Sunday, 12 November 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #14: The Lord of the Mountains

Participants:
  • Drusus the Historian, 4th level human Magic-User
  • Drolhaf Haffnarskørung, 6th level human Thief/Fighter
  • Lafadriel Hundertwasser, 4th level elven Fighter
  • Armand the Scumbag, 4th level human Thief
  • Phil the Terror of Turkeys, 5th level hobbit Thief/Archer

 The forest was dead. The birds were silent, and the branches were like the hands of the dead, bearing funereal veils of moss and lichen. They walked in silence until Armand – who has looking in the undergrowth for something he could find useful – bid the company stop.
Ahead of us – voices!
The sounds were human moans mixed with odd, bubbling noises. Creeping forward, they spied a clearing dominated by a massive old tree, black and rotten. Around the trunk, naked, pale humans crawled in the mud like beasts, their eyes vacant and dull. They wore chains binding them to the tree, and were absorbed in fighting or sitting and wailing. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung quietly motioned for the others to keep walking, and put a distance between them and the strange vision, until they were out of the dead zone. It was growing dark by the time they reached the lower slopes of the mountains. Phil found a cave which looked abandoned and didn’t smell of wild animals, and here they rested a night.

***

The forests receded and were replaced by moraines and giant boulders. The snowy summits loomed high above them, and they were buffeted by freezing winds. There was no sign of life in this wasteland. It was Armand who discovered the road, winding around the mountainside and disappearing in a gap between two peaks. It was irregular and seemingly built of enormous stones too large to be moved by men, but it was a road all right. It lead upwards and to the east, until the two sides of a narrow gorge rose up around it. The company passed through the gloomy silence, and after a few hours, reached a branch. The main road continued eastwards, while a more narrow way, built of the same massive stones, went north, before disappearing between an enormous arch formed of two massive, fallen stones.

They passed under the stones, hurled against each other by the mighty forces of nature, and emerged on a slope overlooking a small valley dominated by the green of lush trees, and a central meadow bisected by a crystal-clear stream. The way lead down into the tiny forest, while right across them, looming high, rose the tallest peak of the mountains, snow-covered and quiet. Up high, a serpentine road seemed to climb up to a cave entrance; above, three massive arched openings, closed off by metal grilles, yawned in the sheer cliff face. On top of the peak, they could make out the snowy ruins of a tower or small keep, barely more than a collection of walls and debris piles.
Whatever this is, we have found what we were looking for,” said Phil.

***

The road melted into a forest trail surrounded by gnarled old trees. Soon, the path forked before a comfortable-looking stone bench, holding a pitcher of clear water. To the left, the path curved, crossing a stream flowing southwest. Lafadriel heard a distant sound like geese honking, while Armand studied a tree that looked a bit like its knots formed a human face... or was it just a random pattern? Phil climbed up on another tree, and sunk his hand into a bird’s nest, retrieving two eggs made of solid gold.

The Garden in the Mountains
They crossed the stream, and soon emerged in the meadow at the centre of the valley. The grass was green and wholesome, and clusters of colourful wildflowers were everywhere. Across the meadow, a gaggle of eight white swans were hunting for snails. In the middle of the clear area, a statue stood on a pedestal with some kind of writing on the base. It was a full-scale rendition of a moustached nomad standing triumphantly, raising a scimitar above his head, next to his companion, a rearing griffin. There was a living figure next to the statue: a lady in fine clothes, standing silently and looking the other way.
Let’s approach her” suggested Drolhaf, and they crossed the meadow, following the stream.

Something is wrong” Phil hissed.
They were not any closer to the statue, but in the meadow’s north-eastern corner. The eight swans were peacefully grazing to their south, and as they looked back to the centre, they saw the statue, but the lady had disappeared.
We are in the opposite corner, but the statue is still looking our way!” whispered Phil.
Drusus cast detect magic, confirming the valley – all around them – was magical. Lafadriel, who had stopped to collect some of the wildflowers, saw that they were like no flowers he had ever seen; their blossoms and leaves were conjoined in a blooming tangle.
Let’s try retracing our steps to the southwest.
Following Drolhaf’s suggestion, they made their way back to their starting point. The eight swans were peacefully plucking something from the grass to the northwest, and the statue was looking back in their direction.

Drolhaf spoke to no one in particular: “I have come with good intentions – I give the gift of flowers to the flowers.
He retrieved a vial filled with a rainbow liquid from his knapsack (once found by Franz Who Wasn’t Even There during a previous adventure), and poured it on the ground, burning a path through the grass towards the statue. This time, they emerged at the base of the monument. Looking around, Armand saw three swans hunting to their southwest, but no trace of the mysterious woman.
Wait, three swans?” asked Lafadriel.
I try to disbelieve the illusion” said Drolhaf, but nothing changed. “Hm. Let’s try reading the inscription – these are some really tiny letters.
The letters below the statue read: “THE SWANS ARE CLOSER THAN THEY SEEM”
The what? ... HEY!
The swans were right there next to them! They struck furiously with their bills, and Drusus almost fell to a grievous wound, while Armand and Lafadriel got smaller bites. Once he could react, Drusus recovered enough of his wits to cast burning hands, scorching the swans, while the others fought in vain to hit them. Suddenly, the angered waterfowl were gone. They were alone next to the statue, and a group of six swans were grazing peacefully in the meadow’s NW corner.
The wounds are real” said Drusus, disappointed.
Maybe it really is an illusion” said Drolhaf.
Or some sort of spatial distortion” added Phil the Terror of Turkeys. “Could be the pollen” he continued as he masked his face with a piece of cloth, followed by Armand the Scumbag.

The place we are looking for is to the north. Looking that way, you can see two paths starting from the NE corner. Let’s start with the northern one.
Following the suggestion, they approached the semi-circular narrow garden path. Halfway, there was a snow-white marble pillar with a vase on the top, both bisected by a single long crack.
Drusus had an idea. “Let’s try something different.” He cast a spell, and began to levitate upwards, rising above the valley. He saw the trees below them, and a mountain path to his northeast, starting from the east of the valley. He levitated back down, and told the others of his discovery.
Let’s just see the western part first before we go east” said Drolhaf.

Back at the meadow’s NW corner, they spotted the western path starting from the SW corner. Some way into the lush woods, they found themselves next to a marble pavilion. A circle of columns stood on a half-sunken foundation overgrown with grass, and a broken white marble dome rose over the columns. Approaching the structure, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung noticed something shimmering between the columns, surrounding the interior – a slight distortion or refraction, barely visible. Inside, something seemed to stir, but it was just a hint of movement – or perhaps another trick of the light. Testing the shimmering with a rock, then a stick, it proved to be some kind of force repelling all intrusion. Meanwhile, Lafadriel, who was watching the forest, made another unpleasant discovery.
There are no snails and insects here. This place is completely barren. And those trees – look! They are identical.
Looking more closely, the ruse was obvious. The trees were completely like each other, and their green leaves were perfect imitations of a single uniform shape.
It is like someone created this place,” murmured Phil “but he was too careless or lazy to pay attention to the details.
That’d explain the wildflowers I saw” nodded Lafadriel.

