PrinceCon 41: Aaron/Sylvania Scenario Recap
The Gentleperson’s Guide to Sylvania
The mysterious nation of Sylvania — once vast and influential — has retreated in recent years to its historical borders. There are many who would claim it was “beaten back” or “defeated” — yet a more prudent observer might wonder if this was intended all along by our wise and elegant neighbors, whose long lives give an entirely different meaning to the phrase “long term planning.”
Visitors to Sylvania may enter that forested kingdom only by invitation — and invitations are thin on the ground in these unsettled times. I myself have not passed the borders since I was a small girl — which, of course, has not been so very long ago.
King Istvan III of Sylvania is wise, learned, and, to be honest, gentle readers — even after centuries, still the most beautiful creature ever to grace this life. Sent into the outer lands as a concubine to Dido XXVI in his youth, he has since captivated and successfully wooed a long line of rulers. In his time, he has acted as Consort in Byrsa, Lascaux, Jum, Lapp, Hesperia, and Vosgod. He brought days of unprecedented power and influence to both Jum and Lapp, drove the Byrsans out of Hesperia, and was reforming Vosgod into an artisan civilisation worthy of respect when his spouse Queen Jelena was killed during the revolt that placed the Iron Council in power. (The neverending military aggressions between Sylvania and Vosgod date from this period.) Half the region owes its most elegant and honored traditions to his influence, and rumor in Lascaux now has him preparing to court Queen Nayla I of Nassau.
King Istvan speaks charmingly of the vitality brought to his nation from outside influences, and dazzles all visitors with his stunning treetop palaces and carefully designed treescapes. At his last visit to the royal court of Lascaux, he declared his intention to visit the invigorating islands of Nassau. When asked why he wished to visit the barely civilized isles, he smiled charmingly and quipped, “Fresh blood,” to the laughter of the entire court. The question is only if wisdom and grace can charm such a young and headstrong queen.
Every Elf PC this year was given a “Certificate of Death,” providing the future date of their death due to natural causes. This, courtesy of Sylvania. Of course, they might preempt the given date with an unnatural demise, but their lifespan could not be extended. It seems that every Elf in the world receives such a letter upon reaching their age of majority.
THE REAL STORY, PART 1
King Istvan enjoyed his first several centuries of life, but over time, enjoyed life a little too much, coming to be increasingly obsessed with his own mortality. He was well-known for going on treasure hunts, Indiana Jones-style. But what was not known was that he was not simply searching for treasure, but rather for the secrets of immortality.
Matters came to a head roughly two decades ago, when Istvan discovered a temple of Samwise, an ancient predecessor to the modern Aru religion.
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 1: CLOSED BORDERS
It was common knowledge that King Istvan intended to propose himself as a consort to Queen Nayla, bringing his wisdom and experience to the island of Nassau. However, the Queen was somewhat concerned by the rumors that the borders of Sylvania have closed to outsiders nearly entirely. That didn’t seem consistent with the open and friendly face Istvan was putting forth. She therefore dispatched a team of Queensguard to investigate Sylvania, and report back before the Masquerade Ball.
The team crossed the North Shore and first hired a wagon to bring them into Sylvania by road. Upon reaching the edge of the forest, however, the “road” degenerated rapidly into a grooved and rutted mess, making ongoing wheeled travel impossible. The group proceeded on horseback, only to find that one or two turns later the road disappeared entirely. The forest closed in as well, with such a mass of thorny undergrowth that forward progress was nearly impossible.
Opting for a new approach, the party left the forest and made haste for a village alongside a river streaming out of Sylvania. They rented a small fishing canoe, and headed upstream. Several days of travel brought simply “more of the same” — woods on the shore and nothing particularly exciting on the river. Growing suspicious, they invoked the power to Detect North, and found it to be spinning about them. At this point they docked the boat, and attuned to a penny they left in the boat for future navigational purposes. They took off overland, and soon lost themselves in the forest. Even flying up past the treetops revealed only an endless carpet of indistinguishable treetops. At that point they Located the penny to return to the canoe, only to find that it was still at their feet.
Finally growing tired of this, they called out to whoever might be monitoring this little show. To their surprise, they received a response. Eventually they were able to talk their way into the treetop home of Lord Walnut, one of the nobles who guard the border of Sylvania. From the party’s notes:
Lord Walnut had much to discuss, though reluctant to do so. It seems relations amongst the elven Nobility had chilled, with little communication between the capital and outlying domains. Additionally, Sylvania has been suffering a few border invasions of late, that they identify as coming from Lascoux
His daughter, Elm showed us to our rooms, but seemed sad, drained. We asked, and she burst into tears. It seems for 20 some years King Istvan has had a team of advanced magicians utilizing novel magic to foretell the exact date of the natural death of all elves, informing them of this information at their age of maturity. Elm’s death was foretold as the very next day. We offered what consolement we could, then Elm returned to the company of her father.
