Friday, February 28, 2014

Aaron Allston has Died

  Back in 1981 a friend gifted me the first edition of Champions and I have been running and playing it ever since. This means, of course, I appreciate the talents and hard work of Aaron Allston. A prolific writer he put out a lot of great work for D&D, Hero System, and too much else to list. He was also a novelist with many Star Wars books to his name nd a book I own and love, the Pulp/Urban Arcane Doc Sidhe. With just a little bit of rearranging I believ I could fill an entire bookshelf with not just the stuff he wrote that I own but the stuff her wrote that I own and love.
  Requiescat is Pace

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

DM's Log - The Blackstone Campaign: The Joys of Home Ownership

  The various PCs can be found at the beginning of this post.
  At long-last the party's combined stronghold, Skullfang Castle, is done! The name is part of an extended joke: the massive black castle looming over the border river is named Skullfang Castle - but it is not a dungeon!
  The region is the northernmost part of the Dells, a collection of small almost-countries. Riverdell is the central, largest, and wealthiest. It is ruled by a council of merchants. There is also Darhan (based around a Hill Dwarf fortress) on the western border, Whitedell Abbey (a cathedral and training center/home for paladins and why the word 'dell' is used fairly often) to the south, Eastcarp (an influential Human baron) on the east. The northernmost 'nation', Newbriar, ends about 60-70 miles south Skullfang. The area in-between the actual border and Newbriar is made up of about 5 'petty barons' and a scattering of semi-independent small towns. Doomsman of course plans to consolidate as much of this region under his personal rule as possible.
  The fortress itself is built on a promontory overlooking the Black Pass, the only way for anyone to get even a cart over the rugged Black Hills for over a hundred miles. It also overlooks the Old Bridge, a stone bridge crossing the Silver River at the mouth of the pass and the only secure crossing of the river until you are inside Newbriar and 80 miles downstream. The Redcaps had controlled the area for years, using it to stage raids along the frontier, until the party came and threw back the local humanoid garrisons. Then the party built all of their fortresses together where they could control the pass and the bridge.
  The fortress itself has a strong keep, two outer baileys and two large walled wards. In inner ward holds the cathedral built by Darkwalk (who has been made a bishop by His Holiness) and the outer wards, over three acres, is hopefully for the beginnings of a small village.
  The party wanted to celebrate the last construction being finished by an attack on the Redcaps. The Redcaps are an alliance of Hobgoblin and Goblin tribes with associated bugbears and giants. They are also closely allied with/actually ruled by (no one is sure) a temple of Plague Priests, a temple of Slaughter Priests, a temple of Death Priests, and a cabal of necromancers.Having spent a lot of their career pushing the Redcaps back from the region where they built their fortress this is totally expected.
  But first - local politics! The closest village is ruled by the grandson of a retired adventurer who built a keep near the border. This frontier baron has a small (10-12 men-at-arms) bodyguard and militia (30-35 militia) and he is served by his brother (a knight) and his grandfather's last surviving adventuring partner, a mage.
  The baron really only claims the village around his keep and a few thorpes nearby, no more than about 50 square miles and about 500 people (which includes about 100 Halflings). The party actually knows the baron; one of their first adventures was to deal with some goblin raiders for his advisor, the mage. Indeed, the series of adventures that led to is why they built their fortress where it is, just 7 miles away over the Silver River. Since the baron had never claimed even the bridge....
  The party soon finds out that the baron has now claimed the south bank of the river and is charging large tolls on all goods, food, weapons, etc. crossing 'his' bridge. Stardust's spy network reveals that the baron and the mage are both concerned about the possibility of the party dominating the area and offended that 'mercenaries' would dare to challenge them. The baron also hopes that he can tax the party into either abandoning the fortress (letting him claim it) or attacking him - an action he hopes would rally the other petty barons of area to his banner.
  The party decided to largely ignore him until after they dealt with the Redcap fortress just 30 miles from the western access to the pass (and built in direct response to their fortress). They mounted their hippogriffs and flew off on a scouting trip.
  The first night they were attacked in camp by a band of carnivorous apes and their hobgoblin trainer. The fight was a nice warm up. The next day they reached the Redcap stronghold, a strong tower keep with a surrounding curtain-walls-with-corner-towers setup. All of the towers were roofed and the walls were topped with hoardings. A sneak peek by Mournglow's familiar found that each tower had 3 hobgoblin guards on duty and the main keep had a human in robes and a shaved head with his head tattooed so that it looked as if his skull was gripped from behind by two black hands.
