Pcon 39 Postscript: Distant Emergence

The new world is at peace.  The credits have rolled.  We fade to black.

The sun dawns over the horizon onto a lush field of wildflowers.  A light breeze blows slightly and causes the wild colors of the flowers to dance.   A long twisted ceramic box juts from the earth at an odd angle.  It is laced profusely with white threads.  A large black tree protrudes from one side of the box and odd plants sprout from its surface as if stone is as good a medium as earth.

All is calm.  The wind stirs lazily on the spring morning.  Suddenly a faint sound can be heard coming from within the box.  It grows steadily louder until its eerie song can be recognized as flute music.

The music seems to coalesce into the spirit forms of two warriors.  Each ghost bears the mark of two mountains with a key between them, the symbol of the Idyllican Valley.   The primordial energies of the field seem to latch onto the spirits and flesh seems to form about the lost souls.  One warrior is clothed in the flesh of a great bear possessing long claws.  The other man is transformed into a large black bull with long pointed horns.  Using claw and horn, they pry the lid off easily.  The original locking mechanisms had turned to ash under the influence of the wild magic of The Shroud.

A young elf sits up slowly and the two creatures help him stand.  His wrinkles were washed away along with the old dead world.  He blinks at the light of the new dawn and sets the odd flute to his lips once again.  Through the wood, bone, and glass of his flute a soft melody rises as he exhales into the mouthpiece next to the image of the golden bough, the symbol of Samedhi.  More spirits emerge, such as a young dwarven child, a hobbit beggar, a human blacksmith, an elven wizard woman and too many more to count.  They were the ones caught in the collapse of the Idyllican Valley.  As each emerges their spirits are wrapped in flesh of one kind or another.  They wore bodies of uncorrupted animals such as snakes, birds, and insects, and other stranger things.  Those odd ones were legendary things described as living more than a thousand years before even the Age of Wonder.  They all wore their new bodies like a favorite set of clothes.

They gathered in the emerging dawn light and in the shadow of the single twisted tree and talked with each other until they saw the radiant elf standing alone on the sarcophagus.  They all quieted and Magistrate Nicholai Zed spoke.  His young voice was strong and powerful yet oddly melodious as he spoke to the menagerie assembled before him.

“Thank you all for bearing with me.  First let me say you are all look…wondrous.  We have all seen our share of destruction and death and for that I must apologize.  But the time for destruction is over.  We are all reborn to go forth into this virgin land and shape it into a true paradise.  Let the gods see they have spared us for a grand purpose. Come here to this stone ‘ship’ of salvation.  Let us all embrace as brothers and sisters.  Let us all hear each others’ voices, for this is not my world nor is it yours.  It is ours.  Let this box be our council table and this tree be our roof, for this is a dawn of the greatest age yet.”

The talk began.  The voice of the mole was no less heard than that of the elephant or the even the fiery drake.  The sun grew high and then started to descend in the sky and none of them hungered.  The elf added his voice and they all listened.  With their discussions nearly over, the sun set over the first council in the reborn world.  Their silhouettes mingled and moved in front of the red glow over the western horizon.

Fade to black again.

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Recap: Pcon 39 Wrap-up

In the long time gone before times, a great and terrible empire rose up that cast all under its shadow.  Those that were deemed unworthy by the rulers of the empire were hunted and ruthlessly exterminated. Just as the final dominion of the empire was assured, a desperate band of mystics, shamans, clerics, wizards, magi and scientists gathered together and called forth a power from the beginning of the world, a force to change the world and reshape the darkness into a place where people could start fresh, a new world free of the rules of the empire.

Whether they did not understand what they unleashed, if something went wrong, or if the empire found them as they completed their work, we will never know, for what came next was the Night of No Stars. It is impossible to say how long this lasted, some say one night, some say forty, all that is certain is that afterwards the world was changed beyond recognition and nothing and no place was safe.

Since the time of our grandfather’s grandfathers we sheltered in Idyllican Valley, trusting in the Laws of Salvation to protect us from the terrors of the wastelands. We learned to deal with each other, to celebrate the differences between human, dwarf, elf and hobbit, bound together in survival. But then disaster came upon us and we were driven forth. More than forty thousand people lived in the Valley, but when the mountains erupted in fire, we were decimated and only a remnant of a remnant escaped alive. Four thousand refugees left our home, wandering in the wastelands chasing the dream of safety to the west.

