Friday, August 16, 2019

Dungeons and Dating, Part One

Vervor Alstron stopped on the street and turned to face his friends. "You two, stay here," he said bravely.

Elathrin Vuthiniel smirked at him. She was an elf and a wizard, slight and slender and gracefully delicate, and not given to following orders spoken by mere humans. "Nervous, are we?"

Bardren Softspoke, whose fingers had been entwined with hers for the last half-hour, tugged her back. "Easy, my tiger. Let our warrior face this test alone." Bardren was a half-elf and a rogue, but he and Elathrin had fallen for each other almost as soon as they'd met. At times they seemed less like boyfriend and girlfriend and more like co-conspirators; but then, Elathrin's magic had always run to illusions and mischief.

"Terrified," answered Vervor. He was the warrior of the group, taller and heavier than either of his friends. He was also the one who tended to fling himself recklessly into danger. This time, though... no, thinking about it didn't help. Thinking only made the fear worse. I am Vervor Alstron, he reminded himself, slayer of monsters and protector of the innocent. I have nothing to fear!

He wasn't at all sure he believed that, but he shook out his shoulders and crossed the street to the heavy stone wall and the massive iron-bound door. Feeling as if he was stepping off a high cliff, he took hold of the heavy rope that hung down beside the door and pulled on it. Faintly, he could hear the low tolling of a bell on the far side of the wall.

The door creaked slowly open, revealing a massive figure in spiked armor wrought of some dark metal. It held a sword longer than Vervor was tall, and red sparks flickered all along the blade.

Vervor swallowed and asked: "Is Mara here?"

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Never Break A Deal With A Warlock

The rest of the trip to Phandolin was short, but it still left Abdael with too much time for thinking.

I killed him, he thought. He betrayed us, and I killed him.

They'd made a deal with the would-be goblin leader, Yeemik: they would kill the bugbear Klarg, putting Yeemik in charge of the tribe, and in return Yeemik would release Geira, the gnome woman who had originally hired them, and who had stepped in to take the place of her sister Gondul as hostage. But by the time they returned with the news that Klarg was dead, Geira was gone.

It was the smug expression that did it, Abdael decided. Yeemik clearly hadn't expected them to survive a battle with Klarg; he'd been surprised when they returned successfully, but not smart enough to be worried by the fact that they'd returned entirely unscathed. He'd broken their deal, then taunted them with the gnome's absence...

...And Abdael, who had never before thought of himself as a cold-blooded murderer, had found himself in the grip of a fury so profound that he'd loosed a bolt of shadow without so much as thought, staggering the goblin and nearly killing him. And when they'd learned where Geira had been taken and the goblin Gnash had agreed to guide them there, he'd been the one to finish Yeemik off. Coldly. Remorselessly. Utterly without hesitation.

He was... not the sort of person he'd once believed himself to be.

Except... this was not his first time at killing. His first job for the guild had been clearing the rats out of a pillow-maker's shop. And when the goblins had tried to ambush them, he'd cut one down -- a sentient being, thinking and feeling -- without a second thought. So what made this act different?

Well, the rats weren't sentient, so he could dismiss their deaths easily enough. And the goblins had been set to ambush them, so that death seemed like self-defense. And Klarg had been responsible for the ambush of Gondul's wagon and probably a lot of other mayhem, so killing him and his guards honestly had the feel of a public service. And it had been a battle, after all, even if they'd begun with a surprise attack. Yeemik's death, by contrast, had the feel of an execution.

Maybe that was what it was: not necessarily the killing itself, but that Abdael alone had decided that it needed to be done, and then done it. Yeemik, he was sure, would certainly have killed them if given the chance; he had certainly tried to send them to their deaths. The would-be goblin leader had deserved his fate. It was just...

That sudden moment of fury had frightened Abdael, that was definitely part of it. He'd never known that he was capable of wanting to kill someone so badly. And he had acted without consulting anyone else to see if that desire was just, or if it was just what he wanted in the moment. So the weight of the decision was all on him, and that was frightening too. None of the others seemed to think he'd done anything amiss, but... that was a big decision to make on his own, and to some extent he didn't feel that he should have made it on his own. Then, lastly... Yeemik had still been talking to them; the rest of the party had been threatening and cajoling when Abdael blasted him. It felt like they'd still been in a negotiation -- not a battle -- and that, too, was part of what troubled him.

