Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The unexpected pleasures of running two campaigns in the same setting

For over a year now, I've been running two different D&D campaigns in the same setting. The first of these, a 5E game that began in 2015 as a test of the new rules and run-through of "The Lost Mine of Phandelver" (the adventure included in the Starter Kit), has seen the player-characters rise to high levels (reaching the fourth, or epic, tier of play) and assume central place in a planes-hopping struggle to prevent an unholy coalition of Drow, giants, goblinoids, extraterrestrials, and vampires from toppling the human kingdoms of the world. The second campaign is a B/X game that unfolds on a smaller scale; here, the player-characters have made their mark within a smaller area (about 60 square miles) as protectors of a threatened shrine and general solvers of problems for the local authorities. Even so, word of their deeds has reached the attention of distant figures.

The setting is Hârn, a creation that mashes up a pseudo-medieval take on the British Isles with some very Tolkienesque borrowings, the whole underpinned by a unique cosmology and history that opens the door to a much wider multiverse of sorts. From the outset, I told the players in both groups that this would not be canon Hârn: I had no intention of using or even consulting the vast amount of material produced for the setting since the 1980s. Having picked up a used copy of the second edition of Hârnworld a decade ago, I was mostly interested in adopting its geography -- the beautiful full-colour hex map of the island is a joy to behold and to use in play -- and the general cultural and political context as a convenient backdrop to whatever shenanigans the PCs got up to. As a resource, Hârnworld provides only the broad strokes of the place, and even these I have not yet fully digested. I have not, for example, read anything close to the majority of the entries in the Hârndex, the dictionary of place-names on the map and general encyclopedia of key concepts. Nor did I make much of an effort to fill in the gaps myself in the spirit of what is sometimes referred to as "worldbuilding". 

The great, and somewhat unexpected pleasure, of running these two campaigns concurrently has been that the players emerged as the principal engine by which the setting has come to life. Their questions, desires, and needs were the prompts that pushed me to transform a general sense of the setting into concrete details about the setting, to dig more deeply into the motives and agendas of NPCs, and to resolve key questions about the nature of the world and the forces at play within it. No doubt this is often the case anyway, even when a referee makes use of fully fleshed-out setting material; but having two groups of players mucking about at two different levels of play and in different places has repeatedly provided the incentive and stimulation needed to make the world come alive in my mind. This in addition, of course, to the satisfaction a referee receives from having friends that are happy to return repeatedly to a place of shared creation that I've had the privilege of convening for us. To the players: a most sincere thank you.

And now, due to the pandemic, a new possibility is raised. The 5E game has of necessity gone online, where the B/X game has always existed. A number of important NPCs have met both parties, and the actions of both groups have shaped events for the other. Might they one day cross paths in the digital spaces to which we all must resort for the time being? We shall see.

In the meantime: the exploits of the 5E group have long been available on this blog, while the chronicles of the B/Xers have been hidden away behind barriers on the Roll20 site where that game unfolds. No more! They are now compiled here.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Sessions 85 to 88 (April-May 2020)

Note to readers: This is a session re-cap of an ongoing D&D 5th edition campaign set in a loosely adapted version of N. Robin Crossby's Hârn. Previous session re-caps can be found on this blog, and an early journal of sessions 1 through 54, beginning in February 2015, is archived here

In-world dates: 20-21 Ilvin 720 TR [second week of winter]
Daylight hours: 9
Moon: third quarter (one week until the new moon)

The Players
Cade, a water genasi druid and awakener of creatures
Cleric, a secretive celestial magic-user
Dracul, a haunted dragonborn warrior
Galindo, a well-connected halfling spy
Gil'Doren, a vainglorious elf evoker


You are at Pesino, an Earthmaster site on the western borders of the Sindarin kingdom of Evael. A massive ziggurat rises in the midst of a vast clearing in the forest, giant-sized stairs marching up its southern face to a sheltered gallery at its summit. A massive set of double doors is set against the wall at the far end: the only visible entrance to the structure. Leaving your auxiliaries concealed in the woods, you make your way up the stairs and into the gallery. 

