Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Saltmarsh: A Most Unusual Approach

Note to self: I really need to write these things right after our sessions, instead of trying to remind myself later of what the group did.

So, following their visit to the foppish council-member's party, our group was offered another job by the council. If the haunted house was actually being used by smugglers and the smugglers were receiving shipments of goods, then there must be someone delivering these goods. And unless those people are also removed, they're like to set up shop elsewhere and the smuggling will continue unabated. Would the group be willing to go and abate them?

They would.

The return to the house in time for the dark of the moon, which the council judges as most likely for another delivery, and check the house over to be sure that it remains unoccupied. It does, and they manage not to get themselves into any further trouble by, say, falling through rotten floors or fighting with whatever is in its burrow in the garden out back. They even think to post someone in the upstairs room where the window seems to have been opened, so they have an easy time spotting the blinking light coming from a dark ship far out on the waters. It's a code -- a series of long and short flashes, repeated at intervals.

They attempt to respond by using their bulls-eye lantern to signal back, and of course completely mangle the code since they really don't have a guide for it.

Still, after some discussion they decide that the thing to do is to take the boat from the sea cave and get out to the ship.

...Which they do, but first they set the house on fire. No, no, I don't really know why either.

So they row out of the cave, curving around so as not to be silhouetted by the giant fucking fire rising on the shore behind them, with the paladin doing the actually rowing and the chevalier exhorting him to put his back into it. After a considerable time -- and, I believe, a sharp punch to the chevalier's face, delivered by the paladin -- they reach the boat and manage to talk their way on board by pretending that the chevalier is a prisoner they're planning to ransom; they blame him for the fire in the house, and he helpfully muddies the waters by rushing over to the captain, discreetly casting Charm, and offering to pay him a considerable sum if they'll only turn him loose.

And then the violence begins. I can't remember exactly what sets it off - if the Bosun tried to grab the "little girl", or if someone recognized the paladin as the town gravedigger and realized he couldn't possibly be a smuggler, or if murderchild just got bored and started throwing knives at people. However it went down, the bosun escaped into the ship with like 2 hp left and a couple of knives still sticking out of his back, and the chevalier (actually a human bard) basically tackled the captain to the deck "to protect him" and kept him there while the other took out the rest of the crew. The deck mage managed to tag the paladin with Force Lightning -- erm, it's Witch Bolt in DnD -- but Salty Walt (also a human bard) took him out with an old sea shanty in the form of Dissonant Whispers, then followed him up to the poop deck and finished him off. Murderchild continued doing what she does best -- popping out of cover, throwing knives at people, and hiding again -- while Kane the Undertaker (human paladin) swung his bladed shovel around and took out several of the sailors.

By the time the battle ended, the entire crew of the Sea Ghost was dead, except for:
-The captain, who was unharmed.
-The bosun, who was very badly harmed.
-A group of four sailors including the mate, who were in a rowboat and well on their way to the sea cave below the burning house. Even if they get the cave and immediately turn back -- and they'll probably look around, first -- it's going to take them at least half an hour to get back to the ship.

First order of business tonight will probably be to decide what to do with the captain and to hunt down the bosun. After that, well... I know what I would do, but this is the group that set fire to the haunted house, so who knows? Anything seems possible, as long as there's looting and murder involved.

Monday, March 30, 2020


IMPART missions are the one-shots we run when the regular Saturday Night campaign takes a break. The idea is that we all play 20th level characters, and go fight the sorts of Big Bads that we wouldn't ordinarily ever see -- in a sort of Monster Of The Week scenario. The organization is a sort of multi-dimensional Avengers or Heroes of Imaginext setup, bringing together powerful individuals as needed. And this week's game was sort of informally organized around the idea of Magical Girls for most of the players.

This week: an IMPART agent has gone missing, and we must find them! Find them, bring them back, and make sure they aren't compromised -- and neither is IMPART. We are given our items and dropped in the field.

We are outside a large city, at the southwest gate. Avrielle, a human teenager, who's a magical girl in the service of an Archfey; her friend Bao (short for Bàofēngyǔ) a skilled martial artist; Dala, a swashbuckling rogue; Violet, a blue-skinned girl carrying a staff and with a flying rainbow seahorse flitting around her head; and Lexx, an agender fallen Aasimar with a pair of scimitars.

The city is walled, and we're just outside the gate; outside the walls it's all rolling plains, a lot of which is farmland. There are woodlots and little bits of forest here and there. The wall is covered in very interesting etchings. The more perceptive among us notice that the etchings seem vaguely familiar; there are abstract shapes and images, and a couple of us notice that the etching serve to disguise the presences of an extensive collection of runes: abjuration runes, meant for protection and warding of some sort.

Violet, the blue girl, pulls out a notebook and starts sketching the runes and taking notes.

There are two guards standing outside the gate, and another person talking to them. Lexx walks over to the guards, and the rest of us follow. The guard who was kind of staring at us steps forward to meet us ont he way. "I'm Leo, your babysitter... guide. It's about time you got here. Ten years on the force, and everyone is too busy with the other disappearances."

"Other disappearances?" Meghan.

Leo: "You didn't think this was a one-time thing?"

Lexx: "I once got into a fight with a gazebo. I don't know what's going on."

Leo: "Tomas Stoneye, Halfling cleric, IMPART member, twentieth person to disappear."

Dala: "So this is more Missing People..."

Leo: "The others reappeared two days after they went missing."

Dala: "How long?"

Leo: This morning, so you have about a day and a half to find him. Then he'll be like the others. They come back lethargic, drained, oddly lifeless. No connection between the victims, no commonalities in age, social status, local or travelers. They don't talk much anymore, and they don't want to talk about if they do; it's like their memories are gone along with everything else. A half-orc tinkerer was the last one to come back; I can give you an address. We've got a sundown curfew going. The halfling's room is untouched, per IMPART's order.

Dala: "Room or half-orc?"

Leo: "Also, I have to come with you."

Avrielle thinks the guy is annoyed by us, but he's not lying. This isn't his usual job, and he's been stuck babysitting VIPs. We talk as we walk.

The wards on the walls are general protections: undead, dragons, nightmares.

Dala: "How close is the guard station?"

