With the holidays upon us, it's getting more difficult for all of the regular players to participate. This session we were short two players again:
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.
plus their retainer, Ralan the elf
After being thrown into some subterranean river rapids, this session found the Company of the Closed Fist washing ashore in a series of caverns apparently called "the Hall of the Toad-King", inhabited (appropriately enough) by a race of toad-men. There was no sign of the two doppelgangers that had likewise been thrown into the river, or of the thieves, Fingers and the Purloiner. (To avoid having to continue fudging what Thomas and Chris V.'s characters were up to while their players were absent, I ended up declaring that they were apparently thrown overboard during the perilous underground river-rafting journey. They will hopefully rejoin the Company at some point.)
Once admitted through a series of portcullis gates, the party was instructed to take buckets of fish innards and cross a nearby bridge, throwing the guts over the side as they went. The Company did as instructed, which allowed them to avoid being devoured by an enormous, four-headed toad. They were then essentially herded and locked into a cavern dubbed the "guest quarters". Their chamber adjoined a makeshift prison in which were kept three prisoners:
a scoundrel named Aldrous, who was exploring Ebler's Tower before it was toppled, captured by orcs, and apparently delivered to the toad-men for reasons unclear,
an amnesiac, dubbed "the Sun Warrior" by Aelaran, who the party has ascertained may have been an adventuring Hosarite priest before he was supposedly was assaulted by "mushroom creatures" and then awoke in the prison, and
a toad-man called "Six-Failed", shunned by his people for his strange habit of turning to stone rather than entering torpor (as the rest of his kind do) when a certain gong is struck.
After "the Hours of Mystery" (as the toad-men's period of quiescence is called) ended, the Company were allowed to leave their quarters and explore the Hall. They attempted to gain audience with the Toad-King, but were rebuffed. Some guidance from Zaraag, a toad-man sushi pedlar, led them to explore the area from which the gong that signaled "the Hours of Mystery" sounds. They found themselves in an almost mystical setting attended by a trio of toad-man ascetics, who were both more accommodating and more cryptic in their interactions with the Company than their kin, giving the party healing tea and also dispensing strange aphorisms. The lawfully-aligned members of the Company began to piece together that something ill had befallen the toad-men -- possibly engineered by the Toad-King. A visit to the pagoda of Uobo the Butcher nearly confirmed their suspicions that the amnesiac prisoner was indeed a cleric of the sun-god cult, but the session ended with the party quite mystified.
This was another combat-free session, and the whole endeavor felt a bit "off" to me. Not every session is a hit. I did try my best to entertain the players with the often bizarre behavior and environs of the toad-men, and mostly succeeded (I hope), but there's been some discussion of leaving the place as soon as possible, as the players were somewhat baffled -- or possibly just bored -- by what they found.
I was finally able to return to The Demon Verge earlier this week, albeit with only four players: 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. plus their retainer, Ralan the elf The Company of the Closed Fist, having received a sack of treasure from a coterie of dryads in return for promising to rid the dungeons beneath Ebler's Tower of a corrupting influence referred to as "The Poisoner", found a secret door leading into a large chamber that had apparently been used for storage at some point in the recent past. Its alcoves were filled with crates and barrels of assorted goods -- including fine wines and spirits, still in drinkable condition -- and, surprisingly, a party of four dwarves, who gave their names as Maruk, Oum, Nardin, and Jegram. A lengthy and confusing conversation ensued, in which the Company and the dwarves attempted to come to an agreement regarding joint exploration of the dungeon. The dwarves were affable enough, though oddly particular about marching order, and derogatory towards the Company's sole surviving retainer, the elf Ralan. Their leader, Maruk, seemed nonchalant about signing a contract that was dictated by the Company's cleric, Aelaran, but produced a document in a cryptic, angular script that was unreadable by any party members, including the dwarf, Cadie. The dwarf named Jegram exhibited bizarre behavior, repeatedly insisting that he travel in "THE REAR! YES, THE REAR!" of the party. To cap off the Company's suspicions, when questioned about the origins of his band, Maruk told them they hailed from Oru, a near-mythical dwarven kingdom that was known by Cadie to have collapsed centuries prior. The Company briefly considered attacking the dwarves, but decided to move on with them. Their guard raised, the party headed into a medium-sized chamber with a sizable hole in its floor, and the word "DRAGON" etched into one of the walls in the language of Nisshar. Cadie reckoned that the floor was unstable. A crate was retrieved from the previous room and hurled into it, where it stuck halfway into the floor, dislodging several bricks. Splashing was heard from below. Magda the Witch elected to carefully enter the room, close to the wall, to examine a nearby wall sconce. Unfortunately, the instant she stepped out of the passageway, the entire floor collapsed, apparently sufficiently weakened by the earlier-hurled crate to lose all cohesion. The magic-user plunged into the darkness, nearly brained by falling rubble, and was swept away by a rapid, freezing current. Aelaran shouted for lantern and rope, which were quickly supplied by the dwarf Maruk. As soon as Aelaran set to work at the edge of the newly formed chasm, he was bludgeoned with near-lethal force: Maruk was trying to kill him, hammering at the cleric bare-handed and with terrifying strength. A frightful melee ensued, with the unimaginably powerful blows thrown by the dwarves nearly claiming the lives of Aelaran and Cadie, and crippling Garen-Gen. Aelaran managed to flip Maruk into the river below, and the dwarf Oum suffered a similar fate due to his own clumsiness. The Company's captive, Galtin Vauk, attempted to flee, but was slain by the mad dwarf Jegram, who snapped the young mystic's neck with his bare hands. Aelaran healed Garen-Gen and tried to throw the halfling at Jegram, but missed, sending his companion sailing into the chasm to be swept downriver. After a tense struggle, Cadie's hammer delivered the killing blows to the remaining two dwarves, who, upon death, revealed themselves to be leathery, long-limbed humanoids with horribly misshapen heads: doppelgangers, legendary beings thought to live only for deceit and murder. With two of their number now disappeared, the remaining members of the Company lashed together a number of barrels and crates from the other room into a makeshift raft, and launched it (and themselves) into the watery darkness, in pursuit of their companions... their destination unknown. This was a short and intense session, where the players truly surprised me and ended up doing something I had never anticipated. I love that. The only thing that frustrated me was the absence of two players, both of whom run thief characters, and who might have been able to avoid collapsing the floor. Not that I'm mad that the players couldn't make it -- I'm more annoyed that I had to fudge what their characters were doing, and if they'd been there (or if I didn't allow the players to end sessions inside a dungeon), things would have been different. This was also the second time we used Adventurer Conqueror King's Mortal Wounds table to determine what happened to a character that was below 0 hit points: Garen-Gen's legs are now useless, which I found a bit depressing, but his player doesn't seem fazed by it. Oh well. It was fun, anyway.
