Saturday, 21 April 2012

Seawell: diplomacy

  It’s late afternoon, and there’s several hours until nightfall. Leaving a party to watch the camp, an expeditionary force head back towards the river, hoping to contact the lizardfolk who’d already clashed with the wreckers. Raylin is nominally in charge as the diplomatic expert, but she speaks no Draconic; the Professor and Fhastina will have to translate. The Professor’s research on lizardfolk culture should prove useful.

  The Professor remembers that lizardfolk tend to live close to water, as they’re semi-amphibious and eat plenty of fish. Passing one of the damaged boundary markers, they head into what they assume is the tribe’s territory, with a grumpy, sleepy Cedric circling overhead looking for signs of lizardfolk, carefully described by the Professor. The land turns from shrubland to forest, with swampy patches. After an hour or so, a surge of excitement comes from the owl, who drops down to join them and indicates a direction with one wing, before promptly settling back down to sleep. They turn their steps in that direction, moving slowly and cautiously, with weapons tucked away so as not to alarm the creatures. Fhastina spots lizardfolk footprints, growing more common, until they find themselves on some kind of trail. The Professor and Fhastina begin to call out peaceful greetings in Draconic, hoping to attract some attention of the friendlier kind.

  After a while, a rhythmic wooden clunking comes to their ears. They assume it’s some kind of work going on, perhaps building, and keep going towards it. As they continue, they realise the noise is too regular to be any kind of work; it must be a signal. Sure enough, a few minutes further on they spot two lizardfolk standing by the trail, looking in their direction. One is pounding rhythmically with a spear-haft on a nearby tree. They stop immediately on spotting the party, and adopt a wary stance, gripping their spears tightly.

  “Who are you?” calls out the bolder of the pair, its tail waving agitatedly.

  Only Fhastina has ever seen a lizardfolk in the flesh. The creatures are about six foot tall, with slightly angular bodies. Their faces resemble iguanas, with wide mouths and baggy throats, and large black eyes that stare distrustfully at the intruders. A spiny reddish cresh tops their heads, and continues down their spines to the tip of the tail. Short skirts of woven reeds, striped with colours, are wrapped around the creatures’ waits, and various pouches and gourds hang off them. They are disturbingly crocodilian, distinctly muscular, and armed. They wait.

  Thankfully, all three remember the fundamental principle of lizardfolk diplomacy: don’t smile. For some reason, the sharp-fanged creatures don’t react well to people flashing teeth at them. Maintaining a stern face, Raylin explains (through the Professor) that they’re here to deal with the other humans who have attacked the lizardfolk, and wanted to discuss the matter. The lizardfolk look at each other and mutter in low voices in a broad dialect of Draconic that the mammals can’t quite catch, except the word “elders”. Then they stop, make a “follow us” gesture with their spears, and head off down the path, not looking back.

  A few minutes down the track, the sounds of daily life become audible on the wind. In a clearing amidst the trees, a number of crude buildings have been carefully assembled. They look most of all like huge, upturned birds’ nests, woven from supple branches and draped with moss. Alongside eight larger ones, presumably homes, there are a dozen or so smaller structures. A low hedge perhaps four feet tall encircles the village, and several lizardfolk are visible sitting at work or strolling about. A few youngsters are playing some game with several coloured sticks.

  “How many do you think live here?” enquires Raylin, quietly. The others shrug. If the creatures lived in relative luxury, with plenty of possessions, then it could be as few as a dozen adults living in the huts. On the other hand, if they live humbly and snuggle up at night, there might be as many as fifty.

  As the humanoids approach, the lizardfolk around the village catch sight of them and freeze. The children drop their sticks and dart behind one of the houses, peering out eagerly through the moss. Their escorts make some gesture that appeases the others, and stroll straight towards one of the huts. They crouch down in front, and start speaking to someone inside. It’s not entirely clear whether they’re being polite to the occupant, or simply trying to get a good view through the low doorway. After a couple of minutes, they stand up and move aside to let someone out.