  The party immediately named him 'Creepyhead'.
  They were pretty sure Creepyhead could see invisible, too.
  The party used illusion to get close to the walls and then infiltrated one of the towers. Stardust led the way and, frankly, 3 hobgoblins vs. a 13th level thief was lots of unfair. The towers all had 3 hobs on duty, 7 sleeping, and a sergeant on duty at the bottom door.The party was able to clear two of the towers before an alert sergeant raised the alarm.
  They immediately assaulted the last tower using Doomsman's Maul of Thunderbolts to break down the door. As they were fighting the prepared hobs a Spectral Hand crackling with black energy slipped through the wall and paralyzed Doomsman with a touch! The fight continued with the hand dealing out touch attacks as the party tried to figure out where Creepyhead was to have line of sight. Eventually Stardust whipped out her Gem of Seeing and realized - Creepyhead was 'looking' through the skulls scattered all over as decoration!
  Creepyhead was using a variant of Corpse Link to watch them from afar and to direct his Spectral Hand. So they started smashing skulls. Not too much later Mournglow (who wears Glasses of Seeing the Invisible) spotted a flying Creepyhead outside the tower and hit him with a Chromatic Orb. Creepyhead saved, so he was only paralyzed, and flew away to the keep.
  In the meantime they got Doomsman un-paralyzed and prepared for the army of skeletons, word-riding Goblin archers, and Hobgoblin pikemen surrounding the tower and preparing to attack.
  Of course this is when Darkwalk got a Whispering Wind from his henchman back at the fortress stating
  "The fortress is besieged!"
  This caused consternation for two reasons; one, trouble at home is no good, and; two, Darkwalk was pretty sure his henchman Starwing didn't know Whispering Wind.
  The battle was over relatively fast, what with Ember being alive, conscious, and knowing about 20 variations of Fireball plus having a high level fighter. as they mowed down the troops they learned that Creepyhead and his personal staff had fled.
  They used magic and items to smash the gates and turned to begin the trip home, wondering if they should burn a teleport scroll and abandon their mounts. Eventually they recevied another Whispering Wind from Redfire, Ember's henchman, that said,
  "Besieged by baron. Bearkiller wounded. Keep secure. Permission to attack?"
  [Bearkiller is the captain of Doomsman's elite troops]
  Ember was able to send return permission.
  After a rest the party did Teleport home once the hippogriffs were close enough to make their own way the last 30 miles or so. By that time the main fight was over.
  While they were away Bearkiller had sent a group of men on patrol and the men had later crossed the bridge for supplies, gladly paying. On their return the baron's guards had harassed the troops, accusing them of lying.
  Doomsman's elite troops are barbarians
  Doomsman's men beat up the baron's guards, threw the guard's weapons into the river, and threw the collected tolls in for good measure, then headed to the Keep. Within an hour the baron, his men, and 120 mercenaries were drawn up before the castle [they learned later the provocation at the bridge had been on purpose to create a reason for a battle]. The baron told the henchmen (who were leading while the party was away) that the other petty barons were sending troops to help drive them out. Bearkiller led a foray of troops from the sally port but was ambushed by the baron's mage with a fireball, badly injuring the keep's best troops. That was when Starwing sent the first message.
  After Redfire received permission to attack Stardust's "scouts" slipped out and eliminated the enemies watching the sally port. Then Redfire led a team of henchmen and elite troops to assault the baron's HQ tent.
  Stardust's henchman, a knight, killed the baron's brother in a jousting duel. Bearkiller (healed by Starwing) ended up killing the baron. One of Stardust's "scouts" killed the mage as he was about to cast a spell. Redfire [a fire elementalist like his boss, Ember] and the troops slapped around the troops and mercenaries until the mage and baron died. At that point the mercenaries called for truce, gathered their dead and wounded, and left. The surviving 3 men-at-arms limped home and the militia had left in round 2. The party arrived well after the fight was over.
  The other four petty barons from the area did arrive the next day, all with just token bodyguards. They met with Doomsman, toured the fortress, learned that the 5 party members had taken out a stronghold by themselves in a single afternoon while their servants wiped out their hated rival (turns out the local baron was loathed by his neighbors - that is why they wouldn't help with the goblins years before). The next day the petty barons and the local villagers had all sworn fealty to Doomsman, making him Lord of over 7,500 square miles!
  Well, sure, he has to clear most of it. And only about one fifth is settled. And only about one fourth is arable. And it is the border with an army of 10,000+ humanoids.
  But it is his!

