Saturday, September 6, 2014

WH7 The Fountain of Life

My experiments continue. Only two players of the regular group could make it this weekend. So I've decided to include another adventure into the current UK2 The Sentinel module. The adventure is called Fountain of Life and was originally published in the RPG magazine "Tortured Souls". I am using the German translation that appeared in ZauberZeit #8.

Note: Still using the complete PHB and the D&D Basic for DMs V0.1.

Cast of Characters:
  • Grandor, male mountain dwarf cleric (acolyte)
  • Orell Underhill, male stout halfling rogue (spy)
After helping Khelben and company to investigate the standing stones Dancing Dew Maidens, Grandor is sent south to Wolfsdale to find out if Mab, Bruenor and Orell need help in dealing with the troubles at Wolfsdale. After a week of uneventful travelling, Grandor arrives at the village. He is pointed to the inn where Mab and Orell are staying. Mab introduces Grandor to Orell and tells him that Bruenor has taken their drow "prisoner" to Lakehaven to a magistrate located there to get her official papers.

Orell and Grandor go around shopping a bit, but the stores don't really have what they require. Then they see a young man, a blacksmith coming into town carrying a dead man in his arms. The blacksmith is called Travultar and the dead young man is Pugnam. He was bitten to death and a javelin was found at his side. Grandor recognizes the javelin as lizardfolk-made. Also, the bite marks point in the same direction.

Papa Kursk, the village elder, suggests that Grandor and Orell could ask a friendly young lizardman called Tsziktezz for aid in tracking down the lizardmen responsible. Tsiktezz lives in a small valley at the edge of the Mountains of Mist (yeah... I was very Tolkien inspired back in my youth when I came up with names). Papa Kursk tells them that Tsziktezz lives at the Fountain of Life. Grandor and Orell decide to accept the mission in return for a modest payment of 25 gold pieces.

Before leaving the village of Wolfsdale, Orell shows Grandor the strange inscription in blood that they found earlier. Grandor is able to translate the draconic writing. It seems to be a rather mysterious plea for aid, warning of a great evil stirring.

As they prepare to finally leave for the half-day journey to the Fountain of Life, Travultar approaches them and tells them about his brother Trackak. He went missing some three weeks ago. He wears a necklace made of crystals similar to the one Travular wears on his dark haired chest. If they can return his brother alive, he promises them 200 gold pieces. If they can return the crystal necklace to him as proof of his brother's death, he'll still award them 100 gold pieces.

After half a day of travelling into the mountains, Grandor and Orell reach the temple of the Fountain of Life. As they enter the seemingly abandoned caves, they disturb a swarm of bats. After chasing them off, they proceed deeper into the caves. They don't find much of value, and turn back as they encounter a stone guardian on a bridge. Then, Grandor decides to cast locate object in order to find the necklace (good thinking on part of the player). That leads them back to a T-junction covered with wooden planks. As the halfling and the dwarf stand together on the planks, they break through into a watery hole. The oil lamp of Ordell is extinguished as it plunges into the water. Suddenly, only Grandor is able to see anything. They are in 5 feet deep water (pity that dwarfs and halflings are less than 5 feet tall...). Grandor feels that the necklace is near. He dives into the water and retrieves it, while being attacked by a poisonous water snake that has taken up residence in a skeleton. Grandor defeats the snake, then emerges from the water again. He dives back down to retrieve his shield and Orell's lamp. Then he guides the halfling to the eastern ladder. They climb up. But just as Orell reaches the top of the ladder, it basically disintegrates below him and dwarf and halfling fall back into the cold water. They finally get out of the pit by climbing the western ladder. Only real problem: the collapsed T-junction blocks them from the exit of the caves...

They approach the stone guardian. It asks them what they want. They reply that they want to see Tsziktezz. The guardian steps aside and lets them pass. Behind the room with the guardian, stairs lead down to another level of the abandoned temple.

On the second level, they enter a dining room. A loud gong sounds. Food appears on the table and two goblins run out of an adjacent room. The party parleys (that's sensible little folk for you). The goblins want some money, then tell them that they don't know anything about Tsziktezz and let them continue exploring the temple in peace.

In the next room Grandor and Orell find Tsziktezz waiting for them on a marble throne on a platform across water. They talk a bit. He isn't really interested in helping them, but allows them to visit the Fountain of Life. The halfling and the dwarf take him up on the offer.

While investigating the alleged healing properties of the fountain (water gushing out of a solidly golden lizard head), first Orell and then Grandor is sucked into an underground river. Both quickly lose their senses and start drowning...

Both of them awaken at the banks of a small brook, where they have been deposited by the river. It is dark and they decide to take a long rest (being both at 1 hp). On the next morning, they try to find the Temple of the Fountain again, but become hopelessly lost in the mountains. They make camp in the mountains and on the next day walk down into the Weathered Heath again, arriving at the mines of Wolfsdale in the evening. After sleeping at the mining outpost, they are pointed back to the village.

Since Orell lost his equipment in the temple, including a valuable healing potion, they decide to go back to reclaim the equipment. Also they want to talk to Tsziktezz again and get him to help the villagers. But before they leave again, Grandor takes the crystal necklace to Travultar. He is dismayed at the death of his brother, but pays them 100 gold pieces as promised. Orell uses the money to buy some gear.  Grandor meanwhile wonders how Travultar's brother ended up dead in the temple. Something else to talk with Tsziktezz about.

On their way back, they meet a monk called Urquant from the Order of the Grey Cowl. He asks them for help. He was visiting the hermitage of a fellow member of his order, but on arriving he found the brother hanged in a tree and was attacked by two gargoyles. He fled into the wilderness and now seeks help to reclaim the treatises on philosophy the hermit was writing. Orell and Grandor promise to help. In return they may keep all the valuables except the books.

The three make camp. The next day, Grandor changes his line-up of spells and together with Orell comes up with a plan for attacking the gargoyles. First they approach the cave, then Grandor fires a guiding bolt at one gargoyle. Orell shoots that one with a bolt from his crossbow. Then the gargoyles are upon them. Grandor summons a spiritual hammer, then swallows the moonstone containing the blessing of Elissar (god of dreams, wolves and hope). The moonstone dissolves into a salty liquid and the two are blessed. Orell valiantly continues to attack the Gargoyles. Grandor uses all the healing power at his disposal to keep the fight going. Then Orell goes down, Urquant recues him and gives him a healing potion. Meanwhile Grandor falls under the attacks of the last gargoyle. But Orell gets up, and swings on the branches of a tree until he can fall from above on the gargoyle. He finishes it off! The day is saved, The group retreats into the woods around the hermitage and takes a good long rest.

On the next day, the trio investigates the devastated hermitage in the cave. Orell and Grandor find the treasure of the gargoyles and Urquant true to his word allows them to keep it. The actual library is guarded by witherweed. But Grandor manages to find a way around the choking plants. Inside the library, Urquant takes the eight books on philosophy written by the dead hermit into his possession, but allows Orell and Grandor to keep a curious blue book that isn't part of the collection.

Grandor studies the book. Apparently, it's the lineage and chronicle of the Arthog family. The head of the family was responsible for guarding a mountain fortress called Adlerweg. When the last guardian returned from Adlerweg, he brought a curious magic item with him that is called The Sentinel in the text, but isn't described at all. Then the family line faltered with Henryk von Arthog who squandered the family fortune and had to abandon the lakeside villa inhabited by his family. Maybe that's the same lakeside villa that Mab, Bruenor, Chasna and Orell heard about some days ago at the half-orc camp.

Anyway, Orell and Grandor split from Urquant who is really grateful for their help and continue on to the Temple of the Fountain. There, they cleverly use a rope and grabbling hook to bridge the T-junction and talk to Tsziktezz again. Still, the young lizardman isn't moved by the plight of the villagers. But as it turns out, he knows about the goblins in the temple who apparently work as guards for him. Also, he set up the stone guardian on the first level. But unable to get to the bottom of the story, Grandor and Orell leave and return to Wolfsdale,

To be continued...

Friday, September 5, 2014

TJ5 Sometimes Even a Dragon Requires Help... Part 1

My experiment in using modules for older D&D versions continues. This time an adventure module from the old German RPG magazine ZauberZeit #2 (Auch ein Drache braucht mal Hilfe). I've DMed this adventure several times already, once with the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and twice with Tunnels & Trolls.

Notes: The full Player's Handbook is used together with monsters from D&D Basic for DMs V0.1.

Cast of Characters:
  • Aethelric, male half-elf warlock (criminal/spy)
  • Bangrimm, male hill dwarf cleric (acolyte)
  • Bjarne, male human fighter (soldier)
On his travels from Rakurstada to Knuivigi, Bangrimm meets two other adventurers: Aethelric and Bjarne. Together they continue their travels to find safety in numbers this close to the Weathered Heath. In the evening, they arrive at Knuivigi and decide to rest at the Dancing Boar Inn. The locals tell them about a sighting of five dragons near the ruins of Castle Raven's Aerie. The next day, the three adventurers leave for the castle.

As they arrive at the castle, they don't see or hear anything out of the ordinary. Just a ruined castle standing seemingly abandoned on the Weathered Heath. Cautiously they investigate first the outer, then the inner courtyard. As Bjarne moves into the inner courtyard, he is attacked by a vicious brown bear and heavily wounded. During the battle, Aethelric discovers a sleeping green dragon resting in the adjacent courtyard.

After defeating the black bear, the three try to leave before the green dragon notices them. But they are unsuccessful. Aethelric withdraws into the outer courtyard, but Bangrimm and Bjarne are detained by the green dragon. Reluctantly Aethelric moves back in. The dragon explains that he needs heroes to investigate a crypt. He is too big to fit inside, and the first party he sent in failed to return. The green dragon is looking for the Scepter of Yragael, a warlord who lies buried in the crypt. He points them to three healing potions and then herds them down into the crypt. Besides the entrance to the crypt, a temple to Celos, god of the sun and wisdom, sits in the smaller courtyard and adjacent to it lies a small graveyard.

The adventurers enter the crypt cautiously. The find a big entrance hall, where three doors lead deeper into the crypt. Each door guarded by two skeletons. After a short discussion, Aethelric attacks one skeleton with an eldritch blast. All six skeletons start moving and attacking the adventurers. A pitched battled ensues. The tide only starts to turn when Bjarne goes from a purely defensive stance to the offense.

After the battle the group investigates the door to the left and find an old chest containing two jewels. Aethelric investigates one wall and finds two indentions. They put the jewels there and find a hidden room. There, they are attacked by two giant centipedes. After defeating them, they find some more treasures.

