Posts by ammulder

PrinceCon 40: Theme Fiction

PrinceCon 40: Twilight of the Gods
March 13-15, 2015

Valor Hall, part 1

“But Dad, I can fight!”

He scoffed.  “You can fight in the tavern.”

“I’ve taken Self-Defense and Arms And Armor just like everyone else!”

“I’m not contesting your skill on the training ground.  But listen to me Thorlev,” he continued, emphasizing every word, “You are not a Warrior.  You are a Fisherman.  There’s no shame in it.  I’m a Fisherman too.”

“So what then, we’ll just fish the giants to death?” I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice.

“Do you even listen the histories?  Why are there giants alive today?”

“What?”

“Gnut the Mighty led an army of five hundred thousand men, elves, and dwarves to crush the giants in their hills.”

Everybody knew that.  Gnut’s army marched well over a league per hour, carrying their packs on their backs.  It was almost half again as fast as an army was supposed to be able to travel.  For the Dwarves, it was virtually inconceivable.  It seemed brilliant, and he had the giants completely back on their heels.

“So why aren’t the giants all dead?”

I couldn’t think my way out in time.  “Because they burned the villages and fields as they retreated.”

“So what?”

“So there was no food left.  So our whole army starved.  So when Gnut returned in the Spring he had seven thousand men.  So that was like three Ages ago.”

He took me by the shoulders and waited until I looked him in the eye.  “We have Warriors to fight the giants.  And we are the Fishermen who feed the Warriors.  Without us, they will die just as surely as if a giant crushed their skull to pulp.  Which, by the way, is what will happen to any Fisherman stupid enough to challenge a giant.  Do you understand me?”

I looked away, furious.  But there was only one way to get out of this so-called conversation.  “I understand.”

* * *

I had to bite a fishing rod while I did it, but I managed to cut right through the catch I was gutting, straight into the flesh of my hand.  I barely had to fake the cry as I spit out the rod and grabbed my palm, bleeding profusely.  My left, of course.  Mom came running, and took my directly under her wing.

Dad, of course, was furious.  “The Valkyrie leaves at dawn!  What am I supposed to do with a short crew?”

She would have none of it.  “The same as you did when Armand got tangled in the net.  Work harder and fish longer.”

“But now we’ve got the entire defense force to support!”

“And there’s an entire fleet of fisherman to do it.  They’re not relying on you alone.”

“I will not.  Shirk.  My duty.”

“You will not give a hireling time to recover and then force your own son into slavery with a gored hand.  You will leave at dawn and Thorlev will not.  Or you will find a new wife when you return.”

He was an idiot to even argue.  He had married the woman, he ought to know he wasn’t going to talk her out of this.  I couldn’t help but smile while I eavesdropped.  The entire thing had worked beautifully.

* * *

“And you have your parents’ blessing?”

This was the moment of truth.  It must have been obvious to the Sergeant that I did not.  But if they didn’t want every warm body in the field, why was he attending the recruiting post in the dead of night?

“Of course, I have the full support of my family.”  I held up the wooden sword and padded practice armor I had stolen from the training ground.  Just as if my father had sent me fully equipped.

“Can you fight with that hand?”

A bit of an ironic question, since he was missing an entire arm, and apparently it hadn’t disqualified him from service.  I waved the bandages at him.  “Just a scrape.  I’ve trained to strap on my shield, in any case.”

“Excellent.”  He handed me a sharpened stick of charcoal, and laid down a half-filled sheet of blank lines.  “Certify here.”

As I scrawled my signar, I couldn’t help but think it had been too easy.  Even if they needed every warm body in the field, there should have been some resistance to an injured, underage, illicit recruit.  Could the situation be more desperate than we knew?

“Uh, it’s sort of the middle of the night.  When do I report to the Academy?”  I wasn’t terribly looking forward to the three-week Indoctrination, but at least the Academy was inviolate when it came to reluctant parents.

He guffawed.  “You’ll report directly to the Second Tinglith, Fifty-Seventh Hafna.  Pick any of the nags out back, head for the East Gate, the guards will direct you further.”

I gulped, suddenly wishing I was holding the signed canvas instead of him.

He smiled cruelly.  “You’re in the army now.  Desertion is punishable by death.”

Valor Hall, part 2

“Name?” the Sergeant in charge of arrivals asked.

“Hroar,” the man next to me, well, roared. He was twice as thick as me in every dimension, and all of it looked like muscle. If I had his size or even half his enthusiasm, maybe I wouldn’t have spent the whole ride brooding on the note I had left my mother.

“Name?” he asked me next.

“Thorlev.”

“Hroar, Thorlev, you are shieldbrothers. Whatever you do, you will not leave each other’s side.” He pointed at Hroar. “If he eats, you eat.” He pointed at me. “If he pisses, you piss.” Then he grabbed us both by our padded jerkins. “If I see one of you without the other, you’ll be cleaning latrines for the rest of your sharply abbreviated lives. Now get out of my sight.”

Some introduction to military life. On the way out, I heard him snap at someone to get the horses back to town.

But this was the middle of an improvised camp that served as the mustering point for half a dozen small towns. We didn’t know where to go. I pulled up short, and Hroar stopped as soon as he noticed.

“You two! Frogs! Over here!” someone else commanded. I looked, and he was pointing to us. Frogs?

“Because we’re green,” Hroar muttered.

The next Sergeant issued us a large canvas square, a couple of sticks, and a pair of boots each. They were too big for me, too small for Hroar. Then he pointed out the fifty-seventh hafna, and ordered us to pitch our tent.

“Uh,” I waved my wooden practice sword inquiringly. He grimaced at me and looked at Hroar expectantly. Hroar produced an axe. It must have been for chopping wood; it was much too small to fight with.

The Sergeant pointed at me. “You — take one of those.” There was a pile of weapons behind him. I couldn’t help but notice they were all battered, chipped, and blood-stained. Secondhand, to say the least.

