Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Barbarez

The Barbarez
A faction in Krevborna

The Barbarez are a mercenary band comprised solely of cambions fathered by a demon lord known as the Dark Prince upon the women he seduces. The fiends of the Barbarez serve anyone depraved enough to employ them. When not under contract as unholy soldiers, they operate as bandits—raiding caravans and settlements in the West Marches for both earthly wealth and an impure love of bloodshed and mayhem.

    • Motto. “We kill in the name of our father.”

    • Belief. There is poetry in wanton destruction.

    • Goal. Spread the chaotic stain of the Abyss’s corruption.

    • Quest. Rescue a hapless fool who has been taken captive by the Barbarez.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Not My Ravenloft: Powers Checks

Ravenloft is my favorite of the official D&D settings. However, there are some bits of the setting's mechanical implementation that I just don't use, for one reason or another. The first of them that I want to talk about is the powers check mechanic introduced in the Realm of Terror box set.

Powers Check
The idea behind the powers check mechanic is suitably thematic for a Gothic setting. Committing evil acts in Ravenloft triggers rolls to see if your character is warped by the powers of darkness until they ultimately become a villainous NPC under the control of the Dungeon Master. Along the way toward becoming an NPC villain, a character gains strange powers and finds their body and mind twisted and corrupted. 

Although that descent into evil is a very Gothic notion, the mechanic mostly serves the purpose of enforcing 2e AD&D's sense of morality to deflect any holdover criticism from the years of the Satanic Panic. In my view, the mechanic can be a roleplaying straight jacket instead of game design that reinforces the Gothic mood. If a player wants to lean into the idea that their character has become tempted by evil or corrupted by darkness, which also seem perfectly cromulent in a Gothic setting, the mechanic punishes them for playing in that mode by eventually taking their character away. The road down into the abyss also has a tendency to cripple your character in one way or another.

The Realm of Terror box set is explicitly clear that powers checks are intended to make players play the game the right way: "The AD&D game is designed for heroes, but the best intentions of the DM and all guidelines to the contrary, some people insist on playing the opposite. These players, if not careful, may find their characters gradually wrested from their control." You can almost hear the beleaguered sigh of the camp counselor as they tell you kids to knock it off or nobody will be allowed to go swimming after lunch.

However, since the base concept of characters becoming warped by choosing evil is a compelling one, I leave this up to the player's choice instead of mechanizing it in my games; if a player wants to see their character changed by shadowy forces, I'll work with them so that we can see that happen in a way that is satisfying to the player instead of a punitive measure.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Land of Horny Magic

Valley of Plenty 3: Land of Horny Magic

Welcome to the Valley of Plenty! In these green and gentle pastures, Jack explains the plots of stories from the Witcher series to Kate, who feels like she already completed her tour of duty in this particular fantasyland. In this bite-sized episode, Jack explains what he's learned about the world portrayed in Andrzej Sapkowski's short story collection The Sword of Destiny. Does Geralt of Rivia become an interesting character? How horny are sorcerers? Is destiny the boss of Geralt after all? Tune in and find out!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Tarn Apart: Myrkrannia and Magnus Karlok

Art by Sandra Duchiewicz

 week I dreamed of a lake that spanned between the realms of two vampires, each dead set on the other's destruction. This is a powder keg set in Ravenloft inspired by that dream. Part one, detailing Bordel and Countess Yulia Iscarion, is here.

Art by Gerry Arthur
Count Magnus Karlok
Count Magnus Karlok rules Myrkrannia from the seven-towered castle known as Siebenhurst. He is a bellicose traditionalist; Count Magnus believes that martial valor is the mark of noble character, and as such he encourages the vampires who serve him in House Karlok to pursue the arts of war. He values military rigor and expects the vampires of his house to display bravery, honor, and excellence in battle to prove their superiority over the living chattel they rule. Tournaments and contests of arms are common in the court of Karlok. The Count has fostered an atmosphere of stoicism among the people he rules. Myrkrannians are noted for their imperturbable and cold-blooded meins because they aspire to the indifferent and passionless demeanor of Magnus Karlok. 