I think it was the right decision. Abdael was still troubled, but beginning to feel a little better. There were lives at stake, after all: Geira's, Gondul's, and theirs. Possibly even Gnash's, if his tribesfolk thought him a traitor. It hadn't been a battle, but Yeemik had very clearly showed himself to be an enemy -- and a betrayer. Abdael still didn't like to think of himself as the sort of person who would just... decide to kill someone, as he'd done... but in this case it did seem to be justified.

He'd have to be careful, though. He'd become an adventurer to learn more about his shadow and the mysterious patron that had placed it inside him, and in the process he -- and his shadow -- were clearly becoming more powerful. The stronger he grew, the more tempting it would be to make exactly these sorts of judgements on his own, and the easier it would be to become a monster, a villain. He'd have to make sure he stayed with the sort of people who would keep him in check, who would make him want to reach for mercy instead of murder, who would prefer compassion to contempt.

People like the ones around him now, it seemed.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Challenge: Books I Read In School And Didn't Like

Right, so, the usual bit of context: Weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. Hit their homepage to see the current week's responses, and add a link to your own if you're so inclined.

This week's challenge is Books I Had To Read In School And Didn't Like.

There really weren't a lot of these, but then I went to an unusual school. Unusual how? Well...

All right, an example: in ninth grade, we were due to read The Scarlet Pimpernel. I'd found a copy of it in my desk the previous year, so I'd read it already. So instead... they gave me The Name of the Rose, with the condition that I had to translate the Latin. (No easy trick in those pre-Google days; I was doing pretty well until I hit a passage that I just could not parse... because, as it turns out, it was in Old High German. But I digress...)

So, yeah: a lot of books, not many I didn't like. But I will note that there is a very distinct genre of Books I Read In School that seemed design less to teach us the joys of reading or the beauties of literature, and more as an exercise in sadism. And for that, I need to send you over to the Secret Cabal's guide to Traumatizing Children With Literature.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Boys DnD: There are TWO!?

So, at the end of the last game the party had fought off a griffin, then gotten distracted by one character's obsession with freeing the Gnome Saboteur and claiming him as a pet.

OOC, I had offered this player the chance to drop his character Kaz, a human monk who was raised by wolves, and create an entirely new one. In character, Kaz would have gone running off into the woods and become a gnome collector, and probably would have resurfaced eventually as the sort of threat that the party had to defeat. As it is, the gnome himself - who was using the name Jou - has vanished into the woods and will probably show up in future games, still working for House Bri'yann.

But Kaz's player had a change of heart during the week, and decided that he'd keep Kaz and make up with the rest of the party, which he pretty much did. So Kaz managed to master this strange madness, made his apologies, and stayed to help the group deal with the griffon issue.

So, the first thing they did was start moving the horses into the dining tent at night. This may not seem like the most sanitary idea ever devised (and it did cause some logistical issues) but it also kept the remaining two horses from being eaten. Meanwhile, the party kept watch outside at night, and once they thought they saw a griffin up in the sky, but nothing approached the camp.

So, after two days, they hiked to the nearby cliffs and went looking for the griffon's nest.

Climbing up was done in stages -- the cliff was not sheer, but it was reasonably steep -- with the Monk and the Halfling Rogue going first and then lowering a rope to help the others climb up behind them. Everybody made it to the top with no issues (three Athletics checks for everybody, with somewhat more difficulty for the monk and rogue).

The top of the cliff turned out to be a narrow but reasonably-flat but narrow ridge, extending the along one side of the valley. Since they do not see any griffons, they start walking along the top of the ridge.

About noon, the monk spots a ledge a little further down the cliff, on the side facing the camp. A moment later a griffin comes flying off the ledge, and everybody sees that. The group opens strong, with a series of missile attacks damaging the already-damaged griffon. Then a second griffon joins the fray, and there's a brief moment of freaking out. The group does finally rally and manages to take the second griffon down as well.

Investigating the nest, they discover a pair of griffon eggs and promptly claim them, with an eye towards eventually raising the griffons and using them as mounts.