Then they listen at the door to the right and hear squabbling squeaky voices. Entering the room, they see eight kobolds engaged in a heated discussion. Another battle is quickly finished, when Aethelric casts shatter in to the room. They find nothing of value and decide to take a short rest before proceeding into the dungeon.

As they continue their explorations, Aethelric discovers a suit of armor that animates as he tries to retreat. As reward for defeating the animated armor, Bjarne takes the jeweled greatsword that the armor was wielding.

Then they arrive at a staircase that leads down into the lower levels and a big double door that leads into a further room. There they discover a strange dimensional door that deposits them right outside the courtyard again. The green dragon ushers them down into the crypt again, as they tell him that they don't have the scepter yet.

The staircase down to the next level is filled with cobwebs. They proceed through the cobwebs and reach a room with a fountain. The fountain bears a small inscription: "Drink and forget all your sorrows forever." Somehow the party doesn't want to be relieved of all their sorrows and continues onward.

Bangrimm falls into a trap where he's attacked by a giant poisonous snake. Aethelric prevents the trapdoor from closing, and Bjarne rescues Bangrimm from the snake. His dwarven resistance to poison definitely helps him survive the attack. While in the pit, he has spied two scroll cases stuck in a skeleton, but didn't manage to grab them.

The group presses on into a large room where a bronze double door leads onwards. First, the decide to take another short rest. Then they try to pry the door open. It is stuck, and won't move. Aethelric has an idea: they use torches to heat the metal and then cool it rapidly with water from the fountain, thus turning the bronze brittle. After that they successfully force the door open.

Behind the door, a corridor filled with spider webs stretches into the dark. They decide to be more careful this time and burn down the webs. Out of the burning corridor they are attacked by two burning giant spiders.

After defeating the spiders, they decide to take a long rest.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

WH6 Trouble in Wolfsdale

The adventure from last Saturday is a bit of an experiment. I am using UK2 The Sentinel as the basis (replacing some of the weirder creatures with currently available counterparts) and not caring much about encounter balancing. So far it works great. Also, I want to see if an "adventure path" survives the changing player roster of my campaign.

Notes: The full Player's Handbook is used together with monsters from the Hoard of the Dragon Queen web supplement and D&D Basic for the DM V0.1.

Cast of Characters:

  • Bruenor "Bonebreaker", male mountain dwarf fighter (soldier)
  • Chazna Faertala, female drow druid (noble/hermit)
  • Mab "Steelfist", female human fighter (soldier)
  • Orell Underhill, male stout halfling rogue (spy)

Bruenor, Mab and Orell are still at Miller's Crossing, celebrating and relaxing at the Sleeping Mermaid Inn. At another table we have short cameos by Khelben, Valrian, Sh'razzar and Grandor. Then, Orell spies something unusual outside a window: a hooded shape with burning red eyes. The four heroes dash outside to see a fleeing person that heads toward the sacred grove. Had the person headed into any other direction, they probably would have let them go. But this just looks suspicious. Upon reaching the grove, the person tries to climb a tree but falls down and is finally caught by Mab who handily outdistanced the dwarf and the halfling during the pursuit.

The person turns out to be Chazna, a drow druid from the underdark on the run from mysterious forces who murdered her mentor and stole her circle of standing stones (see a pattern here?). The heroes march her back to the inn in order to interrogate her in a rather friendly manner. Kellion is at first a bit suspicious of the drow, but later relents. Chazna appears to be rather innocent in comparison to the vile legends about her kin. Mab decides to arrest her at the inn and see what they can do about her the next day.

On the next day, a village elder from the south arrives at Miller's Crossing. He is from Wolfsdale and reports about trouble at the village. Some has been murdering farm animals, babies and the elderly. He heard that Captain Khelben of the Dragon Guard is at Miller's Crossing and hopes for help. Khelben and company is already gone though, investigating a stone circle across Lake Crescent. But Mab promises to help. They decide to take Chazna with them, because they can't really leave her in Miller's Crossing all by herself. After all, she might be a spy - something that at least Orell suspects.

After a week of travel across the hills of the Weathered Heath, they reach Wolfsdale. There they start to investigate. Apparently, a script in blood was left at one of the almost-murder sites. But they aren't able to read the script. It's not any language that they know. Not even Chazna can help them.

The next couple of days of investigation are rather frustrating:

  • The town cleric of Arianna, goddess of stars and the hunt, thinks it's an ettercap committing the atrocities.
  • Apparently, the murderer has grown less murderous. There are survivors.
  • Patrolling the immediate area doesn't turn up anything at all.

Finally, Bruenor turns up a lead. While at the inn, he talks with the townsfolk. They tell him that they fought a goblin tribe some years ago. They never found the lair, but suspect that it's located near the lake to the south. Not having any other lead, the group decides to search for the lair. Maybe something can be found there.

After a days travel into the forested hills around the largest lake in the Weathered Heath, the heroes find a hill that is fortified with a stockade. Some people seem to be on patrol on the stockade. After making camp, Chazna decides to go into elven trance, so that she can take watch at night. Orell decides to go swimming. A small creek is running at the back of the hill, and Orell carefully hides in the water. At the backside of the hill, he leaves the water and climbs a steep rock face with many handholds that is about 10 feet high. Above the rock face he reaches the stockade and manages to get a glimpse of the other side. The "people" on the stockade turn out to be spears with helmets stuck on them. With this new discovery he returns to the camp.

After Chazna has awoken from her trance, the group advances on the stockade. Mab discovers that the front gate isn't even barred. They enter the stockade and find the entrance to a network of small caves under the hill. They encounter a couple of traps, then two mountain lions and their master, a half-orc. They kill the lions and capture the half-orc. Mab and Chazna get him to talk. He tells them that:

  • He lives here with his human mother and six half-orc brothers.
  • They captured an ettercap, but another got away using magic.
  • His mother and brothers are looking for the ettercap.
  • His mother is a mighty wizardress,
  • They chased away a tribe of goblins who used to lair here half a year ago.

Mab tells him that they have seven days to leave the area and that they should take that chance. Then the group searches the living quarters of the bandits.They find a lot of loot that the bandits captured, and also quite some riches amassed by the mother. They only take some of the coins (platinum pieces, eight aquamarines and some of the gold). The rest they leave for the family.

They also find a rough map of the surrounding area. It shows a cross about six miles to the south, indicating a villa and the note: "Villa and ettercap."

Then they move out of the lair and to the back of the hill. There they hide and wait until mother and three of her sons return. Then they sneak out to the front gate, but are discovered shortly before leaving the compound. The half-orcs attack and advance on the party. Chazna is seriously injured and goes unconscious. Mab goes on the offensive. Bruenor carries Chazna outside and then joins Mab. Orell takes up sniping position. The mother is indeed a wizardress or sorceress. She blasts Mab and Bruenor with a color spray, casts mirror image to protect herself, and her sons advance on the party. Mab repeats her threat of seven days. But ultimately, the party has to withdraw. Everyone is already outside of the compound, except Mab. When she tries to leave, suddenly a stone wall appears across the exit. But Mab isn't phased at all. She leaps up onto the stockade and then jumps down on the other side (That was rather spectecular, especially since Bruenor was immediately afterwards: "Why didn't you use the gate?" - Phantsmal force was really brilliant here.) As the heroes flee into the night, some bolts hit them. But that's just some random shots. As they enter the forest, Bruenor turns around at screams: "You have seven days to leave! Then we will be back."

To be continued...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

TJ4 The Swamp of Dying Dreams Part 2

This is a direct continuation of the first part: TJ3 The Swamp of Dying Dreams Part 1. I consider this part of the same "module", therefore it is still TJ3. Tanris, the rogue, unfortunately couldn't make it to that game session.

Notes: This session used the full Player's Handbook (in practice the heroes were still all built with D&D Basic) and monsters from the web supplement for "Hoard of the Dragon Queen" and the D&D Basic DM Guide V0.1.

Cast of Characters:
  • Bangrimm, male hill dwarven cleric (acolyte)
  • Brim Smallcare, male lightfoot halfling fighter (folk hero)
  • Taklinn Frostbeard, male mountain dwarf wizard/fighter (soldier)
  • Tendrak Talis, male human fighter (soldier)
On the next morning, the heroes eat breakfast and encounter a bar maid that has apparently slept very unwell. She tells them that everyone is having bad dreams and a restful night is something from the past. They then decide to interrogate their lizardman prisoner again. After some intimidation by Taklinn, he spills the beans in Draconic which only Bangrimm can speak. Taklinn uses comprehend languages to listen in. The lizardman tells them that they are planning to return the swamp that was drained during the founding of Rakurstada to its proper place. He claims that they need the captured townspeople for a ritual to drown the town. He also tells them under duress that the other lizardmen are hiding somewhere to the north of the town within one mile of its walls.

Then the heroes go into the town of Rakurstada to complete some business. Bangrimm goes to town in order to visit the temple of Nastruhal, deity of smiths and craftsmen, for some advice. Taklinn wants turn over the lizardman to the authorities. Tendrak and Brim want to visit the temple of Waradin, deity of war to get some advice and healing potions.

Bangrimm is met with incredulousness by the local clergy when he tells them about the plans of the lizardmen. But in the end, he browbeats them into promising him a reward, if he can prove his story.

Taklinn meanwhile is surprise by the swift justice of the Jarl's huscarls. Their leader simply executes the lizardman on the spot, and tells Taklinn that their heads a worth 2 gold pieces each. Taklinn gets those two gold pieces. Also, the leader of the huscarls is not very convinced of the story told by Taklinn.

Tendrak and Brim fare a little better at the temple of Waradin. A cleric tells them that indeed the town was founded on a swamp and that the swamp was drained. Then he sells them healing potions and emblems of Waradin. Even Brim gets a healing potion after Tendrak testifies that the halfling is a mighty warrior.

The group meets up at the marketplace and decides to check on the resident wizard. Maybe he can tell them more about the ritual. He isn't at home and they just meet one of his apprentices, the girl Ysra. She can't really help them, except tell them that the wizard is the eldest son of the Jarl and not very well liked by his kinsmen. Brim suspects that he maybe in league with the lizardmen.

Finally, the group leaves town. And indeed, the captive lizardman didn't lie to them. There is a small hill by a stream just outside of town. Brim scouts ahead to a ruined hut, but there he is discovered by a lizardman guarding the approach to the hill. He calls for reinforcement, but even four lizardmen don't stand a chance against the heroes. During the battle, they even try to drown Tendrak in his armor. Brim and Tendrak set two of the lizardmen on fire, but the fourth can escape.