Then he looked Hroar up and down. “Yours will have to do. You can take his sword when he dies.” I stiffened, though the Sergeant ignored me. “Whatever you do, don’t take one from a giant. You’ll think you can handle it, but you can’t. In the time it takes you to swing, they’ll crush your skull to pulp.”

“And armor, sir?” I asked. I thought the emphasis nicely conveyed my opinion.

“None for you; not worth wasting the time to fit. You though,” he looked back at Hroar, “you can ask the armorer when you reach the lines. Probably they can find a set that fits.” Off a dead man, unless I missed my guess.

“Don’t worry,” Hroar said quietly as we made for the fifty-seventh. “There’s no way they talk to each other. We’ll tell the armorer to get sets for us both.” I thanked him, though I was starting to expect the armorer might take one look and make the same assessment as the last guy.

* * *

I’d like to say we pitched our tent for a sound night of sleep before a full meal and a thorough introduction to our unit, weapons, and tactics. But that was just what I wished for, while I force-marched in a sleep-deprived fog. We were struggling to fit the canvas to the sticks when the order came to march. I even smiled at the joke, before I noticed that Hroar had reversed course and wrapped his boots into the tent.

“Wait, they’re not serious?”

Hroar shook his head. Then I noticed that everyone else was already packed, and forming up into a line. My boots and sword were still on the ground. I grabbed for them. “But what about–”

“Shut it, frog!” somebody yelled. “Get your ass in line before you catch a fly!”

I thought it was a bit much, but if I had to line up, I could line up. At least in a line, we could go to the chow tent together.

Fifteen leagues later, I still hadn’t eaten. I could barely walk another step; the only thing forcing my feet to continue one after the other was the fear of what might happen if I stopped. My hand blistered and the tip of my sword dragged on the ground — apparently none of the dead men had owned a scabbard. I would have given my right arm to be out on the Valkyrie. Still at sea. Dad didn’t even know. I hoped Mom was taking this better than I was.

* * *

I dragged my head up when I heard the shouting ahead. Six days of marching, and I would have cheerfully jumped into a giant’s pot. I guess I knew the front lines weren’t right there, but I had envisioned a carriage. Or at least a horse. Or something. My legs were long since numb, and when my good hand periodically cramped, I switched the sword to the injured one. At the moment, the hand was bleeding down the hilt to my blade. Mixing my life with the blood of men and giants already there. I couldn’t imagine what anybody was yelling about. I would have liked to yell for a rest, but if I got one, I would simply fall to the ground and it would take all the heroes in Valor Hall to move me another inch.

Suddenly Hroar knocked me aside. I summoned the power to squawk, but the sound was drowned by the crunch as a massive club shattered his chest. I simply gaped at the one-eyed giant that stepped into the space. It grunted, shook the wreckage of my shield brother off its weapon, and drew it back to swing at me. In that moment, I knew my end was nigh.

A burst of flame sizzled through the air from behind, leaving bright streaks in my vision. I hadn’t even known there was a mage in our escort. The fire smashed into the giant’s eye, and over the creature’s roar, I could hear the pops and hisses as its large white orb boiled away. Blinded, with the juicy remains of its eye dribbling down its chin, it still managed to smash its club wildly into the ground. Thankfully, and miraculously, not into me.

I finally jerked my sword up, slashing the creature’s ruined face. It stood tall and roared, then leaned back down to swing again. I sidestepped the blow, and tried stabbing instead. My sword dug deep into its face. The great monster roared one last time, and then its legs collapsed out from under it. It shook the earth when it fell, and flung the sword right out of my hand.

“Fifty-Seventh! To me!” a voice called fiercely through the mayhem. There seemed to be giants all around, and the wizard’s work was the only thing keeping any of us alive. I ran for the battle standard.

Three steps from safety, or three steps from armed defenders at least, another massive club smashed my left arm and spun me around. Pain exploded into my head, and for a moment, all I could see was red. Then I saw dirt, streaked with the blood of men. I lay face-down on the ground, while the battle raged above. When I tried to push up, the pain in my arm almost broke me. And then I felt an amazing thing — my other hand was pushing against the hilt of a sword.

“Fifty-Seventh! Fifty-Seventh!” I heard. The Merkismathr holding the standard pounded the staff into the ground. A surge of energy propelled me to my feet, and I felt the wounded arm no more. Flame whooshed overhead, another giant roared, and I smelled its burning flesh. My blade followed the trail. Even Hroar could never take them one on one, but with a little aid from this wizard, I would hunt each giant to the grave.

The next time the enemy swung at me, I couldn’t help but notice how slowly its weapon moved. I ducked out of the path with ease, and sliced open its side under the arm that had passed.

The fools were barely wearing armor at all, only mismatched animal skins. My sword cut through them, as easy as gutting a fish.

In the mists of my peripheral vision, our band of defenders seemed smaller.

Something crashed into my leg, but it was only a little bother.

The next “Fifty-seventh” sounded almost half-hearted.

No more fireballs passed over my head.

The battle standard wavered.

I fought my way back, grabbing it from the dead hand of the Merkismathr as he fell.

The world narrowed around me. I could see the broken and bloodied tip of my sword, I could feel the torn standard fluttering in the wind, and I found my enemy before me.

If these creatures thought they could destroy the Fifty-Seventh, they had another thought coming.

My sword ripped another giant open from knee to groin.

Darkness closed in.

Valor Hall, part 3

When I opened my eyes, I saw nothing but granite. The smells of blood, sweat, and flesh were gone. Arches soared over my head, hundreds of feet in the air. In bas-relief, I saw each of my greatest heroes in their finest moments of glory. I heard an entire Tinglith of warriors, crashing the butts of their spears to the ground together, honoring the victories of our past. The sound echoed and re-echoed through the heights of the chamber. I turned, already knowing what I would see.

High on the far wall, opposite the Heroes, rested the Gods. Heroes and Gods as one, only in Valor Hall.