He kind of shows us a map, and points to the northern watergate. He takes us through the central square; the building on one side is a massive tavern called the Snapping Perch, overlooking the river. Stoneye's room was on the top floor; there are two guards outside. The door has been set back in place as much as possible, but it was very clearly bashed in. It was very solid door before that happened, too. Apparently the guards did that during a morning check and broke the door down when Stoneye didn't answer. The door had several locks, and they were all locked; breaking it down tore up the frame something fierce.

We go inside. "All we did was bust open the door, check the bedroom, see that he wasn't there, and call you." Most of the disappearances have been people who were asleep in their beds.

The room is fairly large, and nice; couch, armchair. The bedroom is to the north through a pair of doors; There's a linen closet on the north wall, a window in the south wall, and a shrine set against the eastern wall.

The magical girls begin detecting magic, and immediately turn to the shrine. The centerpiece is a golden scale with a skeletal hand holding up the balancing arm. We recognize the scales are part of a holy magic, the symbol of Kallenvor, one of the few good-aligned death gods. The shrine wouldn't be hard to pack up, so presumably there wasn't any sort of robbery involved in this. Violet begins checking for footprints. It's a heavy, plush carpet, though; but the only really notable ones are heavy bootprints from the door to the bedroom and back. Maybe a half-orc? Might have been the guards.

Dala traces the steps to the bedroom. Bao moves to look at the window, which is locked; the locks would have to be opened from the inside. We're on the 4th floor; the roof a little ways above, but she doesn't see anything unusual - except that the next window to our right is ajar. Avrielle goes next door to talk to the neighbors; Leo immediately falls in beside her.

Avrielle knocks, and the door is eventually opened by a half-orc female; she's wrapped herself in a bedsheet and open the door only a crack. "Oh, yes, um, can I help you?"

Avrielle: "Hi! I was just wondering if you had seen or heard anything last night."

"I heard the crunch of wood. I was up *all* night last night talking to my boyfriend, who I haven't seen in six months. We, um, we haven't gone out much." But she does seem to be hiding *something*.

Avrielle: "And you didn't notice anything?"

Half-orc: "I didn't."

Violet notes that the bedroom window is open. The bed does look like it was slept in. There are footprints from the bed to the window. Dala goes to look at the window. Nothing looks disturbed; the window looks as if it were opened deliberately and voluntarily, or at least without any particular force. More detecting magic! There's a footlocker at the foot of the bed, and there are some magic things in there.

Dala inspects the chest for traps; it's trapped. She manages, barely, to disarm the trap and open the lock.

Inside the chest is a set of armor, magical; it's sized for a halfling, and resistant to necrotic. There's also a mace of disruption, functional and deadly. There are some supplies and other adventuring gear, but nothing especially eye-catching. Looking at the trap, well... it would have turned this section of room into a crater.

It's looking like this halfling was a cleric; Dala boes back through the chest, thinking about how well protected it is; she finds a false bottom hiding a lot of gold, gems, and expensive items. There are to vials of holy water, some ridiculously valuable diamonds, and a chalice of hero's feast. Violet thinks the gems might be waiting for a powerful resurrection spell, one only available to clerics and druids.

Dala and Violet look under the bed. There are long, black strands of hair under the bed. Dala grabs one; and one of the tendrils on on Violet's coat takes out magnifying glass. Avrielle: "It must be from the person that broke in!" Violet thinks it's just... hair that fell from someone's head. It's thick, coarse, probably not well cared for.

Per Leo, Tomas was bald. And he didn't keep a horse, or entertain guests. Also per Leo, the walls are warded to prevent people from teleporting into the city or flying over the walls. He steps out to ask one of the other guards for details, and Bao takes that opportunity to race up the wall to the roof - but the roof is steep, and tiled, and not at all navigable for regular people. She slips back into the room and finds Violet measuring the halfling guard's feet. The wards on the walls keep out dragons, portals, and a few other things. Things can fly out of the city, and teleport out (though it gets logged), and it's not possible to teleport from one side of town to another.

The halfling guard heads back out, and Leo comes back in.

Violet: "Were any other disappeared taken from this inn?"


Violet: "Other crime scenes with open windows?"

Leo: "Yes."

Violet is wondering if the hair came from a horse.

Lexx: "Did you say something about the wall protecting against nightmares?"

Bao: "Are there spells that could tell us where the hair came from?"

Dala: "And what kind of divinations have been done to find this guy?"

Leo: "We... don't have divination wizards."

Violet: "I could scry."

The rest of us go off to check the one remaining room. This one has the tile floor, a bathtub, a sink, a mirror, and a chamberpot.

Avrielle gets a ping while detecting magic. There's a razor on the sink; it's enchanted never to dull. Dala and Avrielle keep looking, and a pebble-or-something falls out and drops into the water basin. It is magic. It's abjuration magic. Avrielle starts casting Identify. It's a disease-curing stone, a heartstone.

The scrying, meanwhile, shows Violet a cave. She rushes to the others: "The hair came from a night hag and why are you sitting on the toilet?"

"I found a magical stone - it's a heartstone." It probably came from the night hag. There are stories about them; they come into people's room and hover over them, inflicting terrible nightmares. They love to turn heroes into villains, turn loving and loyal friends against each other, and like that. But, actually kidnapping isn't their usual behavior.

Leo takes us as far as the city walls, but declines to come hunt Night Hags with us. Violet casts Locate Creature once we reach a sufficiently hilly area full of burial mounds. Following the spell, we continue a little further along the road and then along the side path.

We head on to the first open barrow.

We quickly run into an issue: Of the three of us scouting, only Lexx can actually see in the dark. The monk puts a hand on his shoulder and walks along behind him; the rogue just slips down. Lexx notes prayers on the walls. After a little ways of stairs and passages, stairs and passages, Lexx pauses. "There's an eye looking at us."

Lexx grabs it. It's in his hands, and it's staring at him. It's a hag eye, a magical item that the hags can look through more or less at will. We head back up at Bao's suggestion. The hags don't immediately follow us, and we pocket the eye; this time we light up lamps and head back down together. A little past where we found the eye, we hear voices. It looks like the passager opens out to a room at the very bottom of the stairs...