Afterwards, they try to cross the stream. Brim finds a tree on the other side of the stream at the entrance to a cave into the hill. He slings a lasso around a branch of the tree and does some impressive tightrope walking to the other river bank. Unfortunately, the tree is alive. It jerks the rope and Brim goes tumbling into the water. At the same time two lizardmen throw javelins at the group. A lengthy combat ensues. The lizardmen are backed up by some sort of shaman or druid who casts spell after spell at the group. Melf's acid arrow wounds Taklinn heavily, Brim and Tendrak fight underwater against the two lizardmen, then a stinking cloud incapicitates Bangrimm and Taklinn. But too late, they take down the awakened tree and finally reach the other side of the stream. The day is won! But the druid escapes through the water,

Inside the cave they find maps and ritual scrolls that could indeed return Rakurstada to a swamp. Also, they find the missing townspeople and some treasure (money, spell scrolls and healing potions). The ritual scrolls are enough to convince Bangrimm's superiors of the validity of the threat and they also reward the party. Taklinn collects on the lizardmen's heads.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

WH5 The Walking Stones: Tannoch Rest of Kings

Notes: The adventure is based on Tannoch Rest of Kings and introduces part of the campaign arc for the Weathered Heath. The full Player's Handbook is used together with monsters from the Hoard of the Dragon Queen web supplement and D&D Basic for the DM V0.1.

Cast of Characters:
  • Bruenor "Bonebreaker", male dwarf fighter (soldier)
  • Grandor Runnaheim, male dwarf cleric (acolyte)
  • Khelben, male human wizard (soldier)
  • Mab, female human fighter (soldier)
Khelben and Mab are still trying to solve the mystery of the vanished stones, when Silea, the half-elven druidess of Miller's Crossing asks them for another favor. The village provides food and other consumables to a group of nuns living on a rocky island in Lake Crescent. They belong to the church of Celos, the deity of light and wisdom. The nuns apparently guard the resting places of magicians. But the last supply ship sent by the village a week ago, hasn't returned. So now Silea is worried and asks Khelben and company (Mab and Grandor) to investigate what happened.

But before they can set sail for the island, the head of the town militia reports that just outside of town, a caravan is attacked by "flying creatures". Khelben immediately asks: "Do you have trouble with harpies?" A perplexed militia captain answers "Yes, sometimes.." (good call by the player). So the three rush out to help the caravan that is under attack. 

There, they find Bruenor defending the caravan leader against attacks by vicious harpies. But all in all, not a big issue, since Khelben and Company makes short work of the harpies. Then they head back to town with the survivors and Grandor recognizes Bruennor as a cousin from the south, and of course Mab remembers the dwarven fighter who saved her live at the Battle of Madrenor. Five years ago, he literally dragged her out of a pile of dead soldiers shortly before the firewall spells hit the battle lines to cover the retreat of the defeated army of Thoran.

After taking a short rest, the companions set out towards the Isle of Tannoch Rest of Kings in a small sailing boat. Much to the dismay of Bruenor who somehow doesn't like water. Shortly before reaching the rocky island, they are attacked by an aquatic orgre who destroys their boat, but can be defeated. Mab almost looses her enchanted plate mail armor during the battle, as she wasn't wearing it. Mab has the idea of clinging to the wreck of the boat and swim the last few minutes to the island.

The plan is sound, but as the approach the stairs leading up to the tower on the island, rocks are thrown at them. The remains of the boat are smashed to pieces and they have to start swimming while rocks are launched at them. This attack continues all the way up to the tower, apparently perpetrated by an ogress who clings to the topmost battlements of the ruined tower.

Inside the tower, the group heads down into the lower levels. Everything here is wrecked and apparently, the nuns were taken as food by the ogres during the previous months. They barricade themselves in the lower levels and take a short rest. Suddenly, they are startled as a surviving nun appears out of the rock. Marta, as she is called, fills them in on what happened here: during the winter, three ogres came and stormed the nunnery. She tells them that the nun were guarding the remains of evil magicians who feared for their souls at the end of their lives. She also tells them about an ogre in the crypt who has started to open the graves and eating the ashes of the deceased. The group decides to search for that ogre.

Mab continues to think about everything that was happening in winter: three standing stones disappear, three ogres appear. She seems to see a connection.

But first, they battle the one-eyed ogre in the crypts. He is very strange. Each time Mab cuts him with her sword, something escapes from his flesh. Once even a spectre that is turned by Grandor. The group quickly dispatches the spectre after defeating the ogre. Then they return to Miller's Crossing, promising Marta to send her provisions.

In Miller's Crossing, they continue to investigate what happened. Apparently a lot of things:
  • The dead wizard Hallad al-Bim was brought to the isle of Tannoch in the last summer by his apprentice Stannus.
  • Later in fall, the apprentice re-appeared and tried to be taken to the island. But the villagers didn't help him.
  • Stannus seemed to be looking for something.
  • On the hill with the three missing standing stones, they find a small altar dedicated to Vathris, a southern sun goddess associated with fire.
They come to the conclusion that somehow Stannus managed to turn the stones into ogres after they hearing legends from Silea that the standing stone in the Weathered Heath were originally giants turned to stone by the gods themselves. But how can that be? Giants are a myth and only appear in the tales for children to frighten them. But Mab thinks there is truth behind the stories. Now Khelben worries that Stannus might be out there, trying to turn other standing stones back into giants.

During the investigation a couple of adventurers arrive in town: Kellion, apparently a sorcerer, and Tris, his ranger companion. The two have even met Stannus and Hallad al-Bim, because they were fighting them about a year ago. They know that Hallad al-Bim possessed a diadem of some arcane power. Apparently that diadem was taken to the isle of Tannoch, but Stannus wants to have it for himself. That's why he came back.

Fearing for the nun's safety, Khelben and Company return to the island. But there, the nun proofs rather uncooperative and even summons spirit guardians to keep the heroes from investigating the diadem that rightfully belongs to her order. Frustrated they leave.

In the evening, Kellion and Tris return from their adventures and tell them that another circle of standing stones has gone missing. This time six of them. Kellion posits that, if the myths around the standing stones are true, the unravelling of the gods' curse could cause a chain reaction, slowly turning all standing stones back into giants. Khelben is rather unsettled at hearing this. He asks them, where the next standing stones are located. They tell him that it's across the lake. The circle is called the Dancing Dew Maidens. Khelben decides to investigate. First, in all haste, but then Kellion tells him that the spell probably won't unravel over night. The group debates on the fastest way of getting to the Dancing Dew Maidens: either two to three days by horse or six hours straight across the lake by boat and then a short hike into the woods.

To be continued...

Closing note: My players are far too experienced. I had hoped to not have them notice that the standing stones walked away for at least another couple of months, since they are still too low level for the main plot which includes fighting giants.

Friday, August 22, 2014

WH4 The Walking Stones: Another Missing Person

Notes: The full Player's Handbook is used together with monsters from the Hoard of the Dragon Queen web supplement and D&D Basic for the DM V0.1.

Cast of Characters:

  • Khelben, male human wizard (soldier)
  • Mab, female human fighter (soldier)
  • Orell Underhill, male halfling rogue (spy)

Khelben and his small travelling company (see WH3) have reached Miller's Crossing at Lake Crescent. There they meet with Mab and Geoffrey (see WH2). At the Sleeping Mermaid Inn, Orell finds them with a message from Khelben's superior officers. In the message they order him to remain in the Weathered Heath for the time being and to continue monitoring for unsual activities.

The evening at the inn is spent playing cards, talking to some locals and later Mab sees Geoffrey slipping out with a local youth called George. Everyone returns to their rooms. At night, Khelben dreams about a meeting with his elven superior back in Mirena (actually a dream spell used to speed communication). He informs them about the dark wizard Archibaldus, his collaboration with the goblins and that this was seemingly instigated by the Walyran hierarch of Taronn via the dancing devil Malburzan (see WH2).

On the next morning they meet the half-elven druidess Silea who tells them about her predicament: her circle of standing stones has gone missing in the previous winter. Khelben, Mab and Orell find that hard to believe and go to investigate the sacred grove on the top of the hill. Silea apparently was right: the three standing stones have gone missing, leaving only holes in the ground. Only the sacred twin oak in the middle of the grove remains.

From the hill, Mab sees a body floating in the water of the lake. They go down to the shore and it turns out to be George. He's dead, apparently seared by lightning. The heroes decide to return him to town. There, they hand him over to his crying mother. Then they start wondering what happened to Geoffrey. They hear about some caves below water level. Mab intimidates the village youths into telling her, where to find the entrance to the caves. The intimidation consists of simply slugging two of them unconscious on orders from Khelben as they are reluctant to talk at first.

They return to the shore and Mab scouts ahead under water secured by ropes. She finds cave entrances, a cave with a small beach and and a dry tunnel leading deeper into the earth. Orell and Khelben follow her. Before Mab ist out of the water, they are attacked by a Will O'Wisp. It downs Khelben immediately (critical hit), but is defeated by Mab and Orell. Back in the cave, they find an unconscious Geoffrey who tells them that George and he were headed to the shore sharing tales and beer. There they were attacked by the Will O'Wisp. George was killed, and Geoffrey was taken captive.

But still they are no closer to solving the mystery of the vanished standing stones.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 16, 2014

WH3 The Caves of the Living God

This is the third session of my ongoing home brew D&D 5e campaign. The last time our heroes defeated an evil mage who was organizing the goblins of the Weathered Heath into a fighting force allied with Thoran's deadly enemy Walyra.

Note: This session used the full Player's Handbook and monsters from the Hoard of the Dragon Queen web supplement and the D&D Basic DM Guide.

Cast of Characters:

  • Grandor, male dwarf cleric (acolyte)
  • Khelben, male human wizard (soldier)
  • Sh'razzar, female tiefling ranger (guild artisan)
  • Valrian Liadon, male wood elf fighter (spy)

Khelben and Grandor are on their way to Miller's Crossing from Griffon Rock as the first stop of their way back to Mirena. Valrian is on his way to Griffon Rock to deliver an important and sealed message to the baroness. And Sh'razzar is on her way south from the empire of Irralldon to seek vengeance for the death of her guild master at the hand of the undead. They killed him and stole something precious from him, apparently in the employ of an even greater evil hiding in the Weathered Heath.

Sh'razzar is crossing the Silver Run when Khelben, Grandor and Valrian notice that she's walking directly into an ambush. A bugbear and his two hobgoblin cronies are waiting for her. The three heroes decide to save the tiefling. Together, they defeat the goblins, but only after Sh'razzar is gravely wounded. Grandor heals her, when they notice that bad weather is arriving rapidly. Rain, thunder and lightning make travel a hazardous proposition at best.

