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’.


  1. Your lizardfolk are awesome. They really have a culture all of their own.

  2. Thanks! I really like playing with cultures and societies. Also, from prior experience I know my players will ask about this kind of thing, so I took the time to think it out beforehand. Considering they have low Int and are pretty tough, hunter-gatherers seemed the way to go, and then druids are going to be all the magic they get, so animism and ancestor-worship seemed natural...

    This adventure is actually an adaptation of a D&D scenario called "Wreck Ashore!". Considering how big a deal "three-day journey across the swampy peninsula" and "tribes of lizardfolk menacing the town" should be, they're really vague about both. I had to hack it about quite a bit.