A great cry awoke us in the night, we ran to find Walnut in violent grief over his daughter’s death. After giving him a moment’s solitude, his grief became rage. He cursed King Istvan loudly, again and again.
A disagreement ensued over these Death Certificates. The party seemed convinced they were bad, perhaps even evil. But Walnut was not completely convinced. He had, after all, been able to spend his daughter’s entire last week with her. If he had not known, he might have been out traveling, and then what? If Istvan had the power to determine these dates for all Elves, was it within his rights to withhold that knowledge? Even so, he cursed Istvan for uncovering that knowledge to begin with.
The party returned with a report that at a minimum, Istvan deserved a good bit of suspicion. Many theories were put forth as to the nature and reason behind the Death Certificates, but nothing could be substantiated without additional investigation. Walnut left the party with a magic token to enable future communication, agreed to assist them in their future investigations, and sent them back in time for the Masquerade.
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 2: TEA WITH THE QUEEN
(This was the 5-10yo kids’ run)
As a special honor, Queen Nayla invited her Junior Queensguard to Tea with herself and her courtiers, the afternoon preceding the Masquerade Ball. During the Tea, her Steward brought a special treat: Chocolate Glazed Doughnut Holes prepared specially for the evening’s Masquerade Ball. (Perhaps you can tell there were props for this expedition…)
One of Queen Nayla’s yokel courtiers grabbed the first Doughnut Hole before even the Queen could have a bite. He was rewarded with a monstrous fit of sneezing, and promptly began to break out in violent read and green warts. (See? Always be polite and wait for the Queen to go first…)
Clearly someone was up to no good for the Masquerade Ball!
The Junior Queensguard first accused the Steward, but he had simply carried the tray from the kitchens. Then the proceeded to the kitchens where they cornered Cook, investigated the preparation area, and the space in general. They discovered several things: Cook also proclaimed his innocence, there was a (very) little green man watching from a crack in the wall, and there were traces of red and green Magic Mushrooms in the Chocolate Glazed Doughnut Hole dough and the vegetable soup.
The little green man disappeared upon being noticed, but the Junior Wizard was able to Size Change the Junior Fey to the point that she could follow. The crack led to another corridor, and she circled back to lead the rest of the party to it the regular way. This led to dusty and unused corridors under the palace, but the group was able to follow the footprints to the hideout of the Goblin King and his crew, who were busy laughing about the inadvertent trial run of the Chocolate Glazed Magic Mushroom Doughnut Holes.
The Junior Queensguard lit into them, and after a short battle, the Goblin King was defeated. He had a bag of gold and an unsigned letter on him, offering the gold as payment for creating a distraction at the Masquerade Ball.
Now under time pressure, the Junior Queensguard split up to check the Archives and the castle Post Office for matching samples. Archives: none. Inbound mail: none. Outbound Mail: the handwriting matched a letter from the Ambassador of Sylvania.
They circled back to the kitchen, whereupon Cook informed them that the Ambassador was liable to demand nuts of varying types at any and all hours of the day and night. They took several handfuls and went to confront him. The Ents at the door nearly stopped them, but were bribed with enough of the nuts to allow the group to proceed.
The Ambassador readily answered the door for a delivery of nuts, at which point the Junior Queensguard confronted him with the goblin’s letter and his own in matching hand. He denied, denied, denied, until the Junior Fey used her Faerie Dust to force him to speak only the truth. At that point, to his horror, a full confession rolled immediately off his tongue.
King Istvan had demanded that his ambassador create a distraction at the Masquerade Ball, sufficient that he could carry out his own (unspecified) plan rather than simply proposing marriage as everyone else seemed likely to do.
The Junior Queensguard shackled the ambassador and presented him and his loose tongue to the Queen, who rewarded them richly. They then agreed to watch Istvan extremely closely at the Masquerade Ball, in order to prevent him from carrying out any malicious plan even without the distraction he was expecting.
All this, of course, accounted for Istvan’s foul mood at the Ball.
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 3: DEATH CERTIFICATES
After the Masquerade Ball, Lord Walnut contacted the Queensguard with more information on the Death Certificates. He had discovered that they were prepared in batches, and the next batch was due to begin in 10 days. He had a specific location on the edge of the Sylvanian forest (equivalently, on the border of Sylvania) where the process was to begin in the late afternoon. He had no further information.
The party made haste to that location at that time, arriving several hours early to stake out location from within the forest.