Sh'razzar spots the entrance to a cave and they hurry to get there before the storm begins in earnest. Their relief at finding the cave is short lived, as the cave is chest deep under water for the most part. The adventurers have to move deeper into the cave to reach a dry spot. While swimming through the waters, they are attacked by two giant crabs. The group defeates them handily and decides to take one for dinner. In the dry part of the cave, they are surprised by a trio of lizardmen that demands tribute for their god Rashambur. A god nobody has ever heard of. Grandor manages to convince them to take the crab and leave them alone. At least that's what he thinks will happen.

Meanwhile, Khelben examines the cave walls and finds barely visible primitive pictographs about a series of battles between little folk (most likely gnomes and halflings) and some giantish folks. It's unclear who remained victorious. The pictograms seem to be ancient and dedicated to the three northern gods Elissar, Nangaloss and Nitarro [1]. The three are brothers, yet Elissar created Nitarro as a companion, and both together created Nangaloss. Elissar is a deity of wolves, dreams and winter. Nangaloss is a patron of the crafts and smiths, as well as the creator of dwarves and dragons (incidentally, Grandor is a cleric of Nangaloss and Sh'razzar worships that deity). Nitarro is a dark god of lies, trickery and illusion who created the dark elves (who are the predecessors of the high elves in my campaign setting).

The party settles for a long rest. Valrian takes first watch and hides behind a stone pillar. Sh'razzar is having some really eerie dreams. She meets  a man that sits cross-legged at a fire. The flames cast his skin either as pale or extremly dark. His flaxen hair is covered by a deep hood. He tells her that ancient things are moving again and that she should watch for the giants' dances. Then he hands her moonstone [2]. At that moment, she's painfully awakened.

While the party was sleeping, the lizardmen returned. They snuck into the cavern and attacked the three sleeping party members. Valrian did not notice them (Stealth check 25 vs. his passive perception of 14), but they also did not notice him. Sh'razzar is knocked out immediately, the others wake up. A battle commences. Sh'razzar is revived by Grandor and the tide of the battle turns rather quickly. In the end, two lizardmen are dead, the third is taken prisoner. Grandor interrogates him and afterwards Valrian kills it in cold blood. They find out that (a) the "god" of the lizardmen seems to be a living being, (b) the "god" can fly and most importantly (c) that he doesn't look like them. Which is a relief, because the party suspected a dragon. Now Valrian thinks the "god" of the lizardmen is a manticore.

Cautiously, the heroes move deeper into the cave. They do not encounter anymore lizardmen, but they do find more pictographs and the "god" who indeed turns out to be a manticore (good call by Valrian). Again a fight takes place. The party manages to defeat the hungry "god" of the lizardmen. Among the bones of its victims Sh'razzar finds 100 gold pieces and Goggles of Night. She keeps everything for herself, except for one gold piece that she gives rather dismissively to Valrian.

After a short rest, the party continues to explore the caves. Behind an ancient portcullies they find the remains of four small bodies arranged on funeral biers. One is wearing copper bracers that seem untouched by the tides of time. The other three have small bottles tucked in the remains of their belts. Khelben prevents Sh'razzar from disturbing the remains of the little people. He checks for magic and finds lingering traces of abjuration magic around the bracers, and evocation magic in the bottles. Finally Grandor discovers a glyph warning of good magic in the place. The glyph seems to be dark elven in origin. This confirms their suspicions about proud and good warriors resting here, and they finally decide to try another long rest.

During the rest, Khelben figures out the Goggles of Night, and has a strange dream where a spectral halfling hands him the two bracers for the coming hardships. After he wakes up, he carefully removes the bracers from the halfling's corpse. They will turn out later to be Bracers of Defense.

Then they decide to go on exploring beyond the dark elven glyph. After spending some hours in the upper reaches of the Underdark, they narrowly manage to avoid a party of dark elves led by a priestess of Sardyna, deity of death and disease. That convinces them to return to the surface and leave the caves behind. The four heroes continue on their way, carrying with them knowledge of the ancient deeds and a blessing from the moon gods.

To be continued...

Footnotes: 
[1] My campaign setting has a total of three different pantheons. The primordial gods who shaped the world, the lunar gods [3] who found the world, and the mysterious eightfold gods that simply came from nowhere. The lunar gods are mentioned above, Sardyna is part of the eightfold gods, as is Celos the main (and only) deity of Walyra, her brother.

[2] Moonstones are sacred to the lunar or northern gods. They are said to be crystallized "tears" (or some other bodily fluid) of the gods. Swallowing a moonstone enables you to cast a bless spell as first level cleric once.

[3] The setting has two moons: a blood red moon dedicated to Nitarro, deity of trickery and illusion, and a silver moon dedicated to Elissar, deity of wolves and winter. A third moon might have existed, but all that remains are the Shards of Nangaloss that form a ring about the world.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

TJ3 The Swamp of Dying Dreams Part 1

Again a Google hangout session with some of the folks from the previous hangouts.

Notes: This session theoretically used the full Player's Handbook (in practice the heroes were still all built with D&D Basic) and monsters from the web supplement for "Hoard of the Dragon Queen" and the D&D Basic DM Guide V0.1.

Cast of Characters:

  • Bangrimm, male mountain dwarven cleric (acolyte)
  • Brim Smallcare, male lightfoot halfling fighter (folk hero)
  • Taklinn Frostbeard, male mountain dwarf wizard (soldier)
  • Tanris, male human rogue (criminal)
  • Tendrak Talis, male human fighter (soldier)

The characters are travelling (as always) as caravan guards with Sorrenson and his beautiful daughter Ingdis from Svarturvigi to the remote town of Rakurstada on the outskirts of the country of Tjalmar, adjacent to the Weathered Heath. On their way to Rakurstada they are attacked by a trio of Perytons that they are able to defeat, but Tanris manages to turn over the lead wagon and the oxen break free. Brim captures the oxen and the caravan continues on. During the fight everyone was very protective of Ingdis, but Tanris was knocked unconscious and the cleric had no spells left to heal him.

As they arrive at Rakurstada, the gates to the town proper are already closed. So they have to stay at the Burning Rooster Inn (so called because it burns down a lot) in the foregate. Bangrimm is greeted by the townsfolk who are in dire straits. People keep disappearing at night on the streets.

Meanwhile, Brim settles Tanris in a separated sleeping quarter so that he'll awake rested and relaxed. Tendrak pays a bar maid to listen to his stories, but wants it to appear as if they were doing more than talking. Taklinn has a run-in with a group of hill dwarves who don't seem to be overly fond of their mountain dwarf cousin.

After Tanris is awake and the heroes have taken a short rest, Brim dresses up as a helpless maiden to act as bait for the unknown kidnappers. The plan works, even though Brim is overacting more than a little bit. A trio of lizardmen appear to kidnap him and are defeated by the heroes. One lizardman is left alive and interrogated by the cleric. So far, it hasn't told them much. Brim plans to turn the lizardman over to the town's watch in the morning. The party ties up the captive securely and go back to the Burning Rooster for a well-deserved long rest.

[Here we made a break since it had gotten late. The initial fight with the perytons took a lot longer than anticipated. The story continues with part 2]

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sand & Silk: The setting pitch

The orcs are leaving their ancient northern mountain strongholds to conquer the Jasareef Empire. Their cunning half-orc leader Grask Skullcrusher and his cabal of fiendish warlocks plan to subjugate the human cities. General Ashourina Palasar has suffered a crushing defeat at the battle of White Water Springs against the orc hordes. The general herself has gone missing in the aftermath of the battle. The situation is looking grim and dire indeed in the north.

Yet in the southernmost province, where the Doomglaroon river winds its way through a steep canyon in the Nadashareen desert into the Eloysian sea, life goes on as always. The troubles in the north are just distant echos heard through rumors and tales of veteran soldiers. Sharamsar, the poisoned jewel of the Jasareef empire languishes in the sweltering heat and humidity of the river delta beneath the twin temples of Relkas and Tanit. The monotony of the passing days only disturbed by the arrival of a new governor, the estranged Prince Shaybo Khadon who has been exiled by his step-brother the emperor to this remote backwater city. The arrival of the prince and his court signals a shift in the balance of power with in the provincial capital.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

When you realize that the past is past...

For the past month or so, I've been working on a campaign setting for the new Dungeons & Dragons game (5th edition to some, Next to others, D&D to me). It wasn't a new campaign setting, it was a coherent amalgamation of nearly all my ideas regarding a fantasy game settings of the past 28 years ago (except for the Drowning Woods). I wrote 20K words, about 117K characters, only to realize that setting might jam on paper, but that all in all it felt hollow and stale. The oldest parts of the setting are from the 1980ies and follow close in Tolkien's and to a lesser degree Eddings' footsteps. The newest parts are from about 10 years ago, and started with a dream. They are a grittier, more daring, at least that's what I tell myself. I took time and did a map in Campaign Hexographer that is based on an original map from 1990 drawn during my stay in the US. All the pieces fit together and finally make sense, even though some parts of the setting exist solely, because everything should have a place there. The setting roughly covers a continent the size of Europe without Russia. I have the mythology down, a total of 20 deities, and a history stretching back ten thousand years. At least in broad strokes.

Then I set back and took a look at the setting. I even started to construct the map for the campaign area. But gradually I realized that the setting is complete, but that maybe I just don't want to play there. It feels dated, it doesn't match my current sensibilities.

My influences on the setting were:
  • Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
  • David Eddings' Belgariad and Malloreon
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon
  • Diana L. Paxson's The White Raven
  • Mercedes Lackey's The Last Herald Mage
  • A hint of Robert Asprin's & Lynn Abbey's Sanctuary
  • The AD&D 2nd Edition Historical Reference series (Age of Heroes, The Celts)
  • Myranor (a setting for the German role-playing game The Dark Eye)

All in all pretty standard, but my tastes have changed in the last 28 years (maybe not changed, but shifted). Instead of the above I would rather like to DM in a settting inspired by:

  • Richard Morgan's World in Need of Heroes (The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands, The Dark Defiles)
  • Tanith Lee's Tales of the Flat Earth
  • Mary Renault's The Persian Boy
  • More than a hint of Robert Asprin's & Lynn Abbey's Sanctuary
  • The Spartacus TV Series (Gods of the Arena, Blood & Sand, Vengeance, War of the Damned)
  • The Vikings TV Series
  • The setting of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (just plain awesome)

In short, a somewhat grittier, edgier, moodier, darker and more exotic setting. A setting of sands and silk, sweltering nights and desperate days, splendor and decadence. A setting that marginalizes the standard races like halflings, dwarves, elves and gnomes, and instead features dragonborn, tieflings and drow. And I guess, I just hit on my working title Sand & Silk.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Comparision between D&D 5e and 13th Age

Someone in my G+ circles has asked me about the differences between D&D 5e and 13th Age. Probably, because he faces the same decision I did about a month ago: go forward with 13th Age, where a lot of rulebooks, a bestiary and a couple of adventures are already available, or wait for D&D 5e to be released bit by bit. 