Proceeding further west, then back northeast, they saw a comfortable-looking stone bench, holding a pitcher of clear water. Drolhaf was now sure: “Yes, we have seen it before.
Back at the NW corner of the clearing, they saw a flock of five geese playing in the stream to the southeast. An elegant lady stood next to the statue in the middle with her back to them. The exit of the northern path they had emerged from a little time ago was nowhere to be seen.
Well then.
There was a way to the east from the NE corner, and they took this path through the perfect, alien forest. Halfway along the path, there was a snow-white marble pillar with a vase on the top, both bisected by a single long crack. But there was also something else: a stone path passed below an arch of two massive rocks, going steeply upwards and turning north in a bend.
Lafadriel was sceptical: “This could just be the way we came in.
Do you have any better ideas?
Yes, go back to the road and leave this place.
No way. We have to get to that tower.
How much time has passed since we got here?” asked Armand, and looked up at the sun, which was still right above them. “It is noon. Just like when we got here. It could always be noon here.

***

The trail was steep and unpleasant to climb, the stairs too high for their legs and seemingly endless. After a while, they emerged somewhere above the green valley, on a ledge buffeted by cold winds. Four great stone faces in the cliff wall stared at them with empty eyes and mouths.
Are these representations of Keora? No... the goddess is female, and these are male heads” mused Drolhaf.
They resemble the giants of the old eras” spoke Drusus the Historian.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THE REALM OF THE MOUNTAINS’ MYSTERY?” A booming sound came from one of the heads.
We have come looking for… uh… this place, oh faces!
HE HAD STRUCK WOUNDS INTO THE STONE” the voice replied.
Another head joined in: “HE HAD BUILT A HEAP FROM THE BONES OF THE CLIFFS.
The third spoke: “HE HAD BRIDGED DEPTH AND DECAPITATED HEIGHT.”
And the fourth rumbled: “HE HAD ENSLAVED THE MOUNTAINS...”
We are on our way!” Drolhaf responded, and was quick on his feet to get as far away from the ledge as possible.

They climbed further up, and after what seemed like a very long time, were at the base of the final summit, snow-covered and quiet. The path ended in a vaulted entrance leading into the mountain; to either side stood two statues of the nomad warrior from the meadow down below, one headless and one with his upraised blade broken off and lost. Stepping inside, there was an abandoned watch station to the left, and a set of stairs leading upwards.

The Mountain Tower


The steps lead into a vast hall lit by three enormous archways cut into the side of the mountain, but closed off by enormous brass grilles. Giant winches to be operated by multiple men stood next to them. The hall itself consisted of three “piers” with 10’ deep “bays” between them, filled with heaps of blackened, leathery bodies and bones, the remnants of some ancient massacre. Peering down, they saw broken weapons, and something else – the bodies were entangled in rotten harnesses. There was a large archway leading deeper into the mountain, and wide stairs climbing up, flanked by the bas-reliefs of rearing griffins.
What were the bays for? Enormous swans?
This could be related to the island’s giants in some way.
Remember the legend of the griffin rider of this isle?” said Drusus. “This could be the same man. He was reputed to save people from peril.
Wasn’t that man a pegasus rider?
He had bridged depth…” said Drolhaf.
Maybe this was not the man of the legends” countered Phil the Terror of Turkeys. “Maybe you’d call for his help and he’d just appear and kill you.
There was some kind of movement from the stairs above. A group of glowing, spectral warriors appeared, coming down their way, nomads with pointed helmets and glinting phantasmal spears. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung raised his hand in a gesture of peace: “Respect for the brave! We have come with the permission of the giants!
The figures attacked wordlessly, striking wound after wound, but fortunately, they eventually fell to the company’s weapons.

Climbing further up the wide stairs, they emerged in an octagonal, vaulted chamber. There were spiral stairs further up, four doors in the diagonal corners, and passages to the east and west. Drusus was the first to investigate, opening the door to the northeast. The room was filled with a heap of discarded, mouldering clothes and rags, of all makes and sizes. Drusus rifled through them to see if they had any valuables, but suddenly, he felt something dragging him inside the pile. The rags fell on him to cover his face and suffocate him, and he was almost gone under the heaving mass, but at last the others could drag him away. Bitterly, he spoke the words of a flaming sphere, burning through the old remains and producing an oily smoke. The other rooms were also filled with similar cast-offs; there was nothing of apparent value.

Lower level

The passage to the east was flanked from the sides by several barred doors opening into small cells. Chains clinked and dragged themselves inside them, and Drusus was careful to watch them out of the corner of his eye, while also looking at a set of stairs descending downwards. At the end of the passage, a reinforced wooden door opened into a domed room filled with an unruly heap of pointy spears, resembling a large hedgehog. Tattered remains of uniforms hang on the spear shafts, punctured by numerous stab wounds. Across the room, there seemed to be spiral stairs going down, but looking at the spears, they decided to withdraw back to the octagonal room.

Drusus was the first to speak: “I am starting to believe this wasn’t the place Tomurgen was speaking of.
Nevertheless... if we are already here, we should see what the place has in store for us” argued Drolhaf.
Armand looked testy: “Maybe it just wants to kill us.
Finally, going with Drolhaf’s suggestion, they checked the western passage, which had doors to the side and at the end. The first door opened into a rectangular storeroom. Around the walls, there were disembodied, spectral things that looked like piles of something; colourful mists swirled on rotting wooden shelves. Drolhaf entered carefully, probing the clouds with the butt of his spear, experiencing something solid. Touching with his hand, he felt something smooth and rectangular, yet slowly pulsating. A handle. He pulled, and was in possession of a wooden drawer filled with old silverware.
Now that’s interesting.
It is like things are sliding between reality and unreality?” guessed Phil.
He opened another door, where a row of six misty globes stood in a row at chest height, dripping with red condensation. Then, checking the door at the end of the hallway, he entered a hexagonal room, where three larger, brighter clouds – blue, yellow and red – were pulsing at different rates, glowing with an inner light. Drolhaf reached for them, finding the yellow hot to the touch with a rapid pulse, the red warm and languid, and the blue cool and almost inert. He took the yellow globe and held it firmly…
I leave the room” declared Armand the Scumbag.
I leave the room” declared Lafadriel Hundertwasser.
I am already outside the room” declared Phil the Terror of Turkeys.
I have never even been inside the room” declared Drusus the Historian.
Drolhaf reached, seizing the globe…

…and felt incredible pain exploding through his body as he was enveloped in super-bright flames and a volcanic heat. The pain was incredible, and Drolhaf suddenly realised the flasks of oil on his body weren’t helping…

...too late, as he burned, crying “Fire, walk with me!” in a desperate bid to bring it under control. “The flames are mine!” he bellowed, and collapsed naked, weak as an infant, yet somehow also stronger after surviving the incredible ordeal (+2 Strength).
I could use a little healing here” he croaked, before he lost consciousness.

***

The red one was really something” Drolhaf heard the voice of Phil the Terror of Turkeys. He was resting in one of the side rooms, meticulously cleared of the old clothes that had filled it. “He is awake, and looks better. Well, time to get going!

Taking the spiral stairs up, they found themselves in a round columned hall. Grey daylight streamed in through small windows set around the hall’s perimeter. In the centre, suspended from the domed ceiling by a thick chain, was a large iron cage holding a desiccated corpse. The features of the man were nomadic with a cruel sneer; he had been stabbed through by several spears still lodged in the mummified body. A stone scimitar lay below the cage.
That looks like something for the broken statue at the entrance!” guessed Drolhaf, and carefully crawled under the cage to retrieve the item.
Drusus was not convinced about their safety: “He seems to be looking at us. Is the cage solid enough?

