We were short one player last session, but the newly christened Company of the Closed Fist returned to the Falcon Hall to clear it once and for all: Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H. Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by Chris V. plus their retainers: Wart, Mordu, Janus, and Yar Two of the Company's retainers from the previous expedition, Otto and Bardoon, declined to return to the ruined outpost for this sortie. The players talked the local lord, one Arjon Tenpher, into loaning them two of his personal guard (Janus and Yar) and, at the insistence of the halfling Garen-Gen, five sheep at the end of the previous session. Sadly, Garen-Gen proved to be highly allergic to the local breed of sheep and had to remain back at camp while his comrades stormed the Falcon Hall. The player characters again used some very imaginative tactics, including herding their sheep into the dungeon in an attempt to set off any booby traps. Unfortunately, the denizens of the Hall had enlisted the help of a small squad of kobold trapsters, who had made a barricade of the orcs and goblins the Company had slain last session and seeded them with shrieker spores. The crawling fungi immediately alerted the tribe to the Company's presence, sending the sheep bolting back outside. The kobolds then hurled crocks of oil at the party's magic-user, Magda the Witch, and ignited them. She would have been killed were it not for the speedy intervention of Mordu, the guardsman she had charmed into her service last session. The Company set about setting the kobolds' grisly barricade alight and then sealing the orcs and their allies inside the dungeon, barring the main doors and sealing its chimney with a promptly slaughtered sheep. A previously unknown escape tunnel was soon revealed, and the party tracked the Hall's fleeing inhabitants to a muddy creek, where a pitched battle took place. The skirmish claimed the lives of every one of the Company's retainers. The orcs' trump card, a club-wielding ogre, was charmed by the badly burnt Magda and then instructed to give the party a tour of the Falcon Hall. The Company of the Closed Fist returned to D'Ansor considerably richer, but it remains to be seen how Arjon Tenpher will react to the loss of two of his trusted men at arms. The big lessons that I took home from this session? Smart play yields great rewards, players react with dread when you use their tactics against them, and charm is a great spell.
The first session of the Demon Verge campaign must not have been too awful, because everybody returned for the second, to wit: Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris H. Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by Chris V. plus their retainers: Wart, Otto, and Bardoon Last session, the player characters took a staircase to the second level of an abandoned outpost and started spiking the sliding door that led out of its first room. This alerted goons on both the second and the first floors (the latter of which they had not cleared) to their presence. Though they got out mostly intact (more on that in a bit), it was a lot of fun watching the players figure out how to deal with the orcs and goblins that started arriving in waves from both the stairwell and the doorway, potentially leaving them with no exit. I'm happy to say that using a relatively small dungeon that I mapped and keyed myself has contributed greatly to my own confidence in running a D&D session. It helped me have a better idea of how things interconnect and interrelate. Knowing your dungeon well enough to have its various denizens react appropriately when adventurers start stomping around and killing their buddies is not only realistic, it makes the dungeon scarier. It allowed me to avoid the unfortunate syndrome where monsters sit and patiently wait to be killed, ignoring the ruckus that the PCs are raising. Also, one of the orcs scored a natural 20 on my brother's fighter, Ondola the Blunt, and reduced her well below 0 hit points, which let me try out my house rules on both critical hits and mortally wounded characters. (I use the term "house rules" loosely here -- I have lifted these rules wholesale from Adventurer Conqueror King.) After a couple of die rolls it ended up that Ondola was unconscious and had lost an arm. This did deflate the session for a bit, and my brother elected to drop out of the game for the night. I felt kind of bad about this, to be honest -- I wondered if it wouldn't have been better for me to simply declare the character dead -- but it looks like my brother is going to soldier on with his one-armed fighter for at least a little while. The PCs managed to escape the dungeon, though they were pursued and had to bluff their way out. Also, an orc that Aelaran the cleric had managed to talk into aiding the party was slain by an overzealous guardsman when they returned to town. (That guardsman has since been charmed into their service.) Sadly, most of their retainers elected to retire with the treasure they'd won. I did squeeze in some (rather awkward) roleplaying with the local nobility, which I think was nice for a change. Next week, the players are planning on clearing out the rest of the Falcon Hall, and have procured large amounts of oil, new men-at-arms, and five sheep to that end. This can only end well.