They first discovered a pair of horsemen approaching from the North Shore, bearing a sack. It soon became clear that it was a squirming sack. The sack was unceremoniously dumped on the ground near the woods, and the horsemen departed. At the same time, the woods-wise Cleric of Gaia got a vague inkling of movement approaching their position through the woods.
Then, as they say, all heck broke loose. A team of unarmed Cat ninjas knocked out the one PC they noticed, and there was a bit of confusion as various members of both sides did or did not notice the members of the other side. Eventually a proper combat broke out, with Webs, Hydras, and a Jabberwock. The surviving Cat Ninjas attempted to flee with the sack, but the party Webbed it to the ground. Only one Ninja escaped, chased by the faster and meaner Jabberwock. The Hydras meanwhile devoured the rest of the ninjas, to the frustration of the party who needed a captive.
Fortunately, the PCs were also able to chase down the last ninja, and keep him tenuously alive until the Jabberwock departed from whence it came.
The subsequent interrogation revealed that he was a simple mercenary, hired to deliver the sack from Point A to Point B. He was quite willing to cooperate for gold, and had no intention of either returning to Point B to report his failure or of attempting to backstab the PCs after they released him. His grand plan was to take his life and his gold and get the heck out of Dodge. He did offer that they were to be met in a clearing in the woods that evening by three wizards who would receive the sack, and drew a hasty map to the location.
The PCs sped off to that location, arriving shortly before the meeting. They determined that the far side of the clearing was concealed by an Illusion. Breaking the Illusion revealed a pit in the ground, sort of like a whirlpool and made of wood, with the rough appearance of natural growth and rings suggesting great age. At night, they couldn’t see much farther than the 10′ wide maw somewhat below, and retreated to stake out the clearing.
Shortly thereafter the three wizards emerged. “Hey, what happened to our Illusion?” Cue Declaration Phase…
The party magically sealed the exit to the pit and made short work of two of the wizards, while the third rocketed off into the air and disappeared into the deep woods. At that point they took one of the downed wizards captive (allowing the other to, er, expire) and retreated to interrogate the captive in the safety of a Rope Trick. (Rather fortunately, as we will see shortly, they sent the small girl they saved from the bag into a second Rope Trick.)
The captive detailed the ritual that produced the Death Certificates. It has been discovered by Istvan, some two decades ago. The Certificates were created under the light of a Full Moon, in batches of a month’s worth at a time, and the ritual was performed at a special alter forged with the Hammer, Tongs, and etc. of the Underdark, upon which a child must be sacrificed. The rest of the steps and ingredients were relatively mundane.
At this point there was another discussion on the merits of producing Death Certificates at all. The wizard seemed to think a single child was a small price to pay for all the Elves to learn the date of their future demise, such that they could complete their bucket list, put their affairs in order, spend their final time with their friends or family, and etc.
The party seemed to be of the opinion that perhaps the death of the child was not necessary to the ritual at all, and “somebody” was using the extra power for “something” (evil).
The wizard also revealed that this was the only such alter, and these the only trained wizards — King Istvan kept the knowledge very close.
At that point, one of the explosive-filled clocks that the party was carrying around with them detonated. While the Queensguard weren’t damaged beyond the power of Cure Wounds to repair, there was nothing left of the poor wizard save paste.
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 4: THE RITUAL
Having put a stop to the ritual for the time being, but with significant open questions as to the necessity and utility of the sacrifice, the next step appeared to be to research the ritual itself. Lord Walnut was able to uncover the location of the last treasure hunt that Istvan went on — to an ancient temple of Samwise, in Nassau itself!
Knowing its nature and approximate location, the party was able to magically home in on the temple. The entrance was hidden underground, but was still relatively accessible. The PCs were able to dig free the doors, and translate the surrounding text, which mentioned Faith, Love, Hope, and Wisdom.
Upon entering, they found themselves in a small welcome chamber with decorations and statues in a very different style, but overall a reasonably familiar function. The sole door out informed them that they must have Faith to proceed.
The test of faith turned out to be a bridge over a giant chasm, complete on both ends but with a large gap in the middle. The Fey established that simply flying over it did not allow them to proceed beyond the far side. Some tests with a stick revealed that there was no floor or support in the gap. Finally the boldest, or perhaps most faithful, of the Queensguard proceeded to step into the gap without safety or backup plan, and it did indeed provide solid footing for him to cross to the far side, revealing a door leading to the test of Love.
The party was immediately ambushed by angry Orcs from a lair in the cave of Love. They correctly managed to (narrowly) resist aggression, and through a combination of hugs and Telepathy were able to appease the angry Orcs by offering a meal. Upon completing the meal together, the door to the test of Hope opened.