  The figure who emerges is clearly someone of note. The lean, wiry lizardfolk has an elderly look, and wears a short cape of brightly-coloured feathers in addition to the usual skirt. In its left hand it clasps a tall staff, carved in a spiralling design and stained blue. A large lizard scuttles after it, measuring three feet from nose to hindquarters, and with a tail of nearly the same length. The shaman spots the visitors and strides towards them, giving them measuring looks. Professor Godalming and his owl earn a particularly long appraisal. By this time, the rest of the village have gathered around, staying well out of reach, but staring unabashedly at the visitors. Many seem never to have seen non-lizardfolk before, especially the children. The shaman stops in front of the wizard, who it seems to have judged is the leader of the group, and makes a gesture that is not precisely respect, but the acknowledgement of one professional to another.

  “I am Sound-of-North-Wind, shaman of my people, speaker for the ancestors and the spirits. This,” it gestures to the lizard, “is Patience.”. Clearly the shaman is asserting its authority in the situation. Its speech is confident, and it seems to have a better grasp of High Draconic than the others. Once its words have been translated, Raylin takes up the unspoken question, reeling off some suitably impressive introductions. The Professor translates them deftly, polishing his own a little more than is strictly accurate, at which Fhastina sighs inwardly but refrains from comment. Cedric, too is introduced, but declines to wake up. The Professor extends a friendly hand to the iguana, which hisses in a not-unfriendly fashion.

  By this point, the ever-growing circle of lizardfolk are regarding the wizard steadily, with a wondering expression. It occurs to him that, with gnomes being fairly scarce in Culchus, it’s unlikely a single lizardfolk in the whole peninsula has ever even heard of gnomes, let alone seen one. Sound-of-North-Wind notices what’s going on, and turns to mutter a few words in the local dialect, blinking its eyes good-humouredly. Something about “friendly”, “stranger” and “hilarious” is all the visitors can make out, as the villagers break off their stares and withdraw a little more, trying to act naturally.

  “I must apologise for my people,” explains the shaman. “It is the first time many of them have encountered humans, and none have ever before seen such a very small human.” Professor Godalming rapidly reviews his options, and decides it’s easiest not to attempt any explanations. He mimics the blinking gesture. “I understand,” he replies graciously. “It’s quite all right.”

  Seating themselves in a circle of carved rock seats, the visitors explain that they’ve come from Seawell. Sound-of-North-Wind looks reluctantly blank.
  “It is a city about three days’ travel south of here,” explains Fhastina. A look of comprehension dawns on the shaman’s scaly face.
  “Ah. I have never been three days’ travel south of here,” it says, with the confidence of one for whom such a journey would be entirely superfluous. Nevertheless, it seems a little impressed. “But why have you come so far?”
  “We came to visit our people in the lighthouse on the coast,” continues the Professor. “It seems that some other humans have killed them, and caused trouble for you as well.” Sound-of-North-Wind makes the universal sound for ‘it all becomes clear now’, and nods rapidly.
  “Ah! You are from the Tribe of the Tall Stone House, then?”
  “You could say that.”
  “They are all dead now, it seems. Some other humans came and killed them, and the little moon no longer shines from the crest of the house. It is a shame, there was goodwill between our tribes.” The shaman looks regretful, and scratches Patience’s side with a gentle claw, evoking a pleased hiss.
  “Well, we have come to get rid of these evil humans,” says Raylin, seeing a good opportunity. “We know that they have attacked your tribe as well, and thought that your people might want to join us and avenge yourselves.” Fhastina obligingly translates.
  “We saw the totem pole they had stolen from you,” adds the Professor.
  “Totem pole?” enquires the shaman, tilting its head in puzzlement.
  “Uh... there was a large tree covered in sacred symbols, which the humans have taken from you.”
  “Ah! Yes, Small-Human, they came into our lands and killed a great tree-spirit, which our people have venerated for centuries.” The lizardfolk seems unable to cope with their names, devoid as they are of any obvious meaning.
  “So perhaps your people would like to join us to fight against them,” suggests Raylin hopefully. The shaman regards her for a minute, then rises and gestures for them to follow.