On the floor before the doors you find an elongated shape wrapped in black silk. Tugging it open reveals a note and a long black metal stick, about 24 inches in length. At one end of the stick are two prongs, each about six inches in length. Spaced along the shaft are six studs or buttons, each of a different colour: orange, blue, green, yellow, red, and black. The note reads:

Black opens the doors.
Red brings you within.
Flame lights your path.
Blue admits you to The Dwelling.
Find me there.

Knowing that Dracul's malevolent father, a dragonborn vampire, awaits you within sets you on edge. Examining the door, you notice an oval depression on the wall to the right, with two circular holes near its centre. The two-pronged keystick fits perfectly. Pressing the black stud causes the doors to slide open silently to reveal a square chamber approximately fifty feet across. It is empty and unlit. On an inside wall near the doors, another pair of holes allows you to insert the keystick again. This time, the red stud causes the doors to slide shut and the chamber to begin to plummet downward at an alarming speed. As your stomachs climb into your throats, you begin to fear some disaster, but in time the speed of descent slows and the chamber comes to a gentle stop. The doors open to reveal that you are in a vast subterranean shaft whose walls you cannot see with your limited darkvision. A walkway of metal surrounds on all sides the column through which the chamber descended, and at intervals bridges or catwalks of the same material stretch out into the darkness.  One of these catwalks is illuminated by a series of burning braziers set at regular intervals along its length. Judging by the number of fires you can see, this catwalk clearly extends hundreds of feet away from you.

Exploring the space, you discover that this vast shaft is over 300 feet in diameter; it is an incalculable distance from the surface and descends an unknowable distance below. Each of the darkened catwalks ends in another massive set of double doors.  The keystick opens none, however, and each attempt provokes a damaging shock to afflict the user.

Finally you proceed down the illuminated catwalk and, at the doors, press the blue stud to gain entrance. You find yourself in a large circular chamber comprised of two levels: an upper gallery and an open lower space connected via a flight of stairs hugging the wall. Lamps have been lit within. In the chamber below, you see Malevix, a hulking dragonborn warrior, seated on one of several oddly shaped divans scattered about the room. He looks up at you calmly. A number of other figures are interspersed about the chamber, unmoving. They have the appearance of Sindarin rangers.

Malevix speaks.*

I have been misunderstood. Dracul, I had hoped you would follow me out of filial duty, out of the loyalty you owe your father. You did not, although you accepted the gift of the Slaying Sword. Where is it now? Are you too timid to use it? No matter. But now I must try to convince you and your allies that you were wrong to reject me. 

I am not the monster you think me to be. I am not trying to destroy Hârn; I am trying to save it. 

The Earthmasters held many secrets. They not only knew how to traverse, in an instant, vast distances in space; they could travel in time as well.

I learned the secret of one of their devices and traveled into the future. The horrors I saw there shook me to the core and it was only thanks to my undeath that I was able to survive the experience and return to my own time.

I saw that in the future humans would eradicate all the other sentient races on Hârn, along with many other forms of life. I saw the waters poisoned and the forests stripped and burned. The land became a desert. I saw the humans create machines of war so powerful that thousands, even millions, of lives could be destroyed in a single moment. When they had almost killed each other off and made this world unlivable, they built great vessels that allowed them to traverse vast gulfs of emptiness to reach other, distant worlds, where they repeated the same pattern of destruction, destroying in turn all of the sentient races that tried to stop them.

I decided that I must be the one to prevent this from coming to pass. With the longevity afforded me by undeath, I was able to travel back and forth in time to search for the roots of this terrifying future. I found them at last in the present.  In order to prevent this future, a mage in Cherafir must die. 

This is why I have joined forces with the Giants and the Drow. They seek merely to raid, to wreck, and to rule. Let them carry out their petty plans for this island; I care nothing for that. But I need their power. With them I can take Cherafir and break through the magical wards that keep me from getting to the mage myself through guile and stealth. Thus can I save this world.

