with a crown of silk... emerald-robed wizard, clutching a silver-shod tome, whispering a last prayer on the wind as he tumbles from the pinnacle of a jade tower...

The company pauses to consider the implications of these images...

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Rodney Thompson Cordially Invites You help Wizards write better adventures. In a refreshingly frank and particularly un-Wizards-like way, I have to say.

A lot of what has been posted in that thread mirrors my own experience, and I'll probably have something to add... if and when I think of anything interesting that hasn't already been said. In the meantime, if you fancy contributing to an unusually direct piece of market research, now is the time.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

I, Dungeon Master (1)

Starting a series of posts in which I talk about various lessons learned in the course of DM'ing the Cradle Plain campaign.

Scarily, it's coming up on 2 years since the latest edition of D&D was released. Through hard work and no small amount of good fortune, I've managed to build and sustain a weekly campaign for most of that time. This is a big deal, because the last time I managed it, I was 13, and in those days, Saturday afternoons were for playing D&D, and Sunday afternoons were for planning next Saturday afternoon. Those days may have gone, but the nagging dreams of weekly D&D and long-term campaigns never did.

The game, and those who play it, mean a great deal to me, and for the first time in just about ever, I've been roleplaying regularly enough to start ironing out the creases and actually evolve a campaign which responds to its players.

To celebrate this, I humbly submit Wedge's Top Tips for successful role-playing, in no particular order. Bear in mind that we haven't hit Paragon yet, so I can only vouch for this advice in the Heroic tier (and it would be very interesting if the advice changed tier-to-tier).

#1 - Monsters Take 10 For Initiative

PC's with good Initiative scores (those with a healthy Dex, and feats or other external factors) will always have an Initiative in excess of the average monster at their level, and on the whole can expect to act first. Strikers will want to get in there before the bad guys have lifted a finger and exploit Combat Advantage; Controllers will want to pin them to the spot and delay big-hitting melee enemies from closing as long as possible; Defenders will want to make themselves target numero-uno; and so-on.

Simply put, you should always aim for them to do this.

This tip has a couple of solid mechanical justifications (for example, a good surprise round can reduce the chances of the fight deteriorating into an unwelcome grind), as well as a few healthy player-upkeep justifications (chiefly, groups looove catching the bad guys with their pants down), but most importantly one supreme, all-governing gameplay ramification: it tends to stop your combats getting bottle-necked.

You know the drill, I'm sure. You've planned a nefarious encounter area, with multiple subtle terrain features, strategising opponents, and deadly defenses; the party approaches, kicks in the door, and boom! You roll the villains' Initiative and groan inwardly as you realise, most of your guys are going to go first.

You have a couple of choices in this situation. First, you could outright lie. Frown, tut and shake your head at the clattering dice before the screen... then ignore the 19 that came up, and jot down a 4. We'll assume that egregious dice-fudgement is out of the question though, so moving on...

Second, you could have your guys delay or ready. For melee creatures, this tends to look horribly contrived unless the circumstances warrant it (say, an ambush); it may have looked good for Neo, but having brutes and soldiers thumb their noses at the PC's instead of charging in to get the first attack while their opponents are stuffed into a cramped corridor suggests less intelligence than I usually want to give them credit for.

If you're lucky, you have an encounter group where an enemy Controller can spend a round buffing his allies. This looks good, seems like intelligent behaviour, and provides opportunity for trash-talk, all points in its favour.

In my experience though, more often than not in these situations, you will have a melee contingent in the encounter group, they will gain a strong advantage by rushing the PC's, and it would make no sense for them to not to. So they do, and your carefully-planned milieu is reduced down to a 4x2 square zone just inside the door, neatly excising from the encounter one of the main combat improvements that make 4E what it is: mobility.

Cue static 3E-like combat, the unleashing of terribly uninteresting At-Will's, and the hilarious scattering of miniatures as you struggle to apply your magnetic markers to a wizard surrounded by nine kobold miniatures, all with spears.

I exagerate, but the point is that you should always strive to get the PC's into your encounter area before you engage them. Let the Striker sneak round the back... all the better, because when he gets into trouble, he'll have to call for help. Let the Defender mark his foe and get toe-to-toe with him... he'll probably have stepped through the front rank to do so. Get the protagonists in places where they can strategise, look for synnergies, and really exploit the fluidity of a good 4E encounter.

Everyone will thank you for it, friend and foe alike.