In the room a cold, dark pond awaited. Soon after they entered, smooth, hairless, grey humanoids began to emerge from the depths of the pond, clawing for the blood of the living creatures ahead. The party was able to pass this test as well, offering the mindless creatures warmth and therefore a measure of hope to their painful existence. At this time the door to the final test of Wisdom appeared.
This room contained a small amphitheater, sunken into the floor such that the Queensguard looked down on the center. There, they found a large and ornate altar, bearing a single envelope. Meanwhile, the room had only one exit — a large hole, hastily smashed through the wall to the side, revealing a corridor beyond.
The writing on the envelope promised the reader that it would reveal the date of their future demise, if only they would open it and peruse the letter within. The Queensguard naturally decided that the only course of Wisdom was to ignore the letter, since such knowledge could not lead to any good outcome.
At that point, the final door was revealed to the crypt of the Samwise, where their most honored priests were interred.
THE REAL STORY, PART 2
King Istvan, needless to say, did not pass the Test of Wisdom. Obsessed with life as he was, he opened the letter. The PCs later found his discarded letter, quoting a date two years from when he opened it.
Without being able to progress, Istvan broke out of the final room. And, in so doing, he found the maintenance system for the temple. From this he was able to discern the ritual that empowered the altar to generate letters — and notably to the PCs who followed his footsteps, no sacrifice was involved.
Equally importantly, he discovered the process for creating the mindless drones for the Test of Hope. This involved taking a humanoid and using a different ritual to erase its mind. When that ritual was complete, the drone would last forever, though it would require periodic infusions of “Life Force” to continue to operate. The notes also emphasized the importance of not allowing the drone to acquire a mind.
With the date on his letter giving him a specific and near-term deadline, Istvan put these pieces together. He used the Ritual of the Drone on himself with the small customization that he restored his mind afterward. He brought the Ritual of the Letter to Sylvania with one “minor” addition to provide the ongoing life force he now required to continue to operate.
And that brings us up to the present, whereby the PCs on the the third run had temporarily disabled the Ritual of the Letter, putting the squeeze on the Life Force required for Istvan to carry on…
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 5: THE END OF ISTVAN
Queen Nayla demanded that the new Ambassador of Sylvania come to answer this latest report. When he did not appear, she sent a detachment of the Queensguard to fetch him (to be questioned, it must be said, not simply “dead or alive”).
Arriving at his quarters, the Queensguard found a terrified servant blubbering about the Ambassador. They pushed in, to be greeted by a grey and shriveled corpse. There was no obvious cause of death, except insofar as the very essence had been sucked out of it. When the group’s Cleric consulted his God, he determined that Istvan caused the death, though not in a way that required him to be present, and the one-word summary of the cause of death was “Drain”.
When the group attempted to report back to the queen, they were put off, despite the importance of their message. They pulled all the strings they could, and upon describing the condition of the ambassador, were told that the Queen herself appeared to be suffering some of the same symptoms, starting from the hand where Istvan had touched her at the Masquerade Ball.
With new urgency, the group departed to the pit where the ritual had been performed, determined to put an end to it, once and for all. They brought a Bag of Holding filled with oil, in case they would be able to burn out the ritual.
Arriving at the clearing, they scouted and investigated the area and the exit of the pit, and then took positions around the edges. Sadly, their precautions were insufficient and they were in turn ambushed by two hostile wizards. Two Fireballs and Four Hydras later, the party was rapidly approaching total defeat. With most of the group down, Yoded Boulderguard heroically invoked a ring of Haste to both grab the Bag of oil from a fallen comrade and sprint for the edge of the pit, where he was met by three of the angry Hydras.
With Yoded about to be ripped into 24 bite-size pieces in Combat Phase, the two party mages had one final chance to act. One, also quite concerned with his own mortality, prepared Teleport. The other, opting to make Yoded’s sacrifice worthwhile, used his final arcane energy to cast Power Word: Pyromancy and Ignite the Bag, spewing a thousand gallons of flaming oil down onto the ritual apparatus below.
With that, Yoded Boulderguard was consumed (R.I.P.), the altar necessary for the ritual was melted to slag, and the last few party members made good their escape. Istvan, one of the two attacking wizards, knelt by the side of the pit to mourn the loss of his last chance to generate or steal the necessary Life Energy.
While Queen Nayla was obviously (and thankfully!) spared disastrous partnership with Istvan, these events leave Sylvania in a tricky place. Istvan, ruler for the better part of a millennium and planning on at least another, left no plans for a succession. Further, he is not technically dead, simply unable to act without a further infusion of Life Energy. It seems unlikely that Sylvania will return to its former prominence for quite some time.
Meanwhile in Nassau, Yoded Boulderguard was posthumously granted the highest honor of the Queensguard: elevated to the Queen’s Own for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity (at the cost of his own life) above and beyond the call of duty.