Sunday, 10 November 2013

Nassan: an absent artefact

The Guildhalls at Goscaster on the shores of Heartwater are home to many intriguing treasures, and until recently the staff of Voran Eagle Rider was amongst them. Voran was an instructress in the School of Geomancy many decades ago, of good repute, but with geomancy out of fashion of late, her arcane paraphernalia has lain mostly undisturbed in the archives since her retirement. Amongst the usual spellbooks, amulets and official robes was a particular curiosity: a staff of petrified wood, used by Voran as a focus and amplifier. Rumoured to be a gift from Dwarven priestesses of the Dwellers Below, and to provide a direct link to the Elemental Chaos, the staff is considered a significant relic of considerable power. Nevertheless, lack of interest in geomantic studies and the usual bureacratic confusion have left it neglected in the archives for many years.

Voran left instructions that her paraphernalia should be maintained as a coherent collection in a single room suitable for geomantic experimentation, sealed with Class Four wards to ensure their preservation, and accessible to any Suitable Person with a Genuine Scholarly Interest in the collection on condition that their use of the material be monitored and a nominal payment of one silver piece made to the Guild's Poor Relief Fund. Unable to classify the relic satisfactorily as Staff (Wizardly) nor Relic (Geomantic), nor to meet these exacting conditions under current funding arrangements, generations of Archivists have compromised by leaving the entire collection in the chests they arrived in, refusing to catalogue them at all, and storing them unsorted in a disused corner where they are occasionally hunted down by keen researchers, working from hearsay and marginal notes, who scribble their names on a scrap of parchment pinned to the lid of the largest chest and try to ferret out some morsel of knowledge crucial to their work.

Recently, maintenance in the Archive led the archivists to inspect that corner thoroughly, whereupon the staff was found to be missing. A more than usually erratic researcher had been investigating that corner of the Archive, going under the name of Tildis, and subsequent enquiries have confirmed her as the probable culprit. Several weeks have passed since she was last seen.

With the Guildhall's reputation at stake, and a hazardous artefact at large, a small group of trusted agents has been recruited to discreetly seek it out and restore it to the Guildhall's hands. While only an expert geomancer could hope to master the staff's powers, unskilled meddling with such a relic could be disastrous. The Archwizards dare not advertise the theft, in case the thief is inspired to try its powers, or worse, an unscrupulous wizard learns of the staff and tracks it down before they can. It would also be politically awkward. As it happens, the party have an existing relationship with the Guildhall, and are one of the groups approached to help retrieve the staff.

The party seem to have made the right deductions, and they have been following the thief's trail for a few days. It leads into an uninhabited valley known as the Scar, left by a meteorite that ploughed through the land centuries ago, allegedly sent by a vengeful god (nobody quite agrees on which) to destroy a temple that displeased them for some reason or other (usually bawdy or moralistic, and occasionally both). The region is unsuited to farming, home to wild beasts, and is generally avoided.

Unfortunately, subtle enquiries a couple of towns back seem to have attracted some attention, and the party have the disconcerting feeling that larcenous wheels may have been set in motion. Perhaps merely petty thieves; perhaps the informants of a corrupt mage, or even of more sinister powers. It would be wise to recover the staff promptly and return to the Guildhall with all due speed.

GM comments

This was the alternative introduction I scribbled up for the Stick in the Mud scenario. As I mentioned previously, there was a bit of hacking needed. I was keen to start the PCs out in the exploration phase, since time is short in our sessions and I wasn't sure when we might schedule another game with the same players - I didn't want to spend the whole time in town getting backstory. So I went ahead and narrated them to the edge of the valley.

A minor issue with the scenario is that the Chaos Scar doesn't exist in my gameworld. This isn't a particular problem, since it doesn't especially matter where the adventure happens. More importantly, I wasn't that keen on the hooks. The basis for the scenario - wizard's artefact causes chaos when bullywugs start tampering with it - can't be known to the players, and even when they work out what is happening, they won't really know what did happen. The hooks themselves also don't particularly work for me. There's someone trying to find the staff - which just so happens to have been corrupted by the bullywugs at a convenient point in time, leading to a coincidence I don't especially like. Or there's two Kill Ten Bullywugs quests, which I'd prefer to avoid, because I'm sort of concerned that that approach leads to the PCs seeing themselves as murderers for hire rather than heroes; in both cases there's again the sheer coincidence of the staff. I'm not saying it's the worst thing even, but I wasn't that happy with them.

Instead, I tried to sketch up something that felt a bit more fitting. I won't claim it's a work of genius but it seemed to do the trick. The Guildhall stuff fleshes out the world a bit and offers some future plot potential. It explains why they're going to the valley and why they should keep exploring when they realise it's dangerous. It explains why there's a magic staff here and why it might be causing elemental havoc. It gives them a reason to hurry. And it has some librarian references that produced a satisfactory ripple of groans.

The background

I wrote up a bit of background for my own interest, and to help me picture for myself what was here and how I might answer players' questions. It's more or less in the same style as the notes for players, basically because that's just how I tend to write stuff. For some reason I was never much cop at rough notes; they always end up as full sentences, and I seem to find that easier to use.

The Scar does indeed hide the broken remains of an ancient temple, though its precise nature is no longer apparent. The fugitive discovered the ruins and chose to hide there while she examined her stolen treasure – one of a number of magical and unusual items she spirited away over several months of increasing madness. Unfortunately, between illness and ignorance, and the lingering influence of the temple, she managed only to trigger some of the staff's powers in an uncontrolled manner, with fatal results. Elemental magic has seeped chaotically throughout the temple, altering the environment and summoning or shaping a number of unpleasant entities. Allowed to continue its work much longer, the malfunctioning staff could spell havoc for the region.

Between its lingering aura and the presence of magical items, the temple grounds have attracted or spawned a number of bullywugs, warped creatures whose very presence oppresses the land. Deeper within, a number of elemental beings have taken up residence.

The barren stretch of valley before you suddenly becomes a chaotic jumble of shattered masonry. In the center of the mess, on a low hill, stands the ruined foundation of a keep or tower. Only the lower section and a few walls still stand; however, enough remains intact to cast ominous shadows that could hide nearly anything.

Anyone with reasonable Nature can judge that the valley is not the sole work of a meteor strike; only a truly colossal meteor could create such a rift. However, it does seem that a sizeable meteor landed here, amidst a sizeable complex of buildings; its trail and crater have been enlarged over the centuries by wind and rain. It is heavily overgrown and somewhat marshy, with a lacklustre river trickling through.

Local hunters and wanderers claim that wolves, bears, griffons, fire beetles and bloodthorns may be found in the Scar and its surrounding wilderness. Nature will find the odd sign of both beetles and wolves, and none of the creatures would be particularly unusual in such a remote region – indeed, more dangerous beasts might be present.

From a distance, History can suggest:

  • the layout is indeed reminiscent of a temple complex or monastery grounds (10)
  • the architecture and unsophistication of the buildings and mounds suggest a Seldian-era construction (Dark Ages equivalent). (15, or 10 with time)
  • it is not possible to deduce details of the temple's significance without closer inspection.

There are several small areas, apparently outbuildings, that survive as low walls, as well as a number of mounds. None contain much of note. There are occasional bones (animal and humanoid) but centuries have passed to remove any traces. One outbuilding contains the remains of a crude tent, a badly rusted cooking pot and frame, and the rotted remains of what was once a wooden box, whose contents have been got at by wild animals. It must be years or decades old. Perhaps a traveller or fugitive came this way and did not survive the journey. Only one substantial building seems to have escaped complete destruction.

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