Anyway, I think that such a comparison might be of interest to several people out there. This is meant to be a a comparison, not an invitation for "edition waring". Any comments going down that road will be deleted.

Both games are based on early editions of D&D. 13th Age via OGL, D&D 5e by virtue of being the 5th edition of the world's most popular role-playing game. 13th Age brings a lot of awesome to the table that's partially derived from "indie" game mechanics, but also can be ported to other games derived from D&D.

13th Age

  • Ability Checks: They usually are made using the attribute modifier + level + applicable background.
  • Armor Class & Damage: Are hard-coded into your class depending on the type of armor and weapon you use. Damage also scales with level (e.g. longsword wielded by a level 1 character does 1d8 damage, wielded by a level 5 character it causes 5d8 damage).
  • Adventuring day: For purposes of "daily" powers, an adventuring day consists of four encounters. No matter how much in-game time elapses between the encounters. After that time, the characters also fully recover their hit points and recoveries.
  • Background: A background is basically a replacement for skills. You can be a Soldier +3, Hermit +5, and the rulebook encourages you to use colorful and evocative names for them.
  • Classes: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer and Wizard in the 13th Age rulebook, and Chaos Mage, Commander, Druid, Monk, Necromancer and Occultist in 13 True Ways.
  • Class Abilities: They are structured somewhat like in D&D 4e into at-will, daily and encounter powers. They are short and complete rules snippets that determine ability used to hit, effect and damage.
  • Combat: Doesn't use a grid, does use abstract distances.
  • Default Game Setting: The Dragon Empire in an area about as large as the eastern Mediterranean and environs, centered around the Midland sea. The setting is a bit quirky and leaves much room for the GM to add stuff to.
  • Defenses: Instead of saving throws, 13th Age uses Physical and Mental Defense as static values.
  • Escalation Die: After the first round of combat, the d6 used as escalation die starts to increase by 1 each turn of combat. You get to add the die to your attack rolls making it more likely to hit a monster in later rounds. Also some nifty effects are tied to the escalation die, both for monsters and characters. (Note: in D&D 5e that die isn't really necessary, because as of this writing AC seems to be a lot lower than in D&D 3e or 4e).
  • Feats: Gained at every level. They give a small advantage and are directly tied to class abilities (some are general feats).
  • Hit Points: You generally start out tougher (about three time as tough as in D&D 5e), but monsters do more damage.
  • Icon Relationships: You initially get three points to determine your relationship to iconic NPCs and their organizations in the game world. Relationships can be positive, negative or conflicted. These relationships will affect game play via relationship rolls on d6s, where 6 means a good result and 5 means a mixed bag.
  • Levels: 13th Age game play stretches across 10 levels, divided into 3 tiers of play that determine how difficult things like skill checks are, how much damage you take from traps etc.
  • Races: Dwarves, Elves (High, Wood & Dark), Gnomes, Halflings, Half-Elves, Half-Orcs as major races, and Aasimar, Dragonspawn, Tieflings and Forgeborn as optional races.
  • Recoveries: Each character has a number of recoveries that allow him to regain hit points by rolling a number of dice dependent on his level (e.g. level 1 characters roll one die, level 6 characters roll six dice). The die size depends on class. Once per battle, one recovery can be used as an action. After a battle you can also use recoveries.
  • Rituals: These are spells cast for story effect and the GM will tell you how long it takes to cast the ritual and what rolls to make.
  • Spells: Spells are learned in slots and come as at-will, daily and encounter variants, their effect (often damage) increases depending on the slot they are in, but as you advance your slots advance with you (i.e. you loose your lower level spell slots). Each spellcasting class gets about as many spells as other classes get class abilities.
  • Two Weapon Fighting: If you carry a weapon in your off-hand, you are allowed to make an additional attack roll, if your first attack roll came up as "2".

D&D 5e

  • Ability Checks: They are usually made using the attribute modifier + proficiency bonus when applicable.
  • Advantage/Disadvantage: This nifty mechanic allows you to roll 2d20. If you have advantage, you take the higher of the two results. If you have disadvantage, you take the lower of the two results. This replaces modifiers to the die roll.
  • Adventuring Day: An adventuring day is tied to in-game time. You can have one long rest per adventuring day that completely recovers your hit points, and half your hit dice.
  • Armor Class & Damage: Both are determined from class-independent tables.
  • Backgrounds: A background provides your character with several proficiencies in skills and tools, some languages and social ability. You can be a soldier or hermit and gain proficiencies associated with that background.
  • Classes: Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock and Wizard all right in the Player's Handbook.
  • Class Abilities: They are very different from class to class. Usually they interact with the rest of the mechanics instead of being self-contained rules snippets.
  • Combat: Doesn't use a grid, but defined distances.
  • Default Game Setting: The Forgotten Realms. A sprawling world, defined in literally hundreds of books and novels. But apparently, that's only part of the setting called Multiversum that contains all the D&D campaign settings and the planes, plus whatever your DM comes up with.
  • Feats: Stronger game-effects than in previous editions, but completely optional. If allowed by the DM, maybe taken instead of an attribute raise (roughly every four levels, none at character creation unless you are a human).
  • Hit Dice: Your character has hit dice equal to his level. Their size depends on class. You can take a short rest of one hour and then roll as many hit dice as you like to recover lost hit points.
  • Hit Points: You start out with a small amount of hit points determined by class plus Constitution modifier. Each time you gain a level you can decide, if you want to gain a slightly above average of hit points or if you feel lucky and roll the hit dice. Hit points scale a lot like in earlier editions, but instead of d4 you now use d6 for the former d4-using classes. The d6-using classes moved up to d8.
  • Levels: D&D 5e has currently 20 levels of game play divided into four tiers that are used to determine which adventures are suitable for your character (especially in the Adventurer's League).
  • Proficiencies: Your character can be proficient in various weapons, armors, skills, tools, saving throws and languages. If you are proficient, you add your proficiency bonus to the roll. The proficiency bonus rises after every 4 levels. Armor and languages work slightly different.
  • Races: Dragonborn, Dwarves (Hill & Mountain), Elves (High, Wood & Dark), Gnomes (Wood & Rock), Halflings (Light-Foot & Stout), Half-Elves, Half-Orcs and Tieflings.
  • Rituals: These are spells with the ritual descriptor. They can be cast in a short ritual and don't have to be prepared in advance, if cast that way.
  • Saving Throws: Instead of static defenses, D&D 5e uses six saving throws (one for each attribute).
  • Spells: Spells are prepared in slots, they don't increase their effect based on your character level, but instead increase their effect based on the slot you use to cast them. The PHB will contain more than 300 spells for all spellcasting classes.
  • Two Weapon Fighting: As long as you only carry a light weapon in each hand, you can attack twice with your full attack bonus.

My own conclusion: I went the D&D 5e road starting with D&D Basic. That wasn't motivated by any of the above, though. I am still torn on the issue which system to use. But when I asked my gamer friends, if the would like to play a regular 13th Age campaign, I was met with lukewarm interest. When I told them, I think about doing a D&D campaign, the reaction was markedly different. There was enthusiasm or at least a "Sure why not?" response. Therefore, D&D 5e was a no-brainer despite the excellent support from Pelgrane for their game system. D&D 5e was simply "better" at grabbing the attention of my friends.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

TJ2 Against the Spectre Queen

This is a continuation of the previous adventure "TJ1 The Barrow of the Dwarven Queen" that I DMed via Google Hangout. The adventure is loosely based on my Dungeon World adventure "Against the Spectre Queen".

Notes: The session used D&D Basic V0.1 and monsters from "The Lost Mines of Phandelver".

Cast of Characters:

  • Aelar, male high elf wizard (spy)
  • Grimbolt Doomhammer, male mountain dwarf fighter (folk hero?)
  • Maedric, male human cleric (soldier)
  • Tanris, male human rogue (criminal)
  • Tendrak Talis, male human fighter (soldier)


The characters are staying at the Silver Cat Walk Inn in Svarturvigi. Some (Tendrak, Maedric) have traveled together with Sorrenson the merchant and his beautiful daughter Ingdis from Solacebury to the fortress of the dwarven king Rafnar the Black. The others are guests at the inn. In the morning, Sorrenson finds that his daughter has disappeared (again). He asks the characters to help him find her and (again) offers a generous reward.

The city streets are patrolled by grim hill dwarfs in the service of Rafnar. Maedric first suspects Haddun, a fellow caravan guard of eloping with Ingdis and thus the group searches the gates and the harbor. But they do not find a trace of her, but manage to alienate the townguards (or at least Maedric manages that). Aelar even visits a brothel because a town guard insinuates that Ingdis might have gone there. Embarrassingly, it turns out to be a brothel for dwarfs, halflings and gnomes. So as mistress Roshildur informs him, the elf won't be served here - even though she finds him cute.

After trying the harbor, they investigate the old city cemetery that is protected by wards designed to keep something in as Aelar discovers. But apart from ancient tombs and catacombs dug into the mountain side of the actual black fortress they don't find anything there.

With empty hands the adventurers return to the inn. There, they decide to search Ingdis' room. Apart from a smashed mirror they don't find anything. But it dawns on them that she might be possessed. Tendrak asks a serving girl about Ingdis. And indeed the girl saw her leave in the early morning - alone, no with Haddun - for the temple of Nastruhal, deity of crafts and smithing.

The group goes there as well and finds massacred dwarven priests, and a break-in into a secret crypt beneath the altar. In the crypt they are confronted by skeletons and zombies. After defeating them, they discover that whoever was down here, stole a book that was chained to a lectern in the crypt.

As they leave the temple, they see a massive storm gathering over the city that is centered on the cemetery. They rush there to discover Ingdis inside chanting from an ancient book made out of stone. As the group attacks, the ritual is interrupted and a wraith leaves her body to attack the party. In the fight, Grimbolt is killed by her touch, before the combined might of the surviving heroes can defeat and banish the wraith. The storm breaks and the heroes return Ingdis safely to her father. Aelar takes the book with him. He later discovers that it is the Treatise of Stone, containing rituals and spells of the First Dwarfs, those who are now known as derro dwarfs.