Looking for exits, Armand the Scumbag found a great, securely barred gate made of wood, and two hallways leading off from the domed chamber. Choosing the way to the east, they entered a long hall with its ceiling lost in darkness. A row of empty pedestals stretched all the way to the end, where they could see the triumphant statue of the griffin rider, letters inscribed on the base. Spiral stairs lead upwards, and a grand staircase started behind the statue.
Does something attack if we read the inscription? Any swans around?
The pedestals are empty.
Are they?” Phil pointed at faint, barely visible shapes on the twenty-six plinths. “Looks like glass or crystal... could be like the phantoms we fought, and there are 26 of them.
What if I sent a flaming sphere along the row?” asked Drusus the Historian. Then he shrugged and walked up to the rider, reading aloud the sign:
“I GAVE THE MOUNTAINS WHAT IS OF THE MOUNTAINS
I GAVE THE WOODLANDS WHAT IS OF THE WOODLANDS
I GAVE THE SEAS WHAT IS OF THE SEAS
THE AIRS ABOVE WHAT IS OF THE AIRS
RULING THEM TRIUMPHANT, THE POWER IN MY HANDS...”

Nothing here. I will scout ahead and see if there is anything dangerous.” Drusus walked up the winding grand stairs, eventually winding up on a circular gallery over a dark abyss. Cold winds wailed through empty windows, but the cold seemed to radiate from something else: a large golden heart that would fill a knapsack, suspended by a rope. He tried to grab it, and managed to dislocate the heavy metal piece, but could barely hold onto it as it seemed to freeze the marrow in his bones. He put it down on the gallery floor. Back in the hall of the statues, he told the tale and Drolhaf offered to make a try with the heart.
The power of fire will still protect me.
But what of the crystal statues? This feels like a classic trap. If we bring it here, the statues will probably animate.
Returning to the heart, they all studied the heavy object which seemed immensely valuable.
This must be the heart of the mountains from Tomurgen’s poem. ‘Mountains’ heart, forest-hidden light / Two stone peaks and a third will show its proper site / It lies in the dreamer’s lap, secret hiding place / A deceitful flame marks it, bygone mirage lays.’
Armand didn’t believe it. “It was suspiciously easy to just find it laying here.
But something has cursed the nomads living here. Are we sure it isn’t this heart?
It is magical... actually, the rope is also magical.
Peering down the abyss below them, Drolhaf noted a pile of leathery corpses covered by snow carried in by the wind. “It all looks risky. Something will happen if we take it.

Upper Levels

Deciding to leave the heart be for a while and investigate further, they pressed forward, into another tall, round gallery, this one dark save for narrow beams of light coming through small windows high above them. Six golden cages hang from the walls, filled with chirping, bouncing wisps of coloured light. At the far end of the gallery, Phil also spotted something more ominous – a heavy, lumbering shape seen from the corner of the eye, disappearing with a growl through an archway.
I am more and more sure this place is half real and half unreal” suggested Drusus.
That beast we just saw doesn’t look too scary if it is fleeing from us” said Phil.
Just don’t corner it; you may find it’ll take your head off.
Eventually, they decided to open the cages and take them for the gold value. The colourful balls scattered, twittering above their heads.
What have we unleashed on the world?!
Tiny little pixies?

The Coastal Map
Instead of pursuing the beastly apparition, they took the spiral stairs from the statue hall, arriving in a hexagonal room with two arched exits, one barred by a heavy door. In the middle of the room, an antique table held a hexagonal map with notations.
That tower in the middle of the mountains is where we are now. And look – you can see the coastal areas.
Could this be the distant past?” ventured Lafadriel Hundertwasser. “We don’t know of this place marked ‘Bonifaces’, or ‘Catscliff’, and what is now the town of Sleepy Haven is called ‘Thanes’.
Perhaps the Northman thanes had founded the original settlement. We should remove this parchment from the table surface; seems like there are some interesting places around.

The passage without the door lead to the bottom of the gallery where the heart had been suspended, and they took great care to avoid the browned corpses under the pile of accumulated snow. The octagonal room behind the barred door – which was locked but easy to open – seemed empty on a first look, permeated by clear white light. After a fruitless search for secret doors, they were ready to leave, when Drusus saw something out of the corner of his eyes.
Just a moment! There is something there!
Where?
“There. Do you see it?
They could see it, too, from the odd angle: heaps of brocades embroidered with lions, rich tapestries and pearl chains on mounds of gold. The centrepiece was a marble pedestal with a winged helmet resting on a velvet cushion, decorated with the emblem of the griffin rider.
Wait!” Phil exclaimed. “Is this the same helmet we found in the hall in Haghill Gadur Yir had opened?
I’ll be damned! It is the exact same thing... no, wait. That one had a pegasus rider.
Are you sure it was a pegasus rider?
But it was in ‘The Chamber of the Griffin’.
Now that’s something.


The next place they chose to visit was the tower’s west wing, reached through the other passage from the central chamber. Fighting a group of five phantom nomads, they emerged in a side room with a looming dark ceiling above dark-curtained windows, and roaring flames in a decorative fireplace. Drusus took a long look at the fire, and his gaze was drawn to what looked like human faces in the glowing embers, forming and disappearing in slow succession. There was a low murmur, and as he saw face after face, he finally saw one that caught his attention. It was the face of an unremarkable, indolent young man, but somehow he knew this man carried a great secret truth, and that he was a lost prisoner somewhere in a faraway underground place. Drusus studied the face and memorised its features before the apparition was gone.

Spiral stairs lead up, now to an empty room with further exits upwards and to the east. Choosing the latter way, the company was assaulted by a barrage of senses: the touch of fabrics and silks, the prickly sensation of horsehair blankets, the neighing of horses and the caress of soft arms. The eastern room was a narrow closet holding a collection of clothes. What they at first thought to be an illusion proved to be some princely gear: Drusus the Historian tried on the coolest pair of green dragonskin boots in existence, and topped it off with a golden diadem that seemed to fit him perfectly. Armand the Scumbag was satisfied with an outfit of fur coat that made him look like a wealthy lord.

Back in the previous room, they had to defeat a group of phantom nomads, but they seemed to fall easily. The stairs up lead to a semi-circular gallery lit by several tall windows. It was cold and empty save for a pedestal to the side, holding a red cap with a golden tassel on top of a stone head. Forward, stairs lead further up towards the top of the tower.
The head looks like it belongs to that statue next to the entrance” said Drolhaf. He started for the pedestal, but was stopped in his tracks as his transparent mirror image appeared out of the thin air. Drolhaf held up his hand in a gesture of peace, but the apparition was going for his weapon, and as others joined Drolhaf, they were also confronted by their phantom reflections. They chose it wiser to make a strategic retreat and discuss their options. Eventually, shielded with a protection from evil spell, Drolhaf chose to enter the room again, and snatch the cap and the head while dodging the blows raining down on him.

How shall we proceed further?
I think we have overstayed our welcome. We can come back another time, but we are exhausted and wounded. That large beast is still lurking out there, and if these passages connect, I’d rather not face it.
The remaining task was to retrieve the golden heart. Warmed within a fur coat, it was suspended from a spear haft and carefully carried down the grand stairs, but despite all expectations, no statues animated, and no forces of the weird tower would muster to thwart their progress, although a growling sound from the western wing seemed to warn of something large and ominous. They descended below the tower level, and down many stairs until they reached the exit with the two statues. Putting the scimitar in its place, a metal sword fell from the hand of one statue, clattering on the stones, and snatched up by the eager Phil the Terror of Turkeys:
This will make a nice weapon for me. Looks sharp!
Placing the head on the other statue’s neck, it emitted a bellowing battle cry that echoed through the silent mountains, filling the company with sureness and purpose (+3 to max Hp).
We may have to come back for the rest” pondered Drolhaf, but looking back on the mountain door, he saw only a bare stone surface, as if no entrance had ever been there. Looking up on the summit, where they had explored a great tower, were only the degraded remains of snow-covered walls. “Or maybe it will all stay there forever.
They walked down the serpentine path, towards the valley garden and the eastern road in the direction of Sleepy Haven.