I suppose I knew I’d never survive an ambush by giants, but what cosmic mix-up of fate had delivered a Fisherman here?

I tore my gaze down from the heavens.

I stood in the Circle of Honor. Hroar knelt before me. As soon as I noticed, he bowed his head and raised his hands.

“Hroar, what are you doing? You sacrificed yourself for me! Let me offer you to the Hall!”

Hroar looked up, plainly in awe. “Thorlev, you killed seven giants today. The battle standard of the Fifty-Seventh did not fall until after the last of the enemy.” Tears streamed down his face. “You have made Heroes of us all. I am merely your witness.”

Suddenly a thousand spear hafts crashed to the marble floor, and a thousand voices rang out in unison. “The Fifty-Seventh!” I felt the tears run down my own face as I saw each and every one of my greatest heroes, fists aloft in my honor.

I raised my broken sword. “The Fifty-Seventh!” I called back, with every fibre of my being.

* * *

“So, uh, what now?” I asked Hroar. We stood off to the side, the short ceremony complete.

He cleared his throat in a way I took to be significant, and looked to the side.

I immediately straightened and fumbled my way through a bow as I recognized Ivar Erikson himself. He still had the vaguely bowlegged walk of a king who’d spent nearly his entire reign astride his warhorse. Behind him on each side walked one of his legendary Riddari — the legs and flanks of a stallion, smoothly transitioning into the powerful chests, massive shoulders, and muscled arms of elite warriors. Somehow the stories didn’t do them justice — it looked like either one could snap me in half and eat me for breakfast; just a small warm-up before moving on to the actual battle. One of them smiled at the other as they noticed me staring.

“Congratulations,” the king said, holding out a hand. Shocked, I gripped his arm in the traditional manner, before thinking it through. Probably his Riddari Guard would break me now. But he stopped me when I tried to pull back.

“No, Thorlev. No man here has claim to a title. We are simply the Valiant. And you’ve earned your place at least as much as I have. After all, I had…” and he nodded to his horse-men.

Lost for words, I just looked from him to his Guard, desperately hoping they agreed. Finally I found my tongue. “I… You do me too much honor!”

“No more than you deserve.” Finally he released my arm. “But listen, now, tell me of your journey.”

“My journey?”

“Think back. It’ll take a moment, but then it will come to you. How did you come to be here?”

“There was a battle, the giants…” I couldn’t hide my confusion at the request.

“Most of us remember little. Just bits and pieces. Myself, I recall a soft voice, close to my sister’s, but more… innocent. A horse I knew was not my own. He moved like my armor was spun of feathers. No horse has ever carried me like that. And clouds. They tasted… cold. And… then I was here.” There was something else, something he wasn’t saying, but I wasn’t about to object. He shook himself back to the present. “The Fate Stones, though, speak of another. A man who took a longer journey. Thorlev, is that you?”

I thought back. I had taken up the standard. Killed the last giant… And finally fallen. What next?

* * *

“Thorlev,” a voice whispered. A woman’s voice, strikingly unfamiliar. The way she said my name was like no woman I had ever known. She put feeling into each syllable, as if they were gifts to be unwrapped. “Thorlev, your purpose has only begun.”

I opened my eyes, and her appearance was as striking as her voice. Lithe and beautiful, she looked almost Alfari. As she spoke again, I smelled the flowers woven into her long, brown hair. “Thorlev, Hione calls. Will you answer?”

I had to force my voice to work. “I will.”

She stood, and helped me up beside her. The remains of the battle were there, only… faded. I saw the standard at my feet, but couldn’t make out the symbols. My sword lay next to it, and I could no longer tell whose blood it held. A monstrous leg led away, to a torso with four enormous arms. How I avoided succumbing to that great beast, I’ll never know. I shuddered as I gazed over the field, but I couldn’t see much more than my immediate surroundings. I clutched the woman’s arm.

“You may call me Analia. And this is Runar.” I jerked my head around, having no idea who else she was talking about. There, snorting impatiently, was a small brown horse. He was saddled for two, and while Analia would be light, I had no idea how he’d manage to carry us both. He looked me in the eye and jerked his head as if to say, ‘let’s get on with this!’

Analia slipped onto Runar without hesitation. They both looked back at me. What else could I do? Fearing for the blood, sweat, and iron I was about to subject them to, I mounted behind her.

“Thorlev, there’s something you need to see. It’ll take some time, but it’s a story that must be told.”

Then her legs moved, and Runar leaped into the sky.

* * *

The clouds blew past frenetically as Runar strode through the air. We flew toward the coast, and a great storm loomed, washed over us with all the fury of the Storm Lion, and passed in the wink of an eye. Ships flew madly in and out of their ports. But few, too few. I looked for the Valkyrie, and thought maybe I saw it, though it was too far to be sure. A heavy winter storm blasted through, leaving the nothing but slowly spinning wreckage in its place. The sea frothed and churned, tossing the remaining ships like toys.

“Analia, what… what is this?”

She looked back at me sadly. “This, Thorlev, is what you must tell the Valiant.” It made no sense.

Runar turned inland, as summers and winters passed in rapid succession. I looked back, and counted only three ships. The entire fishing fleet?

“This will not be easy,” she warned, as Runar swooped down from the clouds.

I wasn’t sure what she meant. It was just the burned-out remains of some village. As sun and moon passed over, I saw some pathetic survivor dash out of the nearby hills, pick through the ruins, and flee again into the cover of darkness. As we watched, the sun dawned again and she came back, scouring another part of the remains. Another day, another visit. Each time, she seemed to lurk for a longer time at the ruins of one particular structure. This time she was going to pay for it — the attackers were back. Not even giants; a raiding party from the next village. They sped in and spread out to loot whatever they could, and as Runar turned to depart, the lone survivor was heading back toward her favorite place, unaware. Surrounded, and she didn’t even know it. She arrived just as I lost sight, her destination on the edge of a large clearing. If this was home, that would be the space for the market. Our house had also been on the edge, just about…

“I’m sorry, Thorlev.”