Grimbolt Doomhammer is honored with a funeral pyre at the temple of Waradin, the deity of battle, to prevent his soul from returning as a wraith.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

WH2 The Ruined Village of the Goblin Lord

This is the second part of my home brew D&D 5e campaign. The last time the player characters found a troubling letter that previously belonged to a dancing devil "merchant" which they could not decipher.

Note: This session was based on D&D Basic and monsters from The Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Cast of Characters:

  • Grandor, male dwarf cleric (acolyte)
  • Karsal Kesh, male stout halfling rogue (acolyte)
  • Khelben, male human wizard (soldier)
  • Mab, female human fighter (soldier)

Two weeks earlier: Khelben meets with his superiors in the ducal capital of Mirena. He shows them the letter captured from the dancing devil (a species of Tiefling that can only procreate with human females) Malzurban. It turns out that the letter contains a treaty of cooperation from the Walyran bishop of Taronn to the goblin tribes of the Weathered Heath in case of an attack on the mining outposts of Thoran in the heath. It is addressed to someone named Archibaldus. Khelben is entrusted with the mission to find Archibaldus and stop him. Grandor is hired to accompany him and Mab joins them as a bodyguard. Together they travel to Griffon Rock, a keep in the borderlands.

Now: As the trio approaches Griffon Rock, the attract the attention of Karsal Kesh, a rogue travelling to the keep as well. With some difficulties the party enters into the keep, as Karsal seems to be bend on alienating the guards at the gate.

Khelben immediately seeks an audience with Baroness Deirdren of Griffon Rock, but is met only by her husband. Apparently, the baroness is in deep mourning ever since her two sons passed away in the war against Walyra. Khelben tells Baron Padraig in secret about his missions, and asks him what he knows about this Archibaldus. Apparently, he was the apprentice to the resident wizard Peredur.

Meanwhile, the others go shopping at Shea's Warehouse, where Karsal again causes trouble as he really tries to rob the half-orc proprietress of the store. With some difficulty, Mab and Grandor get Karsal out of trouble.

Later on the party decides to spend the night at the Green Dragon Inn. There Mab has a run in with Geoffrey, the stable boy. They talk and Geoffrey promises her to go with them to Peredur in the morning. Apparently, Geoffrey knows the wizard from some favor he performed for Geoffrey.

In the morning the heroes seek out Geoffrey and after a short delay, because he has to fasten his belt, he leads them to Peredur. They get the old wizard to talk and he tells them of a ruined village and the former wizards' guild located there. Apparently, it was quite an illegal guild devoted to dark arts. The troubles with Archibaldus started, when the apprentice looted parts of the wizards' guild hidden knowledge. He turned down to a dark path and split with his former master. Peredur tells them the location of the ruined village.

Before the adventurers move out of Griffon Rock, Mab gets into a verbal fight with Geoffrey. She smacks him in the face for a perceived insult. That really seems to hurt Geoffrey, as he is really looking up to Mab as a female fighter. Apparently, women aren't allowed to practice the fighting arts in Griffon Rock. Mab doesn't understand at first, until Geoffrey shows her what he got from Peredur: a belt that changes her gender to male. Otherwise, (s)he would never have managed to become a stable boy. Mab is deeply moved by that revelation and promises Geoffrey to take him with her, when she leaves after the mission.

Then the party gets moving to the abandoned village. There, they get into various fights. Unfortunately, a chance encounter with twig blights gives them away to the goblins way too early. They get into an extended battle at the towers of the wizards' guild that they barely manage to survive. Then, they break into the tower and discover an excavation site in the cellar. A bugbear, a hobgoblin and two goblins try to break into an ancient sarcophagus. After defeating them, the heroes loot the sarcophagus themselves and find beautiful plate armor of the Order of the Dragon (Khelben's order). Khelben decides to allow Mab the use of arms and armor in order to complete the mission. Then the four adventurers barricade themselves into the tower for a long rest.

During the long rest, Mab dreams of past glory. She kneels before the first king of Thoran and his elven wife to receive arms, armor and a blessing. In a courtyard on the outside she sees a silver dragon rearing its head in triumph as she receives the arms from the king.

After the long rest, things get pretty serious. The evil mage Archibaldus knows that they are holed up in the tower and he has gathered his forces in the courtyard of the ruined castle overlooking the village. When Mab goes scouting, she is discovered by the mage and he sends her plummeting off the wall with a barrage of magic missiles. Thankfully, she survives the fall and Grandor heals her back to full health. Angered, Mab takes her bow and shoots an arrow into the courtyard over the wall. She aims for the position of the mage. He apparently hasn't bothered to move and is wounded. Angrily he orders the offense versus the heroes. A desperate battle ensues. The tide finally turns, when the heroes decide to flee, but Karsal is held by a spell. Mab turns around and attacks again, soon joined by Khelben and Grandor. In the end, the determination of the heroes proofs to be too much and the goblin forces are defeated, Archibaldus is taken prisoner and returned to Griffon Rock. Without their leader, the goblins go back to being disparate tribes again, instead of being a threat to Thoran.

To be continued...

Saturday, July 19, 2014

WH1 Trouble on the Great River

Today we started our regular D&D 5e campaign in my home brew campaign setting. We are usually playing on Saturdays, and the players are drawn from a pool. Usually, the first four players that have time do get to play in a session. The pool contains about a dozen players, some have more time on their hands than others, so they and their player characters will be appearing more often. The actual play posts will appear at the date of the game session. That way it's easier for me to track things.

Note: This session was played using D&D Basic and monsters from The Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Cast of Characters:

  • Grandor, male dwarf cleric (acolyte)
  • Khelben, male human wizard (soldier)
  • Milo, male halfling rogue (spy)
  • Valrian Liadon, male wood elf fighter (spy)

Play is taking place in the Weathered Heath, a border region of the kingdom of Thoran. The kingdom is ruled by a half-elven nobility that was founded over 1,200 years ago by the marriage between a human tribal chief and the elven queen who sought to preserve the elven heritage beyond the time of elves on the continent. Her court followed her into the human lands where she stayed for the better part of a century to oversee the establishment of a strong dynasty. Her heirs still rule the land. She and her court returned to elven woods, where she still rules today.

The past decade has been troublesome for the kingdom. In the south, a new aggressive power has arisen. A theocracy based on the lawful teachings of the chief deity Celos. In Walyra, law is emphasized above good, and the theocracy is aggressively acquiring territory. A standing army of Paladins turns them into a formidable opponent. Thoran has lost it's southern most duchy to the theocracy in a bitterly fought war five years ago. Tensions remain high and the half-elven kingdom is wary about renewed aggression.

Khelben, a captain in the Order of the Dragon, is sent by his superiors on a mission to spy on Walyra. He is placed in command of Milo and Valrian, two spies who are to insinuate themselves into the Walyran border town of Karollyn. In order to appear inconspicuous, they travel with a barge of lightfoot halflings from the northern river port of Aescford to their destination along the Njangdal river. Apart from them, a dancing devil (a species of Tieflings who can only procreate with human females) called Malzurban and his two concubine-slaves travel with the halflings, as well as a dwarven cleric of Nangaloss called Grandor. Nangaloss is a northern deity of craftsmanship, smithing, dwarves and dragons. He is brother to the two moon gods Elissar and Nitarro. Grandor is telling legends of his god to the halfling children during the day.

At nightfall, the barge stops and a camp is raised on the Thoran bank of the Njangdal. The halflings start dancing and celebrating. Milo joins in the celebration, when a comely halfling lass asks him to dance with her. Khelben keeps to himself, Grandor is eventually persuaded to dance, and Valrian keeps watch above the valley. That was a good idea as it turns out. A group of goblins led by hobgoblins attacks the barge folk. The heroes are victorious in repelling them, but a some halflings are kidnapped.

Khelben promises to free them, and Milo, Valrian and Grandor tag along. After a short rest, they pursue the goblins across the Weathered Heath until they arrive at a small cave. The goblins enter the cave and shortly thereafter leave without the captives. Our heroes stay behind and investigate the cave. It turns out that it is guarded by giant spiders. But apparently, they let the goblins pass. The heroes attack the spiders and in harrowed battle enter the cave. There, they discover that the captives have been placed on altar dedicated to the dark goddess Sardyna. The eight-armed goddess is a deity of death and disease, more feared than worshipped, except by the most dark-hearted folk.

The pitched battle with the giant spiders nearly turns out to be a complete disaster. First, Milo daringly attacks a spider and injures her gravely. Valrian is knocked unconscious (the player had to leave early). Then Grandor goes down and Milo is killed. Captain Khelben saves the day. The wizard lures the surviving spider out into the open and then destroys her with fire. He saves the halflings who help him to return the unconscious Grandor and the dead Milo to the barge. Valrian is gone, when Khelben returns to the cave.

Milo is given a touching funeral on the Njangdal in the style of his people. His body is placed on a small raft with twigs and tinder. Then pushed out on the river while the halflings shoot burning arrows at the craft.

The halflings travel onwards. Khelben's mission is basically ruined as one of his spies is dead and the other has vanished. Therefore he decides to travel back to headquarters to get new orders. Grandor decides to join him. They do not disembark at Karollyn, but instead go on to the ducal capital of Mirena.

But someone does disembark at Karollyn: the dancing devil Malzurban and his two concubine-slaves. After they are gone, the halfling lass that Milo was dancing and flirting with, goes to Khelben and reveals that she stole a letter from Malzurban written in dwarvish script. Grandor cannot read it, so it seems to be some other language that is using dwarvish script. Khelben decides to show that letter to his superiors.

To be continued...

Friday, July 11, 2014

KT1 The Secret of Ravenscar Abbey

This was a spontaneous test round for D&D 5e with some of my regular gaming buddies.

Notes: The session used D&D Basic V0.1 and the monsters from the latest play test package released by WotC back in September 2013.

Cast of Characters:

  • Aktaias, male human wizard (soldier)
  • Alethra Marsk, female human cleric (folk hero)
  • Imra Bersk, male human fighter (acolyte/folk hero)
  • Kayleigh, female human rogue (folk hero)

What happened before: Alethra had come to Ravenscar Abbey looking for shelter with fellow clerics of Celos, deity of the sun and wisdom. There she discovered that something was off about the nuns worshipping at the abbey. When she confronted the nuns, she had to flee from them, and she managed only to convince Imra, a young paladin in training of the falsehoods spread by the nuns. They had strayed far indeed from the faith. The two ran off the the nearby village of Sea Gull Cove.