  They walk in silence for a few minutes, out of the village and into another clearing. There are a score or more of large earthen mounds here, and as the visitors approach, they see at least half-a-dozen skeletons lying atop mounds. It seems the lizardfolk lay their dead upon anthills to be picked clean of flesh. Both Raylin and the Professor are vaguely repelled by this pagan custom, but they say nothing. A crossbow bolt still juts meaningfully from one of the skulls.
  “Some of our people tried to stop them from taking the tree, but they were killed with the little-spears-that-fly. We found their bodies when the humans had gone, dragging the corpse of the tree behind them,” says Sound-of-North-Wind heavily. There isn’t much they can say, except vague expressions of condolence. After a minute or two of generic respectfulness, they head back to the village. Sound-of-North-Wind explains that it has responsibilities to its people. It can’t just leave them to go seeking revenge, though it will certainly protect them if the wreckers approach their village. However, perhaps some of the tribe would be willing to help them. A meeting has been called, and the elders and the tribe are gathering to question them.


  Back in the circle of stones, several more elders are now waiting, though they seem content to let the shaman speak, making only occasional interjections. A couple of younger lizardfolk drag up a steaming wooden cauldron of some hot liquid, somewhere between tea and vegetable soup, with a slight hint of fish. Crude earthenware bowls are dipped into the pot and handed round. It’s strange, but not revolting, and the visitors accept it to avoid seeming rude.
  “We are a peaceful people,” resumes the shaman. “We are not like some of the violent tribes in the south.” At this depressing news, Raylin starts wondering if they can contact any of the violent tribes in the south, who might be a bit more useful in the current situation. Of course, those tribes might not be so willing to sit around chatting with a group of ‘humans’.
  “We understand that,” replies the priestess soothingly, trying to establish a new line of attack. Her initial plan of getting the angry young men of the tribe to rally to their metaphorical banner has been somewhat thwarted by the discovery that most of them seem to be dead already.
  “And there are so few of you,” comments one of the elders. “And this one is very small.” While the Professor bites his lip, Fhastina translates for Raylin, who seizes her chance.

  “The rest of our group is watching their camp,” she explains. “And we can call up magic against them.” This proclamation sends a bit of a ripple through the assembled throng, now approaching forty lizardfolk of all ages. Sound-of-North-Wind nods sagely, with an eye on the Professor.
  “As I suspected. You are a shaman, Small-Human?” it asks, peering at the sleeping owl. The Professor once again takes the path of least resistance.
  “My power is not quite the same as yours, Sound-of-North-Wind, but I have similar talents, yes,” he explains. He places his bowl of... something... on the ground and stretches a hand over it, letting the power flow out. The steam disappears, and the bubbling liquid falls still, then bulges upwards, a glassy sheen running across it. White tendrils creep down the sides and begin to stretch across the ground, leaving a glistening trail of frost. He reaches down, flips the bowl, and tips the frozen block out into his other hand, holding it up for inspection. The lizardfolk look suitably impressed; and even the shaman, who probably realises what a minor working this is, hisses appreciatively.
  “Lady Raylin can also call on the power of the... spirits,” adds the Professor, in response to a meaningful look. “And another companion, who is watching the camp, is a shaman. Lady Fhastina here and our other friends are powerful warriors.”

  Seeing the lizardfolk are warming up to them, Raylin begins to reel off a call to arms, which the Professor obligingly translates. With a mixture of self-promotion and agitprop they address the circle of lizardfolk for some time, assuring them of victory and offering up the chance to gratify the dead and restore peaceful balance to the spirit world. With the wreckers gone, everything can return to normal and they will have nothing left to worry about.

  To be quite honest, the lizardfolk mostly seem to view it as the humans’ business, since they travelled for a whole three days from a distant homeland to destroy these other humans. Moreover, several of the tribe have already been killed, and they know the wreckers are dangerous. They’re supportive, but not particularly inclined to intervene. Nevertheless, three fit-looking hunters ask the elders’ permission to join them, and after some debate, they agree.

Calling the Ancestors

  With the war-party assembled, a very elderly elder declares that it’s time to invoke the spirits to guide them. The lizardfolk cheer and beat their tails on the ground at the news. Sound-of-North-Wind disappears into its hut for a moment, emerging with a small bowl. The shaman begins to chant rhythmically, though the visitors can’t make any sense of the words, if there is any.

  After a while, Sound-of-North-Wind falls silent, as do all the others. It begins walking around the clearing, pressing its forehead against several of the larger trees, quietly asking the spirit of each one to follow the warriors. At last, it proclaims that the forest grants them a boon.