(Session date 7 October 2017).

***

Notable quotes:
Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “This is a seriously low-budget valley.

Drolhaf to Lafadriel (after Drusus tried on the expensive boots and the golden diadem): “Is your god also Robespierre?

***

Referee’s notes: This expedition into a strange place resulted in more magical gear than actual clues: only one or two secrets of the tower were found, and from the GM’s side of the screen, it felt a bit like scratching the surface. However, the party was also severely wounded and running on luck and perseverance after the initial encounters, so they were also playing careful. There was a beautiful bit of lateral thinking involved with burning a path to the statue in the centre of the meadow – nothing had been written on this possibility, but it all made complete sense when it happened. But yes, the tower had kept some of its most important secrets.


Sunday, 5 November 2017

[REVIEW] Under Tenkar’s Tavern

Under Tenkar’s Tavern (2017)
by Thom Wilson
Published by Throwi Games

Memories of an Exalted Cover
There are always rats under the tavern. Editions come and go, gaming philosophies rise and fall, but those little fuckers are never giving it up. If your campaign starts in a tavern, you can bet there will be rats under it somewhere. So here we have this first-level adventure, and yeah right, the rats are at it again: they have dragged off the kitchen staff, and you have to follow them down into the rat dungeon to kill them. On your way down, there are captives to rescue, enough money to get rich, and a whole lot of rats. I’m not terribly surprised if that doesn’t sound very appealing. And yet, Under Tenkar’s is an adventure that almost gets it right, and that’s a very encouraging almost.

To start with, this 12-page module actually has a good content-to-page count ratio. It starts with a mercifully short one-page introduction (this could have been two longish paragraphs, but it is good enough), and follows it with a three-level mini-dungeon, featuring 37 keyed areas spread over 9 pages. A lot of small modules have a disappointingly minute amount of content (the proverbial 16 encounters in an 18-page package seems to describe most mini-module heartbreaks), or they are so minimalistic they strip out their meaningful content along with the dross. This one is just fine (and has room left over for “GM notes” if you want to add some). There is boxed text. Boxed text is usually bad news in gaming, a common warning sign for bloat or the removal of player agency. This time, it is mercifully short, functional, and mostly well written. The module could have done without it, but that’s splitting hairs: for boxed text, this is surprisingly passable.

The dungeon itself is a fairly simple beginners’ affair, following a linear structure with the odd side-branch here and there along the way. It is not bad. The encounters are mostly conventional dungeon fare, featuring living quarters, junk, and no less than three evil shrines of increasing menace. Lots of combat along the way, and a generous supply of low-profile magic items. The individual pieces are not outstanding, but it feels like a proper descent into an underground realm of dangers and mysteries. Evil idols, an underground lake, prisoners and cultists. Make this dungeon complex three or four times as big, add distractions and sidetracks, let the players get off the beaten track, explore and get lost, and it’d be very good indeed, while remaining a classic whack-a-rat deal.

Once again, as small, rat-based modules go, this one was surprisingly good for all the the low expectations. There are a lot of things which should work against it, but in the end, it is almost surprisingly decent, and has clawed its way up into a three-star rating. We are told there may be expansions, and there completely should – this is a good launching pad for something bigger – but it has to be bigger to really realise its potential.

No playtesters were listed for this adventure.


Rating: *** / *****

The Ratte Problem

Monday, 23 October 2017

[REVIEW] RPGPundit Presents #1-3

RPGPundit Presents #1-3 (2017)
by RPGPundit
Published by Precis Intermedia

The best part
A recently launched series of mini-supplements, each focused on a single gaming-relevant subject, sold as PDFs. While three issues have been published so far, they are fairly tricky to review due to their brevity: the longest has 19 pages of content, one has ten, while the shortest has a mere six (and they are clearly meant for digest-sized printing, with generous font sizes). The result is less like a zine and more like buying a series of zine articles one piece at a time. Issue #1 (Dungeon Chef) covers a topic lovingly explored in Nethack, and more recently in a manga, eating monsters and general flora/fauna you find in a dungeon. Issue #2 (The Goetia) presents brief but useful demon summoning rules and a list of 72 demons taken from the Ars Goetia. Issue #3 (High-Tech Weapons) presents general old-school statistics for modern and futuristic firearms. There is some art here and there, and the cover is very cool, showing a ghostly outline of a pipe-smoking RPGpundit in his Hunter S. Thompson getup.

What makes a zine work is the variety of its content and the personal touch the different articles bring. What makes a supplement work is the in-depth treatment of a subject matter (or an even bigger, broader collection of cool stuff). Unfortunately, this series delivers neither in its current form. All three subjects are treated on the surface level, without offering added value to the game. The most original issue is Dungeon Chef, but unlike Nethack (where corpses may give you neat special abilities like telepathy, or cause food poisoning, random teleporting, or polymorphisation – and you can turn them into tins with a tinning kit), the consequences of scarfing down subterranean bushmeat are mostly handled via uninteresting random tables. There is no interesting pattern to learn, beyond elementary ideas like “eating mummies cause mummy rot”; you would be better off just reading a Nethack wiki. The most useful of the three is The Goetia. The demon-summoning rules are one of many, but they are sensible and flavourful, and if you want a list of high-ranking demons to go with them, Pundit’s familiarity with occult traditions makes this a safe bet (or you can just consult Wikipedia and/or your favourite occult tome). High-Tech Weapons is too short and basic to bring anything to the table; the weapons it describes, and the things it has to say are elementary (e.g. a shotgun can be loaded with either two bullets or buckshot; ion weapons affect robots but have no effect on humans; grenades may miss their target and explode elsewhere). This was pretty cool in the days of Arduin, but today, most of us need more to be wowed.

Altogether, it is hard to see what this series wants to bring to the table. It would work better as a series of blog posts, or perhaps in a collection, but even then, it doesn’t rise above the level of shovelware.

No playtesters were credited in these supplements.

Currently smoking: random tables


Rating: ** / *****

Thursday, 5 October 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #13: The Seeing Cat

With Armand the Scumbag cooped up within a wardrobe in the safe room of The Murk, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung and Drusus the Historian guarded his life from the side of the bay, and Lafadriel Hundertwasser from the side of the streets. There was considerable boat traffic that night, but after a while, Drolhaf spotted a skiff that didn’t move much, and kept an exact distance from their position. Drolhaf yawned, stretched, sauntered over to Drusus, who confirmed the vessel was immobile, and while someone in the back was paddling to keep position, something that at first looked like a piece of tarp was in fact a man lying prone, looking their way. Half an hour passed uneasily, and at last the skiff turned back towards the other side of the harbour.
This is our chance,” whispered the Northman. “They are not suspecting us. Call down Armand and let’s follow them fast.