But there is another way. You are welcomed in Cherafir; you have the trust of their leaders. You can enter the city, put an end to this mage, and prevent the future that I have seen from coming to be. If you do this, I will abandon my alliance with your enemies and foil their plans of conquest. Many will live that otherwise will die. Do this for them.


Taken aback by Malevix's intensity and apparent sincerity, you debate what to do; but Dracul has heard enough. Slipping down the staircase, he plunges his sword into the nearest elf ranger, in actuality a thrall of his vampiric father. A battle ensues: a dozen vampire thralls swarm toward the party, allowing Malevix to make an exit through a door at the far end of the chamber. You see a cloaked figure join him as the door closes behind the pair.

Hissing and clawing, the bloodthirsty creatures descend upon you but one by one you cut them down. 

Examining the rent and mangled bodies afterward, you surmise that these were the rangers sent by Queen Aranath to investigate the site a while ago. You identify the leader, Captain Sotar, and realize that she yet "lives", though just. Keeping her bound, you ponder how you might save her from oblivion or, alternatively, endless undeath and servitude.  

Returning to the gallery at the peak of the ziggurat, you summon your auxiliaries and rest. At dawn, you bestir yourselves and are surprised to see an unusually bright star on the southern horizon. As you look, it brightens: it is coming closer! Inexplicably, you feel no fear but rather an immense peacefulness. On the threshold of the gallery the radiance resolves into a human-like figure: a woman clad in a white robe. She approaches Cleric and introduces herself as Astreas, asking how she may help. Kneeling and removing his robes and mask for the first time since joining the party, Cleric explains the plight of Captain Sotar.** Astreas smiles and nods. "I will grant you the power to remove this curse from her, but be warned: wielding this power is not without cost. You will bear the burden of it for a long time." Cleric agrees. She holds out her hand and a shard of light passes from it to Cleric's. As she turns to leave, Cade steps forward. "I would willingly share this burden with my companion," he offers. Astreas asks if he is certain. Cade is. She nods, and waves her hand. Dracul and Gil'Doren offer to help as well. 

As Astreas's glowing form recedes into the dawn sky, Cleric approaches Sotar and casts Wish. Within seconds the hateful, hissing vampire thrall is transformed into a weak and haggard, but very alive, elf. The past days, she says, seem like a dark dream to her. Her Sindarin comrades rejoice at her return to the living and thank you profusely for your help. Cleric enjoins them to preserve the secret of his involvement.

Now you must decide what to do about Malevix. Seeking further information, you call upon Baba Yaga via the tokens she left in your possession. To your surprise, the mysterious traveller appears almost immediately in her fabled hut. You question her about the vampire's claims of time travel and the future of Hârn. Though she declines to provide details about what the future holds, she explains that there in fact many possible futures: nothing is yet written in stone. Nevertheless, she says, there are currents in space-time that are difficult to fight against. More importantly, however, she tells you that many who travel in time are unable to comprehend what they see and experience; often it drives them mad. Malevix's unyielding certainty, obsession even, about this mage named Wentiua being the root cause of a bleak future strikes Baba Yaga as the sign of a mind that has succumbed to the strains of repeated temporal dislocations.

Thanking Baba Yaga for her time, you then use your scrying crytal to contact the mage Andronikos in Cherafir. You ask about Wentiua. He informs you that the only mage named Wentiua he knows of is a young woman, a talented researcher but a notoriously poor magic-user: she is barely capable of casting the simplest cantrips. She spends all her time researching some poorly understood pet project, and in truth is something of an embarrassment to her father, a mage himself and senior member of the local Shek Pvar chantry, and to her mother, a high priestess of the church of Larani.

Puzzling over these revelations, you decide to investigate the chamber through which Malevix fled. Descending once again to the circular Dwelling, you use your keystick to open the door: yet another "moving chamber" lies behind. It takes you yet deeper into the earth, depositing you at the end of a long corridor that leads to a great chamber containing a teleportation dais, a wooden shrine of recent manufacture, and an 18-foot tall, four-legged, cyclopean metal construct that looms, unmoving, over the centre of the room.