  A few gestures direct them all to a cleared patch of land, where the lizardfolk form a circle. Sound-of-North-Wind steps inside, clutches its staff in both hands, and begins to pound rhythmically on the ground. Patience winds around the circle, weaving in and out of the assembled legs, and hissing gently. A slow song rises from the throats of the tribe as they watch the invocation. At last, the shaman announces that the spirits of the earth have been assembled.

  Taking the bowl, the shaman fetches water from the village stream. Each of the three lizardfolk volunteers squats on the ground so it can be sprinkled with the water. Sound-of-North-Wind then turns to the humans, and hesitates, giving them a questioning look. Raylin is rather scornful of these primitive rituals, but it shouldn’t do any harm, and the Goddess approves of tactical deception, so she politely crouches and accepts the blessing. The Professor has no time for paganism, but it’s an interesting experience, and since he doesn’t believe in this mumbo-jumbo it certainly can’t hurt – he doesn’t even have to bend down. Finally, Fhastina is a soldier, pragmatic enough to accept any blessing that comes her way before a battle. All three are sprinkled with water as the lizardfolk look on approvingly.

  Finally, they all return to the clearing where the dead lie. Here the other elders join in the ceremony, explaining to the ancestors what is going on, and hoping that it meets with their approval. It’s a strangely informal, conversational affair, until at last Sound-of-North-Wind announces that the ancestors have heard them and given their blessing. They leave, with cheerful chatter breaking out from the lizardfolk.

  Back in the village, the volunteers scurry off to fetch wooden spears and sturdy tortoiseshell shields. Precisely why such a peaceful tribe have skilfully-crafted tortoiseshell shields is a topic left carefully undiscussed. The visitors, who seem not to have much in the way of equipment, are also offered shields, and they accept two, more out of curiosity than anything else. Fhastina prefers to stay unencumbered.

  In return, Professor Godalming takes a piece of parchment from his supplies and carefully draws a picture of Patience, who sits quietly watching him. This he presents to Sound-of-North-Wind as a token of their respect. The shaman seems very pleased with the unexpected gift, and examines the parchment carefully.
  “What animal does this skin come from?” it asks.
  “A cow,” says the Professor, trying hard to remember.
  “I see...” says the shaman. “Yes. Ah – what is a cow?” The gnome has to stop and think for a moment. “It’s a large mammal, with four legs and curved horns. It eats grass.”
  “A deer?”
  “Quite like a deer, yes. But bigger, and stronger.” Sound-of-North-Wind seems quite impressed, and intrigued.
  “It goes ‘mooooo’,” adds the Professor, helpfully.
  “Yes, ‘mooooo’.” The shaman repeats ‘mooooo’ a couple of times, earnestly, to make sure it’s right. Thanking the Professor gravely for the gift – and even managing an approximation of his name – it bids them good hunting and turns away.

  As it walks slowly back towards its hut, they can hear it quietly practicing ‘mooooo’ to itself and fingering the parchment admiringly. Somehow, Raylin gets the impression that for years afterwards, Sound-of-North-Wind will be showing the parchment to visitors and telling them all about the great sickle-horned beast whose hide it is, which lives in the mountainous lands of the humans and goes ‘mooooo’.

Friday, 20 April 2012

“Librarians and Leviathans”?

It's my blog, so I feel like taking the occasional moment to post something other than storyline is fair enough. And it's not like it's a wild departure from form.

When I first, eventually, started roleplaying – or more accurately, DMing – our entire gaming group consisted of library staff, none of whom had ever played a pen-and-paper RPG before, and most of whom knew very little about it. I’d been hovering on the fringest of RPGs for years: I’d played CRPGs, read plenty of sci-fi and fantasy, knew people who roleplayed, enjoyed RPG webcomics and even read the odd rulebook. However, none of my close friends were RPers and so I’d never been drawn into it; it was something I thought would be fun, but being fairly shy I didn’t fancy looking for a random group of players, nor trying to push myself into one of my acquaintances’ groups. In more recent years, actual play podcasts appeared, which gave me even more vicarious fun from listening in to others’ games. The first one I encountered was the Penny Arcade D&D podcast, which not only stirred up my enthusiasm, but gave a handy introduction to 4E D&D. I moved on to a couple of others, most of which either fizzled out or lost my interest, but Chris Heard’s fantastic Icosahedrophila podcast sank its squamous tendrils into me and I’ve followed it ever since. Icosahedrophilia gave me more idea of how the rules and the game played out in practice, more idea how DMing worked, and another boost of enthusiasm.