As we near the room, the bud of Avrielle's rose-shaped mace opens up. Dala slips past the others and into the room, trying to get their attention; Lexx charges in and does 117 damage. One of the hags responds with a horrible demonic scream: "I will never let any of you see eternity!" and throws a lightning bolt. Or she tries, anyway. Violet casts Counterspell as a reaction spell. The expression on the hag's face is *amazing*.

Avrielle races into the room and undergoes her Magical Girl Transformation, and casts Mage Armor on herself. The hag who's engaged with Lexx sidesteps and casts something. ("I'll stop you all in your tracks!") Avrielle counters, and the spell fizzles. Violet casts Mage Armor on herself. Bao charges in and punches the heck out of the rearmost hag. The third hag then tries to cast something, but Dala slaps her across the face with her rapier, because Mage Slayer is a surprisingly useful feat.

Dala then turns and stabs the absolute crap out of her, for 110 damage. Lexx just tears into the hag beside him with his scimitars -- hag sashimi! -- but fails to quite kill it. The rearmost hag screeches: "Prepare to taste your worst fears!" Bao makes her save: "Many apologies, but it seems something has gone wrong with your spell."

Avrielle mutters something and the shield on her back spreads out into faerie wings. Then she announces, "Creatures of darkness, feel the boundless power of my love!" and casts Psychic Scream. Two of them take 49 damage, and their heads explode if they died. If they survive, they're stunned. The one that succeeded takes half damage, only. But if it dies, its head still explodes.

So two of them have explody heads, and the one in the back is just hurt and damaged.

Violet moves up and gestures, and a crown of stars begins to orbit her head, filling the room with light. One of the stars shoots off and slams into the remaining hag's face. The hag shrieks and stumbles.

Bao: "We really need our halfling back, esteemed hag. If you could tell us everything you know about people disappearing from town and the halfling--"

Hag: "Burn in hell!"

Bao: Amazing display of personal violence, culminating with basically drop-kicking the hag.

Dala: "Where's the halfling?"

Hag: "The ones in the next room have him!"

Dala: Stabs her to death.

We continue to the next room, because Rescue Is Important. We take a minute to check the bodies, then head down the corridor; we then reach a mausoleum of sorts, but it's essentially unused anymore and it's all but empty. We reach a very dark room, and we're about to walk in when we see the halfling on a low altar - almost a dais - with spiritual streams flowing off him (esp heart and face). There seems to be a floating skull above him, emitting a purple light. There are some glowing lights, and one of them is hovering above the big skull. They're smaller glowing blue skulls. Cool.

Avrielle walks into the room and drops a wall of light behind her, catching two of the smaller blue skulls. They fail, and are damaged and blinded. She then casts Hex on the purple one, and gives it disadvantage on Dex checks. She suddenly feels cold, with death surrounding her, as if her soul is being pulled towards the purple skull; she's taking damage just from being in the room with it.

Dala comes in and attacks one of the blind skulls, damaging it. Lex moves to the other blind skull, doing 122 damage - 72 slashing, 32 necrotic, and whatever else radiant. It bursts into ice shards. Both of them take Necrotic damage for walking into the room. Violet turns her attention to the Halfling, who looks pained but awake, and has no obvious physical restraints. She blasts the purple skull with one of her stars, then crosses to the halfling and casts Anti-Magic Field.

The streams immediately go back to the cleric, who takes a huge, relieved breath. The lesser skulls wobble and disappear. And Violet does not take the magical necrotic damage that has been affecting everyone in the room. "Make a hole! I'm going to get the hostage out!"

The only lesser skull outside of the anti-magic spell attempts to cast a spell. It's right next to Dala, who smacks it (because Mage Slayer again) but fails her concentration save and takes 40 cold damage. Bao moves in and hits the big purple skull a couple time, setting up Quivering Palm. It then retreats, successfully escaping Bao and Violet, and emits a horrible screech. From outside the field it emits a horrible magical shriek. Only Dala and Lexx are outside of the anti-magic field, but they tremble in fear... because a huge amount of necrotic damage just missed them. They are Frightened. It then uses a legendary action: it curses Lexx.

Avrielle gets out of the anti-magic field and re-casts Crown of Stars, then hurls a star for 29 Radiant damage.

Dala: "Can you walk?"

Halfling: "I feel closer to walking in the footsteps of my god."

Dala: "A simple 'no' would have sufficed!" She attacks the remaining lesser skull, and it falls and shatters into ice shards. "Hey, good news! They can die!" She then moves to the altar.

Lexx doesn't manage any attacks, but shakes off their curse.

Violet checks over the halfling; he's unharmed, but exhausted. "Can you hold onto me so I can move us out of this room?"

Halfling: "I feel the embrace of the noble lord of death. Worry not for me. Kill that demilich!"

Violet: "I speak seven languages, but I do not understand what you just said."

Violet scoops up the halfling and moves towards the door... but only far enough to let one of the skulls pop back into existence. Bao has been waiting for this, and smacks it -- then smacks it again as it tries to flee.

Then Bao ends the Quivering Palm/Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Death Technique, and the jewelry adorning the skull bursts into splinters; the skull falls, cracking, graying, and shattered. The remaining ice skulls flee into holes in the wall. Dala and Lexx go over and finish them. Violet stabilizes the halfling, and Avrinelle throws some healing on the halfling.

The halfling goes over to the demilich skull and picks it up. "I am ready, winged one. Take me into your arms."

Lexx carries him out.

Dala: "Can we fix the others who were taken?"

Tomas the halfling: "I have something in my room that I think will restore them."

So we head back to town, where the halfling goes through to make sure all his stuff is already there. Then he hands us a bunch of money in the form of gems to show his gratitude. The Halfling then sets up to resurrect the demilich, taking it from undead to alive and restoring the stolen energy to the people it was taken from.

The mage's name was Eternity, and restored she's a rather attractive female tiefling. She's... a bit startled to be alive again. We hand her clothing, and she gets dressed. "Can I ask what the hell?"

She doesn't much remember her time as a lich, let alone a demilich. She was a sorceress, originally. Then she made a deal with a coven of night hags and, well... all of this. Violet decides to take her back to IMPART with us, to get her some help. Which we do: a lot of therapy, and then more therapy, and also a decent meal and some new clothes.