Many died of starvation, many more from the monsters we met in our travels. Our heroes, the strong, the wise and the clever, led us in fighting off the terrible creatures sent by Sitriph, helping us learn to accept the horrific changes we endured as the magic of the wastes washed through us. Some found ancient temples of knowledge to give us understanding; others found strange allies that once we would have feared.

We thought we had reached our final end when the Shroud Wall, that enigmatic white mist that had come over the land during the Night of No Stars, was about to sweep us before it as we huddled in the enigmatic structure of the ancients. Most of our heroes were away breaking the power of the villainous Army of Salvation and clearing the sanctuary of Sitriph for us, but we could not reach those walls we had struggled so to find.

But at the last moment, the strange machines were deciphered and we were able to be magically transported into the catacombs of Sitriph! Even as the Shroud fell over us, our heroes put forth an ultimate effort, several of them falling as they did so, to reinforce the walls and keep us safe. Almost half of the refugees had died on the march, but between the survivors, the allies that joined us, and a collection of animals saved by the Gaians, we packed Sitriph to the very brim.

And well for us all that we did so, for when the Shroud had passed on, all that had been was gone. The world was clean and new, our walls had turned into mountains surrounding us like a mothers arms, what was once endless sea now plains and forests ready to be repopulated. It may be that some others survived in other shelters; we must reach out and find a way for us to shape this fresh world into the world we wish our children to live in.

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Recap: York’s Pcon 39 scenario

First, Backstory: About a thousand years ago (long after the Night of No Stars, long before the invention of Aphar Clay) a largish group of refugees got booted out of Sitriph for being dissidents. (This was during the germination of the oppressive society encountered in the Con.) The dissidents had some clue that large groups of people could withstand the corruption of the Shroud remnants contaminating the wilderness, and they developed a fairly horrifying practice of human sacrifice to amplify and exploit this effect — imbuing the essence of humanity into the walls around them, through the blood of the sacrifices. It worked, but not well enough; one way or another each of their refuges failed and they would pack up and try to find a better location, each time going farther from Sitriph and heading for the legendary Shroud-free haven of Idyllicon Valley.

Along their way they discovered, but were refused entrance to, the Great Temple of Knowledge that had been built in the earliest years after the Night Of  No Stars, by clerics who wielded the burgeoning powers of the new Gods but still had access to the secrets of the old world as well. The Great Temple had been founded in the certainty that the Shroud would come again and all possible knowledge must be preserved against that dire day.

The Refugees (sometimes styled the Refugees of Blood) lost knowledge and numbers both in their string of forced migrations, and ultimately only a tiny remnant made the trek from their final refuge to Idyllicon (some records indicate only one Shroud-wracked individual.) The guards turned them away and the Refugees met their final doom in the wilderness.

Run 1: “Not a Ruin”
Premise was very simple – outriders scouting for the Horde spot a building that hasn’t been eroded to nothing, so maybe it has stuff. A looting^H^H^H^H^H^H^H foraging party is sent. They find a fairly complete walled keep, and also discover an out-wall suggesting that the keep had kept a couple of square miles under cultivation in its heyday. Attempting to enter, they are briefly delayed by the trapdoor grizzly bear that had set up shop in front of the entrance. Scrutinizing the structure, the detect a residue of some kind of unwholesome magic in the mortar, and come to the conclusion that it was made with blood. Skeletal remains of an apparent suicide — he had to dive headfirst down the narrow clear shaft at the core of the spiral stair — turn up in one of the corner towers, but nothing of interest otherwise. At the Great Hall, on the other hand, several mummified corpses are found, with an interesting variety of deathwounds. Further investigation is delayed when the mummies animate and attack the party. The mummies are eventually overcome; the party is horrified at the speed of progression of the variant mummy rot they inflict, but mollified when they discover that any kind of magical healing stops it in its tracks. Scraps of a journal are found and provide some clarification despite extensive smudging (the journal-writer knocked his ink bottle over onto it in his death-throes). The players can read enough to infer the basics: human sacrifice as a way to fend off Shroud-corruption, dwindling numbers, a grim certainty of encroaching doom. The last entry in the journal ends with “The burrowers beneath are …..”
Exploring the rest of the keep, the party resists the enticements of the ghost haunting the favored chambermaid’s bedroom (she projects a very alluring illusion to try to coax someone into her bed, but luckily for the party her haunting binds her to the bed and she can’t actually harm anyone she can’t reach). A large and detailed map is found in one of the master bedrooms and brought back to Hireling Hall. The party scouts the basements, notes that the mysterious “burrowers beneath” (who can drill through solid rock) seem to be returning now that there’s life in the keep again, and delay them by burning most of the combustibles left in the basement while making their own getaway. One of the items brought back restored knowledge of 4th-level Prayers to PCs.