Myrkrannia is a town of industry. Black clouds of smoke perpetually hang over the town, most of which is due to the many active forges and smiths who live there. Myrkrannia is known as a hub of weapon and armor production. Indeed, it would please Magnus Karlok greatly if his town were to become famed for the fine quality of its armaments. Fencing—particularly a brutal form using sabers that leaves the participants bearing horrific facial scars as badges of honor—is popular among the townsfolk of Myrkrannia as a way to emulate the warlike ideals of the vampires who govern them.

The farmlands surrounding Myrkrannia are also particularly rich and verdant. Every year during the sowing season a peculiar rite takes place. Count Magnus emerges from Siebenhurst and visits each farmstead under the cover of night. At each farm, the Count sheds his blood upon the soil, which is believed to establish an unbreakable connection between the vampire lord and the prosperity of his land. When the Count is pleased, crops grow hearty and hale. The people fear that if Magnus Karlok is ever slain, the land will sicken and wither without him. Whatever the true nature of the Count's connection to his territory, he does possess a supernatural awareness of intruders and dissidence within the boundaries of his realm. 

The Brides of Count Magnus Karlok
Count Magnus’s greatest allies are his three monstrous brides. Each of them is a erinyes. Melaina acts as Magnus’s spymaster. Phaenestra acts as his private assassin. Maxima assists him in drawing battle plans that they hope will allow Magnus Karlok to annex the town of Bordel. Rumors abound about the origins of these three brides and how they came to wed their husband. In truth, each was sent by the archdevil Zariel to assist Magnus Karlok. Zariel’s aim is for Karlok to become reliant on his brides, and by proxy reliant on Zariel’s aid in his war against Yulia Iscarion, and thus more open to making a diabolic bargain.

The Knights of Draghul
Count Magnus Karlok maintains an elite band of warriors known as the Knights of Draghul, who direct and lead his militias. The membership of the Knights of Draghul is mostly comprised of human fighters and the scions of the dragonborn families that Count Magnus has allowed to settle in Myrkrannia. Count Magnus trains each of his knights personally; they tend to be fanatically loyal to him, some even going so far as to view him as a demigod of war. Although their faith in Karlok is not a proper religion, and the worship of the Lawgiver in Myrkrannia is widespread as a concession to Nova Vaasan custom, the Knights of Draghul do practice formal rituals that invoke their master’s name as a quasi-divinity. The leadership of the Knights of Draghul are all vampires created by the Count. Induction into undeath is considered a promotion and a mark of honor bestowed only on the most loyal knights. The Knights of Draghul are immediately recognizable on the battlefield—each Knight handcrafts his or her own iron helm in the style of a grim, diabolic visage.

Who’s Doomed in Myrkrannia: Count Magnus Karlok
Count Magnus Karlok is the vampire lord of the noble House of Karlok and the ruler of Myrkrannia. He is stiff and often unforgiving—he is also a man of little patience with failure, weakness, or cowardice.
    • Appearance. A towering man of rigid, militaristic demeanor. His black hair, beard, and mustache are kept immaculately trimmed. The Count’s gaze is piercing and judgmental. When battle looms, he dons blood-red armor and wields a fearsome greatsword. 
    • Abilities. Genius for military tactics. He is an exceptional swordsman.
    • Traits. Respects discipline and valor. Demands honorable behavior from the members of his family.
    • Ideal. To bring glory to the House of Karlok through martial victory.
    • Bonds. He still mourns the loss of his first wife, a human woman named Ekaterina.
    • Flaw. The Count’s assumed superiority blinds him to danger. Also, deep below his controlled exterior is an urge to give in to wanton violence and bloodlust.

Dread Possibility: Irreconcilable Differences
The feud between the House of Karlok and the House of Iscarion dates back uncountable generations, originating in another world that was decimated by the hostilities between the two vampire clans. In truth, neither Yulia nor Magnus understand why they pursue this vendetta; they are driven by the weight of tradition to slay each other. The war between Yulia Iscarion and Magnus Karlok is simply a case of irreconcilable ideologies. In Yulia’s view, Magnus represents an outmoded old guard that needs to be swept aside in the name of progress. In Magnus’s view, Yulia’s pleasure-seeking frivolity is an affront to the proud martial traditions of the true vampire aristocracy.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Final Choice

The Final Choice
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues...and the arc ends.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock/rogue
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

When we had last left our heroes, they had ventured into the ballroom of Leonora Vos's house--where they found themselves mocked by the wicked painter Donna Pietra Sangino. Sangino used the landscape paintings hanging in the room as portals to summon three painted monstrosities to accost the party: an owlbear, a hell hound, and a maw demon. 