Magic Item of the Week - the Spear of the Hunt

  The Spear of the Hunt is a long spear made of ash and has a steel head with a leaf-shaped blade. The haft is protected by iron down a full 6" from the head and has an iron butt. It acts as a +2 weapon and makes all saving throws at +4 (total).
  Once a month the wielder may strike the butt of the weapon against the ground three times and summon 3 phantom hounds. The hounds are similar to Unseen Servants in that they are magical constructs but unlike servants they appear as ghostly hunting dogs. Because of their spectral appearance no normal animal will attempt to attack them unless charmed or otherwise magically compelled to do so.
  The hounds have an A.C. of -4, 24 h.p., and take no damage from weapons of less than +1. The hounds may only be harmed by area effects spells such as Fireball or the like and then only take 1 h.p. per die. They are immune to charm, paralysis, petrification, level drain, strength drain, fear, poison, disease, sleep, and other similar effects. They have a movement rate equal to a light warhorse, never tire, and need not food, water, or air. The hounds may be set to one of three tasks; all hounds share in the task.
  Guarding - While guarding the hounds will attack anyone attempting to strike the wielder of the spear in melee. While guarding the hounds fight as 5 HD monsters and have one attack per round for 3-9 points of damage. After 10 rounds of guarding the hounds vanish.
    Example: Bren Tolmar is menaced by a pack of 50 goblins in a massive maze of thorn hedges. Concerned that he may be overrun Bren finds a turn in the maze that will shield him from missile fire and summons the hounds, setting them to Guard as the first wave charges. For the next 8 rounds the hounds attack any goblins that attack Bren in melee. In the face of heavy losses the Golins retreat.
  Warding - The hounds may be set to ward a portal, door, item, camp, or person. While warding the hounds can see invisible and ethereal creatures. If any creature other than the wielder of the spear on a person touched by the spear in the round the hounds arrived approaches within 30' of the warded object the hounds will begin baying loudly to alert all of the presence of intruders. After 4 hours of Warding the hounds vanish.
    Example: Bren and his followers are defending long-abandoned fort against a large group of Gnolls. He is very concerned that the Gnolls could slip through a hole is the tower walls and get behind him and his men but needs everyone to prepare for the various frontal attacks the Gnolls keep launching. He summons the Hounds and sets them to ward the hole in the wall, touching each of his men with the spear to show they may pass without alarm.
  After several frontal assaults and long delays Bren hears the hounds and know he must shift men to defend the rear....
  Hunting - The hounds may be set to hunt a creature or group of creatures. If the target of the hunt is not visible the wielder of the spear must name or describe them (this can be extremely general) and the hounds will spend one round 'finding the trail'. If the described prey was within 30 yards of where the spear wielder summoned the Hounds have them look for the trail as 7th level Rangers (each). If the trail is found the hounds will then set off to chase the target of the hunt at full speed. One hound will bay each round that they have the trail and two will bay once a round each when the prey is in sight. Once the prey is trapped, surrounded, etc. all three will bay once each per round. The wielder of the spear can make the baying audible to anyone or so that only the prey and the wielder can hear it - this choice is made at the time of summoning and cannot change until the next summoning.
  While hunting the hounds each track as a 7th level Ranger and can all an see invisible and ethereal creatures. They can travel across water and over cliffs, etc., as if they were solid ground. While hunting the hounds strike as 7 HD creatures and do 1 point of damage per strike; no more than 1 hound may succeed in striking per round. Anytime the prey is successfully struck it must save vs. magic at +2 lose 1'/10 yards/10 feet of its movement rate. This is a fear effect..If the prey seeks shelter (up a tree, in a defensive ring, etc.) the hounds will bay as above and circle the prey in an effort to keep them from leaving their new-found shelter only attacking if the prey attempts to flee.
  If pursuing a group and the group begins to scatter the hounds will default to attempting to follow the largest concentration of HD or levels.
  The hounds will hunt for up to 4 hours.
    Example: Bren and his companions are patrolling the edges of a small barony when they see smoke rising over the trees. They come upon the remains of a caravan attacked by raiders less than 2 hours before. Bren summons the hounds are orders them to,
  'Hunt those who attacked this caravan and let all hear you'.
  The hounds sniff around for one round and one succeeds in the check - all bound off on the trail. Bren and his friends follow on horseback as best they can, listening to the call of the hounds.
  An hour later the calls double, letting all know the hounds see their prey. Just 20 minutes after that the baying reaches its maximum.
  40 more minutes and Bren reches the hounds as they howl and pace about the side of a rocky hill - in a few minutes Bren and his companions find the hidden entrance to the long-sought bandit hideout.
  The hounds may be dismissed by the wielder at any time but may only be called once every 7 days.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Most Terrifying Enemy Any Party Can Face