As we disappeared back into the clouds, I heard someone screaming.

Then I realized it was me.

* * *

“At least we fought the giants to a standstill,” I concluded. It wasn’t worth much. I couldn’t even see the ground toward the end, with the land sweeping Jaanmark with a winter the likes of which she had never seen. Three summers missed and it was only getting started. “I think I’m glad I didn’t live to see the rest.”

Ivar Erikson considered my story and nodded. “You’re the one, then. The Last of the Valiant.” He blew out a sigh. “We must warn the others. The end is near.”

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Recap: California Jones and the Temple of Boom!

Temple of Spirits

NPC who leads the group to the temple: Coughlan, an elf perhaps 9.99 out of 10 years old, yet obsessed with the variety of ways by which he could die (other than the obvious).

Outer Inscription: “May the spirits of our dead protect us from the wasteland”

Interior: a magical gate transports the PCs into the temple, and when they arrive their souls are occupying new bodies. Over the course of traversing a number of rooms, most of them died. They determined that so long as one PC made it through the room, the rest would re-join them in the next room, their souls occupying new bodies (sometimes including the original bodies of other members of their group).

Rooms:

  • Elementals: “The elements power our quest to resist the wasteland”
  • Downtrodden: “The wasteland has trodden us down over our hundred years journey”
  • Killed: “Who will avenge our deaths, one by one, as we succumb to this wasted land?”
  • Evil: “We ask what evil wrought this waste, though we’re told it was created to fight evil”
  • Wronged by PCs: “How many innocents have we wronged, innocents whose only crime was to be shrouded”

Final Room: “See now, the knowledge we have collected here. Pray it will keep us safe.”
Holds an alter containing the Tome of Samedhi, and a place for something the size of a wand or flute, but presently empty (see Magistrate Nikolai Zed in Steven’s scenario).

Highlights:

  • With the help of the spirits, the Dodge and Sixth Sense feats were recovered
  • The PCs were so paranoid from their time in the Wasteland that at one point Thaddeus cast Sleep on Brother Sue, Poppy attempted to cast Sterilize on Brother Sue, Alaimir tried to stop Poppy from casting on Brother Sue, and “Team Shut The F*** Up And Let Me Sleep” attempted to stop Alaimir. These were all PCs, mind you.
  • One of the PCs actually opened the Tome of Samedhi, instantly converting her from a Cleric of Aru to the High Priestess of Samedhi.
  • This was the run where the GM killed 15 out of 7 players, including 5 at a time with a Mass Finger of Death from a Lich in the “Evil” room.

Temple of Thieves

NPC who leads the group to the temple: Klyptin, a hobbit who holds his cards close to his chest and seems constantly worried that “competitors” will get to the temple first. The PCs twice detected Locate prayers targeting him, and noticed that there seemed to be more and more zombies on the scene the closer they got to the temple. While at first it seemed like Klyptin’s paranoia was justified, the group ultimately became suspicious of him, especially when he cheerfully abandoned them mere hours from arriving at the temple. They were, however, able to locate the entrance without him, and headed into the temple moments before the mass of zombies reached it.

Outer Inscription: “May the treasures of our peoples attract a guardian to protect us from the wasteland”

Interior: Full of traps. After passing each trap, a magic item with the appropriate defense was found in the next room. (Leading the players to ask what would have happened if they traversed the temple in reverse…)

Rooms:

  • Spear trap triggered by breaking a beam of light: “The wasteland stabs our hearts, leaving us cold”
  • Pit trap spanned by a Hallucination of a rope bridge: “Our lives are but a drop in the bucket of the wasteland”
  • Poisoned darts triggered by pressure panels in the floor: “Once the wasteland is in our veins, it burns us from inside”
  • Size Change (x16) trap in a narrow corridor: “The evil in this world grows, until we can no longer bear it. What will cleanse us?”
  • Water-filling room trap: “The shroud washed over this land. Perhaps it could wash us clean.”

Final Room: “See now, the treasures we have collected here. Come now, accept them, and keep us safe.”
Holds an altar containing the Tome of Sitriph, a magical book detailing the rulers of Sitriph from the founding to the present moment. It shows the Baylis dynasty ruling from the founding without change until about 250 years ago, whereupon the names change to be more Hobbit-like and no longer maintain any connection to House Baylis (the PCs would later discover part of the justification for the Army of Salvation ruling Sitriph was that they claimed to be an obscure branch of House Baylis).

Highlights:

  • The Sleight of Hand skill was recovered
  • Early on, one of the PCs was overheard saying “Always kill the guide.” Later they were heard to regret not taking this advice.
  • The PCs discovered Klyptin’s drowned body partway through, and took the small book he was always consulting and scribbling in. Upon discovering it had deeply religious overtones, the Aru cleric (a different one this time) opened it and instantly converted to become the High Priest of Ratri. However, after the way the rest of the run played out (particularly regarding disposition of magic items), the players agreed not to release Ratri to the rest of the host.

Temple of Fighters

NPC who leads the group to the temple: Sharpe, a dwarf who does things like practice flying by jumping out of trees in plate armor and attempt to grow a bigger beard by eating everyone else’s rations. (In other words, completely nuts.)

Outer Inscription: “May centering our souls purify us against this shrouded land”

The temple itself, once they get past the fact that Sharpe can’t read his own writing to find the way back to it, proves to be largely ruined. Of four original buildings, only one survives, and that one is the Hall of Heroes.

Interior: A different heroic tests awaits in each room. Each room has a sparring ring in which four heroes materialize and attack the PCs, and can only be defeated in some way particular to that room.