Al' quickly exploded the maw demon with a bolt of divine radiance, but in its death throes the creature leapt across the room and delivered a ferocious bite to its killer before expiring. The hell hound proved even more dangerous; it breathed great blasts of fire that enveloped multiple members of the group. A powerful spell rendered the hell hound blind, which greatly weakened it and allowed it to be dealt with more easily.

Tank kept the owlbear tied-up and unable to reach the rest of the group. Although the monster was hideously strong, its horrific beak and claws had trouble piercing Tank's defenses. Once combat had begun, Donna Pietra Sangino stepped out of a painting and joined the fray; unerring darts of magical force sprang from her fingers. One of Sangino's attacks nearly killed Tekla, but the warlock discovered that being returned to a strange state between life and undeath by the Raven Queen had imbued her with unnatural vigor that resisted the finality of death. Tank gained the upper hand against the owlbear; a blow from his sword reduced the monster to a splatter of oil paint.

Things looked dire for our heroes at points throughout this battle. Members of the party would be taken out by Sangino or her minions, only to be brought back from the breach by magic, a potion, or the blessing of the Raven Queen. Once her painted monstrosities were vanquished, Sangino attempted to save her own skin by creating a painted duplicate of herself, but in was in vain: a mighty swing from Tank cut through both her duplicate and neatly bisected the malignant artist. The party's most hated villain, the woman who had gotten them entangled in machinations that led them to the gallows, now lay dead at their feet.

After collecting Emilia, who had been cowering in a corner of the room, the party resumed their search for Leonora Vos and the long-promised way home. A search the remainder of the house uncovered more evidence of a break-in and the rampage of Sangino's painted monsters; it seemed likely that the servants had been killed much like the dwarven miners excavating in the stone ruins. On the second floor, the party found a door that was blocked from the inside. Tank put his muscles to good use and shouldered his way through what turned out to be a barricade made of furniture. Inside this master bedroom they found Leonora Vos. Frightened out of her wits, Vos summoned a magical flame shaped like a bird and yelled "Stay back, I know magic!"

The party attempted to put her at ease. Gnargar cut himself to illustrate that they were flesh-and-blood mortals, and not creatures of paint and magic who served Donna Pietra Sangino. They explained that the evil artist had been dealt with and why they had come to her house. Leonora was satisfied with their explanation, but still worried about any monsters that may still be wandering in her house. The group assured her that they had killed the threats, but Leonora pointed to the dark shapes moving on the balcony outside the bedroom and said, "Then what is that?"

The lurking beasts shattered the windows and lurched into the room. They were driders, save that the drow upper torso of each appeared to be limp, dead eyed, and cadaverous. Inconveniently, Emilia announced that she was going into labor; the birth of her child was immanent! The group quickly sent Emilia and Leonora out of the room while they engaged the last of Sangino's interlopers. 

The last of Sangino's minions dispatched, the group went in search of Leonora and Emilia, but they didn't have to go far before finding them; Emilia was lying in the hallway, about to give birth. Despite her familiarity with the propagation of rare plants, Leonora knew nothing about delivering a it was up to Al' to serve as the midwife in attendance. Discovering a previously unknown aptitude, Al' successfully guided a new life into the world. Everyone was relieved to find that the child had been born without any sign of corruption.

However, the birth of the child did bring a further supernatural intervention. The moonlight streaming into the hallway went dim, and a familiar woman clad in a black gown, a crown of twisted iron, and a cloak of feathers emerged from the shadows--the Raven Queen had manifested before their eyes once more. She declared that Emilia would stay with Leonora and that they would raise the child together. 

She then turned her attention to the party and offered them a further bargain. She noted that they had succeeded in removing the child's curse where their ancestors had failed generations ago. She also said that Ravenloft was still in need of such daring champions. To that end, she posited two possibilities: Leonora could use her magical statues to send them back to their home world or the Raven Queen could restore them fully to life if they would agree to remain in the Land of the Mists to continue to fight against the evils that plague this world.

The party unanimously agreed to stay and bring light to the dark places of Ravenloft.