  Some players wonder - what eldritch abomination the DM will hit them with next? They don't worry about a horde of orcs - that's a numbers game. These poor players wonder what fiendish, obscure, horrible creature they will face next. A shambling mound? A will o' the wisp? An algoid? A phantom stalker? A dragon? A beholder? What is the most terrifying enemy a party can face?!
  Players in my campaign know, without a shadow of a doubt, what the most terrifying foe they can face is -

  An NPC 2-4 levels higher than the party average.
  The NPC has all of the intelligence (or lack thereof) and motivation as the party plus he is evil, opportunistic, and higher level. I showed with Starbinder how a low-level NPC can totally disrupt a party just by being sly. Now imagine Starbinder being tougher than the party.
  And the NPC doesn't have to be multi-class or a Bard to threaten the entire party. After all, he can have henchmen and hirelings, just like the party. NPCs can also have Charmed monsters, pets, etc. Better yet, have them all plus undead minions!
  Want to see my 2e S&P party give a collective shudder of fear and revulsion? Just say 'pirate ship with a necromancer captain'.
  Toss in a useful or creative magic item or three (I recommend they all have charges - after all, the party may get them!) and pow! instant terrifying bad guy!

Friday, February 14, 2014

NPCs for Fun and Adventuring - Starbinder

  This week's NPC is one that I have used in a number of times, most memorably in my Seaward campaign in about 1988-1989. This NPC is an antagonist; someone to oppose the party. His purpose in the game is to really get under the skin of the players and encourage them to realize they aren't unstoppable death machines without using great force. he is from 1e, so adjust accordingly for your favorite OSR/version/whatever

Half-Elven Cleric/Magic-user/Thief 3rd/3rd/3rd
No outstanding stats, but an Intelligence of 14 or 15
Align: Lawful Evil
H.P.: 10
A.C.: 5
Contents of his spellbook:
1st level - Read Magic, Detect Magic, Find Familiar, Shield, Charm Person,
2nd level - Forget, Stinking Cloud

Magic Items: Bracers, A.C. 6, +1 Ring of Protection, Ring of Invisibility and Inaudibility, Boots of No Tracks*

Familiar: An Imp of average hit points. [The bonuses from the imp are not included in Starbinder's stats].