Rooms:

  • Quickdraw: “When the weapon at hand does not pierce our enemy, we find one that does” (the adversaries discard their weapons at the end of every round, and cannot be wounded by the same weapon twice)
  • Blind Fighting: “We strike even though we cannot perceive our enemy” (the room is in a clerical darkness)
  • Toughness: “Though we are constantly within the grip of our enemy, we must press on” (everyone in the room takes two points of damage each round until the adversaries are defeated)
  • Critical Hit: “We must strike at the heart of our enemy” (the adversaries are only killed by a Critical Hit, Called Shot, or Sneak Attack)
  • Multistrike: “We must not just strike our enemy, but those who support him” (the adversaries pair up and attack the clerics and mages, and are only killed if you do enough damage to a pair to kill them both)
  • Dodge: “We must avoid our enemy long enough to prepare a great counterstrike” (each adversary is defeated if he goes 5 rounds without harming a PC)

Final Room: A cavernous room with an alter holding the Tome of Heroes, describing a time whereupon a mighty and evil empire swept aside all resistance, and a brave group of unlikely heroes joined forces to cast a great magic to purify the land.

Highlights:

  • The Multistrike and Deadly Attack feats were recovered
  • By the end there were three different PCs at negative Hit Points (including the only Cleric). One of the other PCs managed to stabilize every one of them on her first try, despite having a Heal skill bonus of at best, two.
  • The final Dodge room was looking to be pretty grim for the remaining PCs, until the not-very-clever adversaries got stuck fighting the two PCs who were both Immune to Normal Weapons.

Background on the Temples

Many hundreds of years ago, a large group left Sitriph, setting out for “Idyllican, the Legendary Fortress of the East.” However, instead of pressing on through the wasteland until they reached it, they decided to stop and build their own haven to fend off the wasteland. Ultimately, it did not succeed, and they pressed on, only to repeat and attempt another haven, and so on. The temples in my scenario are the remains of their havens, and each represented a different way they attempted to resist the wasteland — first (to them) purifying themselves through devotion to specific arts, then hoarding treasure to attract a guardian to protect them, then using the power of spirits to shelter them. These were referred to in the quotes at the entrance to each temple. All of these approaches were “a little” successful, but not enough for them to stay there indefinitely (e.g. the spirits protected them within the temple, but there was no way to grow food inside, and the spirits did not protect them while hunting/farming/etc.).

York’s scenario shared some of the same background involving these travellers.

For what it’s worth, a very small group of them (including Azazel) did finally reach the Idyllican Valley, but they were too mutated by that point and were turned away at the Wall by the Watch (referenced in the fourth teaser).

The quotes on the rooms along the way described their journey, and the origins of the Shroud that caused the wasteland that was slowly mutating them and driving them mad.

City and Fortress of Sitriph

My final run took place as the host of refugees approached Sitriph, and needed to get through the City of Sitriph to the Fortress of Sitriph and set up their various mechanisms to protect the Fortress against the oncoming Shroud. The City of Sitriph is what we’d today call San Francisco (with the PCs approaching from the south), while the Fortress of Sitriph is on Alcatraz.

The first problem was getting the refugees into the city. Past a heavily corrupted swamp, there was a large cleared area patrolled extensively by the Army of Salvation, just outside a massive Dwarf-build wall protecting the city. The refugees had some contact with a “resistance” group inside the city, which was opposing the Army of Salvation and the way they treated the rest of the citizens of Sitriph. The PCs were told to contact the King of the Wolf Yards, just inside the wall. They had the book showing that the supposed legitimacy of the Army of Salvation was all a sham, and from Steven’s scenario they also had the last surviving heir to House Bayliss (the original ruling dynasty).

Some creative Gaia clerics and followers managed to establish that it wasn’t safe to fly over the wall, and found a wolf in the swamp who had come out through the wall. Her name was Soft Fur, and she offered to show them a way back in through the wall (she reported that, being dwarf-made, it was riddled with secret doors and passages). This was all on the condition that they set her up on a date with Long Tooth, one of the wolves inside. To their dismay, the PCs learned the hard way that the Army of Salvation had some sort of detect/locate on shrouded beings, and only narrowly made it to/through the wall at all. Soft Fur did not survive.

The PCs were able to contact the resistance, and while there was some repulsion at the sight of their shroud effects (and more so, at the hobbit among them), they came to agreement. Or at least, they came through with suitable bribes. (The “King” of the Wolf Yard seeming to be basically a criminal overlord who was willing to help if it seemed like the new regime would leave him with more influence than the old one.) He would sneak the PCs into the Great Marketplace, whereupon they could address a huge number of citizens of Sitriph, and with some help from various plants in the crowd, hopefully stir up serious opposition to the Army of Salvation.

About this time the PCs received magical messages from another group of PCs, saying “Attacking the Fortress at dawn. Arrange your operations accordingly.”

They proceeded to present their case in the marketplace that afternoon (as well as a large part of the surrounding neighborhood via some timely magical enhancement), and while it was well-received, it wasn’t quite enough to tip the scales. Until the Army of Salvation showed up in giant Clay Golems crying “Mutants! Mutants herein!” and indiscriminately blowing the crowd to shreds. The end result was city-wide rioting against the Army of Salvation, only a half-day ahead of schedule.

At the following dawn, the PCs proceeded to a tunnel dug most of the way to the Fortress of Sitriph by the resistance. With the help of some summoned Earth Elementals, they completed the tunnel and invaded the fortress. They were met with stiff resistance from the Clay Golems, though they managed to turn the tables by Possessing one of the pilots, thereby turning one of the golems to their side. They occasionally noticed other PCs invading the fortress, via fighting and explosions off in the distance, the entire fortress shaking when certain supplies were destroyed, and etc.

Looking for a way to avoid fighting an unceasing series of golems, they PCs hatched a plan to send the possessed golem to the General of the Army of Salvation and (using a special-purpose magic item) kill him. This might have worked, but at that exact moment another group of PCs disabled the power source for the golems and they all collapsed into immobility (accompanied by hobbit-sounding calls of “Oh, SH*T!” from inside the golems).

Instead, the group used more Earth Elementals to tunnel through the fortress to the command center, where they found the Lieutenant General of the army huddling miserably in the corner. He nearly had them convinced that the General was out of their reach, until they Possessed him and discovered that the General was simply hiding behind a secret door, hoping to wait out the whole assault.

