Thursday, 27 October 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 64 -- Sunday 20th February 2011

Another lost recording. :( I was having a few troubles with my normally rock-solid recording equipment. Check The Story So Far for a quick review.

Cradle Plain -- Session 63 -- Sunday 13th February 2011

In which the company leaves the safety of Emerandes to journey south, and deals with an ancient, slumbering threat deep in the wilderness...

Roster (Party Level 11th)
Berend - Dwarven Fighter (Dreadnought)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard (Shiere Knight)

Seraiya (Companion) - Eladrin Cleric
Finial - Half-elf Paladin (Justicar)
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger (Master Spy)

November 6th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning
Berend spends a few precious hours researching information on, as he calls it, "extracting the juice of several wizards" which he now knows will be necessary to reinforce the so-called 'slip-shield' of the planar jammer, but the public libraries of Emerandes, though impressive, don't provide much help in the short time he can spare. In the end he decides that rescuing Lord Riva might well serve his purposes better than fruitlessly walking a thousand dusty bookshelves looking for clues, and as it happens the group as a whole has reached a consensus that going after Riva should probably be their next course of action anyway.

The journey is 5 days on horseback and the company tracks down Wilder, who is still in the city with Shortham and staying at an inn called the "Second Stop". In the process they learn that Banks is extremely well-liked and well-respected within Emerandes, a man who will always get you and your goods from A to B; in fact, one trader they talk to is quick to inform them of stories his own father used to tell of Shortham delivering perishable goods to the city walls sixty or more years ago! This is surely well before the enigmatic caravan master could have been born, but it's one of many clues that Banks might be more than he seems. Wilder greets them companionably from his bunk in the stables, and they spend a few minutes catching up before hiring four of his most rested animals (40gp a horse, with 20gp refundable upon safe return... friend rates, of course). So confident is he in their prowess that he guarantees ten hours travel for every eight hours achievable on a lesser steed; if true, this will knock a day off their journey in each direction.

November 7th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning 

The company rides out under a clear blue sky in which a sliver of moon can be seen over the distant peaks of the mountains to the north. There is very little traffic on the King's Road that morning, and what little they run into is heavily-guarded and prone to suspicion. One large caravan -- a single trader, surrounded by heavily-armed mercenaries -- reports losing two of its number to an ambush further south, but apart from that, the day passes uneventfully as they travel first south-west and then veer off the main highway onto a less-travelled route winding south towards Lukktor. As the sun sets, Berend -- seemingly untroubled by fatigue -- proposes pushing on through night. The night is cold and clear, star and moon shining in the heavens, and the motion passes.

Some hours letter, a piercingly cold northerly wind picks up, biting to the marrow. Unnervingly, this unnatural phenomenon seems to change direction with the travellers, always blowing from their back. Finial notices formless shadows in the corner of his eye, blowing past him on the wind... looking closer, the shadows take the form of animal silhouettes, a ghostly menagerie  fleeing an unknown threat. After a couple of minutes of this, the wind drops, the shadows dissipate, and the Plain returns to normality. Pondering the situation, Elumai is reminded of something she's read about called the "Winds of the Wild", an omen of ill-fortune often reported to plague those who insist on walking dangerous roads. She wonders aloud how such a phenomenon could apply to them, when by all accounts their fates have already been stolen by the demoness? It's an interesting quandary, but no-one has any answers.

As they push on, the starlit sky overhead is gradually obscured by the thickening branches and broad, greasy leaves of trees native to this part of the Plain. The road, such as it is, has plunged into woodland.

November 8th, 370 Pale King's Reckoning 

As the sun rises, Seraiya begins to wane in her saddle, and a decision is made to rest for a couple of hours. The wind has dropped, and yet a murmuring can be heard in the undergrowth all around them, almost as if the trees themselves are whispering behind their backs. Nothing is to be found upon inspection... but the party does notice an inviting clearing a few hundred feet down the path. It seems terribly convenient and enticing, but the group is not one for turning its back on the unknown (despite Berend's grumblings).