So the moral of the story, kids, is this: don't make deals with night hags. You might end up as a demilich.

The End.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Putting the Social in Social Distancing

I got on a Google Hangouts call with some nearby friends last night. They're mostly people I play DnD with, but they also know my wife so I went up to get the boys started on bedtime I put her in front of my computer in my place. It was... therapeutic. She went from vaguely depressed to positively fucking vivacious in about two minutes flat, and was having such a good time that when I was ready to get back on I just rejoined with my phone from another room.

Social contact is important, is what I'm saying here. And the Internet gives us some basically unprecedented ways of doing that. So if you have any way to take advantage of it, do it! Play games with your friends. Get on a video link and chat where you can see each other's faces. Put the Social back in Social Distancing!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

...What day is this?

So yesterday I finally started working from home. (For earlier thoughts on being required to come into my office during an escalating global pandemic, see Uncertainty, Ouch, and Still Concerned.) To be clear, this isn't an ideal arrangement. We've essentially split the department into thirds: 1/3 is Team A, 1/3 is Team B, and the remaining third is the management team. Team A and Team B are trading off weekly, with one team in the office, the other team staying home, and management remaining perpetually in the office. Still, it's better than nothing.

Working from home is only a little chaotic, as the boys are working on their school lessons online in other rooms. Work-wise, yesterday was a little slow (I think because everybody was still adjusting to the new arrangements) but I kept busy enough to discover that I was missing a couple of essential programs on my laptop. We got those added this morning, and the pace of calls and emails has definitely picked up -- enough to make the project I'm currently trying to troubleshoot/finish up look likely to run into tomorrow. (To be fair, it was probably going to do that anyway.) So... I don't know. I think I'm going to get used to this just in time to have to readjust to going back into the office next week.

And I still think that organizationally we're going to keep resisting the need for remote work and shelter in place out of fear of the optics of government employees not being Visibly Present And Working right up until we discover that somebody has been dutifully attending work while infected but asymptomatic.

Also, for anybody who's struggling with the concept (as I was this morning): it's Thursday.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Youth DnD: Now Conducted Via Crystal Ball

Picking up from the last entry...

We've had a lot of new developments since I last stopped to document their game. The big one, of course, is that our school district extended Spring Break and is now trying to implement emergency online teaching so that everybody can maintain a soft quarantine (ahem: "social distancing") during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since I am already feeling unduly exposed by my workplace, I decided to do much the same thing for Dungeons & Dragons, and set up a Discord server. Saturday morning was our first virtual DnD session, and all things considered I think it went really well. (We had a few setup difficulties, but I was expecting that for our first session; and Discord is being hugely buggy and kind of freaking out, probably because the service is wildly overloaded. We coped by cutting out the video chat and proceeding on audio and text chat only, and it worked.)

Events since that last big update:
-The group located the wizard who had taken the book from the Lich's library.
-Her companions didn't know she still had it; they were mourning the death of their bard, who was stabbed in the alley behind the inn.
-When Toruv (dragonborn sorcerer) came out with the fact that they'd been sent to find a missing spellbook, the fighter and the paladin both turned to look at the wizard, who immediately turned invisible and tried to run away.
-The group immediately moved to close off the building, causing no small amount of consternation among the owner and patrons.
-A halfling at a nearby table pulled out a lamp and lit it, making the wizard unexpectedly visible. (This was the introduction for our newest PC, a Ghostwise Halfling Moon Druid of formidable talents.)
-The wizard's companions managed to subdue her, and our swashbuckler and the druid went upstairs to look for the book. The druid found it almost immediately and ignored its whispers; she tossed it to the swashbuckler, who immediately failed her save and decided that the book was her BFF and must be protected; she promptly threw herself out the window and led the rest of the group on a merry chase through the town, with the Druid tracking her as a dire wolf.
-They did eventually manage to locate (barely) and subdue her, and got the book under control - it turns out that its pernicious psychic influence doesn't work when someone is using Mage Hand to hold it thirty feet in the air.
-They then managed to talk their way out of getting arrested by the guards, and carried the book back to the library by wrapping it in cloth and tying it at the end of a stick.

At that point, we were ready to return to the usual dungeon -- but we had a couple of players out, and it was the first weekend of Spring Break. So I made the executive decision that the Druid had wandered out to commune with nature in the woods around the library complex, and the Barbarian was doing a bit of research in the stacks; so it was the sorcerer, the rogue, and the swashbuckler who the lich asked to deal with an infestation of imps (an impfestation, as it were) in his basement. Apparently he keeps a reading room down there, where it can be closed for researchers consulting the Special Tomes; and apparently this particular researcher has a bad habit of reading aloud under his breath when he's concentrating. The result was one dead researcher and a swarm of imps.

The trio ventured down and began exploring the basement, noting a number of rather dangerous items (all meticulously labeled) before entering a room with a wooden crate in one corner, a chest along the middle of each wall, and a torture rack against the far wall. One of them walked over and laid a hand on the torture rack, which emitted an ear-splitting shriek of horrible pain and panicked the sorcerer right out of the room. As he was coming back, the other two went to examine one of the chests... which turned out to be mimics and promptly tried to eat them.

Combat was swift and fairly one-sided; while troublesome, the two mimics really weren't strong enough to face this group. That left the chest in the corner, and of course that might be a mimic too, so... the rogue (arcane trickster) used Mage Hand to lift the crate to the ceiling and then dropped it; it immediately started bleeding, so he put a crossbow bolt through it and the sorcerer blasted it with a firebolt.

...Which was when the puddle of ichor started smoking. The half-elf swashbuckler and the halfling rogue were both caught in the smoke, and immediately developed a rash on the backs of their hands and portions of their faces. The rash turned out to be patches of scales. The dragonborn was unaffected, which was probably for the best. They immediately retreated back upstairs to consult with the lich, and discovered that the crate had been full of rare and expensive magical potions, and there was no telling what they'd been exposed to or what would happen because of it.

So the two affected characters decided to go take a long rest, while the dragonborn sorcerer decided to finish clearing out the impfestation. This proved dramatically more difficult than he expected: not only were the imps capable of turning invisible, but they were accompanied by a pair of spined devils; and not only that, but one of the imps turned out to be a spellcaster. If they'd really been trying to kill him, he probably wouldn't have survived. Instead, they spent a lot of effort trying to grapple and subdue him, and eventually wore him down to the point where he was affected by a Sleep spell and taken prisoner.