The adventure is complete; everybody levels up.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Darvinin: Who Guards The Guardians?

"Are you all right?" asked Mistra. "You look worried."

Darvinin made himself smile, though even with Mistra looking into his eyes he only half-felt it. "Just thinking," he said.

"It must be something serious, then." Mistra was a common elf, but an excellent tracker and a truly amazing archer; and she'd studied enough wizardry to commiserate when Darvinin complained about the vicissitudes of his studies. He wasn't sure exactly when she'd chosen him or how it had happened, but they'd been lovers since his second week in the King's Guard.

"It's my younger brother," Darvinin answered absently, looking her over: the slender athleticism of an elvish warrior, the shirt of polished chainmail, the rapier at her hip, the bow across her back. Her features were angular even for an elf, her eyes wide and dark against pale skin framed by soft, nearly-white hair.

"You have a brother?" Mistra sounded surprised, but then he'd never mentioned Ruin to her. He hadn't much spoken of his family at all.

"My twin," said Darvinin. "He was supposed to be traveling with our mother to seek alliance with the dwarves, but I've just had word that he went to Annun instead, and then to a place called Brindinford just outside the city. He's with some family friends, so he must have a reason... but if he abandoned the embassy to the dwarves, it's because he was asked to do something important and probably dangerous." He paused. "So yes, I suppose I'm worried."

He glanced past Mistra, saw another guard, and waved; Mistra, her attention on him, mimicked the gesture absently. "What do you think he's doing?" she asked.

Darvinin's arm shot out and gripped her by the throat. "Who are you, really?"

Mistra caught his wrist and pried his hand away, showing undamaged flesh where his fingers had been squeezing in. "A bit too sharp for you own good," she said. "That's too bad. I'll have to be you next."

The figure jerked suddenly as an arrow slammed into its lower back. Across the small courtyard, Mistra -- the true Mistra -- drew another arrow and loosed it, sinking it into the impostor's shoulder. "Oh, you are both going to regret that," the impostor said. She reached for Darvinin again, but he had stepped back and drawn the double-bladed scimitar from his back.

"It was a good likeness," he said. "You even had most of the mannerisms. But that thing on your back is not Mistra's bow."

Behind the impostor, Mistra whistled sharply and the courtyard began to fill with the King's Guards.

"I should have known," the impostor said, drawing her rapier and attacking. Darvinin parried and stepped back, parried and stepped back again. "I should have known, but you True Elves are so damnably hard to read!" She sounded aggrieved.

More arrows slammed into its back, and Darvinin spun the double scimitar through a side-to-side windmill motion, opening wounds on her shoulder and chest. She turned then, and darted for the wall of the courtyard; but Darvinin cut her across the back, and more arrows caught her. She tumbled, spasmed...

...And changed.

Elvish flesh gave way to something pale, lanky, and almost featureless. The skin had a grayish tinge, and the eyes were large and completely white -- whether naturally, or from death, Darvinin wasn't sure. The body was long, and looked clumsy where it sprawled on the dirt -- very much at odds with the strength and speed it had displayed. Doppleganger, he realized. Trying to infiltrate the King's Guard. He'd been very, very lucky.

"Are you injured?" Mistra had stopped beside him, bow still in her hand.

Darvinin shook his head. "It didn't touch me."

"Are you you?"

He half-chuckled, half-coughed. "Ye gods, I hope so." He looked around at the half-dozen other guards, all going off shift just as he was, who had joined them in the garden. "We're going to have to check everyone. I just hope these things show up when we look for magic."

Darvinin was originally conceived as a Duskblade: a warrior capable of casting some arcane spells and combining them with his combat abilities. That class comes from the DnD 3.5 Player's Handbook II, though, which we aren't using in this campaign. And unfortunately, there aren't a lot of other good ways to play this basic character concept using a Core-only build. I could recast him as an Eldritch Knight, but that build ends with him being able to cast 9th level spells and also having a solid melee attack bonus -- viable, but overall weaker than other builds at the same level, and more importantly the emphasis is wrong for this character concept: this is a full mage who knows how to use a sword, not a swordsman who knows some arcane spells. Alternatively, you could build him essentially as a bard -- if you swapped out all the songs and bardic knowledge for a full attack bonus progression, better hit points, and access to the sorcerer's spell list instead of the bard's. The other alternative is to play him as a straight fighter/wizard, which gives him some versatility but leaves him underpowered against higher-level enemies. So as much as I like Darvinin, I don't think there's any way to make a playable build for him in the current campaign.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Warlock For Hire

The public room was nearly empty at this time of day, and of the half-dozen people inside only one was a gnome: a young-seeming woman, sitting alone at a table with a book in one hand, a quill in the other, an ink-well beside her on the table, and a large smear of ink across the bridge of her nose. That had to be the one he was looking for.