Hopping into one of the boats moored to the pier, they rowed in quiet determination, Drolhaf trusting his Northman instincts to keep their direction. It was at this point that they realised the boat was leaking, and while this was negligible with one person inside, it was taking water considerably faster with the three of them on board. Just then, there was a *whoosh* as a crossbow bolt flew by them.
Damnit!” Armand cursed silently as a second projectile missed them. Drolhaf cranked up his own weapon, fired, and missed. The enemy skiff was getting out of range, and their own boat was caught in a treacherous current drifting towards the open sea. They decided to return to shore while they could, but the boat was sinking faster, and went down a stone’s throw from the Fish Market. Drusus cast a spell, levitating straight up into the air. Drolhaf and Armand both jumped to make a grab, pulling down poor Drusus into the water. They swam out to shore, spitting water and coughing. Drolhaf had to cut off his suit of armour to avoid sinking, while Drusus got his spellbook wet, erasing two spells. Tired and in a foul mood, they returned to the Murk.

***

The next day, with Armand in disguise as Yil the Mysterious, they returned to The Inn. The common room was mostly empty; the bull-necked man they had interrogated yesterday calmly eating his soup at a corner table.
He is either a spymaster or we were chasing a big fucking shadow yesterday” noted Drolhaf as they asked Redragon for breakfast – after he tasted it before them, of course. Things seemed much more pleasant in a short while, and they got better when Hector the Peddler came in to pay a visit.
I have something new for you, great sirs, but it is not in your hands yet...” the ragged fellow whispered. “It is called The Seeing Cat, and it would be a shame if it got lost in all this confusion. I thought you might appreciate it more than the others.
What is this ‘Seeing Cat’ you speak of?
Oh, it is another statuette, Sirs, but even more precious than the last one.
Precious, eh?” Drolhaf slipped him five gold pieces.
As I just said... It was the property of the Bard Tomurgen, the gods rest his soul, and indeed, I saw it during my visits, for he was always kind to a poor peddler. There he kept it in his room, and the cat, it is said, would see and remember. Wouldn’t it be a shame if it was lost when poor Tomurgen’s room is emptied and his things sold off?

I see your point. It is a very interesting story. But we also have another question.” Drolhaf extended another gold coin across the table. “Suppose we were looking for someone. An old man, probably a wizard. Conical hat, grey beard --
That describes half the wizards out there” grumbled Hector.
This man, though, also smells of mint.
Mint? That’s...” the peddler’s eyes lit up. “Of course! I have seen him. Your man is named Filodont. He smokes that mint-flavoured tobacco he always buys at the Masters’ Guild, and he is a familiar face in town, along with the others.
Others?
Yes, there are others – his companions. Let’s see… there was Lizadorn, a tiny little lass--"
A hobbit?
You could say so. Anyways, Lizadorn was last seen with one Boffo Badgervest, sailing out of town. Then: Brondur the Dwarf, a pretty violent sort; Zelmaron, who is someone from the wilderness – quiet, wears leather clothes – a barbarian maybe... and Raglak. Raglak the Voracious [Raglak, a Beles], half orc and half man. He’s from town.
Do you know him?
A little. He usually drank at the Skinned Cur, where the other orcs gather. Last time, he was bragging he would soon be rich, something about an abandoned villa. Come to think of it, it’s been a while. Definitely been a while.
Two more gold pieces changed hands, and Hector left, happy with the money he has just earned, while the company was left to ponder the conundrums he has left for them.

***

Day 35 in Baklin
Ortrag’s Tobacco Box was a tiny little store under the arches of the decaying Masters’ Guild. A shield with a green water goblin hung from a hook, and an official-looking sign identified the place as a city-wide monopoly [q.v. “Városi Dohánybolt”]. While the others waited otherside, Drusus the Historian entered to ask a few questions. Ortrag, the hobbit proprietor was barely taller than the counter, but he explained his wares from the top of a stool with animated enthusiasm.
Filodont? He is a good friend, and what a good customer!” he exclaimed when Drusus casually mentioned him. “I have sold many pipes to him, many pipes! He is prone to lose them wherever he goes.
I heard him mention he travels a lot. Just last time, he told me he was going... hm, I just can’t recall it.
The Singing Caverns!” came Ortrag’s cheery response. “And before that, the coast, and now he is gone again!
That’s what I just meant to say! Anyway, if you meet him, tell him that Rowen the Kassadian sends his greetings to the great Filodont. Rowen would be me.
Certainly! He has his own blend, you know – I create the perfect combination for every customer to suit their tastes and temperaments. Would you like one for yourself? Perhaps a pipe to go with it?”
Ortrag showed multiple pipes to Drusus, including a specially carved, exclusive piece with a carved bowl shaped like a goblin’s head for 15 gp, but Drusus – who barely had a few coins – opted for a simple travelling model. Armand was more ready to spend money in his predicament, and after Drusus left, he bought the pipe and ordered a coffee-flavoured blend for the time he would return.

***

It was early afternoon, and since the place was nearby, they visited the dog pound to see how things have developed. This time, the dogs were tied and the hole in the ground was guarded by a glum contingent of guards. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung entered to ask Tarbus Rolf about the newcomers.
There is a regular army down there! This morning, the knights came and told me to tie me dogs; then they went down there while they left those fellows” the massive brute shook his head.
How many?
Six armoured knights, five more guards, and there was a bald man wearing a robe.
Didn’t that last one have a minty smell?
Damned if I know... mighty ominous fellow, though.
One of the guards noticed the conversation and stepped closer.
Move along now! This is no place for you. Move along!
Excuse me, Sir--" Drolhaf interjected. “I am the person who will pay for the building to be erected on his site. I would like to inspect the grounds if I may.
You may not. This place is now under the supervision of Sir Boron of the Cliffs, and only he may allow anyone entrance. Please depart, Sir.
Just one moment – where would Sir Boron be if I wanted to speak to him?
Can’t do – he’s the one leading the men down there.
Without further options, Drolhaf returned to his companions.

“­Dooom! Dooom! Dooom!” cried a dishevelled, crazy-looking man on the street corner as they were returning through the streets. “Undead! The undead are coming! I know it – the time of Brazak Bragoth is at hand! Orcs! The orcs are at the walls! The faerie princes...
We should stop for a moment,” suggested Armand. “The Skinned Cur. It is right here nearby, and we could learn more about this Raglak the Voracious... and I might just hit up an old contact or two.
The pub was quiet in the afternoon, and only the sounds of snoring orcs sleeping on the wooden benches and the buzzing of lazy flies broke the silence. Armand looked around and gestured silently as his eyes scanned the place, pointing at a suspicious section of the floor before the bar, and a concealed lever on a beam behind it.
Hey Gulmag, you gots guests!” someone bellowed upstairs, and down came a pair of shuffling feet, followed by an enormous potbelly, and a porcine face. Gulmag the Gab looked over the company with suspicion. Some of the orcs shifted in their sleep, and a dirty, unkempt old man joined Gulmag with an incredulous look on his face. Gulmag spat.
A pointy-ear. Well I never!
I am not drinking anything!” Lafadriel declared.
Armand quickly produced a gold piece for the orc, taking care to avoid the suspicious floor section. “So this is where they don’t bark anymore.
Gulmag shrugged. “No, not here they don’t. Try the soup? Or want to hear about our specials? We ain’t got any.” He smiled triumphantly.
Maybe later. Roglag’s gone missing. Do you know him?
Hope he’s okay. He still owes me money.
Well, let’s hope this settles the bill.” Armand drew another gold piece from his purse. “Have you seen someone from Kassadia? Say, someone who has had a black mark on his honour?
Kassadians? There are a lot of ‘em if you’re asking. Why, the...
Where do you think you are going, miscreant?!” Armand hissed, and lunged for the old man, who was trying to sneak out of the pub. “Get him!
Lafadriel and Drolhaf started for the old codger, and tackled him outside the Skinned Cur. Armand grinned darkly.
“Later, Gulmag. I think we will meet again.”