With the command of the Army of Salvation in their “possession,” that pretty much spelled an end to the army’s resistance in the city and fortress.

Meanwhile, other scenarios managed to transport the refugees to the swamp just south of the city, to provide sufficient food and supplies, and to install a number of shroud protections around the fortress.  (Plus, as mentioned before, disabling the power source for the Clay Golems, allowing the refugees to actually reach the city wall.)

All together, this enabled the refugees to get through the City of Sitriph, enter the Fortress of Sitriph, and huddle safely for the forty days and nights it took for the Shroud to pass.

On a final note, the Gaia cleric on this run ended up using a magic item that granted a single Wish to raise Soft Fur from the dead, reuniting her with Long Tooth, and bringing them both into the Fortress of Sitriph. (They needed no convincing to commence repopulating their species…)

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PrinceCon 39 Theme Teaser #4

PrinceCon 39: Shroud of the World

For once in his life, Sparks was at a loss for words. The three of them had prepared for a fast and stealthy trip through the wasteland. But the last member of their small team…

Sarge made a quick introduction. “The magi have agreed to assist. This is Thoorin…”

“Thoorin Firesong,” the mage supplied sharply. “Call me Firesong.”

Bishop coughed, and his face said everything Sparks felt, but at least the man’s brightly-colored robes matched his name. The massive wooden chest, however, and the elderly donkey it was strapped to…

Finally Sparks found his voice again. “So, Sarge, have you explained the ‘move fast’ and ‘don’t be noticed’ parts of the mission to, uh, Firesong?”

The mage answered directly. “I’m sorry, if I may put it in your terms, these are my swords and armor. Non-negotiable. Now, when do we leave?” He turned away to tighten the straps on the pack animal.

“Looks like they’ve saddled us with two asses,” Bishop muttered under his breath.

* * *

Even thirty yards away, Bishop shuddered as he watched the creature pass. This one was smaller, the bastard offspring of the monsters that had nearly killed him. And it didn’t seem to care that the stomping and crashing through underbrush was alerting everyone within earshot. Maybe it just wanted a fight.

With a quick hand motion, Bishop stopped the rest of the team before they started over the small rise. A few gestures later, they were headed around the side instead.

Bishop watched the creature until it was safely out of sight. It still looked nothing more than a walking hunk of clay, with eyes and ears just molded out of the raw material. It walked stiffly, and carried a large tree branch over its shoulder; an improvised club, or perhaps a walking stick for climbing the steeper hills. The thing seemed to have a purpose, but what that could be here and now was beyond understanding.

He doubled back to the group, to be greeted by an outraged Firesong.

“I don’t know why you’re directing us away from the tomb. I’ve explained three times where it is!”

Bishop sighed. “And I’ve told you — we don’t fight in the wasteland unless we absolutely can’t avoid it.”

“Nonsense — I shall sing the fire and they shall trouble us no more.”

Sparks was just as skeptical: “This fire song, uh, Firesong, could you give us a small demonstration? So we can plan our tactics.”

Firesong hummed defiantly, and snapped his fingers at Sparks. A small flame, perhaps the size of a candle, popped into existence and hovered above his palm.

No longer able to keep a straight face, Sarge burst out laughing. “Boy, he really showed you!”

Bishop grinned. “Okay, Firesong, you win. Let’s go back and fight.”

The mage’s face turned as red as his robe. “Damn you, I can scale it up from there.” With a longer song and much more elaborate gestures, he threw a small streak of flame toward a distant bush. It almost hit, shattering a small rock nearby.

Bishop was actually impressed — Sparks could have shot the rock with ease, but his arrow never would have broken it. “How big can you make it?”

Firesong looked away. “Well, uh, that’s a matter of some debate.” He pointed to his trunk. “I believe I’ve identified all the elements of the gestures, but the proper verse eludes me. The scrolls speak of massive explosions, of fire streaking down from the heavens…” He sighed. “So much of the knowledge is lost…”

“Heck of a thing to lose,” Sparks chipped in.

“Look little man,” the mage retorted, “How’d you like to be stringing a bow taller than you are, not that pint-sized version?” He gestured at Bishop. “And the grunt here would be in full-plate armor, though he might need a war horse to move it.”

Sarge cut in before things got further out of hand. “Enough, enough. Firesong, we’ll take what you can give us, but we’re not going to go looking for trouble. Now let’s get back to the mission.”

* * *

The mage paced impatiently, though Bishop returned soon enough.

“It’s there all right,” he nodded at Firesong, “just like he said. But there’s nothing to see. Just a small room, lots of writing on the walls, and a little shrine with one of his magical fires burning on top. Waste of a trip.”

“The Everflame! It is the tomb of Azazel!” Firesong objected. “Legend holds that he was turned away from the Wall, by the Watch I might add, but never made it back to his fortress. Does it say where the fortress is? Is there a map?”

“No, just a bunch of words.”

“And do these words say anything,” Firesong inquired with scathing sarcasm.

Bishop turned away, visibly trying to restrain himself from throttling anyone. It meant he was facing the wrong way to see Firesong dash away, and only heard Sparks call after him, “Wait you idiot! We sent a scout because we wanted to avoid attention!”

* * *

The other three arrived to find Firesong gazing reverently at the walls. “The old tongue! The lost verse is here, I can tell! Just give me a moment…”

Naturally that was the moment the wasteland interrupted. Four people shambled out of the woods opposite the small mausoleum, except maybe ‘people’ was overly generous. Their clothes looked familiar but remained only in tatters, their eyes were completely blank, and the stench of rotting flesh arrived just after they did. They unlimbered makeshift weapons — a rusty axe, a miner’s pick, a sword broken off halfway, and a big stick.

The squad exchanged a silent glance, then sprang into action. Sparks whipped his bow off his back, arrow in hand. Sarge took up position to protect the door, with Firesong inside. Bishop charged the new arrivals like he had something to prove. Moments later, they crashed together.