Working in a university library service, I met plenty of other nerdy types, and eventually a conversation with a couple of friends turned to roleplaying. A couple of friends seemed enthusiastic at the idea, a couple of others more hesitant but willing to indulge us, so I said I’d be willing to have a shot at running a game if they wanted. And so it began.

After a bit of thought, I settled on 4E as the ruleset of choice. I actually had a better knowledge of the 2nd and 3rd edition rules, from extensive playing of the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games, and hopeful perusing of the 3rd edition books. 2nd edition I decided was not the best bet: it’s a fairly tough ruleset and has elements like THAC0 that seemed likely to deter new players, not encourage them (and make my life harder at that). Also, I didn’t have the rulebooks or any starter scenarios. 3rd edition offers a lot of flexibility and is a bit more intuitive and consistent. I also had the rulebooks available, and know the monsters, spells and so on rather better.

However, 4E had several advantages. For one, it was the latest edition, which is not something to sneeze at. For another, all those podcasts meant I had a pretty good idea how it actually worked in game, even if I didn’t have such a strong grasp of the details. Thirdly, though the powers system makes it quite complicated in some ways, they also provide a fairly straightforward set of options for new players. Fourthly, you end up with a game that’s superficially similar to a board game, which I felt might be more accessible for nervous new players who think of roleplaying as ‘geeky’ and want to avoid that label. At least one player, for example, doesn’t like to talk about gaming in public or want colleagues to know about her hobby.

Having bought myself the 4E rulebooks and read through them, I decided the way forward was to play the sample adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell (.pdf, there's no webpage any more with the push to "D&D New") since it was intended specifically for a first scenario. On top of that, that’s the adventure that the first Penny Arcade podcast series covered, so again, I had some idea how it might play out in practice. It quickly emerged that the podcast had skipped significant amounts of the scenario, and these I had to work out for myself – starting with the very first part of the adventure, which not only starred different enemies from the later sections, but had a very different feel to it, and needed to draw the players in to events. Thanks so much for leaving that out, Chris Perkins...

I quickly realised that I’d have to keep track of plenty of things, particularly as we’d have some significant gaps between sessions, and I decided to write up some of these notes in story form for the players to read, in the hopes that it’d keep them interested and jog their memories between sessions. The simplest way seemed to be adding a campaign page to my existing website – a bit of a departure from my usual fare, but never mind. Obviously the page needed a title, and the alliterative Xa&Xb structure is well-established, so given the composition of my group, Librarians & Leviathans was the obvious way to go.

That campaign was fun and technically lasted a couple of years, but scheduling and geography issues made it extremely occasional and punishing to run, and eventually it fizzled out without even finishing the first adventure. I’ll probably write a post or two about the campaign some other time. My current Pathfinder campaign is tied into it in a couple of ways, though. One major point is that two of my original players are members of the Pathfinder group, and take on the “grizzled veteran” role. The other is that, given all that downtime and players with enquiring minds, I actually built up a fairly detailed campaign setting around the adventure and the details I made up on the fly. It would be a shame to waste it, and our Pathfinder game is set firmly in the same universe – but a few countries away, and at an unspecified point in the timeline. So I’m missing out on the official Pathfinder world, but hey. Given the continuity between groups, I see no reason to drop a perfectly good name like “Librarians and Leviathans”, even if it’s a bit less accurate than it once was.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Seawell: a murky deal

  Having checked the immediate area is secure, they return to the lighthouse and collect Morgan. He’s been watching their progress from the tower as best he can.

  They spend quite some time discussing how best to lay their ambush. In the end, they decide to lurk in the dunes. It is a long and uncomfortable wait, with sand slowly working its way beneath their clothing and the sharp grasses grating on bare skin. At last, the elves spot distant signs of movement, and they scramble into position. Three figures stride towards them, tough-looking men in a motley array of clothing; some of it most likely stolen from the lost ships or their crew. The group wait patiently for the wreckers to walk into their midst. As they approach, Elefthenea sneezes – but just at that moment the wreckers burst into laughter at some unheard joke, and they miss the warning. Suddenly, Raylin and Lawson spring to their feet, weapons ready but lowered; the others stay hidden, but keep hold of their bows in case of trouble. Raylin throws up a hand and commands the patrol to stop. They’re startled, which gives her just enough time to forestall an attack. Before they can act, she calls out loudly that she’s here to make a deal, she will pay well for information, and she doesn’t particularly want to kill them.