Cornered in a back alley, the scrawny old fool’s resolve crumbled in an instant.
Release me! Release me, I didn’t do you any harm!
Speak! What do you know?” Armand grabbed him by the clothes and shook him.
I am in grave danger just by speaking to you! I am being watched!
If you don’t speak, you will be dead right here and right now.
Oh... oh my... I don’t know what is what anymore. The whole combination has been betrayed. It is all gone.
Betrayed, huh? By you, perhaps?
No, I swear! I really didn’t mean it! It was all covered by the Amiable Pact – we operate here in a limited matter, they operate in Kassadia, do the basic business. Then it all went wrong!
Who were the others? Does Harrgon Torsk control this?
Oh no! He is just a mid-level guy.
Who then? Speak!
Hyacintho! It is Hyacintho Eskumar the Fisherman! In this city, you see – there were two other parties to the Pact, one in Gont and one to the west.
Hm. And what is this about the others? Your companions. What happened to them?
Oh, they were all – first, Dark Elsa [Sötét Elza] was found, having taken her own poisons. Then, Rogold the Billygoat Beater [Rogold, a Zergeverő] – he went to investigate in Tirwas to the west after he discovered something real dark over there, and he never came back. All gone, like Korgan the Rummaging Death [Korgan, a Matató Halál]. It was me and little Boffo Badgervest, and he just got up and left on a ship with one of his kind – he’s an ‘obbit, you see.

Armand looked carefully at the shaking wretch and finally said “Very well. You have said enough. You are free to go.
The man fell to his knees, sobbing. “Why don’t you just kill me? I will not walk two corners alive! Please! Take me with you, get me out of here!
All right, old man. I’ll do you one better.” Armand held up the ticket to the Sea Puffs. “This is your ticket out of this place. We’ll bring you to the docks and you can go home to Kassadia safe and sound, with this --” he showed a handful of gold pieces. “Just remember to tell anyone who will ask that it was Arianus who has saved you.
The old man was beside himself with joy, kissing Armand’s hands in relief. “I will be happy to leave behind this cursed city. So small, yet it is the worst I’ve been to. I can go die in Kassadia, and that’s all I want from life now. Listen... I must leave behind my things, but you may find them useful. There is a hiding place in a courtyard below the southern tower, a walled up niche and a protruding brick. Remember this.

They got going through Baklin’s alleyways and plazas, towards the harbour, and it was as if a hundred eyes were following every step. The coast was clear; but then, in the dark, windowless street between the Lockhouse and the Nine Doors Tavern, the trap was sprung.
Hand over the old man! We got no quarrel with you” snarled one of the burly man who had emerged to hastily block both ends of the alley with pushcarts.
Come and get him!
A dozen burly men came running, but the melee was brutal and one-sided, and weapons were drawn. Soon, four of the assailants were lying dead in a pool of their own blood, four were knocked out, and the remaining four had fled for their lives. But there was no time to enjoy victory, as guards poured into the street, demanding all to drop their weapons and put their hands up.
The Captains’ Council will deal with you, troublemakers!” the sergeant spit, his face red from the exertion of running. “Most of you will be in the sack soon, you can bet on that!

***

It all went surprisingly easy” someone mused on the steps outside the gaudy council building.
Yeah, and they accepted our defence without further questioning.
Perhaps it was a good idea to mention we were under the patronage of both Fantagor and Lady Callodric. Not to mention my spirited defence of you lot” considered Drolhaf.
Couldn’t it be that we were just innocent?
Don’t be an idiot.
At least that old guy is on his way.
Yes! Let’s not forget his treasures. The southern tower? We have to go pay it a visit.
And at night, it is Tomurgen’s place – and the Seeing Cat!

***

The southern tower, located in the south-eastern corner of the city, rose high above the old houses that clustered around it. The way in was through a gate, but for some reason, it seemed to be too suspicious.
Drusus hazarded a guess: “What if we go around on the city wall?
After what we just did? That’s daft!
They probably don’t know a thing. And besides – we will give them money.
So it happened that soon, a delegation of three knocked on a wooden door, and when a guard checked to see the racket, offered a generous ten gold pieces to see the sights.
This is a very special piece of architecture” explained Armand. “In Kassadia, it is considered one of the supreme examples of military architecture, a reference to all architects like my companions.
The guard seemed doubtful, but the gold pieces were real, and there were ten of them.
I guess you – you can come in. Just stick with me, and don’t go off on your own.
They checked out the arches and vaults amidst a lot of oohs and aahs, until the guard was bored.
This – this is my favourite column!” enthused Lafadriel. “See the weight. The proportions. The exquisite segmentation.
Finally, the bored fellow let them descend into the courtyard at the base of the tower, and asked them to call if they needed anything. Seeing that the coast was clear, Armand removed the brick from the wall niche they were looking for, and retrieved a small package.
Let’s get going” nodded Armand, hiding the contents under his clothes before they called for the guard to let them out.

***

Day 35 at night
In the waning hours of the day, Drolhaf went to visit the small plaza just below Hightowne to case Tomurgen’s house. There he found a cheerful two-story house with a peaked roof. A cobbler’s shop, Vilmor’s Boots occupied the lower floor, and two guards barred the way leading to the upper one. Drolhaf entered the store, greeting the cobbler.
I wasn’t looking for boots right now, my good man, although I plan to buy a pair some day. I left something at Tomurgen’s, and can’t retrieve it due to the guards.
Vilmor shook his head. “You are out of luck. Since Tomurgen died without a known heir, his place has been sealed up until further notice. His belongings will be moved to the palace, and there you may requisition your property if it can be proven to be yours.
That’s horrible! It was a precious object, the statuette of a cat.
A cat? That’s strange; I remember it well, but I remember when it was already in Tomurgen’s possession when I was a tot, and just learning the first things about boots.
Oh... that’s right. It was my father’s gift to the gentle soul, before he was slain by Skarlog Thane.
The cobbler studied Drolhaf with a look of suspicion. “Still, it can’t be helped – you will have to wait your turn and ask at the palace.
The Northman left the dim shop deep in thought, taking a good look at the guards’ position and the building’s layout before he turned and made for the Inn where the rest of the company was waiting.

Meanwhile, Armand laid out the tools found in the package. There was a good pouchful of coarse dust, multiple sawblades, and a strong, neatly coiled leather string. They discussed a few plans for breaking into Tomurgen’s, considering whether they should involve Harrgon Torsk or not. In the end, they chose to go their separate ways and meet at the appointed hour after midnight.

***

The marketplace was mostly empty this time of the night, except for the beggars huddled around the column with the statue. As Lafadriel Hundertwasser sat down to play a slow tune, and act as a lookout, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung, Drusus the Historian and Armand the Scumbag converged on the house from three directions. They stopped in the shadows, looking around to see if anyone was following them. They could hear drunken singing, and they withdrew, only Armand staying in sight. It was the cobbler, obviously wasted, pointing at the silent figure before him.
H-heeeyyy! Wh-what’s with you there, in the shadows? What are ya tailing me for? Cat got your tongue? Come out, come out, whoever you are!
Armand pretended to stumble forward, and greeted the man jovially: “Oh, it is you! I’m going back down for a little more of the fun – care to come? Ah, going to sleep already? This is your house, can’t miss it. Ask the guards.