The Raven Queen gave them a rare, uncharacteristic smile. Thick gray mist rose from the floor, clouding their vision and enveloping them. When the mists cleared, they found themselves standing at the side of an unfamiliar road. Their skins had returned to their living hues and the marks of the nooses that had taken their lives had now been erased. Looking to east, they saw the sun rise over a troubled land that they had sworn to protect.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Secrets Under Stone Review

Secrets Under Stone is a terse indie game focused on Gothic Fantasy Roleplaying. The game's system is an adaptation of the rules found in the Fighting Fantasy solo game books and Advanced Fighting Fantasy roleplaying game. Previously, I hadn't been convinced that the Fighting Fantasy system was a good fit for full-on roleplaying games; it works really well for solo game books, but characters consisting of three stats that are basically Hit Points, Saving Throws, and How Good You Are at Everything Else never felt deep enough for a satisfying roleplaying game experience. Secrets Under Stone addresses that by splitting How Good You Are at Everything Else into three broad ability scores: Brawn, Knack, and Knowledge. Such a small change, yet it feels like it grants so depth to the characters you can create.

Although I don't tend to prefer random character creation, the rules for it in Secrets Under Stone are fairly clever: roll d66 six times to determine your character's starting skills. Each skill comes with one piece of adventuring equipment. Total up how many skills you rolled that are connected to each of the three abilities, and do a little maths to determine your starting ability scores. As an example of what a character looks like in Secrets Under Stone, here's a character I rolled up:

Brawn 5, Knack 5, Knowledge 6
Stamina 12, Luck 8
Skills: Religion: dominant, Halberd fighting, Random language (Faery), Nature lore, Sneaking, Navigation
Equipment: Frightful relic, halberd, exotic tome (fae lore), poison vial and recipe, compass, rucksack, dagger, lantern with oil flask, 5 provisions, 14 silver coins

The chances for success in Secret Under Stone look a little low for my tastes (there's potential for a lot of whiffed rolls), but advancement seems like it would be speedy, at least initially. Task resolution is handled by simple 2d6 roll-under ability score tests, with relevant skills providing a bonus to the ability score under consideration.

The Gothic elements of Secrets Under Stone emerge most strongly in character creation. Although many of the skills and items that characters can start with would be at home in any vaguely early modern-influenced fantasy setting, skills like spiritualism and equipment like the frightful relic set the tone. The Gothic atmosphere is also subtly enhanced by what isn't included here; the absence of more traditional fantasy magic goes a long way toward emphasizing what the game is and isn't about. 

While there isn't an explicit setting in Secrets Under Stone, the implied setting is hinted at through player-facing options such as Rituals and Contracts. Rituals, despite the magical-sounding name, really cover any extraordinary abilities a character might gain from deep knowledge of a given subject. One example of a Ritual in the book is an Archaeology Ritual that allows you to produce convincing forgeries. Contracts are pacts with supernatural Patrons that allow for characters to gain boons and knowledge beyond their usual abilities. Of course, these benefits have requirements and carry the treat of your character becoming accursed. 

One thing I like about the style of Secrets Under Stone it is that it isn't written in that whimsical artiste tone that really grates on my nerves. (I thought we had reached the nadir with the grimdark artiste tone, but little did I know that there was another level of hell awaiting that was even worse!) Secrets Under Stone is written in a straightforward manner, with good editing and the occasional textual flourish, which I greatly appreciate.

It is a shame that the art in Secrets Under Stone is all drawn from the woodcuts and illustrations we've seen often in similar indie roleplaying game products because the game deserves bespoke art. I get it, though, art is expensive. Also, I do wish there was a bit more content, particularly in the bestiary, which eats up available space with mundane animals. I would have made a few different choices here and there, but all in all I think Secrets Under Stone is a solid little game. The real test of a game is the answer to a simple question: would I play this? In the case of Secrets Under Stone, I unreservedly would. Despite my minor critiques, this is a very concise and thoughtful game.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Tarn Apart: Bordel and Yulia Iscarion

Art by Sandra Duchiewicz
Last week I dreamed of a lake that spanned between the realms of two vampires, each dead set on the other's destruction. This is a powder keg set in Ravenloft inspired by that dream.

