Monday, April 28, 2014

"Hard to Swallow" Chapter 15 of the Xanthus River Campaign

Our party:
  • Valerius (Level 3 Paladin)
  • Absalom (Level 2 Cleric of Justica)
  • Babu (Level 2 Thief)
  • Jalani (Level 2 Cleric of Amun-Tor)
  • Knott (Level 1 Fighter)
On their return trip from Thither to Duirndown, the party spent a day and a night in the bustling market town of Swallow, where the Xanthus river cascades over a thousand foot cliff as it plunges from the mountain highlands to the jungle on its way to the sea.


Valerius was recruiting hirelings and henchmen, Absalom was shopping and running into old friends, Knott was frequenting the whorehouse, and Jalani was off doing something mysterious.

While Babu was in the market square, he came across a tent selling magical curios. A sign outside proclaimed, "Free Stuff! Inquire Within" Babu pulled aside the richly embroidered tapestry covering the doorway and entered. The space within was dimly lit and filled with magical artifacts. A strange ancient looking hooded proprietor with long wiry hairs sprouting from his leathery chin said, "Come closer. What is your name?"

Babu answered.

"Ah, Babu. I have something for you!" A withered skeletal hand reached into a box and pulled forth a small dark glassy ovoid, the size of a robin's egg, that glowed from within. "This is for you!"

Babu said "What is it?"

The old man replied, "Free! And Yours!"

Babu took it and asked "What does it do?"

"It will grant you magical powers!"

"How does it work?"

"In order for it to take effect, it must be ingested. Swallow it!"

Babu swallowed the ovoid. The old man began to laugh menacingly.

The world began to spin and Babu descended into a vortex of spinning unreality. When he awoke, he was lying on a tattered reed mat in the bare space where he found the tent. An oddly translucent face stood over him shouting, "Get up!"

The voice came from a ghostly form, the disembodied torso of a dead wizard. His name was Urso the Evoker. Usro revealed that he was once a wizard adventurer and that he and his party died while attacking the evil alchemist Ezekiel. Urso deduced that Ezekiel must have trapped his soul within the gem, which was then transferred to Babu for reasons unknown. Now Urso was a disembodied spirit that only Babu could see and hear.

A side effect of this spiritual transference was that Babu could now cast spells as a second-level wizard. Unfortunately, Babu had lost all knowledge of thiefcraft, which had been transferred to Urso. Urso could emerge from or retreat back into Babu as he wished but could not travel more than ten feet away and could not pass through solid matter. Likewise, Babu could summon Urso at any time or send him back into dormancy.

Upon rejoining his comrades at the inn, Babu recounted the tale and everyone was up to speed.

That evening, Valerius interviewed two prospective squires but found neither of them worthy.

The next day, Knott rejoined the party and they set off towards Duirndown.

Halfway to Choke, the party encountered a caravan of 80 pilgrims coming the other direction. The pilgrims were religious adherents of Adhinata, the god of penance.  They were wearing spiked collars around their necks and were flagellating themselves with barbed whips. The caravan seemed to be transporting a hierophant and several curates, possibly on their way from the wastes beyond the mountains to Swallow or Thither. Since they were violating no laws, the party moved aside and allowed the pilgrims to pass without incident.

The party arrived in Choke around noontime. They got a bite to eat and Valerius, Jalani, and Absolom spent some time recruiting hirelings and henchmen. Valerius hired:
  • Brown Tom, a young lady with experience as a torchbearer for other adventurers. She was a novice fighter and agreed to become Valerius' squire.
  • Clench, a mercenary infantryman.
  • A war dog.
Clench, a Mercenary

Jalani hired:
  • Squat, a mercenary infantryman, brother of Clench.
Squat, a Mercenary

Absolom hired:
  • Favreau, a cook with a funny foreign accent
  • Paula, wife of Favreau, also a cook
After lunch and recruitment, the party continued on their way.

That evening, towards dusk, the party crested the ridge overlooking the village of Duirndown, home of Valerius and Absolom. The village looked dreary, almost abandoned.


No one challenged them as they approached the closed gate. When they called, an apathetic voice said that the gate was not barred. The party entered. The village was nearly deserted. No one was moving about. The shutters were closed. No business was transacting.

Absolom took the party to his family home. Everyone was just lying about, bored, uninterested. Valerius could sense an evil presence, nothing specific or localized, just a general feeling of doom. The evil presence did, however, strongly emanate from the fields. They decided to go to one of the local inns. There, they were offered some boiled leeks and potatoes by the indifferent innkeepers. The food itself was the source of the evil. Everyone excused themselves from the food and instead chose to eat their rations of crackers and jerky.

Valerius assembled everyone and marched to the entrance to Duirnhold. The entrance was still closed and locked. Brown Tom spoke for Squat and Clench, expressing concern about beginning the delve tonight after an afternoon's hike and no rest. Valerius dismissed everyone for the evening.

In the morning, the party ate gruel prepared by Favreau and Paula and prepared to enter Duirnhold. They were met by Lothorn, Headman of Duirndown. Lothorn was still vigorous and healthy. He exclaimed great pleasure and relief at seeing the return of Valerius and Absolom. He explained that since they left, the village had undergone some kind of change. Everyone has succumbed to a kind of torpor or lethargy. He explains that the evil is coming up from beneath the earth, that it is entering the roots of the plants and infecting the food. He said the entire area has become infected with this blight, and that it has turned all the vegetation grey and tasteless and that all the animals, even the beasts of the wild, have become apathetic and listless. He is worried that it is but the beginning stage of an even longer-term change. Into what he knows not, but he does know that it was this same malady that caused the dwarves to evacuate Duirnhold fifty years ago, and that the evil must be originating from there. Valerius pledged to investigate and do what he can to end the menace.