*Boots of No Tracks eliminate all footprints of the wearer reducing the ability of rangers to track the wearer by 60%. The boots also reduce the odds of being tracked by smell by 60%.

  What do you mean 'that's it'? Properly used Starbinder should reduce the toughest player to an impotent, frothing rage!
  Starbinder does not want to fight. Far from it; he wants to steal, con, swindle, and rob. He always has 2-3 escape plans and he likes to lead others.
  How to use Starbinder in your campaign:
  Here is a sequence from a campaign I ran-
  1) Pirates have been raiding small villages in remote areas. A noble hires the party to look for the pirates. Eventually they find the pirate ship in a sheltered cove on a small island. The pirates, in a cavern complex near the sea, put up the appropriate level of resistance but their leader (Starbinder) is nowhere to be found. They eventually make it to his quarters to learn that he and his top men have slipped away in a longboat. The party loots the caverns and returns to the cove - to discover Starbinder and his men have stolen the party's ship and fled! Forced to press-gang the pirates into returning them to the mainland in the pirate ship the party does not get the reward and are humiliated.
  2) Upset himself, Starbinder waits and ambushes one of the party's henchmen when he is alone, casting Hold Person from hiding. He then approaches and casts Charm Person. He then steps out of sight and casts Forget. After a moment Starbinder 'comes along and rescues' the henchman,  becoming an immediate 'friend'. Starbinder maintains a friendship with the henchman, periodically casting Charm Person and Forget. Soon Starbinder knows all of the secrets that the henchman knows.
  3) Starbinder learns that the party is looking for some hirelings, simple guards, for an upcoming adventure. He talks his 'friend' into recommending him and is signed on as the leaders of a small group of mercenaries (men he recruited himself). The mercenaries guard the camp and horses as the party makes a series of forays into a dungeon. After the first loot is returned Starbinder and his men stage a fake 'attack on the camp' and loot everything, leaving behind blood (from hunted critters) and orc arrows and weapons. Starbinder leaves the party high and dry in the wilderness.
  4) The party makes it back to town and while looking to buy horses - find their horses! They soon learn from the merchant and one of the hirelings that it was all done by 'Starbinder' and that he used to be a pirate. The party is catching on! Starbinder tells his 'friend' that it is a terrible misunderstanding and that another one of the hirelings made him do it. He convinces the charmed henchman to give him access to the party's room to he can apologize.
  5) Starbinder steals the most valuable item he can get from their quarters (in this case a crown worth 30,000 g.p. from a dungeon) and flees. The party searches but do not find him.
  Game years go by; the party reaches name level and build a fortress. They have captured hippogriffs, tamed them, learned to ride them, etc. The first clutch of eggs is almost ready to hatch when the party leaves on an adventure.
  6) When they return they learn that the man they sold the hippogriff eggs to has come and gone. He had a receipt with the proper seals, was known to one of the henchmen, etc. The party learns all the eggs are gone and the receipt has Starbinder's name on it front and center.

  As you can see, Starbinder is an annoyance. He might never, ever attack or cast a spell on a single PC. His purpose is to add depth to the campaign. Yes, depth! Use him to demonstrate, very clearly, that guile, deceit, and cunning are at least as dangerous and strength and bloodlust.

  As an aside, Starbinder was so annoying to a different party than the one described that they stopped all else until they tracked him down, killed him, burned his body, and scattered the ashes. I was very proud.