Run 2: Shadows of Princecon Past
With all the clay running around I couldn’t resist throwing in a shout-out to Princecon 33: Ghost and Clay. Specifically, Terra Cotta Warriors. The next-oldest refuge of the  Refugees had been built with the bright idea of intensifying the protective “humanity” of the walls by making them look like humans; hence, the warriors made of fired clay, made to guard the walls. Unfortunately, the ritual of creating the warriors was too close to the (not-yet-discovered) Sitriph ritual for creating Aphar Clay, which *attracts* Shroud thread instead of repelling it. The clay statues became suffused with Shroud Thread, which animated them — and the ghosts of the people sacrificed to make them filled their nascent minds with horror. One night the guardian statues climbed down from the wall and started slaughtering the Refugees, who fled with scarcely more than the nightshirts on their backs. Once the murderers had been punished, the Terra Cotta warriors had a couple of centuries to calm down and get over their PTSD before the Players encountered them.
The party en route to the next refuge didn’t know any of this, of course. They did have an edifying encounter with a long-range patrol from Sitriph, a pair of two-pilot golems. (I treasure the look on Tim DeCapio’s face when his Gaia cleric used Lifesense to find out whether these odd monsters were alive or constructs and learned that each of them was alive twice.) After the golems were broken the pilots resisted too vigorously to be taken alive, except for the one who had succumbed to a Sleep spell while the golem was still functional. Interrogation of the pilot revealed some useful information about the Army of Salvation, Aphar Clay and the nature of its protection in the wilderness, but ultimately the pilot’s fanaticism and extremism grew so frustrating that the party put him out of their misery. (In fairness, it could be said this summary execution was what the prisoner wanted — he tried to commit suicide twice during the interrogation.)
The party proceeded to the keep marked on their map and discovered one much like the first-run keep, but obviously in better repair. In fact, they saw, it was obviously being repaired, with stone and metalwork of recent vintage patching decayed portions of the ancient structure. They also discovered that somebody inside was volleying arrows at anyone who came too close. Party withdrew to a dell out of LOS from the keep to rest for the night and plan. Winter’s Whisper, hobbit Gaia cleric, decided to make a lone scouting attempt to see if the cover of darkness would make it possible to approach the keep. He narrowly avoided being captured by a thrown net and hightailed it back to the campsite.
Shortly thereafter, the party discovered themselves surrounded by Terra Cotta Warriors with drawn bows, who had come up silently enough that no one noticed them until they broke the 60′ range limit of Darkvision. The party begged to talk with them, rather than fighting or trying to escape. This sufficiently intrigued the TCW that their leader got out a slate and a piece of chalk. (The TCW cannot speak–their faces are immobile carvings–and routinely communicate in writing.) In the ensuing conversation the TCW learned that the PCs were not descended from the Refugees (whom the TCW still hated) but instead from the people who turned the last Refugees away to die in the wilderness, which earned them a claim to at least minimal hospitality. (“YOU ARE WELCOME TO REST IN SAFETY WITHIN OUR WALLS. WE CANNOT OFFER YOU FOOD. WE DO NOT EAT.”) Subsequent negotiations provided the PCs with some useful items, the restoration of the Piety and Paladin feats, and some Terra Cotta Warriors accompanying them back to the Horde to teach the arts of steelworking and longbow manufacture (it turned out that these lost arts, however, had already been rediscovered by an earlier-returning party).