Bishop knocked huge chunks out of the one with the axe, though it seemed to absorb the punishment without much of a reaction. The other three lumbered on toward the tomb. Sparks took careful aim and shot one right through the eye, though it just carried on with the shaft of an arrow sticking out from its face.

With an eye on the attackers, Sarge called back into the tomb. “We could use some of that Fire Song out here. Right now would be good.”

“A moment, a moment, I’m so close…” came the distracted reply.

Sparks figured if the head didn’t work, he’d try for the heart. The first surprise came when his arrow bounced right off the creature’s chest. It looked down stupidly, at least as shocked as Sparks was, and pulled something small out of the remains of its front pocket.

The second surprise was that Sparks didn’t need to see it to know what it was. A small mirror. Kenny stopped to shave at the oddest times, and left the mirror in his pocket so it would always be handy. There was almost a click in his head as Sparks recognized his friend from the lost patrol. Or what was left of him. The creature looked back toward the tomb and raised a hand. Sparks froze.

The third surprise was the cold hand on his shoulder that spun him around before he could react. Sparks had a moment to wonder how something so awkward had snuck up behind them, and then one of the makeshift weapons smashed into his head.

* * *

Bishop crippled his foe with a crushing blow that shattered its leg. He turned back toward the rest, in time to see three of the creatures close in on Sarge while two more leaned down to finish off Sparks. Bishop broke into a run, though there was no chance he’d reach them in time to stop the inevitable.

At that moment, a harsh voice rang out from the tomb. A massive ball of flame streaked out the door, exploding in the middle of the fight. The force of it knocked Sarge over. It all but blew the creatures apart. Bishop slowed to a halt, awestruck, while greasy nuggets of hot flesh rained down on him.

Then Firesong stepped out, face seared and eyebrows burned to a crisp.

Before anyone could say a word, he broke into an enormous grin. “Now can we look for some trouble?”

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PrinceCon 39 Theme Teaser #3

PrinceCon 39: Shroud of the World

One of the sentries poked his head into the command tent. “Major Quinn for you, sir.”

Garret nodded. As soon as Quinn stepped in, he could tell it was bad news.

“Sir.”

Garret grimaced at the formality from his best friend.

“Southern patrol is an hour late checking in, sir.”

“That’s the third one?” There had been no sign at all of the first two that went missing.

“Yes sir. And…” his voice trailed off.

“Speak, Quinn!”

“The men are scared. Krebb keeps passing by, ‘just by chance,’ talking about how at least the valley had a wall, at least we knew our patrol routes, we never lost two patrols in a month let alone a day. If I hadn’t checked in on the Northern patrol when they mustered, I get the feeling there might not have been a Northern patrol.”

“Good thing you did, then.” Quinn always had his finger on the pulse of the men.

Before they could continue, the sounds of a commotion came from outside the tent, and the sentry poked back in.

“Lieutenant Sparks, sir, and–”

Sparks’ voice came in, excitable as ever. “Bishop! Survivor from the south patrol!”

Garret and Quinn exchanged glances. “Bring him in.”

Bishop staggered in, supported by Sparks on one side and Doc on the other. He was covered in layers of crusted-on blood and mud, making him look inches thicker than normal.

Unsurprisingly, Sparks launched right in: “So we were just talking about whether to send another patrol on the southern route or keep them closer, I mean would you rather know what happened even at the risk of losing more men or would you do better just to guard the flank and whatever’s farther out there can just stay out there, and Jimmy was saying how we should–”

“Lieutenant Sparks.” Quinn’s voice cut right through, bringing the monologue to a halt.

“Uh, Sir. Sirs.”

The injured man still hadn’t acknowledged them.

Garret stood. “Bishop?” Wild eyes shot up, locking on his face. “Bishop, what happened out there?”

A grating voice emerged, like nothing Garret had heard before. “General.” A pause, then Bishop pulled himself upright. The simple motion tossed Sparks and Doc aside as if they were puppets. Suddenly Garret realized he wasn’t covered in anything. It was his skin, thick black and marbled with red, craggy in a way skin simply wasn’t. His eyes were sinking toward madness, but while gravelly, his voice was steady.

“We were attacked, sir. First by dogs, I guess they were dogs. Wild dogs, with three tails, spikes on their heads, legs with bones and muscles but no skin. Rabid, completely mad. We lost Leonard, Bradley was hurt bad. Patched him up and carried on. When we got to the foothills was when we really got hit.”

Quinn asked the question they were all waiting for. “By what?”

“Creatures, some kind of rock, maybe clay. There were four of them, ten feet tall, looked like you or me,” he said without a trace of irony, “but made from the mountains themselves. Arrows, swords, it all bounced right off. Jordi’s hammer did some damage, but they crushed him quick enough. Didn’t even need anything except their fists.”

“So how did you…?”

“They left me for dead. I was dead. Only–” he gestured toward himself. “I grew back.” Garret heard the disgust in his voice. “Just like them. Halfway, anyway. Now I don’t know what I am.”

Quinn fielded this one too. “You’re a Watchman. Like you were this morning.” Almost involuntarily, Bishop straightened again.

“Until you go mad,” Garret added. The wild eyes locked on him again. “Don’t do it. We need every man. Hold on to it.”

“Sir.” That gritty voice.

“Dismissed.” Bishop ducked out of the tent automatically, with Doc in tow. Sparks started to move, but an imperceptible shake of Quinn’s head held him in place.

Quinn waited a moment, then spoke in a low tone. “Keep an eye on him, Sparks. Make sure he bunks with the Watch, but give him some space. We can’t lose him, we can’t let the civilians hang him out to dry, but if he goes mad…” The implication went unsaid.

Sparks gulped, but didn’t balk. “Sir.”

“Dismissed.”

And then it was just the two of them.

“Sir, dogs or mountains or whatever, we can’t keep sending patrols into this.”