Investigation of papers scattered near the shrine suggests that at some point in the last few centuries, a religious cult had been practised here, focused on the automaton which is referred to as the Angel of Steel. According to the writings, it both protects the faithful from threats that emerge from the teleportation dais, and purges the cult of unbelievers by destroying them with rays from its eye. The cult appears to have ceased some time ago, and there's no indication of what became of its adherents.

Wary of the automaton, you nonetheless decide that your best course of action is to make for Cherafir immediately. Activating the teleportation dais, you enter the portal that appears and find yourself deep within Caer Cherafir, the imposing citadel that commands this port city. There, you are reunited with Galindo, who has been running counter-intelligence for the Melderyni for some time. Andronikos soon appears and introduces you to General Vathek, the man in charge of the city's defenses. He explains the strategic situation: although the stone walls are strong and the city is well supplied to withstand a siege, the defenders are too few. Packs of giants and gargun rampage through the countryside nearby, destroying farms and taking slaves. The ocean route is cut off: a storm giant and perhaps even some kind of tentacled sea monster has destroyed every ship that tries to leave or reach the harbour. The noose is tightening and reports suggest that the enemy forces may appear before the walls any day now.

While Dracul confers with the generals and Cade explores the city and the waters that surround it, Galindo and Gil'Doren seek out Wentiua. In the company of her father, Omthal, they confront the young mageling in her study, a cluttered space full of books and notes. Pleased to discover that you take an interest in her work, she goes on at length about her invention of a new language, one that will allow her to describe and model continuous change with a precision and universality that frees her from reliance on the esoteric and idiosyncratic modes of current arcane theorization. She calls it, the calculus.

Gil'Doren, as much affronted by her dismissal of arcane lore as he is concerned by the possibility that Malevix may be right, challenges Wentiua to reconsider her approach. After lengthy and profound debate, she concedes that she will go back to the drawing board and re-think her efforts to circumvent the magical in her modeling of reality. 
Happy at your success in the debate but uncertain of what this turn of events may signify, you gather to consider your next move. War approaches: what will you do?
* Note to readers: much of the information that appears here as a monologue was actually delivered in a back-and-forth with the players. The event had, nonetheless, some of the characteristics of the classic super-villain's monologue, as was remarked upon humorously at the time.

** Cleric had cast Planar Ally the night before.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Session 84 (19 February 2020)

Note to readers: This is a session re-cap of an ongoing D&D 5th edition campaign set in a loosely adapted version of N. Robin Crossby's Hârn. Previous session re-caps can be found on this blog, and an early journal of sessions 1 through 54, beginning in February 2015, is archived here

In-world dates: 18-20 Ilvin 720 TR [second week of winter]
Daylight hours: 9
Moon: waning gibbous (full moon was on 15 Ilvin)

You are in the Deep Gnome enclave of Djebel (pop. 500), where you meet some old friends: Juan's girlfriend Adompha and the Ivinian warrior Alexandra.

With Cyrkanosh, Djebel's headwoman, at your side, you use your scrying crystal to place a conference call with your various allies:
  • in Cherafir, the Melderyni capital, Andronikos, a member of the Shek Pvar and the Council of Eleven
  • in Azadmere, the Dwarven spymaster Fjola
  • in Evael, the Elf Queen Aranath
  • in Tashal, the capital of Kaldor, the Countess Curo, first counselor to the king
You explain to all your plan to seize one of the Earthmaster teleportation daises and set The Operator to work activating the protocol that will cause each site to link randomly with others, with the intention of preventing your enemies from using the teleportation daises to move their army around Hârn. Your allies give their opinions. Andronikos is in favour of the plan, as are Queen Aranath and Cyrkanosh. Fjola is on the fence: the pros and cons seem balanced to him. Countess Curo is strongly opposed: she fears the chaos that may be unleashed by opening connections to places unknown. A stirring speech by Cade focusing on the lives that will certainly be saved moves her, but does not diminish her opposition.