Though my campaign is called "The Demon Verge", I don't really have a clear idea of what the titular "Demons" are. This is largely because the game it's based on doesn't provide much information about them. That sketchiness has mostly been a boon for me thus far. Still, I feel kind of strange about leaving the villains of the setting in such a vague state, so I might as well start figuring some things out.
As I've discussed previously, the wargame Demonlord includes a dwarven kingdom that is menaced by something called "the Balron". It's one of the few things in the game that is a transparent Tolkienism. For the Demon Verge campaign, I try not to directly contradict anything from the game that inspired it, but I have to admit that I kind of roll my eyes every time I have to mention the Balron. For that reason, I decided that the Balron is understood to have been slain by a powerful wizard during the last war. (I figured if I'm going to have a Tolkien ripoff stomping around in the backstory, I might as well write it out with another Tolkien ripoff.)
For laughs, I decided to do an image search for "Balron" (as opposed to "Balrog", which gets you a lot of images of the monster from Jackson's Lord of the Rings films and the big boxer from Street Fighter II). Here's what I get:
Both are apparently from manuals for the Ultima series of computer games, which also used the name "Balron" instead of "Balrog". They've both got the sword-and-whip thing going on, just like the Balrog. Like the designers of Demonlord, the Ultima people obviously liked Tokien's Balrog enough to use it in their game, but probably feared legal trouble from those controlling his intellectual property. Fair enough, but I find this kind of direct ripoff a bit uninspiring, even though I have a soft spot for Denis Loubet's artwork.
I stumbled across another "Balron" during my search, though:
This Balron is a villain from the Saint Seiya anime series, as far as I can tell. The sword has been jettisoned from the standard Balrog armament, and instead of a big leathery beast, this version is a pretty man in demonic armor. I actually find this take kind of interesting, because to me it seems to be somewhat in line with what little is written about the Demons in the Demonlord rules manual:
On Narth, once called the “continent of man”, the origins of the Demons are obscure. Some say a wizard’s summoning went out of control. Others suggest that the Demons themselves opened a magical gateway, still extent [sic] at the gate of Tor’zem, the Demonlord Capital. A few philosophers even believe that the Demons are a natural race, like humans or dwarves, except the Demons became stronger than others.
In that rulebook, it's never stated that "the Balron character" is a Demon. But the mention of the Demons possibly being "a natural race, like humans or dwarves," suggests to me that they are probably not completely monstrous in appearance. The Demonlords themselves are depicted on their chit counters as horned heads with Dracula-style collars, and one could reasonably assume that the individual on the cover of the game is meant to be a Demonlord. (The Balron's chit looks a little different from that of the various Demonlords: its silhouette is vaguely humanoid, with horns, wings, and big feet.) Whether or not the Balron was a Demon, the idea of mostly human-like Demons like "Balron Rene" is an appealing possibility for my campaign.
After I straightened out some scheduling conflicts, I was able to run the first session of the Demon Verge campaign this past Monday on Google+.
Our heroes were:
Aelaran the Resilient (male cleric), played by Bret
Cadie Stone-Spar (female dwarf), played by Jaime
Garen-Gen (male halfling), played by Dan
Magda the Witch (female magic-user), played by Chris
Ondola the Blunt (female fighter), played by my brother (also named Chris)
plus their retainers, Wart, Otto, and Bardoon
The characters are part of a larger force sent to the Demon Verge to pacify the war-torn and chaos-stricken borderlands. They started out in the Duchy of D'Ansor, collected a few rumors, and decided to investigate reports of orcs, ogres and the like -- presumably deserters from the war between the Demon province of Nisshar and the Hosarite alliance -- preying upon the farming villages to the northwest of town. They were able to track them to an ancient dwarven ruin set into a hillside, and with some clever reconnaissance and liberal use of flaming oil, managed to lure out and slay several of its inhabitants (orcs, goblins, and giant toads) before entering its partially waterlogged interior.
So, as you can see, it was a pretty basic setup (evil humanoids in a dungeon) but I had a lot of fun running it. I really enjoy playing hirelings, goblins, and other "bottom of the barrel"-type characters, and the Meatshields! hireling & henchman generator does an excellent job of instantly creating memorable goons. I also learned some lessons about flaming oil that I had forgotten (namely, that it is incredibly powerful). The players made some very smart choices in tackling the ruins and their inhabitants, got a ton of lucky rolls (no wandering monsters!) and as a result, have managed to acquire quite a nice heap of treasure with no loss of life or limb... yet.