With that, the party prepared themselves and proceeded across the old Dwarven bridge to the entrance to Duirnhold.

Valerius inserted the key that unlocked the gate and entered, deftly avoiding the falling block trap that had been reset by the kobolds. The metal chains, pieces of armor, and goblets that followed the massive stone block, however, echoed for several seconds, alerting anyone within of the party's entrance.

The party proceeded carefully into the gauntlet of barriers set by the kobolds. The kobolds soon arrived and began firing on the party from their high niches. Another set of kobolds, led by an armored warrior, emerged from the darkness and blocked the entrance. Valerius, Valerius' dog, Knott, and Absolom pushed forward while Babu and Jalani fired arrows at the kobold crossbowmen in their niches.

After a brief battle in which Knott was slightly wounded, the party won entrance into Duirnhold. They advanced carefully, intentionally setting off and avoiding the rolling boulder trap which crashed safely at the bottom of the long corridor. They navigated the secret bypass and entered the partially collapsed entrance foyer. After a brief reconnoiter of the adjoining rooms, the party leaders met to decide what to do next.


Post Game Analysis

This game we tried to adhere to Rules-as-Written AD&D as much as possible, with the exception of some slight modifications to the initiative system by myself. Here's the analysis.

Initiative System
My initiative system assumes 10-second melee rounds (as opposed to one-minute rounds in AD&D). Each player rolls 1d10. Their character, as well as their henchmen and hirelings, act on that segment. Re-roll every round. Spell-casters begin casting on their initiative and the spell takes effect after a number of segments equal to their casting time has elapsed. This could mean a spell may not take effect until the next round.

This initiative system worked surprisingly well. It was super-fast and still felt "old-school". It's really not at all functionally different from original AD&D except that a lower result is better and spell casting times are incorporated into the initiative of every round, not just surprise rounds.

Attack Modifiers for Various Weapons vs. Various Armor Types
We tried it. We universally hated it. We will be ignoring it.

Weapon Speed Factors
We considered integrating speed factors into the initiative system but decided instead on just using speed factor to adjudicate ties. I plan on using the rule that says if your speed factor is half your opponent's, or more than ten less than your opponent's,  you get two attacks. But to do that I need to know the speed factor for all the opponents, and I forgot to make a note of that for the kobolds. I don't think it mattered in the last fight. I still plan on making an intentional effort to try this often-ignored rule out and evaluate it for myself. We never played that way in high school, and I want to see what we missed.

Henchmen are ridiculously cheap and easy to hire. Of course, they will never level and get better. Contrary to custom, my players were very stingy using their hirelings. It's only the first encounter and the PC's were not at all challenged, but the hirelings would be. The players wisely want them to survive until they encounter a tough fight, where the PCs will need to provide additional targets for their opponents.

Valerius is a knight. He wanted a squire. I used the Meatshields henchman generator. Valerius' player did not like the results. He finally took Brown Tom on the condition that she be female to match a mini that Valerius' player liked.

I later looked at the actual henchman rules in the DMG and was struck by two things:
  1. I don't think Meatshields is following the rules in the DMG.
  2. The rules in the DMG are INCREDIBLY expensive and are really used for hiring additional PCs for the party, except that you don't get to choose race and class. Hiring a henchman can cost you a hundred GP or more for only the CHANCE of getting a handful of applicants who have a CHANCE of accepting your offer.
In any case, I'm going to try to follow the rules laid down in the DMG but I'm going to re-write them to be less Gygaxian, ie- clearer, faster, and easier to understand at a glance.

Urso the Enchanter
Urso is the result of Babu's player wishing to switch classes from Thief to Magic User. Babu was only a second level thief, and lacked the stats to make an official change using the rules in the PHB. But I am a generous and benevolent overlord and allowed the switch since Babu is still kind of a new character and because we're switching systems.

As has been pointed out by other DMs in various forums, the use of a 2HD Wardog with a 2-8 damage bite seems almost too good to be true. I'm allowing it. A guard dog costs 25 g.p.

Purchasing a war dog is like a purchasing a hunting dog. When Valerius bought the dog, the dog breeder/trainer taught him a few of the basic commands and whistles.
First of all, that dog doesn't know Valerius from a kobold. So the first thing the trainer gave Valerius was a few week's supply of a kind of musk. He instructed Valerius to put a dab of musk on himself so that the dog wouldn't attack him. Eventually, the dog will get to know Valerius and his compatriots. Until then, they must use the musk.
Valerius must keep the dog on its chain. It's default mode is to attack everything not wearing the musk until someone says "Down".
Valerius was then taught a few commands. He will only respond to the commands of someone wearing the musk.
  • "Down" = Stop killing things
  • "Heel" = Walk by my side
  • "Sit" = sit down and be good
  • "Hold" = Grab hold and pin/slow a target down, but do not bite
 Wardogs make morale checks like a hireling. Unless Valerius is holding onto the chain with a free hand, he might ignore the command and run away and not come back.