That was where today's online session picked up: the druid returned just as the rogue and swashbuckler were waking back up, and they noticed that the sorcerer was still gone. So they went back down to the basement, and found the imps in the sub-basement preparing for some sort of magical ritual. Rather than waste time searching for Toruv, who had been busy trying to escape from the room where he was trapped, they leapt straight to the attack.

Toruv had just managed to escape, and got loose just in time to hear the battle begin. The imps made good use of their invisibility, stingers, and poison; but even with the spined devils for support they were overmatched now that the whole group was there. They did some damage, but the issue was never in doubt. (If they'd managed to sacrifice Toruv and summon a Pit Fiend, on the other hand, well...) So they returned upstairs and reported their success, and the lich decided that their work essentially paid for the loss of his potions and sent them on their way.

Next time, we can pick up back at Roslof Keep and the main dungeon storyline; the group is strong enough now that they ought to be able to clear the next level fairly efficiently, and maybe even hold their own against some of the established adventuring companies. (Some of them.) So check back with us; the adventure continues!

Monday, March 23, 2020

Saltmarsh: The Noble's Party

So last week's game (which, in retrospect, we probably shouldn't have done in person) opened with a quick recap of previous events. The halfling (still convincingly disguised as a child) decided to head back upstairs, awaken Venred the would-be saboteur, and ask him about who hired him. He protested that he couldn't say, so she cut off one of his fingers and it turned out that he could say. (I'm having some doubts about this whole "Chaotic Good" designation, though...) He gave her a name -- the name of one of the nobles on the Saltmarsh town council -- and she killed him, thus thoroughly spoiling my plans to have him show up and poison the Chevalier's cognac later on.

The group loaded the smuggled goods into the bag of holding that they'd acquired from one of the house's denizens (which is probably more than its capacity, but I firmly believe that every group should have a bag of holding so that I don't have to track things like that) and brought it back to town.

Their explanation was a bit muddled, with Salty Walt insisting that the house was haunted and the other three insisting that it really wasn't except for the skeletons, maybe. But they did at least manage to explain that they'd killed all the smugglers. The young noble who hired them was quite pleased, and was even willing to continue to put them up in one of his guest houses (so that his fellow noble, the Chevalier, didn't have to sleep somewhere... unsuitable). The halfling asked about the other noble, the one who'd hired Venred, and their host explained that this council member was one of the richest people in town, and liked to throw parties at least once a week; and of course he could obtain invitations for them.

This gave them their introduction to that councilman, who is... charming, but just a little bit sleazy and almost certain;y involved with the local smugglers. Raven (the halfling) and Salty Walt (human bard) circulated and talked to people, while Kane (the town gravedigger and the group's paladin) circulated to talk to people about paying up on their burial fees. During their ciculation, they met the head of the local woodworking guild, who occasionally has jobs for people willing to venture into dangerous areas to collect special woods, and an emissary from another country in the far north, who is interested in locating a particular apparatus designed by the mage Kwalish. Despite the halfling's eagerness, they didn't find any immediate jobs. (The Chevalier spent the party engaged in conversation and diversions with various of the upper echelons of Saltmarsh's social structure.) They also met the woman who leads the traditionalist faction of Saltmarsh's council.

Overall, it wasn't the best game I've ever run; but it ended with their young noble host offering them a follow-up job. After all, if smugglers were taking shipments at the haunted house, someone must be bringing them the shipments. Would the group be willing to go back and try to intercept whatever smuggler's ship is making those deliveries? They most definitely would.

So that's what we'll be doing this week. Except, we'll be doing it online via Discord, assuming that Discord can handle the traffic. If not, maybe I'll try another service.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Still concerned

So the weekend went pretty well. We stayed at home, and conducted the youth D&D session via Discord. The service is a little overloaded, and we wound up cutting off video feeds to keep it more stable, but it worked. But now it's Sunday night, and my thrice-cursed workplace is still expecting us to show up if we're not feeling sick. Which, given the latency period on this, is asinine and infuriating, but here we are: I'm tired, and angry, and depressed, and I'm just sort of dreading the eventual meltdown that I suspect will come to our employees. I don't even know what I have scheduled to work on this week, but I've got a To Do list at my desk and my desk is in the server room; as long as I stay in there, I'm pretty isolated.

I will note for the record that while I don't feel sick, I do have a bit of a cough; but I'm prone to seasonal allergies and having this show up when I'm usually coughing anyway is not doing anything for my peace of mind. (I record this here mainly in case it becomes important later; you never know.)

Our big outings are mainly taking the dog on walks, which he (and we) desperately need.

The boys start school online tomorrow -- not so much e-learning as emergency continuation of services during isolation. Beautiful Wife will be here with them; she is not looking forward to it. And, of course, if I ever do get permission to work from home, I'll be here with everyone else. Which would be both wise and worrisome in approximately equal measures.

I keep thinking about some of our discussions -- that not everyone in our organization has the means to work from home, and we only have so many laptops available for checkout, and like that -- and I keep coming back to the idea that honestly? Most of our PCs at work are about the size of a hardback book. The larger ones are maybe half the size of a toaster oven. Monitors are bigger and harder to move, but we really only "aren't equipped" to move to people working from home if we're not willing to just slap VPNs on those desktops and tell people to move them to their houses if they can. (Admittedly, Internet connection might still be a problem -- the desktops aren't equipped with WiFi -- but if our people are already plugging a home PC into a router somewhere, they could plug in a work PC instead.) Most likely we'd need a combination of measures to really get the city government to move to a telecommuting footing, but even if it turns out that it's only feasible for, say, 80% of our employees... that's still an 80% reduction in potential disease vectors into our workplace.

I don't know. All I know is that I'm not looking forward to this week.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Music: The Awful Truth

Carole King:

Because sometimes it's important to admit that you just straight-up want to marry Dracula.

And also because while I intended to do the next segment of Into The Black, I... didn't.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Dark Armor 012: Riding Out

Pallian emerged from the sarcophagus rested and restored; he always did. His armor was still in place, but the rent in his palm was healed and the shield was whole again. He strapped on his sword and slid his arm through the straps of the shield, then gathered the lance and emerged from his tent.