Run 3: Great Temple of Knowledge
The existence and location of the Great Temple were learned from contact with the Terra Cotta Warriors. An expedition went to see if they could loot^H^H^H^H retrieve the knowledge therein. Clever use of Gaia powers allowed the party to avoid all Army of Salvation patrols (the Great Temple is uncomfortably close to Sitriph) and make a quick approach to the Temple. Detect Traps revealed that the four pillars in front of the entrance would do Something Bad to anyone trying to force the door. After puzzling over the door for a while the party simply explained their plight and the need for knowledge, and the door opened. The party entered the antechamber within and were closely scrutinized by an entity who appeared to be an animated metal statue wearing a white cloak. They were then waved down a corridor which was filled with darkness impenetrable even to Gaia cleric Alist’s Continual Light devices. They emerged, after a time, to find that they were in a small chamber with a door at the end, and that the darkness behind them had become a solid barrier, forbidding return. Having little choice, they found themselves in a pitched battle between an attacking force of warriors in black coats and helmets, wielding powerful if strange weapons, and a defending force of civilians with improvised weapons behind an improvised barricade. Since the black-coats immediately attacked the PCs for being “subhumans” the party decided to throw in with the defenders. They learned that the defenders were led by Michael Theogenes, a human prophet of the Gods that had emerged since the descent of the Shroud had destroyed the evil Empire that was in the process of conquering the world. Michael and his volunteers were defending the last unblocked approach to a refuge that would be able to resist the encroaching Shroud (much reduced by the work it had already done), and they needed to hold off this remnant of the Empire’s armies long enough for the refuge to be sealed well enough to withstand the last surviving war machines.
The PCs enthusiastically committed their resources to the defense, in the process labeling the Empire’s hand weapons Great Unknown Noisemakers (G.U.N.s) and coming up with another phrase, which I sadly didn’t note, that gave the oncoming war machines the acronym T.A.N.K. The heroic sacrifice of Tristan Draelig, flinging himself atop Michael as four grenades exploded around them, saved Michael’s life; and the interposition of a Wall of Force at just the right moment caused the charging Imperials to be shattered by their own artillery. After the air elemental got into the last tank it was a matter of mopping up. As Michael expressed his gratitude the party saw the world around them fading and becoming translucent. They found themselves within a great hall of the Temple of Knowledge, filled with bookshelves and display cases — and still talking to Michael Theogenes, now manifesting as a translucent image of an ancient white-haired man. He confirmed that they had really been in the past, and had met and talked to him there, in consequence of which he knew that the Shroud would come again and destroy even that which had survived before. He had led the worshipers of the new Gods before they separated into individual churches, founded the Great Temple, and after dying at an advanced age was permitted by the Gods to linger as a spirit-guardian of the Temple. He pointed the party to the most immediately useful items and offered them help for securing Sitriph against the Shroud. He also promised that the Temple could ride out the Second Shroud but its capacity was severely limited.

Run 4: Relief Expedition
The party raced ahead of the Horde to the Temple of Knowledge, where they were provided with a self-propelled amphibious vehicle carrying 30 Ectoplasm Generators, devices that turned the Shroud’s own power against itself to create a barrier against its approach. They would not be enough to secure an enclave of useful size but could extend the walls that other parties hoped to form around Sitriph Fortress using Aphar Clay. After some discussion the party decided to use their vehicle’s amphibious capability not just to circumvent Army of Salvation patrols and checkpoints, but to cross the bay to Sitriph Fortress itself and mount an amphibious assault. Message via Stone and Message via Trees were used to alert the other expedition, aiming to rouse the disaffected population of Sitriph into an attack on the Fortress, about the timing of their attack.
A magical item in the party’s possession allowed them to conjure a ramp which allowed their vehicle to climb from the bay directly onto the first terrace of the Fortress. Furious combat ensued in which the party attacked with overwhelming force whenever possible. They were preparing for a potentially deadly confrontation with enemies who had concentrated multiple three-pilot Golems, backed up by infantry, spellcasters, and archer/snipers armed with Arrows of Human Slaying and Arrows of Dwarf Slaying, when the party in the “General Electric” expedition removed the power source from the Aphar Golems. At this point, resistance effectively ended for this party — while the other parties storming the Fortress had to deal with forted-up die-hards, the Army members who had seen that nothing short of a Golem could even slow down this deadly war machine were completely demoralized and either fled or surrendered. The party quickly pressed the surrendered into helping with cargo hauling as they deployed the Ectoplasm Generators around the north side of the island and then started hauling deactivated golems to continue the Aphar Clay wall. Cargo hauling was greatly facilitated when the mages spent most of their points conjuring Temporary Bags of Holding and set up bucket-brigades to collect golems in the interior (as well as the 5-ton blocks someone was teleporting in from somewhere.) (Reference note: 10 hobbits equipped with one Temp Bag of Holding apiece and one large cutting tool can collect 5 tons of clay in less than 5 melee rounds.) Although many others contributed to clay-hauling and wall-building, the efforts of the Relief Expedition were a vital part of the whole.

AFTERMATH
The Aphar Clay grew into mountains while the Shroud encompassed the world. The arc of Ectoplasm Generators to the north is the reason your new valley home opens out to fertile plains on that side. (With no more Shroud threads to spin into Ectoplasm, the Generators themselves are useless though intriguingly complicated devices.)  The Temple of Knowledge rode out the new Shroud as well, protecting a population of a few dozen Terra Cotta Warriors and some actual organic NPCs; its libraries and supernatural instructors are at the disposal of all who seek to rebuild a better world.

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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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