“No, you’re right. Keep the patrols in close, no more exploring, just guard the flanks. We’re going to need a few crack teams, but they’re only going to matter if the rest of us survive.”

“Teams, sir?

“Men we can trust, men who will get the job done, men who will make it back here.”

“Why don’t we just guard the flanks all the way to Sitriph?”

“Teams. To find Sitriph.”

Find it, sir?”

“Quinn, who do you think I am? We’re chasing a legend, here. We’d all have died in that valley if we sat down and prayed, and Sitriph got us moving. But grandfathers tell stories about the gates of Sitriph. It’s not like I have a map.”

“Garret…” For once, the honorific was forgotten.

“We’ll find it, Quinn. If it’s there, we’ll find it.”

“Crack teams.”

“Pick your best. If Bishop makes it the night, he should go — he obviously has what it takes. Talk to the Magi, quietly. They’ll support us on this. The Priesthood too — we need every advantage. It’ll take at least five teams, and I want your recommendations by morning.”

“Sir.”

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PrinceCon 39 Theme Teaser #2

PrinceCon 39: Shroud of the World

“Watch Commander Garret, please come in.”

Finally. He’d been cooling his heels outside the Council chambers for nearly an hour, while the mountains burned and their idyllic valley crumbled. The dawning day had unveiled a billowing white cloud, approaching along the ground and suggesting their problems were far from over.

Garret let himself be ushered into the room, where there was a chair at a small empty table, facing the entire council. Looking up at them no less. He didn’t spare it another glance.

Councillor Krebb cleared his throat. “Have a seat, commander.”

Garret clasped his hands behind his back and took a breath. “I prefer to stand.”

Another councillor spoke up, apparently trying to defuse the tension. “This isn’t an ambush, Commander. We’re simply trying to establish the best course for our community.”

“While it burns.” Garret winced as soon as he heard himself, but he wouldn’t take the words back.

Krebb cleared his throat again. “Commander, please summarize the conditions outside the Wall for us.”

“The conditions are, there aren’t burning mountains falling on our heads. The conditions are, everyone who leaves returns alive!”

“Commander! I realize you have suffered a… Personal… tragedy. But your community needs you. You are the senior surviving officer of the Watch.” Garret sucked in a breath at that — the cataclysm must have ravaged their ranks. Yesterday there were three men between Garret and General Yorke.

Krebb carried on. “This council needs your wisdom, not your wit. Now I understand you lost a patrol shortly before the… Incident.”

“That’s a damn euphemism!” Two of them, actually. His wife and child dead, and it was just an Incident? He shook himself back to the present. “We did ‘lose’ a patrol. I shot Lieutenant Braham myself.”

There were two sharp gasps from the council table, but Krebb knew the score. “Explain, Commander.”

“You know as well as I do. We send our patrols into the wasteland. If we’re lucky, they return. If we’re not lucky, the wasteland poisons them, and then they return.”

Krebb let the others take it from there. “But surely… surely they can be healed?”

“Braham had a third eye on his forehead. His sergeant wasn’t carrying his weapon, because his tentacles couldn’t get a grip. Their scout ran back on all fours. Once they’ve been shrouded, there’s no going back.”

“But they’re still our people!”

“You’d like to think that. But I’ve looked them in the eye — nothing but madness.” Garret paused a moment, wondering whether to continue. The councillors were shaking their heads, so he pressed on. “Once we took a man back in. Doc said if the priests couldn’t heal him, we’d amputate. They gave it their best.”

“The next morning, that soldier ate his dog. Once they’re shrouded they’re gone, and you’d best believe it.”

The councillors recoiled from his words, babbling among themselves so fast he couldn’t keep up. Garret saw the slightest trace of a smile cross Krebb’s face, and suddenly he knew why he had been summoned.

“Listen. All of you. Listen.” His parade-ground voice cut through the squabbling. “It doesn’t matter to you. You’ll never have to face it. Yes, the wasteland preys on men. Individual men. Most of our patrols are safe, because they stay in a group. We train them not to split up. A man might last hours. A patrol can last days. When we leave this valley, we’ll be in such a large pack, it’ll take months before you feel the effect.”

Krebb cut this line of discussion short. “Thank you Commander, that will be all.” He made some kind of gesture with his finger, and the doors opened behind Garret.

“Do you hear me? You’ll be safe! It’ll only be us–”

“Thank you Commander, that will be all!” It turned out Krebb had a commanding voice too. Garret felt hands on his arms as the Council Guard reached him.

“–the Watch, dying for you as usual.”

* * *

Garret left the council chamber in despair. The stars — gone, the mountains — demolished, and now a chalky cloud advancing toward the valley, stretching from dirt to sky. If they stayed much longer, there would be a footsoldier commanding the Watch, and then nobody at all.

The moment he walked out of the building, Claire tore away from the rest and launched into his arms, just like the good old days. Her wide eyes gazed into his, expectantly. “Are we going, daddy?”

He looked up, searching for the words. How do you tell your daughter that you’re all going to die?

That’s when he noticed the crowd. It must have been more than half of the survivors. Also looking at him expectantly, waiting for an answer, waiting for someone to lead.  Krebb had made a critical error.

“General?” Magistrate Zed had survived, and nobody corrected him this time.

Garret boosted his parade-ground void to the max. “Friends. Last night, our world shattered. Today, we look to the future.” An explosion of rock in the background punctuated his words. “What was our refuge once, today holds nothing but ruin. I will not stay in this valley to die. Don’t you accept that fate either.” They were hanging on his every word, but they needed more. He grasped for something to offer… and then he had it.

“But we’re not just going to flee. Yes, we leave our old lives behind — that choice is made for us. Now is the time to find our new lives. Pack what you can, bring your friends, bring your families. At midday, we depart from the Wall. The Watch will protect you, as it always has. Long enough to find our new home. Long enough to reach Sitriph.”

At the name of the legendary Stronghold of the West, the crowd exploded in support and applause. Council be damned, they would survive this after all.

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