Black was fully recovered, waiting calmly outside his tent; no one in the camp would touch the Champion's mount, and Black would strike them down if they tried. Pallian checked him over, confirming that his barding, while battered, was still intact. Then he placed the lance in its holder and swung up into the saddle.

He did not stop at the command tent, and he did not speak. He had his orders, and it was time to go. The Edrian army held a decent lead, and he would need most of the day to make it up. It was time to lose himself in movement.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Challenge: Weirdest Thing I Learned Reading Fiction

This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.

The challenge for this week is The Weirdest Thing I learned Reading Fiction, and my friends I am having a hard time with this -- partly because at my age, I have a hard time remembering what I've learned, let alone where I learned it.

In fact, there's really only one that sticks in my mind that I can specifically trace to reading fiction. It's from one of the Stephen King books, and to be honest I don't remember which one. (He tends to drop bits of his research directly into his writing, and the didactic quality of this is probably why it stood out to me.) I know it makes an appearance during the Dark Tower books, but I think he actually explains it in another book entirely:

It is possible for a gunshot wound to the head to fail to penetrate the skull, and instead, make a loop around one side beneath the skin -- this giving a very good impression of a killing shot, at least if you don't look closely at the body.

I'm really kind of baffled that I can't think of any other examples to pair it against -- I know there are a lot of things I've picked up from reading fiction, and I'm sure some of them are at least as weird (and macabre) as this one, but apparently that's the only one I'm going to come up with.

I'm looking forward to see what everybody else comes up with for this one.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020


So, in the midst of the COVID-19 preparations, extended Spring Break for the boys, and everything else, I...


...grabbed the handle of a pan that had just come out of the oven, and burned the everloving crap out of my palm last night. Burn cream, a bowl of cold water, and several hours later it stopped feeling like my hand was actually on fire, but I called in for part of this morning and have been working from home . (Good idea generally in these times, but right now it's mainly so I can soak my hand and put more burn cream on it regularly.)

The damage is fairly superficial (or at least it looks that way - I can still type, which is kind of critical) but holy hell it was painful.

Monday, March 16, 2020


I really don't know what to post for today. I was going to either do a write-up of the latest Tuesday DnD silliness, or maybe get a head start on Dark Armor and Into The Black, or both. Instead I... didn't do much of anything. Well, I mean, I created a Discord server since it would wildly foolish to get together for DnD this week. (We did last week, but in retrospect we probably shouldn't have.) And I played a bit of The Outer Worlds, and did some reading, and Beautiful Wife and I took the dog for a much-needed walk. But adult-responsibilities-things? Not so much. We swung by Target and picked up some groceries.

That was a weird experience. The paper products are just gone. Even the paper towels. Eggs were gone. Bread was not. The wine aisle looked essentially untouched. I don't know. We were able to get everything that we actually needed, except by the time we got finished I was feeling a little woozy so I came home, ate some bread, and napped for a couple of hours. I'm hoping that didn't have anything to do with the bit of leftover omelette I finished for breakfast this morning; maybe I should have thrown it out instead. We'll see, I guess.

The spread of COVID-19 has coincided with the arrival of seasonal allergies, at least in my area, which is giving us a lot of fun guessing games involving sneezing and coughing. The boys are on their second week of Spring Break, and Beautiful Wife is starting on hers amidst instructions to move everything online for the foreseeable future. My own job, on the other hand, announced (as of... last Thursday, I think?) that even those of us with the capacity to work from home were expected to be present and at our desks unless we have a compelling reason not to. I think that's foolish -- we're certainly not set up for everyone to be able to telecommute, but every person who does is one less potential disease vector -- but we're a municipal government and our leadership has always been sensitive about the stereotypes some people hold about government employees. They like to give a very clear impression of a professional, competent staff with a strong work ethic and a commitment to customer service. So here we are, at least until we discover that someone has been coming to work while infected but asymptomatic for a week or so.

My father and his wife cancelled their trip to California to visit her parents, which I think was wise; they seem to be self-isolating, and their church had the good sense to cancel services. My in-laws seem to be taking it fairly seriously, too. So, I'm not all that worried for the immediate family.

Still, overall, I'm deeply worried that an awful lot of people aren't taking this seriously enough, and as a result we're going to end up with medical professionals having to make the kind of triage decisions that Italy is making now -- stuff we haven't seen since World War II. I keep seeing people refer to Y2K like it was hoax or a gross overreaction, and it's starting to make me stabby because it absolutely was not either of those things. It's only possible to see it that way now because people listened to the experts and took steps to head off the crisis before it arrived. It was a genuine catastrophe -- just one that we averted by working together. And I don't see us doing that right now.

I think this thing is going to get far worse and last far longer than most people realize right now.

It's late, and even with the nap I should go to bed. Take care of yourselves, take care of each other. Avoid contact as much as possible, and wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. A lot of what I'm reading indicates that this week (and possibly next) are going to make the big difference in how fast the virus spreads and how many new cases we have all at once, so be as careful as you can.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Lunchtime Reading

I just realized that I didn't write the next scene for Into The Black last night (much less earlier in the week). In my defense, I've been distracted by the somewhat apocalyptic nature of recent events... but still. Maybe I can do something with it tomorrow; I'm not planning to be out of the house much. Meanwhile, here are some online short stories that I've been collecting for lunchtime reading:

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Dark Armor 011: Results

The far-seers reported that the camp seemed calm and undisturbed, with the watch-fires high and guards standing watch beside them. It was only when the scouts returned from their sortie that it became apparent that the camp was abandoned. The Edriasi army had built up their fires and left decoys to man them, then decamped and retreated with all their essential equipment. Left behind were older tents, broken gear, and worn-out bedding or outfits draped over bundled sticks to give the appearance of a military camp.

"So," said Ravaj, as the last of the scouts finished her report and left the command tent, "either we've driven them off, or they've withdrawn for reasons of their own."

Sorcerer-commander Stefan, lean and grizzled in the scale armor that was the mark of his house, inclined his head. "The victory is yours, my lord. After the report from the scouts, our far-seers located the army. They're making a forced march to the west, likely intending to cut around the garrison at Evekhurst and return to Edrias-- or lose themselves along the border."