  Despite the armoured bodyguard standing beside her, the well-dressed (if somewhat grubby) priestess doesn’t seem much of a threat to the three burly wreckers. They’re quite amused by her proclamation and pause a moment to listen, grinning.
  “Go on then, lass,” one of them calls, toying lightly with a crossbow.
  Raylin makes a hasty offer. She wants them to tell her the layout of the camp, the number of wreckers and so on; and finally, not to back up the other wreckers if a fight breaks out. They seem a little taken aback, and inclined to scoff, but the leader of the bunch is wily enough to sense that something’s in the offing.
  “Oh, is that all? How much?”
  “How much do you want?”
  “...a hundred crowns and I’ll spill the gaff,” says the leader, glancing briefly at the other two.
  Raylin folds her arms. “How much is your life worth to you? I don’t have a hundred crowns with me.”
  “...fifty crowns, then,” he suggests, begrudgingly.
  After some tense discussion, they haggle it down to a reasonable sum.
  “Why don’t we shake hands on thirty-five?” offers Raylin. Lawson nudges her.
  “Do you really want to stroll into the middle of those fellows to shake hands?”
  “I mean, why don’t we call it thirty-five,” she corrects. They grin gap-toothed smiles, broken with the glint of gold teeth – or something like gold, anyway.

  With some prodding, the wreckers divvy up a bit of information on the camp, the ‘two or three’ sentries they post at night, and the ‘about a dozen’ wreckers. Raylin gets the feeling they’re being at least broadly honest. Their vagueness seems part reluctance to turn coat on their comrades, and partly down to erratic discipline and whimsical leadership.
  “Who’s your leader?” demands Raylin.
  “Erqua,” grunts one of the wreckers.
  “How can I recognise him?”
  “Him?” The man’s lips twitch. “Don’t go saying that to her.”
  “Her, then.”
  “She’s middling high, wiry strong. Good red hair.”
  He shrugs. “More or less...”
  She switches tack, asking the leader about the lizardfolk. He confirms that there has been a skirmish over felling trees in the forest, but he wasn’t there, and nods to one of his men to take up the tale. He says that a dozen or so of the lizardfolk attacked them while they were dragging trees back to the camp.
  “Whose were the graves we saw down by the woods? Theirs or yours?”
  “Ah, those were ours... but don’t worry,” with a grin. “They come off worse.”
  Seeing as the pirates lost at least three men, that doesn’t bode well for the lizardfolk.

  After a couple of minutes, the wreckers notice the others lurking nearby. They clam up and look belligerent again, standing back to back and raising their bows. It’s hard to say what their original intentions were, whether they took the deal seriously or planned to attack Raylin and Lawson once their curiosity was satisfied – now they clearly want to get away from an uneven fight. They demand their money and start trying to back out of the circle. Raylin tries to keep them talking, but they say they’ve answered enough questions and want their pay. After a little terse argument, she gives them seventeen crowns – half the original pay – with the promise of the rest once the wreckers are defeated. They grab it and slide off warily, heading inland rather than back towards the camp. What they’ll do now is anyone’s guess.

  The party head back towards the camp, initially planning to make a quick attack while at least three are out on patrol. On the way, they talk it over, and half-a-dozen plans are discussed and abandoned. In the end they decide to wait until most of the gang are asleep and try to quietly take out the watchmen. It may mean that the patrol they just met will slink back to the camp and warn them, in which case things may be tough; however, they don’t think they can expect to win a stand-up fight if there are still seven or eight wreckers in the camp. Elefthenea agrees to keep watch from the undergrowth nearby to get a better feel for the place, while Morgan and Lawson lurk nearby as backup.

  Meanwhile, Raylin and the Professor, escorted by Fhastina, will try to contact the lizardfolk and see if they can provide any information or backup. There’s a chance they might be attacked, if the lizardfolk have become wary of humanoids, but they got on peacefully enough with the lighthouse crew. With any luck they’ll be willing to help out, or at least provide advice.

  “We’re off to see the lizard...” chants the Professor quietly.