When Vilmor was gone, and had finished quarrelling with the sentries before the house and slamming the lower door behind himself, Armand looked around and gestured. Drolhaf stepped close to the wall while Drusus spoke magical words, and soon, the Northman noiselessly levitated up on the roof. He slowly crept over the shingles, finding the hatch he was looking for. Carefully, he lifted it, and noiselessly hopped inside an attic filled with junk and bales of dusty old cloth. He looked around, and quickly found a trapdoor further down. Descending slowly, he heard a wooden board creak noisily before his feet, and he froze in cold sweat.
Did you hear something?” the guard’s noise in the street was as if it had come from right next to him.
Nah... musta been the cobbler, tossing in his sleep.
If I could have a good stiff drink...
Me too, mee too.
Drolhaf exhaled sharply, and went to work on Tomurgen’s door. He snapped off the seal impressed with the prince’s crown, opened up the lock with a few twists of his tools, and took a step into the lonely room that had been the bard’s apartment. A collection of musical instruments next to a mirror, a heart-shaped silver box, a wardrobe, and the brass statuette of a cat, sitting on a mantelpiece across Tomurgen’s cushioned chair. Drolhaf quickly checked the writing desk, finding no papers, just an open inkwell with dry ink in it, and a quill tossed to the side. The wardrobe held old-fashioned clothes, some male and some female, while there was nothing under the bed. The Northman thought for a while. Was he missing something? Unable to think of anything else, he grabbed the Seeing Cat, and left very, very carefully, avoiding every suspicious board and step.

***

Back in their rented room, the Seeing Cat was laid on a table, a heavy brass statuette whose making betrayed origins in the southern lands beyond Kassadia and its empire.
How do we make it speak?” asked Armand. “What if... Cat! Show us what we have to see, show us your master’s demise!
The statuette remained silent. They looked it, and finally, without a clue, they ventured out into the night again, to visit Zaloxen’s store of curiosities, hoping he’d be of help.

The Seeing Cat
Zaloxen, stooped and seemingly irritated by their intrusion, finally agreed to examine the piece for 200 gold pieces. He bid them wait while he carried it off to a curtained-off room, but soon returned smiling, suspiciously quickly.
Your donation is very much appreciated. You have to look into the statuette’s eyes. You are welcome.
As Zaloxen shuffled off to work on one of his nightly experiments, they could at last dig into the secrets of the strange witness. They looked deep into the crystalline orbs, seeing a scene unfold in complete silence within the old bard’s rented room. Tomurgen was sitting in his cushioned chair, listening intently to a man before him.
Filodont!” Armand hissed as the wizard straightened his weather-worn hat. “And that’s Zelmaron next to him?
Looks like the description. And look – Lizadorn the hobbitess.
Tomurgen’s silent lips said something, and his gestures indicated something he didn’t know, or didn’t want to tell. Filodont drew back in an accusatory manner. There was a sudden movement in the room, barely possible to make out what exactly happened, and another figure stepped forward from behind the plush chair as Tomurgen’s body slumped forward, bleeding profusely with a stab wound. A crazed-looking dwarf wiped his sword on one of the curtains.
And that – that’s Brondur the Dwarf.
No mistaking him.

The eyes went dark, but just as they were ready to put them back in their equipment, another scene unfolded in the crystalline gaze. This time, the room was empty save for Tomurgen himself, light streaming through the gaps of the window shutters. The bard was lost in deep thought, pacing up and down in the room. He walked over to the writing desk, and quickly jotted down a few lines on a piece of paper. Suddenly, he spun around, peering in the door’s direction. He mouthed two words, and tiptoed over to the wall mirror, pushing it aside to reveal a hidden cavity. He placed the folded note inside, replaced the mirror where it was, and made for the door.
And what is this scene?
Under the Seeing Cat’s gaze, they could barely make out a darkened room. All was motionless for a while, then someone indistinct came into view, and carefully looked around the room before he started methodologically searching around.
Drolhaf was the first to break the silence: “We already know that story. The cat has told us what we need.
Go back there? That’s pushing it!” warned Lafadriel Hundertwasser.
But Drolhaf was adamant. “Nevertheless, something is in there, and it is important. They will remove the mirror, find the hiding place, and we will never know what’s on it. Come on. This is our one chance, and the night is still not over.

***

This time, the night was completely silent, even the guards before Tomurgen’s had run out of things to talk about. Now, it was Armand who climbed the rooftop (without a levitation spell), and silently tiptoed downstairs. He almost stepped into the dead minstrel’s room, but halted and listened. The door was open a little. Had Drolhaf left it that way to make less noise? No, no… Drolhaf was no idiot. He lifted his crossbow and pushed open the door, stepping forward to catch his invisible opponent by surprise. He felt a shove, and a tight string winding around his neck, a dark cloaked form struggling to suffocate him. He felt faint, and fought as he could, but the man was stronger, and slowly squeezing the air out of his lungs. He kicked in vain, but only managed to kick over a hooded lantern, lighting the carpets on fire. In desperation, Armand reached for the pouch of dust from the old man’s stash, and pushed it into his attacker’s face. There was coughing, spitting and cursing, while Armand used the element of surprise, and threw his attacker off balance, winding his own garrotte around the neck. They fought, Armand going for the kill and the man trying to escape, but Armand proved stronger, and the assassin’s struggles ceased.

The apartment was starting to burn now, and outside, the guards were fully alerted.
Something’s up there!
Guards! Guards!” Drolhaf called out from the side street. “Some people are fighting down in the marketplace!
The two guards, recognising the obvious lie, snarled and ran for Drolhaf, as Drusus the Historian stepped forward and spoke the syllables of a spell. A cone of rainbow colours shot from his fingers, hitting the guards and Drolhaf alike straight in the face and putting them to sleep. Meanwhile, in the house, taking advantage of the distraction, Armand swiftly retrieved the note from behind the mirror, quickly dropped a small harp for Lafadriel inside his sack, picked up the heart-shaped silver box on his way out, and finally pulled the string from around the dead man’s neck before stepping back out of the smoke-filled room.

***

Some harp you brought!” complained Lafadriel Hundertwasser. “It has the Prince’s dedication carved into it – ‘To my valued friend, Tomurgen: Lodovico’. If I start playing this one, I’ll soon be in prison.
You can go back if you like,” grumbled Armand, but he was much more interested in the piece of paper. It was a folded scrap. On one side, a simple phrase, written in obvious haste: “The black dog runs at night.” On the reverse, a short poem:
Mountains’ heart, forest-hidden light / Two stone peaks and a third will show its proper site / It lies in the dreamer’s lap, secret hiding place / A deceitful flame marks it, bygone mirage lays.”
“Mountains, huh?” Drolhaf pondered the text. “That cluster of peaks next to Sleepy Haven looks very suspicious on our map. But first, we should take this to Lady Callodric.”

In the dawn, the company was awakened by Grindragon’s knocking. The dwarf was panting, and visibly disturbed.
You must go at once. A house has been lit on fire and the guards are looking for you, Drolhaf. They will be here any minute. Get out while you still can.
Quick!” snapped Armand, asking for a pair of shears. He cut Drolhaf’s beard as quickly and neatly as he could under the circumstances, and asked Lafadriel Hundertwasser for his cloak. “Now, walk with a stoop, like an old man – like that!
They snuck down the stairs, slipping out through the kitchen just as a contingent of watchmen showed up at the Inn’s front door. The streets were still mostly empty in the early morning, but this did not make the way to Lady Callodric’s mansion any more pleasant. Were strangers watching them? Waiting for the chance to run for the guards and make a report? It was a relief when they got to the mansion door and Harkell the Butler let them in.