Ravaj shook his head slowly. "I don't trust this retreat. They showed up unexpectedly, proved considerably more formidable than we had prepared for, and now they just withdraw?"

Pallian, who was thinking about the breach in his armor and the wound in his palm, offered a solemn nod.

"I fear this is part of some deeper plan," Ravaj continued. "So we will not pursue, but we will not let them retreat, either."

Behind his visor, Pallian squeezed his eyes shut. He could feel what was coming, but if he didn't react...

"The Champion will follow them at first light. Hound them, harrow them. Drive them away from their shelter. And if you meet with that archer again..." The sorcerer-prince reached for something at his belt, pulled it loose, and extended his hand. "Bring her to me."

Pallian took the thing automatically. In his hand, it was a bundle of light silver mesh, woven of moonbeams and tears and twice as strong a steel. It was a net, light but unbreakable; he'd seen his brother use it before. Anything caught in it would be unable to move, barely able to breathe. He tucked it into a pouch on his belt.

"We will remain here. Drive them back to us, or return if you capture the archer."

Silently, Pallian nodded an acknowledgement. This was not the time to protest, explain, or even speak; he had a role to play. If the Shadow of Edrias returned to the camp and murdered his brother, it would serve Ravaj right. His brother had given him no chance to explain about the Shadow, or offer warnings or even opinions.

Without a word, he turned and left. The Champion of Teregor waited in a stone sarcophagus until he was needed; it would mend his armor and protect him while he slept. And in the morning, he would cross the valley and hunt the retreating army. And pray he didn't meet the archer again.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Challenge: A Skill I Lack

This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.

The challenge for this week is One Skill I Wish I Had But Don't.

This is a bit tricky to answer, because one of the things I've always considered valuable is that I generally pick things up fairly quickly. I'm currently covering three major software systems at work, for example, and I'm almost completely self-trained on all three of them. But that, of course, is software.

And then there are skills that I used to have, but I've let lapse. I used to be conversational-bordering-on-fluent in Spanish, for example. (Academic, Castillian Spanish, though, which is not as useful here in Texas as you might think.) I used to be reasonably skilled at martial arts, and I wish I still was -- but of course, that's something I could start learning again, if I was really serious about it.

The ones that I think best qualify are, oddly, skills that I fairly deliberately avoided in my youth: music and dance. I can't do either.

I don't sing; my singing voice is horrible. (No, seriously. Milk sours. Church bells crack. Livestock falls down dead, and crops are blighted. It's bad.) I don't play any instruments, despite my parents' best efforts: I had a year each of piano, guitar, and harmonica. Which is completely absurd, since my father is the most intrinsically musical person you will ever meet in your life. And, of course, I don't dance -- mainly because I'm embarrassingly bad at it, and there's no way to learn how to dance without showing off just how completely unskilled I am at it.

So, I mean, in both cases it would be nice to know how, as long as I didn't have to go through the process of learning it. Does that make any sense, or is it as perfectly ridiculous as it sounds?

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Brief DnD Recap: The Haunted House

Right, so:

Last week the group essentially finished exploring the haunted house. They've arguably got a bit more to do, but they've defeated the house's, um, inhabitants and learned most of its secrets -- including the fact that they lovely and charming half-elf who was sexing up the Chevalier was actually planted there to sabotage them. They left him unconscious in one of the upstairs rooms, after he made the mistake of saying he loved the Chevalier, who was immediately no longer interested.

At this point, they have a bit of treasure (including some rare books, albeit not in the best of shape) and will need to figure out how to get it back to town if that's what they want to do. Otherwise, they could simply head back and make trouble in Saltmarsh until the next opportunity comes up.

And yeah, I meant to write this out earlier and in more detail (including a list of treasure, which I might come back and add later) but, eh, c'est la guerre.

Friday, March 6, 2020

ItB 013: Escape Plans

Caden grumbled to himself as he smothered the urge to pulse Padma and see how the rest of his team was doing. They were still following Tamimi, but she'd stopped and changed directions three different times, and now she was gesturing angrily to herself as they moved deeper into the center of the station. Finally she held up a hand and stopped, then turned back and looked them over. After a moment she picked out Caden, and gestured him forward, then leaned her helmet against his.

"It's spread out, Captain. Bigger. Whatever it did on the far side of the station made it stronger, I think. And it's doing the same thing over here. We're far enough from the surface to be safe for now, but I can't feel any way out. And it could sweep back through the center and kill us all -- or whatever it does -- any second now. I think our only way out is to shut down the drive test, and that means going further in."

"Drive test?" Caden asked, shouting back to make himself heard through the tenuous contact between their helmets. The outside air was gone; this was a close as they could come to hearing each other, and they didn't dare reactivate any of the comms. Fortunately, the EAE ran all sorts of worst-case simulations, and the rest of his six were perfectly capable of following on the basis of hand-signs alone.

"The knight-tech," Tamimi shouted back. "We'd just turned on the prototype when everything went sideways. If we cut power to it, it might close the door on our visitor."

"Power's already down!"

"Not in the labs! Labs have their own source, self-contained." There was a momentary pause, and then Tamimi said: "Trust me?"

Caden took a long moment to consider that. Finally, he pressed his helmet against the survivor's and said: "Don't get us killed."

"All right. Keep following. Even if this only closes it out for a moment, you can use that moment to punch a way out."

"Deal," said Caden, wishing desperately that he dared contact Celia... but if the unseen thing had been closing in on their transmissions, it might go both ways; any extended contact might draw the thing toward the the Ratio. The raptors weren't in contact with the station, so they were probably still safe, but getting back to them might be tricky.

Another part of the EAE training had been the so-called Unwinnables: scenarios that they faced in training where there simply was no path to victory. It was an idea that dated back to the twentieth century, and more to the entertainments of the period than to any actual space flight. It was supposed to teach the cadets that sometimes victory was impossible, no matter their quickness or intelligence, no matter their strength of will or character. It was supposed to force them to cope with unexpected helplessness. Caden supposed that some of the Elites might have needed the lesson, but he'd grown up in a family with little money and the lesson was wasted on him; having it imposed on him filled him with nothing but contempt. He'd known all his life that sometimes the closest you could come to victory was to make your defeat as costly as possible.