The clearing looks like a hurricane once blasted through it, leaving a huge pile of tumbled-down boulders and splintered trees around the edge of the area leading to a rubble-strewn slope, covered in deadfall, which ascends into the shadows of the trees and out of sight (although they can hear water somewhere up there). An abandoned camp fire sits in the centre of the glade, mostly obscured amongst the knee-high grasses which have been given leave to grow in the area. Elumai and Finial sneak in for a closer look: it would seem that several people have recently converged around the fire, flattening the grass, and a discarded back-pack sits to one side.

They carefully approach. The camp-fire is long-dead, about a week old by Finial's estimation, while the back-pack contains mundane adventuring gear long-rusted (and the mouse that scurries away as they empty its nest onto the grass suggests it's been there for some time). A few days of salted rations are about the only things of any use. Elumai has spent a few minutes tilting her head towards the whispering in the trees. There are definitely voices under there, but they're too distant and fragmented to make out clearly.

Berend clambers to the top of the deadfall and looks about. On the ledge is a pool of stagnant water, and two giant stone feet, which are all that remains of a statue which once stood guardian over the glade but which has now shattered and collapsed into the pool. There is also an oaken door set expertly into the rockface, with lettering carved into the wood which has long-since weathered away. Berend suggests rubbing soot into the door and a vestige of rellanic script gradually fades into view: May the eyes of the Fey forever watch over this place.

He then turns his attention to the pool. His first suggestion is to dig a trench and drain the thing, but when Finial wades in he discovers it's only knee-deep and littered with blocks of stone. He quickly heaves the weed-strewn chunks into the open air, and begins to reassemble them on the grass. It's a deific, kindly-looking eladrin holding a longsword, which when laid together reveal passages of religious script; in translation, these writings recount various funerary themes, promising the blessings of a distant patron who is evoked using a selection of different names (but who on reflection is obviously the Raven Queen).

Elumai meanwhile has used ritual magic to decipher the whisperings, only to find that they are themselves the verses of a ritual called Corpselike Visage, being repeated all around them. This would normally be used to give someone the semblance of death, even to divinations, and raises all kinds of unpleasant possibilities about the tomb. Finial steps forward to have a look.
The door is ancient, but scrapes and stripped lichen around the stone at its base indicate it may have been opened much more recently. A quick examination by Elumai reveals it's Arcane Locked, and the enchantment resists her efforts to Dispel it... so she resorts to her significant lock-picking skills instead, and with more success.

As they wrench the door open, the whispering all around them gets suddenly very loud. A passage cut into the hillside descends via a rough staircase into the dark below, the walls covered in green moss and other plant-life that has overrun and invaded the space. Relanic glyphs carved into the rock follow the same pattern as the prayers engraved into the statue, and there is the sound of dripping water below.

The company descends carefully. The only things to give them pause are gossamer thin webs, strung across the stairs and climbing the walls. Berend tosses a piece of statue noisily down the stairs, which gathers up all of the webs on its way down before crumbling to a stop in a stagnant pool. Two shadowy, multi-legged shapes emerge from the rubble, swarm up the wall, and disappear, chittering, into a crack next to a large, open double door at the bottom of the stairs.

The party descends, a Light spell cast upon Finial's helm illuminating the way. In a large chamber below, six statues, all of which have been smashed down to their feet, stand upon a raised platform, in the centre of which rest two cairns, built of stones which have clearly been brought down from the ledge above. Two large arachnids can very clearly be seen lurking in clutches of silky webbing strung across the walls and ceiling. Berend waits only long enough for his companions to enter the room before launching his Thunderburst hammer at the nearest spider. In the crackling concussion, the curtains of spider-web around the room billow out, and from alcoves behind them, several trolls rush forward to attack the interlopers of the tomb.