This session was a big improvement over my previous attempts to run a game on Google+, at least in terms of my own confidence and enjoyment. That's due in no small part to the fact that this time, I'm running a relatively small dungeon that I stocked myself, rather than a giant megadungeon that requires hours of study and preparation. So far I haven't gotten the feeling that I'm "screwing up" -- justified or not -- that I often get when running others' material.
I got very valuable feedback from my players, including that they want more opportunities for roleplaying, which was a lovely thing to hear. So, a success, I think.
Here's a (sort of) brief summary of what I've established about the Demon Verge setting, some of it extrapolated from Demonlord, and some of it made up whole cloth. This represents knowledge that player characters, who are not native to the region, would already know (or be able to glean with little effort).
The Kingdom of Altacia
Often referred to simply as "the Old Kingdom", Altacia is the largest human nation on the continent of Narth. It was once the preeminent power in the region, but is now in decline, challenged by its neighbors, the realm of Ekkesh (to the south) and the Demon Provinces (to the east). The Duchy of D'Ansor
A realm whose people have as much in common with the cragsmen of Altu'han as they do with the Altacian people, D'Ansor only recently bent the knee to the Old Kingdom. Its capital is home to the only magical college in the region. The villages of the Duchy are terrorized by brigands, deserters from both sides of the recent war.
The Principality of Timur
The largest city in the region, save Nisshar, Timur is the eastern trade hub of the Old Kingdom, now wracked by banditry. Once the stronghold of the Hosar faith, it was here that the High Priest was slain in battle, and Hosar's influence here is now as diminished as the spirits of those who were once its adherents.
The Barony of Barthek
A swampy land regarded as a cultural backwater in the Old Kingdom. Since the death of its Baron, Barthek is torn by internal strife between the Altacian nobles that have inherited it, and its people, whose traditions are closer to those of Ekkesh, a southern nation with a long history of conflict with the Old Kingdom.
The Kingdom of Ula
Until one year ago, the Dwarves of Ula toiled under the eye of the abomination known as the Balron and the Trolls that served it. Freed when the wizard Rabat slew the Balron, the Dwarves aided the alliance of Hosar in driving back the forces of Nisshar. Though freedom has come to the Dwarves, untold numbers of slaves yet toil in their mines, and it is said that slavers in Ula's employ still bring travelers to their mountains in chains.
The Duchy of Altu'han
The "mountain realm of the cragsmen", Altu'han is a northern domain ruled from a fortress city. Much of what is now the Duchy of D'Ansor was once the cragsmen's territory. Altu'han was briefly conquered by the Altacians, but its people have proven untamable, and for over a century the Duchy has been a part of the Old Kingdom in name only.
The Principality of Lyung
"Realm of the Sorcerer Cloud Prince", Lyung is an enigma even to its neighbors. What is known is that its capital is impregnable, and that none have been granted an audience with the Cloud Prince in generations. Legends say that the warriors of Lyung ride great dragons into battle, and indeed, some assert that they have seen the figures of men on winged creatures crossing the central plains.
The Great Woods
Home of wild warrior tribes, known worshippers of beast gods and forest spirits. Reputed to be not entirely human, the Great Woods barbarians are unpredictable, allying with Demons or men (or neither) according to their whims, and since the last war, the barbarians' raids against the eastern villages of Timur and Barthek have only grown bolder.
The Land of the Ancients
A nearly forgotten race, the Ancients ruled the hills and plains of the entire region in ages past, and their prehistoric ruins dot the landscape. It is said that the last remnants of the Ancients dwell in a crumbling temple to the north of Nisshar, and that the Demons give a wide berth to this land.
The Province of Nisshar
Westernmost province of the Demon Emperor's domain, Nisshar consists of several sprawling city-states and fortresses in a largely barren expanse of steppe, desert, and badlands. Each of these city-states is ruled by a Demonlord that swears fealty to the Imperial capital, Tor'zem, far to the east. The cities of Nisshar, Erush, and Taegul are places of despair, where men, demi-men, goblins, orcs and all manner of other beings live in common fear of the lash of their accursed masters.