Day 36 - Leaving Baklin
The lady joined them in a minute, and listened intently as they described the developments.
We have brought you something important, but not the cargo you were looking for.
So the paintings on the wooden panels are still missing?
Armand nodded: “We are afraid so. It seems that Gamandor, the captain of the guard has them.
Gamandor?!
More than that. We have reason to believe he is controlling the assassins who have attacked us again and again in town. Last night, I had to kill one of them with his own strangling chord, after a dreadful struggle.
It was Drolhaf’s turn to speak, and he outlined the similarities between Tomurgen’s message and the cluster of mountains to the south. “Maybe we should go seek it out and see what we find. This could be the key to many mysteries.
Those mountains have a mysterious reputation” agreed Lady Callodric. “And it is better if you are gone from Baklin for a while. I will help you get out. But we will also have to figure a way to relay messages. Where can we make contact?
Send your messages to Haghill, addressed to The Friends of Gadur Yir, at the Dancing Basilisk. That will be the best.
Very well. I wish you good luck on your quest. Harkell will take you to the harbour now.

The way down to the piers was tortuous. Every fisherman and housewife looked like a lurking spy, every drunken sailor a snitch. Their best fears were confirmed when Drolhaf felt a tug on his pants, and saw a dirty little ragamuffin with his hand outstretched.
Uncle! Uncle! Give me two gold pieces!
I will give you something worse if you don’t scram.
If you give me two gold pieces, I won’t cry out, and won’t tell the other Uncles.
Drolhaf, white with rage at the nerve, reached into his pocket and handed the kid the gold pieces in humiliation.
“If only I’m going to meet him again, I’ll split him from the neck to the gullet!”
Relax, Drolhaf. He is just a kid with a good line.
If he wants to play the adults’ game, he should play the adults’ game.
They continued down to the dock, avoiding a group of guards strolling on the waterfront. Harkell pointed towards a large sailing boat, ready to sail out: “That is your vessel. Fresh horses will be waiting for you down the coast.

Thanking Harkell, they walked down the pier, and greeted the fisherman and his son, who helped them onboard. Drolhaf sighed in relief as they pulled up the sails and uncoupled the rope.
Tell me,” he asked the older man, “What is down the coast? Here, on this map – next to this group of mountains.
That coast has a bad repute,” the fellow puffed on his pipe. “There be a lighthouse, but still many ships have been lost to the reefs.
A lighthouse, huh. A tower, that’s almost like a third stone peak. Very interesting. You look like a man who knows the sea. Will you take us down to this place?
I was told to put you on shore near the forests, not far from Baklin.
Never you mind that, the plans have changed. We will pay you handsomely.
As you’d like, Sir. The reefs are bad, but I’ll manage, during the day.
Baklin’s white walls and red rooftops receded, and Drolhaf leaned against the cabin to enjoy the sun, but he was rudely awakened by an unpleasant call.
Uncle! Uncle! Give me two more gold pieces!
Drolhaf’s eyes popped open, and he found himself face to face with the dirty kid, grinning ear to ear.
Why, you little-- “ he snarled. Phil the Terror of Turkeys bowed before Drolhaf.
Thank you for your gracious donation. I had to work hard to keep you safe on the way, so I’ll accept it with gratitude. I must say... you weren’t very stealthy at the old minstrel’s house. Not to mention that thing in the alley. Also...
Drolhaf just spat sourly, and returned to his rest.
Also, what about the heart-shaped box? Open it! Open it!
Armand opened his knapsack and retrieved the silver container. There was no key, but it opened to a little manipulation. Inside, it contained a lock of blond hair, a medallion depicting a smiling, middle-aged noblewoman and inscribed with the name “Arkella”, and a small bundle. Opening the package, Armand unfolded a pair of silk panties.
Arkella...
That must be Princess Arkella, Prince Lodovic’s wife!
Is Arkella a common name in this area?
There was no answer to the question.

***

Towards the mountains
A day passed, followed by a restless night on board the fishing boat. The next morning, they sailed into a maw-shaped bay surrounded by walls of natural rock. Waves broke on massive, teeth-shaped shoals. High above, a massive stone tower jutted out from above the escarpment.
Yup, I see a path up there... narrow and treacherous, but it leads up there all right. Put us ashore here.
The fisherman obeyed, and they said farewell before climbing up the steep path. The tower, a bare structure with a fortified out-building attached to it, rose lonely on the heath. They approached the metal door, and called for someone, then, when no answer came, banged on the entrance. At last, there were shuffling steps, and heavy bolts slid aside. Peering out of the doorway’s gap was a dishevelled-looking old man, all stubble and bloodshot eyes, with liquor on his breath.
Sorry for disturbing. We are looking for directions. Do you know this area?
Eh, I was just getting up. Come on in if you’d like,” the man gestured inside, showing a bare room with a cot, a table, a stove and some rough chairs. “My name be Skeg the Keeper, caretaker at this lighthouse.
Nice to meet you, Skeg.
I don’t have much to give ya. The supplies always be late, but I got some meat, beer and tobacco.
Try this,” Armand handed some of his tobacco to the man. “Straight from Baklin.

They lit a pipe, and Skeg, now a little less gloomy, told them about the tower, an old structure once used as a garrison, and now as a ships’ guide. He was retired here, not the best way of living, but better than many in Baklin. He had little knowledge of the mountains except that they had an ill reputation. He led them up to the beacon, passing by massive, locked iron doors that looked like they have not been opened since those garrison days, and let them around a small gallery.
Those to the south are the Hills of Sibirk. Strange fellows there, but they pass by here now and then when they go sell their furs in town. The Wulhaf homestead, they call themselves.
Have you seen anything interesting around here?
One time, I think I saw a rock move on that distant mountainside over there. But I could never make out any of it.
What about a deceitful flame?
Nah. ...are you talking about this here lighthouse? Now listen, just because some idiots sink when they come close to shore despite the warning light, that’s not the keeper’s fault! Sure, the catch is good, but what good is it if you go down with it into the drink?
We weren’t accusing you.
Skeg shrugged, and they went downstairs. Lacking food for the road, they gave him a generous ten gold pieces for ten food rations and some wine, parting to head towards the dense forests at the base of the mountains.

(Session date 27 August 2017).

***

Notable quotes:
Drusus the Historian, dripping with water: “The grand master of sailing found us a leaky boat.

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “My whole wealth amounts to 25 gold pieces, but at least the light of the stars is mine.

Someone: “Have the mugs been cleaned?
Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “When the world was young...

My god is Erdogan... no, Edoran!

We could have at least found some treasure.
We have a pair of silk panties!
***

Referee’s notes:
This session (an extra-long one on the terrace of my weekend house) was pretty successful, all things considered. The characters were clearly running out of time and the net was slowly closing around them, which made for a choice between pursuing Lady Callodric’s lost cargo, or making a grab for the secrets in Tomurgen’s sealed apartment, which the characters got to, even if a little clumsily. (But silly mistakes are part and parcel in a game where everyone is talking simultaneously, and some clues inevitably fail to reach the players.)

Hector the Peddler’s appearance looks a feels a lot like a targeted info-dump, but actually, he appeared on a random 1:6 roll, and when the players grilled him, he just happened to meet that 1:6 chance of actually knowing a lot about Filodont and his companions. Sometimes, even real life feels like the GM is handing out plot hooks. Sometimes, you are lucky. And nothing proves that better than the trial before the Captain’s Council (jumped over here), which went surprisingly well. Or suspiciously well?


In any case, this was it in Baklin for a while. Next time, we will see what lies up those mountains.