Meanwhile, the spider which Berend attacked leaps from the ceiling onto his face and strands of thick silk erupt around him, pinning him to the floor. One of the trolls growls in broken common -- "Wake the mother!" -- before moving to block the exit, however it doesn't reckon on Finial's extended reach and the paladin's spiked chain slams into his back.

A second spider skitters across the ceiling and leaps towards Elumai. With a single word of command, she bisects the room with a blazing wall of fire. The spider screeches as it tumbles into the flames, and its attack goes wild, but as it lands it turns its abdomen towards her and fires a glob of webbing that roots her in place. This is the last mistake the enraged arachnid ever makes, as Berend, perfectly placed, brings his hammer down in a crushing blow which all-but obliterates the creature in an explosion of gore. Webs and the accumulated dust of ages smoulder in the fire, filling the room with a thin but cloying smoke and the smelled of burned decay.

The other troll has clambered up onto one of the cairns and is scooping rocks off the grave. Suddenly, the whispering around them coalesces into a rasping voice -- "Who disturbs my slumber?!" -- and the rocks tumble outward in a cascade to reveal a decrepid, rag-clothed old woman. She pulls herself free and strides through the fire to reach Elumai.

"I have turned the magics of this place into dreamless sleep, these centuries. You will not be the end of me, girl!" -- the hag beneath the forest

The hag unleashes a Sleep which rolls inexorably over the party. Elumai and Seraiya's eladrin blood protects them from the spell, but Finial and Berend find their eyelids growing heavier by the second. Fighting the ennui, Berend musters his strength and charges the frail old creature... only to find his axe batted aside as if it was nothing, and his last sight as he collapses into the creature's arms, unconscious, is her hideous smile and rotting fangs.

The heat of the Wall of Fire slowly bakes the room, and its occupants. So cunning was Elumai in its placement that her opponents find their options all-but reduced to simply charging the company and hoping for a hit. Elumai follows-up with a Thunderwave, but succeeds only in throwing Berend across the room into the corner. "...five more minutes..." murmurs the sleeping warrior, just as he's pounced upon by one of the spiders, which can't resist a sleeping victim despite the fact that its flesh sizzles under Finial's ongoing challenge.

Finial defends himself against a vicious broad-sword strike, and lashes out with a vengeful Astral Thunder, almost knocking both trolls off their feet. He follows up with a Radiant Pulse, slamming his opponent away from him and back into proximity of the Wall, before finally succumbing to the hag's enchantment himself. Seraiya sends a healing wave towards the still-sleeping Berend, and kicks Finial awake before Branding and killing the troll which was attacking him. Elumai, meanwhile, finally drops the Wall and runs over to shake Berend awake... meaning the hag, who had discorporated to haunt his dreams, re-appears next to him, laying herself vulnerable to multiple attacks and dying with a scream of despair on her lips.

The remaining troll and spider pose few problems to the company, and they pause to search the tomb and tend to their wounds. There is a selection of old, rusting adventuring kit, suggesting that the spiders within have been feasting on travellers for some time, and along with the equivalent of several hundred gold in currency, they find a mouldy sack with a handy couple of Potions of Vitality. Content with a good day's work, they go on their way.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Tiles vs. Whiteboard, the battle continues!

Big, isn't it?
It took me a while to come around to tile-sets. I've drawn my battle-mats for years on a large, chunky, 1-inch gridded dry-erase whiteboard, because this gives me ultimate flexibility over layout. Not only can I can whack out an encounter in just a couple of minutes, but I can change scenery on the fly, add decals and annotations, draw pretty pictures... whatever I want. The group can also use it for buff/debuff tracking, Initiative, and all that good stuff. It's powerful, and with just a few simple colours, looks pretty nice on the table as well.