He wondered, not entirely idly, if this was about to be one of those times.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Dark Armor 010: Shadows

Pallian stopped, looking around and seeing nothing out of place. The area around the command tent was bright with glowstone lamps and the ensorceled flames of lamps and torches, but there were still shadows. The Champion of Edrias could be anywhere. After a moment he flung up an arm in a come-along gesture and started towards the edge of the camp. He left his sword in its sheath.

It was a gamble; the Shadow might be waiting for him to move away so it could slip into the command tent and murder Ravaj. But... it had addressed him, which made no sense if that was its plan. It would know that the Black Knight wouldn't panic and throw the camp into chaos. For that matter, he doubted that such chaos would help the Shadow do its work. So... this had to be something else.

He wished he were certain of that.

By the time he'd passed through the soldiers' tents, the watch lines, and out to the edge of the camp beside the wards, he was half-panicked with doubts. He saw no sign of the Shadow of Edrias; his armor detected nothing. And if the Shadow had somehow tricked him, his father would flay the skin from his back. But he stopped, forcing himself to move calmly, and used the armor to make sure there was nobody close enough to overhear him. Then he said quietly, "You cannot be here. You have to go." His voice was still deep and harsh; as long as he wore the helm, he had no choice about that.

To his profound relief, the Shadow of Edrias answered immediately: So, you attacked our camp.

"You knew I would." Where was this going? It wasn't a soldiers' talk; it had more the feel of dealings at Court, all innocuous statements and false pleasantries, with the real meanings carried in context and innuendo. Pallian decided to go with that: "I confess, I'm a bit surprised you haven't assassinated the prince already."

Or died trying?

"Or died trying." What did the Shadow want out of this? If his father was listening to this exchange, Pallian would be executed. It was not the place of the Champion of Teregor to decide when to parley with an enemy. He was to kill them unless ordered not to. The longer this conversation went on, the greater the risk.

I confess I'm surprised you made it out of our camp, said the Shadow. Did you slay the archer?

"No. Two guards, and an older man who looked like a sorcerer-general, directly. Indirectly, some number of troops from the flames of my attack, and maybe some staff officers when I destroyed the command tent." There was no point in lying about it; the Shadow could find all this out simply by returning to camp. But... "You were worried?"

There was a long silence -- so long that Pallian began to think the Shadow had departed. Then: She's my sister.

"She was magnificent," Pallian said quietly. "If I ever meet her again, I hope it's well away from any sort of battlefield."

She failed to kill you, though, that soft, directionless voice mused aloud.

Pallian shrugged. "I think only because Ravaj intervened. She was certainly trying, and I was running out of tricks."

What is the prince to you?

Pallian hesitated, but... the Shadow of Edrias had already made an admission. "My brother."

There was another long silence. Another time, then. But, Champion? Your brother needs to die for what he did to my sister.

Pallian frowned inside his helmet. "Your sister the archer?"

No. My sister, the Heir of Edrias.

There was a soft rustling, then a shapeless dark blot rose into the air. It was lost in the night sky almost immediately, and Pallian knew that the Shadow of Edrias had gone.

Huh, he thought, and went to complete his circuit of the wards.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Challenge: Characters who remind me...

This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.

(I feel a little bad about this honestly, because I like going through everybody else's answers and responding and lately I don't feel like I've been able to do that as much as want or should. But, well... I'm going to put in a short answer for this week because Monday and Tuesday were crazy, so don't feel like you need to comment if you don't want to.)

Anyway, this week the topic is Characters Who Remind Me of Myself and Why, and by the dark and forgotten gods I do not have the energy left for that sort of introspection. I remember writing characters who were what I wanted to be; I remember writing about character who helped me process situations I'd gotten myself into. I remember writing about characters who seemed like fun at the time, and turned out to be more personal than I realized. But at the moment I really can't process any of that.

So I'm going to go another way with this. Because while I don't often look at a fictional character and think, My God, that's me... I do have one moment that strikes me that way every time I watch it... except it reminds me of Beautiful Wife:

"I've done something completely insane," she says. "I've invited all my dads to my wedding and now they all think they're giving me away."

"Hold on," says Skye. "You invited these guys and you didn't tell me?"

"No, no I-- I thought you'd try to stop me."

In the movie, Skye gets a bit upset. I can't really blame him. But this is about the point where I usually find myself lifting a wry eyebrow. Really?

Later later news


Yesterday morning the dog snagged my breakfast off the table and ran away with it, eating some of it and making the rest of it inedible. It was -- until the dog got to it -- a lovely little bacon omelette. Yesterday night, I had just pulled out more bacon to chomp on for dinner when everybody returned home, bringing the dog with them -- which I didn't realize until he stole that plate of bacon and ate about 2/3 of it. Overall, I think at this point he had eaten about 1/3 of the bacon I'd cooked Monday night.

So last night, after I left to play D&D, apparently Firstborn decided that they needed to cook me more bacon. He tried to enlist his mother to do this; she sent him back to do it himself. So he looked up some instructions online, set the oven to 400 degrees (f) and carefully laid out the remainder of my already-cooked bacon on a bacon sheet before placing it in the oven for 25-35 minutes.

The bacon is gone. There will never be bacon again. I live in a post-apocalyptic, post-aporkalyptic wasteland where bacon is one of the lost treasures of the ancient world -- fondly remembered, told of in tales and chronicles, but still a thing lost and never to be found again.

The bacon is a lie.

So I return to work, baconless, mourning my repeated losses but accepting my defeat. The day must go on, regardless. There are things I have yet to do...

...Shit. I forgot my badge. I can't get into my office without it.

Bah. Let civilization crumble. There's nothing worth saving here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

In later news...

I got the upgrade completed, but the dog promptly stole my dinner, which means that he's now consumed approximately 1/3 of the bacon I cooked last night.

Firstborn cooked me some more bacon while I was out tonight, presumably in an effort to make me less likely to kill the dog.

And so it begins

The dog ate my breakfast and I'm starting a massive upgrade at work. More news as events unfold.

Also, if you're here in Texas, get out there and vote in the primaries.