Meanwhile Kayleigh had stood up to the tax collector sent by the abbey. She snuck into his waggon and stole the tax money back for the people of Sea Gull Cove. She was also suspecting that something wasn't quite alright in this backward corner of the kingdom of Thoran, in the middle of the Karak Tarn Forest. The taxes were just a bit too high and the tax collector a bit too cruel. [1]

Now: Alethra and Imra sought refuge at the only inn in Sea Gull Cove before looking for the captain of the guard. While they were still looking, a fighter from the Abbey confronted them. They took him to their room, and killed him when he tried to attack them. Then they went to get Aktaias, the captain of the guard at Sea Gull Cove. Kayleigh was also getting curious and overheard their conversation. The four of them decided to check out what was going on at Ravenscar Abbey on the next morning, after taking a long rest.

On their way to the abbey, they made a plan to enter through the back entrance of the walled compound. That entrance turned out to be trapped. Though Kayleigh managed to open the lock on the backdoor, she set of a fire trap that burned Aktaias badly.

They snuck into the abbey and Kayleigh was scouting ahead. She found a grisly altar dedicated to Sardyna, the eight-armed goddess of death and disease in the cellar. Meanwhile, the other three heroes where discovered. They killed Sister Cellarer in the kitchen, after discovering that she did not venerate Celos, but rather Sardyna. Then the alarm was raised. The nuns and fighters of the abbey attacked the group on the meadow behind the temple. In the ensuing combat, Aktaias managed to injure the Mother Superior gravely before being killed by her magic. In the end, the heroes were victorious. They returned to Sea Gull Cove with the corpse of Aktaias. He was laid out in state, and the mayor informed the surviving heroes that Aktaias was to be transferred back to the chapter house of the Order of the Dragon in Thaugros, a coastal city at the Gulf of Thoran.

To be continued...

Footnotes:
[1] Back story provided courtesy of the players of Alethra and Imra.



Saturday, July 5, 2014

TJ1 The Barrow of the Dwarven Queen

This is the very first adventured I DMed for D&D 5e, two days after D&D Basic V0.1 was published. Since I didn't really have time for preparation, I reused the Dungeon World adventure "The Barrow of the Dwarven Queen" from two years ago.

Note: The game was based on D&D Basic V0.1 and the monsters of the last playtest package by WotC (back from September 2013).

Cast of Characters:

  • Brim Smallcare, male halfling fighter (folk hero)
  • Haddun, male human rogue (criminal)
  • Maedric, human male cleric (soldier)
  • Tendrak Talis, human male fighter (soldier)
The adventure basically followed the plot of the Dungeon World game. The characters are on their way from Solacebury to Svarturvigi, the fortress of the dwarven king Rafnar the Black. They are guarding the caravan of Sorrenson, a merchant from Solacebury. He is as always accompanied by his beautiful daughter Ingdis. The main stretch of the journey takes them through the dangerous boreal forest of Skogurhörmullegur. Haddun is scouting about 450 feet ahead, while the other three adventurers stay with the main caravan. 

As expected, they are attacked by gnolls. It is a tough fight for Brim, Maedric and Tendrak. Only Maedric's healing words save them from certain death. Meanwhile, Haddun confronts a lone gnoll scout ahead of the others. They have a rather dynamic, somewhat ridiculous fight that doesn't end well for Haddun. Fortunately, he stabilizes by himself. The others would have found him too late otherwise.

When they return to the caravan, Sorrenson tells them that his daughter has been abducted by the vile gnolls. At first, Maedric is somewhat reluctant about saving her, seeing the larger danger to the caravan. But Sorresenson pleads with them and offers gold and healing potions. Mercenary as they are, they set out after a short rest to find the gnolls.

Brim successfully leads them to a barrow in the middle of the woods. The top of the barrow is guarded by two gnolls that are taken out by some smart tactical fighting on part of the group. Then they enter the barrow. The group remembers that this might be a barrow of a cursed queen of the first dwarves who were infamous for consorting with demons. Later, the mountain dwarves and hill dwarves rose up against their successors and defeated them. The queens were imprisoned in barrows such as this.

In the lower level of the barrow, the group finds itself confronted by the ghosts of two hill dwarves that were guarding the tomb. They rise up as their remains are disturbed. After a short battle, the adventurers the ghosts are defeated. Tendrak exchanges his armor against the plate mail worn by one of the dwarven guardians. It seems to be a fine set of armor indeed (plate mail +1).

Then they break into the inner sanctum of the barrow where they interrupt a dark ceremony of a gnoll priest. Apparently, he tries to use Ingdis for some nefarious purpose with the spirit of the dwarven queen. The adventurers attack and defeat the priest. Then they proceed to loot the tomb. Brim graps the chain shirt of the dwarven queen's remains. Maedric revives Ingdis, but fails to note something very important about her.

Then the group reports back to Sorrenson to collect their reward and finally see the caravan safely to Svarturvigi.

Note: The player of Tendrak Talis has posted a play report/review on his web site in German.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Review of Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles

As I've stated elsewhere, my true love among the role-playing games is Vampire: The Requiem. The game was originally published back in 2004 and hasn't gotten a new edition since then. Compare this to Vampire: The Masquerade, the original vampire rpg that started the successful World of Darkness line back in 1991. Within 7 years the game went from its original edition through a 2nd Edition and on to a revised Edition in 1998. Of course, Vampire: The Requiem seems to have a much more solid game design as opposed to the original Masquerade game, but during its 9 years of existence, sourcebooks added a lot of ideas to the basic game, while subtley shifting the tone of the game in the past years. Also, fans always felt that Vampire: The Requiem suffered a bit from being the first new game published after the rules shift and thus was sticking rather closely to concepts from Masquerade. In later games and supplements the designers figured out a lot of things that could be done with the new rules mechanics that is absent from Requiem.

As of December 2013, Vampire: The Requiem has gotten a new edition called Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles. Compared to the differences between the editions of Masquerade, the rules shift between Vampire: The Requiem and Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles is remarkably deep. The game was in open development for over a year. As opposed to Vampire: The Requiem, Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles is completely stand-alone and you don't really need another rulebook to play.

The review is based on the electronic edition of the book, as there is currently (as of beginning of January 2014) no print edition available. The PDF contains 311 pages that load mostly quickly with GoodReader on an iPad mini. Only the pages of the story which are graphics-heavy take a little longer to load.

I am going to do a chapter by chapter review of the content and will give an overall summary at the end. So fasten your seat-belts this is going to be a long ride.

Table of Content & Introduction

Compared to the sparse table of content I am used to from vampire rpg books, this one rather talkative and three pages long. It contains chapter headers down to the third level which is really very detailed. But apparently this also serves as the substitute for an index that is not contained in the PDF currently. The headers are hyperlinked, making navigation from the TOC easy.

The introductory chapter is concise and to the point. It gives a run down of various myths about vampires and how they relate to the vampires in this game, gives a kick-ass intro what means to be Kindred (the word vampires use to designate themselves), explains the chapter breakdown of the book and gives you the shortest ever (at least in a storytelling game corebook) run down of the duties of the gamesmaster and the players. The chapter is rounded out by some inspirational sources from books to movies and White Wolf books.

My Impression: I would have prefered an index to a lengthier table of contents. The short chapter "An Introduction to Storytelling Games" is very deceptive. Because, as you'll see later, this is the only chapter directly adressing what a storyteller and the players actually do to play the game. Seems to be a bit inspired by the principles from Apocalypse World/Dungeon World, but here I could be wrong. By putting this into the introduction, the designers make it easy to miss this vital stuff.

Chapter 1: Who We Are Tonight

Continuing with the concise writing, this chapter introduces us to the clans and covenants of Requiem. There are five clans: Daeva (seductive vampires), Gangrel (feral vampires), Mekhet (secretive vampires), Nosferatu (hideous vampires) and Ventrue (lordly vampires). Each vampire belongs to one of the five clans depending on the blood of his or her maker. Each clan entry describes the members of the clan, tells the reader why he wants to play them, why others fear them and what they should fear about themselves. Then each clan is given a section of various possible clan origins, advice on building a character from that clan and how members of that clan relate to the covenant. The clan spreads run three pages each, which is a nice change from the two-page spread used to very often in the storytelling games.

The five covenants get a similar three-page spread that tells the reader about the covenants, the secret societes the vampires belong to. The five covenants are: Circle of Crone (pagan vampires), Carthian Movement (revolutionary vampires), Invictus (noble vampires), Lancea et Sanctum (Roman-catholic vampires turned-up to 11) and the Ordo Dracul (vampiric researchers). Each covenants gets a short first-person intro, tells the reader why to join a particular covenant, their place in the big picture of vampire society, some character concepts, how the covenant behaves when it is in power and how if it is not.

Additionally, the chapter shortly describes lost clans and broken covenants, thus hinting at an evolution of the vampiric species. Also, the mysterious covenant VII is described, a covenant that seems to target other vampires for execution and might be allied with or a tool of the Strix.

My Impression: Very neat. Since Vampire: The Requiem the interpretation of the clans and covenants has shifted a bit, especially with the clanbook series. The new descriptions are based in that material. The text paints a vivid picture of the different clans and covenants, and actually makes you want to play them all. The writing really shines. The chapter contains no rules systems. For old Requiem fans, the chapter finally gives the correct Latin name Lancea et Sanctum to that covenant. This easily the best chapter of the book.

Chapter 2: The All Night Society

This chapter explains the wants and needs of being a vampire, why cities are important for them and what a vampire can do in a city. Also, the structure of vampiric society is explained and how they rank themselves within that society. Some in-game documents serve to further illustrate the points made in this chapter. A short glossary of in-game terms rounds out the chapter and hints at some things not explained in the first chapters.

My Impression: Again excellent writing, no rules. The chapter isn't as brief as my summary makes it appear. It is very informative and can be a source of inspiration for the players.

Chapter 3: Laws of the Dead

This is a big chapter and contains a lot of rules. Basically, it explains how vampires operate in the terms of the rules. If you've read Vampire: The Requiem, then you'll find lots of small and large differences in the rules here.

The chapter starts out with character creation. Basically a system where you distribute a set number of points in different categories like attributes, skills, merits and disciplines. Then you calculate some derived values, and you are ready to go. Your first character will probably take a bit longer to construct, but with growing familiarity the time will shrink to about half an hour, if you have a clear concept of who you want to be.