Not one of my best, but shows the whiteboard in use
Two things happened to make me try dungeon tiles. First, my whiteboard is getting old. The grid is now all-but impossible to see, and the surface is stained with the ghostly remains of old encounters where we accidentally used permanent ink or where the colour has worked itself into flaws on the surface. Finding a whiteboard with the same features at a reasonable price has proved hilariously difficult. I wish I'd bought five of them a decade ago instead of just the one which has done such sterling service since then.

Second, I actually started paying attention to what Wizards was producing instead of assuming that my twenty-five year-old memory of flimsy cardboard tiles with scuffed corners and dodgy artwork still represented the norm. After buying a set of Wizards of the Coast's Sinister Woods, that old memory was laid to rest straight away. The tiles were stocky and durable, and the art was terrific. Similar dip-tests into the Paizo product line were no less promising.

Since then, I've used them on-and-off alongside my faithful old whiteboard. They're not dry-erasable, so they make it hard to draw unique and encounter-specific objects onto the play space (as opposed to, for example, Paizo's Gamemastery Map Packs, which are dry-erase but not as durable), but for generic and reconfigurable settings such as the random overgrown ruin, the forest glade, the ancient temple, and so-on, they add cool and welcome variety to the proceedings.

To really be useful to me, though, as a complete replacement for my whiteboard, dungeon tiles of any kind will need to pass the following litmus tests:

They need to be cheap, plentiful, and varied. Much of Wizards of the Coast's old line is now out-of-print but still readily available on eBay, and in any case has now been assimilated by the new "Master" tiles range. Paizo and other vendors still have well-stocked online stores. So, no problems there.

They need to be durable. I need to be able to stack them in a box, pile them on the floor, and throw them around the room. The Wizards sets, old and new alike, are the gold-standard here; the Gamemastery products lag behind slightly, but have other advantages to make up for it. Looks like we're set here as well.

I need to be able to quickly assemble a complex encounter on-the-fly. This is where tiles' versatility starts to work against them. Storing and organising stacks and stacks of the things so that you can quickly find what you need is a real problem, and the danger is that you resort to something dull and uninspiring on the table just to keep the game moving. I can translate a map from adventure to whiteboard in a minute or two... I need to find a way to catalogue my tiles to achieve the same with them.

I need to be able to customise the battle-mat without damaging the tiles. This is the real biggie. Whiteboard battle-mats have infinite flexibility, and every one of them can be unique; tiled battle-mats will always look somewhat homogenous. What I can't do at all on the Wizards tiles is draw that glyph trap, or that crack in the wall, or that gutter full of fire, or in fact any feature which is not served by the tiles I have on-hand. One solution here will be thick-stock dry-erase transparencies, cut into various sizes and available on-hand to lay down on the tiles and draw over. I'll be trying that experiment as soon as I've found a suitable material. (The Paizo map-packs, by the way, don't suffer from this problem: they're smaller, more specific and much less interchangeable, but they're glossy and dry-erase out of the box.)

So with all that said, on to a mini review of Wizards' Master Set: The City, which is part of the latest line of dungeon tiles from the publishers of D&D. I bought this sizable box because I don't have any urban tiles at all... and also because I wanted to see how the new sets compared to the old ones (now defunct).

I was pretty blown away, I have to say. The set was more expensive than its predecessors, but it comes packaged in a bullet-proof cardboard box of the kind you'd expect to contain a whole campaign setting. I was dubious that it would be filled entirely with tiles (which would have been astonishing value), but pleased to find it was at least half-filled with tiles, measuring about twice as many as you'd find in the old packages. This turned out to be a storage consideration: when popped, the tiles easily fill the entire box.

Other than that, the quality of the artwork and the variety of tiles, including street, plaza, house interiors, sewers, and a welcome selection of carts, horses, statuary, pipes, etc., is excellent. I would have to say the set represents good value for money.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Cradle Plain -- Session 62 -- Sunday 6th February 2011

Unfortunately the detailed recording for this session was lost, however you can refer to The Story So Far for a quick run-down on what happened.