The allies share what news they have. Countess Curo has received reports that a great black-sailed skyship has been spotted northeast of Minarsas; apparently it crashed while under attack. A mage is being sent to investigate. Andronikos states that Cherafir is cut off by land and sea; ships cannot get out and gargun raiding parties are reported nearby. An attack seems imminent. Fjola announces that the Dwarves' Secret Weapon is nearing completion and should be ready for use within a week. Cyrkanosh's scouts indicate that more than fifty Drow guard the teleportation dais on the shores of the Sunless Sea, along with giant lizards and spiders. The headwoman theorizes that reinforcements would be quick to arrive from the Drow city nearby if any attempt were made to seize the dais.

With all this intelligence in hand, you revise your plans and decide upon a two-pronged approach: while The Operator begins the process of activating the randomized network protocol, you will  investigate the teleportation dais at Pesino, on the western marches of the Elf-realm. You teleport to Cherafir, where you leave The Operator in the care of Andronikos, then to Elshavel, where you spend a night in Gil'Doren's home and gather a team for your reconnaissance en force to Pesino: six Elven rangers from Evael, Mada the street urchin-turned-rogue, several awakened animals and plants; four volunteers from Djebel. Adompha joins as well (her parents were killed by the Drow), as does Alexandra. All told, your company numbers 25.

You Wind Walk to Pesino, arriving in the midst of a winter storm. Rain and sleet lash the deserted landscape. No birds can be seen. You see the massive pyramid of Pesino rising above the plain. What terrors await you inside?

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Sessions 80 to 83 (November 2019 - February 2020)

Note to readers: This is a session re-cap of an ongoing D&D 5th edition campaign set in a loosely adapted version of N. Robin Crossby's Hârn. Previous session re-caps can be found on this blog, and an early journal of sessions 1 through 54, beginning in February 2015, is archived here

This entry marks the FIFTH ANNIVERSARY of the campaign.

In-world dates: 16-18 Ilvin 720 TR [second week of winter]
Daylight hours: 9
Moon: waning gibbous (full moon was on 15 Ilvin)

You are locked in battle with a beholder and several Drow, one of whom holds a knife to the throat of a hostage, Sister Garaele. Suddenly a commanding presence enters the chamber and a sultry, beguiling voice pierces the din. "Dahlings, this struggle is pointless and boring. Accept my offer and your friend's life shall be spared." The Drow priestess Eclavdra swans into view. She's clad in an impossibly form-fitting suit of mail that looks like it was painted on and sports a coiffure of such astonishing intricacy and volume that it could only have been achieved through magic.

You stop fighting and listen.

Eclavdra explains that nearby in this jade monolith lies a teleportation dais of the Earthmasters, akin to the ones you have seen in Telumar, Cherafir, and in the Underdark. This one, however, seems to be guarded by monsters of unknown origin. None of her scouts have returned, and a reconnaissance en force was similarly destroyed. She has no more patience. In return for your service in destroying the creatures and opening the passage to the dais, she will deliver Sister Garaele to you safe and sound.

Horrible guardians
Source: Numenera Discovery, p. 257.
Although it irks you to no end to serve the Drow, you see no better way to rescue Sister Garaele from the clutches of the vile Eclavdra. Following the latter's directions, you proceed through a series of horizontal and vertical shafts to reach the Earthmaster teleportation dais. The chamber seems empty... until suddenly more than a dozen large aberrations with jagged teeth and grasping tentacles swarm towards you with terrifying swiftness. You are put to the test, but in the end vanquish the things with sword and spell. Their blood is spattered all over the place. It smells, oddly, like bananas.