He crossed the room and took a seat across from her, putting them at roughly the same height. "Geira Rockseeker?"

"Oh? Yes-yes, that's me. I am she. I'm Geira."

She was still studying him as he replied, "Abdael Nightflower, warlock for hire. You were the one who posted the job offer at the guildhouse?"

"Yes!" He wasn't immediately sure if she was excited or surprised or both, but either way she was energetic. "Are you looking for work? As a guard?"

"To be honest, I'm looking for work in general."

"But... you said you were a warlock?"

"I know," replied the half-elf. "It surprised me too."

"It's just... you're wearing a sword. And I'm pretty sure that's a chain shirt under your cloaky-poncho-thing."

"It is."

Geira looked puzzled, but not displeased. "I thought warlocks mostly cast spells in the service of dark forces beyond the comprehension of mere mortals."

"Yes, well..." Abdael hesitated, then grinned. In for a copper, in for a gold... "Of all the dark and incomprehensible forces that control my life, the need to find work so I can continue to eat food and pay for lodging is among the most ominous and demanding."

Geira giggled. "Well, we're paying as much as we can."

"If it helps," Abdael added, "I really can fight with the sword -- at least, once my shadow has embraced it. But I can also cast spells, and if I remember to look I can tell when there's magic around."

"Oh, that'll be useful!" Geira looked excited. "You're hired! Twenty-five gold to escort me and my cart back to Thandalin, and more if you decide stay around and help us with some projects afterwards." She leaned forward conspiratorially, and Abdael found himself leaning in under the sheer force of her enthusiasm. "You were going to be hired anyway," she told him. "We've had a little trouble finding adventurers willing to work a small job with a lot of travel like this." She looked around as if she were about to reveal a big secret, then added: "I've only found two other guards so far. I'm hoping we can find one more before we leave tomorrow."

Three guards seemed like plenty for a gnome with a single cart traveling along established roads in a relatively civilized area of the Sword Coast, but Abdael didn't say so. Perhaps she was just being cautious, or perhaps she had some special reason to worry; either way, it was his good fortune to find paying work.

A pair of dwarves at a nearby table suddenly fell silent, looking towards the entrance, and Abdael twisted around in his seat. A small figure, brilliantly colored, stood just inside the door, looking around the room just as he had. For a moment Abdael thought he was looking at an over-large bird, but no: the figure was a winged humanoid, covered in feathers. It stilled, looking at their table, then cocked its head.

"...I think you may be in luck," said Abdael, then rose and stepped back to make way for the newcomer. Aarakocra, he remembered at last. There was a race of bird-folk called Aarakocra, though his reading had made them sound larger and not so brightly colored; but then, given the variety of colors found in the skin and hair of humans and elves, he supposed he shouldn't be surprised if different groups of Aarakocra had different plumage as well. The city of Neverwinter had proven itself a constant education.

He ordered a drink at the bar, then stood and sipped it as he watched to make sure the newcomer was friendly. He was, after all, Geira's guard now, even if he wasn't officially on duty just yet. It wouldn't take long to gather his adventuring gear -- which was about four-fifths of everything he owned -- from his single room, and close things out with the proprietor. He'd have to store the rest of his things in the guild hall and find another room when he returned, but that was fine; his current room was tiny and seemed to grow dirty every time he left it. Abdael wouldn't miss it at all.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Missing: A Poem

My wife left the house
to get two things
some silicon tape
some toilet paper

The silicon tape-
-it comes from Home Depot

But we get the toilet paper-
-at Target

I do not know
How long
She has been gone

An hour?
A day?
A week?
(I miss her)

I feel certain
That she still lives

But time
Does strange things
Inside Target