The rest of the chapter then goes on to explain what the vampire-related traits mean and how to use them in game play. The things a vampire can do are broken down into rules terms and the curses (fire & sunlight) and their effect is explained. You learn how a vampire slowly loses his humanity and how to prevent that from happening. 

Then merits are explained and their game effects given. A merit is something extra that character has, like a stunt in Fate or a feat in OGL games. Some merits can be taken by anyone, some only by vampires belonging to certain clans and covenants. Invictus oaths of fealty and Carthian Law, a sort of "will of the people" are codified as merits for members of those covenants.

Then the special powers called disciplines that each clan of vampires possesses are described. There are ten disciplines: Animalism (influencing beasts and sometimes men), Auspex (extra-sensory perception), Celerity (supernatural speed), Dominate (commanding men with your voice), Majesty (seductive powers), Nightmare (creating terror), Obfuscate (incredible stealth), Protean (shape-shifting), Resilience (supernatural toughness) and Vigor (supernatural strength). Each discipline contains five powers that have to be learned in the correct order from one to five.

After the disciplines, devotions are described. Devotions require knowledge about certain discipline levels before they can be studied and used.

The chapter is rounded out by the description blood sorcery, strange powers wielded by the Circle of the Crone and the Lancea et Sanctum. Where Crúac of the Circle of the Crone concerns itself with bloody sacrifice and bestial powers, the Theban Sorcery of the Lancea et Sanctum takes the form of dark miracles inspired by the Old Testament. Finally, the Ordo Dracul gains so called Coils & Scales that allow its members to transcend parts of the vampiric curse.

My Impression: This chapter is the most important for actual game play and I feel it's a mixed bag, especially when compared with the original corebook. The vampire-only merits is an area where the book shines. Some we have seen before in other books like the Invictus and Carthian Movement covenant books. They have been updated to the current rules and in some cases lost their covenant-specific tie. All in all, it really upgrades Requiem. Including Invictus oaths and Carthian Law (originally from the respective covenant books) in the corebook significantly serves to make those two covenants equal to the other three. All in all, the merit section is a good one, because it gives some long existing merits like Mentor, Allies and Retainers defined rules benefits that they were often lacking. That's a good thing.

Also, the disciplines are changed from the original corebook. Back then they often were a direct translation of the old Masquerade disciplines of the same name to Requiem. Now, they still carry the same names, but their powers have been upgraded and changed. Some rarely used levels of the disciplines were turned into devotions and replaced with more immediately useful stuff. Though I feel that Nightmare has become a weaker discipline with less mechanical bite than the previous version. Most of the other disciplines now have more mechanical weight. Protean has changed nicely and will allow me to finally accurately portray my favorite Gangrel character.

The selection of devotions is also larger than in the original book. Also a good thing. Some might be of questionable usefulness, but you don't have to buy them, if you don't want to.

On to Blood Sorcery: The casting mechanism has improved. Each roll now takes 30 minutes instead of a combat turn. Using sorcery on a target at range induced or enhances a connection between the caster and the victim. Good changes. 

The rituals given for blood sorcery are the same ones from the original book, but they were build with the blood sorcery system introduced in supplement Blood Sorcery. Thus, the levels of the rituals have changed and leave Crúac without a level 5 ritual in the corebook. Bad changes.

Up until now, the Requiem line has followed the principle that each book is stand-alone and doesn't require any other books to use a particular supplement. So, except for the corebook, the Storyteller can pick and choose which supplements to add to his or her game. Now, Blood & Smoke replaces the original corebook, but seems to require Blood Sorcery to make full use of blood sorcery. But that supplement already failed to adress the rituals from the old Lancea Sanctum and Circle of the Crone covenant books. All in all not played nicely by the designers.

I am also not sure about the new Coils of the Dragon. The system was changed substantially and I am not sure that this will pay off. It basically invalidates the stuff in the Ordo Dracul covenant book (not only the additional coils published but also the cypher names). Some of the original powers are gone completely, others are extended over five instead of three levels. Not sure, if this is really an improvement or was simply done for the sake of changing it. I didn't follow the playtest on them too closely.

Chapter 4: Rules of the Night

Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles is an updated version of Vampire: The Requiem. There is also an update version of the basic World of Darkness rulebook called God Machine Chronicles. The God Machine Chronicles aren't stand-alone. You still need the original book, because some basic stuff isn't explained in it. Late into the design process it was decided that Blood & Smoke should stand on its own. Otherwise, it'd have ended up requiring three books to play: Blood & Smoke, World of Darkness and God Machine Chronicles. Chapter 4 is the reason why Blood & Smoke can stand on its own. It contains a condensed version of all the necessary rules from the other two books.

The chapter explains each attribute, each skill, how to roll dice, how to resolve social and physical conflicts, and how conditions work. Combat has had some minor changes how defense is calculated and damage is applied. Social maneuvering is a completely new mechanic first introduced in GMC and works by slowly opening "doors" over time to reflect how to bring around a person to your point of view or having him do favors for you. Conditions are a way to express lasting consequences of an action that go beyond damage. Also, equipment and services are expressed in game terms.

My Impression: Whew. This is a tough one. None of the changes would have really been necessary. The social maneuvering mechanic takes a lot of in-game time play out and probably requires some book-keeping. For my own group this mechanic will probably even fail, since we mostly play 2-3 nights per game session and then fast forward about a month. Also, I think that the toolbox Danse Macabre offered a way to resolve social conflicts much more suited to the Kindred condition.

Chapter 5: Parliament of Owls

This chapter explains the primary antagonists for the Strix Chronicles: the birds of Dis. The shadowy owls that serve to make Kindred even more paranoid. They get an introduction, very cool rules and almost 20 ready-to-run Strix to insert into your chronicle. I won't go into much depth here, because I don't want to spoil anything. Let's just say: the owls are a mysterious force from beyond this world and increase in power analogous to vampires... oh, and they possess bodies. They especially like dead bodies preserved unto eternity - like a vampire's.

My impression: A good update of the Strix. Now you can choose between the ones in Requiem for Rome, Night Horrors: The Wicked Dead and Blood & Smoke. I think Blood & Smoke offers the best implementation of the Strix. Including pregenerated Strix with their agendas is also a good move. All in all a solid chapter.

Chapter 6: The World We Die In

The chapter presents eight mini-settings around the world. Short write-ups of cities that serve as vampire domains. The settings are Athens, Berlin, Swansea, Montreal, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, San Francisco, Beijing and Tokyo. All are given around three to five pages and tell the reader what the vampire society in those cities look like. Not all follow the traditional model of five clans and five covenants. Some have an additional clan or a different covenant structure. Some have princes, some don't. 

My impression: It is very much a show don't tell chapter that can serve as inspiration for building your own cities. This is a chapter I feel earlier corebooks for vampire rpgs should have included. The cities are very interesting. I am going to call out eerie Montreal, the working-class Swansea and the religious fervor of San Francisco. But all the mini settings are good.

Chapter 7: Storytelling

This is a completely new way to do a Storytelling chapter. This chapter doesn't tell you how to tell stories. That's what the short paragraph in the introductory chapter does. It tells you instead how to take the various aspects of the game and use them to shape the gaming experience. Not the story, but the experience of the game. Also, it offers alternate systems and twists much like Danse Macabre did. The real gem of the chapter is tucked away at the end. It is called "Climbing the Ladder" and at first glance seems to be a system for gaining pre-game experiences for a character. But in reality it is about collaborative city building. Take any of the mini-settings from chapter 6 as a basis and go through the steps of climbing the ladder. You'll end up with interconnected player characters and non-player character, both mortal and vampire.

My Impression: A strangely different storytelling chapter, but it really enhances the game. And honestly, for those of us who've read other storytelling chapters: they always re-hashed the same stuff. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but essentially nothing new. Chapter 7 is different. In a good way. It is also one of the chapters I consider to be excellent. And again the designers to manage to hide the awesome instead of calling it out. Somebody on that design team is too modest.

The Appendices

We finally made it. Only two appendices left. One is about mortal characters and more specifically ghouls, the other lists more than 40 conditions. The ghoul chapter gives in-game accounts of ghouls, the blood-addicted servants of the Kindred. The get their own merits and are examined in good detail.

My Impression: The appendix on ghouls is great and does a lot to shine the spotlight on an important part of the Kindred existence: their daywalking servants, and hands you the tools of turning them into fully fleshed-out characters instead of just dots on the character sheet.

My biggest beef with the rules update are the conditions. Conditions suffer from their implementation. The intent to express lasting consequences of the story is a good idea, but the execution is terrible. The book lists over 40 conditions! Some cannot be easily resolved and stay with the character, some go away on their own, others need a specific action to resolve them. Some give beats (part of the new experience system: five beats equal one experience), some don't. Some give a +2 or -2 modifier to your dice pool, some cause an exceptional success to happen with three instead of five successes on your roll. Some of the mental disciplines like Majesty and Dominate grant conditions, while Nightmare doesn't. There is no rhyme nor reason to them. In short, it's a big poorly thought-out mess. Currently, you are left with over 40 different conditions that you constantly need to look up or have a reference handy for. In GMC there are over 20 conditions. Blood & Smoke added another 20. If the trend continues, we will be left with close to 200 conditions when all the new chronicle books are finished, unless someone goes back and tightens the design on the conditions. It feels as if the designers have tried to tack on mechanisms from narrative games either without fully understanding what they are doing or how to do a consistent game design. Conditions are good idea that could have used lot more unification in the mechanism.

Overall Impression

You're still with me? This review has gotten a lot longer than I thought. The book really shines brilliantly in some places (Who We Are Tonight, The All Night Society, The World We Die In and Storytelling). It is of above average quality in others (Parliament of Owls, The Living Appendix), is sometimes solidly written (Laws of the Dead, Rules of the Night) and utterly sucks in one place (Conditions). 

Also, for a vampire corebook I am missing Tim Bradstreet. They brought him on V20 and Vampire: The Requiem, but not here. Huge disappointment. Also, the original illustrations for the clan splats in Vampire: The Requiem by Brom looked way cooler than the colored ones you are getting with Blood & Smoke. All in all, the artwork is solid but not spectacular.

Edit: Another important issue with a book called Blood & Smoke: The Strix Chronicles. The book gives you Strix, settings, a way to populate the settings, but it doesn't give you a chronicle. You have to do that yourself. "Play to find out", to quote Dungeon World. Maybe some chronicle ideas like in Danse Macabre would have been  a nice addition.

My final verdict is three out of five blood bags. Usually I'd give the book four blood bags, but I am deducting one for Conditions. Major goof-up in my opinion.