Your task complete, you activate the stone given you by Eclavdra. Her voice echoes in your heads, directing you to the place where you will find Garaele. (It seems the Drow priestess has been following your progress the entire time via a scrying spell.) You suspect betrayal, but Eclavdra is true to her word: you find Garaele unharmed, though somewhat traumatized by her captivity. The hostage in hand, you teleport to safety in Gil'Doren's house in the Sindarin (Elvish) city of Elshavel.

After some rest, you hold council with the Elf queen Aranath. Upon hearing your report, she expresses her fear that the Enemy may be attempting to secure control of Earthmaster sites, perhaps because of the strategic advantages offered by the teleportation daises that are generally found within. They have already demonstrated their ability to use these devices to move their armies around Hârn with incredible rapidity. One such site on the western marches of the Elf kingdom, a place known as Pesino, has recently fallen into their clutches: Elven rangers attempting to reach it have been slain or captured.

You consider investigating Pesino yourselves, but decide first to consult The Operator, the strange cyclopean giant you rescued from Telumar and left for safekeeping near the Deep Gnome enclave of Djebel. His knowledge of the teleportation daises is unrivaled.

The Operator
Source: www.chetzar.com
Using Transport via Plants, you swiftly reach the Sunless Sea in the Underdark where The Operator (who can breathe underwater) resides in the submerged ruins of a city. From Deep Gnome scouts, you learn that the Drow have seized control of the nearby teleportation dais and guard it with a force of troops, lizards, and spiders. Locating The Operator, you use Regeneration to heal its single eye, cruelly damaged by the vengeful Drow when they overran Telumar.

In response to your questions about the Earthmaster teleportation daises, The Operator explains that they cannot be "turned off" or disabled by any means known to him. However, he does know a procedure (a "spell") that will activate all the networked daises simultaneously, causing them to randomly link to other daises in rapid succession. Such an occurrence would render the daises useless for conventional, targeted teleportation; instead, anyone entering the dais portals would be transported to a random location. This spell would take days to cast, and to do so, it would be necessary to have access to at least one networked teleportation dais for the duration of the casting.

You ponder your options. On the plus side, this plan would no doubt cripple any plans the Enemy had of using the daises to concentrate armies of Giants and Gargun on Hârn. On the minus side, it would connect nearly a dozen locations on Hârn with an unknown number of sites scattered across the cosmos. Who knows what poisonous atmospheres, infinite voids, evil powers, demon-infested wastes, and infernal realms might thus gain access to the precious world you inhabit and desire only to protect?  Perhaps this solution will create perils even greater than the one from which you wish to escape.

You must gather information and learn more about the Drow forces guarding the nearby dais. You set out for the Deep Gnome enclave of Djebel, moving swiftly through the tunnels of the Underdark using Wind Walk.  Coming upon three robed figures stalking through the darkness and recognizing them as Mind Flayers, you decide to subject them to interrogation. Stopping to transition to corporeal form, you realize your error too late: the 60-second transformation will render you helpless while the Mind Flayers are free to act. Though Wind Walk gives you resistance to physical damage, you remain vulnerable to their psionic mind blasts.

And so things go badly for you. Most of you are stunned and can only watch with mounting horror as the pitiless illithids hungrily caress your re-materializing forms with their vile tentacles. Those among you fortunate enough to shrug off the psionic attacks mount a spirited defense against desperate odds. The worst comes when one of your foes manages to begin feeding on a brain. Things look dire indeed, but a reversal of fate (i.e., some successful saving throws) turns the tide of battle and you gain the upper hand, slaying your enemies with spectacular gore.

Reaching Djebel at last, you rest and consult with the headwoman Cyrkanosh. You decide that despite the risks involved, networking the daises is the best option. You will seize the Underdark dais from the Drow and hold it while The Operator casts the spell.  But it is only fair to inform your allies in advance. Using the communication crystals you distributed among your allies, you consult with Andronikos in Cherafir, who informs you that the situation there is dire: the city is besieged and an attack seems imminent.  You inform him of your plan and advise him to seal off the Earthmaster teleportation dais in the city so that nothing can pass through it. That done, you begin planning your assault on the Drow-held dais nearby.