With my most recent attempt to run a session of the Demon Verge campaign derailed by a post-vacation cold, I find myself once more with little to discuss in terms of actual play.
Instead, here are some brief thoughts on a few RPG-related products I've picked up recently. I hesitate to call them "reviews", since I haven't used (or, in many cases, even finished reading) the books in question. But here goes anyway:
Uresia: Grave of Heaven. S. John Ross' fantasy setting has been around for a while now, having had versions released for the now-defunct Big Eyes, Small Mouth system as well as d20. It's currently available via Lulu as a system-free setting resource, in a variety of formats. Since Lulu recently had a substantial sale, I opted for the "Stupid-Expensive HyperDeluxe Omnibus", and it's an extremely attractive book. The fact that Uresia was originally made for an "anime RPG" (whatever that means) means that there's a good deal of well-executed artwork in that style, but there are also more realistic (and more cartoonish!) drawings, a mix which I guess might bother people that place a lot of value on a "unified feel". The setting itself is breezy and whimsical, with an emphasis placed on fun and gameable locations. Ross has a playful sense of humor that only occasionally grates on me -- there are a lot of pirate jokes in here -- and a high percentage of interesting ideas per page. My increasing appreciation for goofy stuff in dungeon fantasy means that Uresia hits what is currently a sweet spot for me. I'm happy I bought it.
Anomalous Subsurface Environment. More weirdo dungeon stuff from Lulu, this time specifically for old-style D&D, with a post-apocalyptic take on fantasy that reminds me of Thundarr the Barbarian and Korgoth of Barbaria. I've been re-warming to the idea of megadungeons lately, and ASE certainly qualifies as one of those. I haven't read much of the dungeon itself yet, but I'm very impressed with Patrick Wetmore's wacky wizard-blasted sci-fantasy setting and the new D&D-compatible classes -- including robots and scientists -- that he's introduced to reflect it.
Qelong. I haven't read this yet. Despite my respect for Lamentations of the Flame Princess' dedication to publishing good-looking, OSR-friendly gaming material, I've never been a big fan of horror, and so I often find that their products aren't my cup of tea. However, Qelong is written by Kenneth Hite, an author I've heard good things about (but have never personally read), and the idea of a Southeast Asian-inspired fantasy sandbox is intriguing. It also comes highly recommended by people whose opinion I value. On the other hand, the back cover blurb references two movies I wasn't a huge fan of, so... we shall see, I suppose.
(Note: I finished reading Qelong since I wrote this post. It's quite well-written and full of interesting ideas, but ultimately, it's a quintessential Lamentations scenario, with lots of nightmarish magic and bodily horror. It's a great book if that's your thing, but it's not really mine. To me, the old WarGames saw of "the only winning move is not to play" seems to apply to a lot of the Lamentations adventures.)
It looks like I will finally be able to return to running the Demon Verge campaign next Monday. I'm hoping to finish off the dungeon the players are currently in either this session or the next. This means that I ought to be back to posting actual campaign content here on Dungeonskull Mountain again soon.
Earlier this week, I was visiting my former stomping grounds of New York City, and managed to hook back up with many of my good friends from New York Red Box. I got to play in Session 200 (!!) of Eric M.'s Glantri campaign, which I like to describe as "B/X D&D on Hard mode". (I was able to keep my character -- a Black Metal cleric -- alive, surprisingly.)
I've had disheartening experiences in the past when trying to run megadungeons, partly because the mapping is difficult to handle online, and partly because of my own lack of confidence and preparation, but banging around in Eric's massive Chateau D'Ambreville reminded me of how focused and effective that style of play can be. Though I'm always thinking about what I want to run next when I should be concentrating on the game at hand, and I'm leaning towards giving dungeon fantasy a break for a bit, I might give megadungeons another shot some day.