Tarn Apart: Bordel and Myrkrannia
Lake Sombra, a tarn fed by the Trished River, separates the towns of Bordel and Myrkrannia. Although the towns are nominally located within the borders of Darkon and Nova Vaasa respectively, they actually exist within a pocket domain that has trapped two darklords in a twisted contest for dominance of the lake, its towns, and the surrounding farmlands. Residents of Bordel and Myrkrannia tend to stay on their side of the lake and rarely interact with citizens of the other town—for they know that the vampire nobles who rule them are engaged in a subtle war against each other. Thus far, the enmity between the rulers of Bordel and Myrkrannia has resulted in minor skirmishes and a few assassination attempts, but it is only a matter of time until the vampires’ forces clash against each other in earnest.

Art by Noah Thatcher
Countess Yulia Iscarion
The vampire Countess Yulia Iscarion rules Bordel from the elegant, gleaming Castle Trevania. She considers herself a woman of taste and culture, as well as a patron of the arts. Her court attracts musicians, painters, and poets of talent—though the Countess is prone to mercurial shifts in mood, and artists who lose her favor sometimes disappear without a trace. Yulia Iscarion promotes her rule as enlightened and chivalrous, but the vampires who comprise her inner circle of courtiers are just as likely to be cruel and capricious as they are to be mannered and measured. No matter their true inner natures, the courtiers in Iscarion's realms are required to be fashionable and hedonistic. Recently, the Countess has declared that powdered wigs are de riguour and lavish masquerade balls that end in orgiastic bloodletting are the favored form of revelry.

Under the Countess's watchful eye, Bordel maintains a facade as a bustling town where the streets are swept clean, the buildings are well maintained, and the streets are kept in good repair. Though most common professions are practiced in Bordel, one quickly notices that the town hosts more than the usual number of brothels, opium dens, and other places of bawdy entertainment. Indeed, Bordel has garnered a reputation as a town amiable to pleasurable debauchery for those with the coin necessary to indulge their jaded appetites. Despite its remote location, Bordel’s notoriety draws wealthy sybarites from across Ravenloft—and particularly from the nearby Nova Vaasan city of Liara.

The reason for the prominence of its licentious establishments is a simple, but well kept, secret: the vampires of House Iscarion are fanatical members of a cult devoted to Malcanthet, the Demon Queen of Succubi. Countess Iscarion demands that every house of ill fame—including the private chambers of high-class courtesans, maintain a secret altar to Malcanthet. These shrines, especially the ones located in brothels catering to the most base and depraved tastes, gather energy that tears at the fabric of the world. Eventually, the cult hopes, this magical accumulation will result in an abyssal incursion that allows Malcanthet entrance into Ravenloft. 

Countess Yulia Iscarion’s Allies
Countess Iscarion’s most powerful allies are Grezik von Skarnstein and Lizavetta Iscarion. Grezik is a handsome artificer who has been given an extensive laboratory in the catacombs of Castle Trevania. He uses his magic to create new weapons of war to confound Count Magnus’s forces. Lizavetta is the Countess’s lover and a recent addition to the vampiric House of Iscarion. She is a high-ranking member of the cult of Malcanthet able to harness the arcane powers of black magic at her mistress’s behest. Lizavetta is also a charismatic leader who can persuade the hedonistic vampires of House Iscarion to risk their unlives to fight on behalf of the Countess.

Art by Wojciech Zwolinski
The Host of Malcanthet
Most of the traditional warriors used by Countess Iscarion are drawn from the ranks of mercenary bands under her employ. However, the Countess prefers to use inhuman monstrosities to bolster her private army. She is favored by Malcanthet, who whispers the secrets of summoning cambions from the Abyss while the Countess slumbers during the daylight hours. Yulia Iscarion also uses the more subtle fiends to wage her favored form of war against Count von Kalok—intrigue. The Countess uses succubi and incubi to seduce the Count’s advisors and generals to glean the details of his battle plans—all the better to counter them with stratagems and betrayals rather than brute force of arms.

Who’s Doomed in Bordel: Countess Yulia Iscarion
Countess Yulia Iscarion is the vampiric head of the noble House of Iscarion and the ruler of Bordel. She is a hedonist and a gleeful devotee of Malcanthet.
    • Appearance. A tall, but willowy, woman with long, straight red hair. Her lips are unnaturally crimson and her skin is a perfect alabaster. She prefers to dress in slinky, tight-fitting gowns that bare her slender shoulders.
    • Abilities. She has a true talent for espionage. She is seductive and her words are poison.
    • Traits. She favors quiet assassination over direct aggression. She appreciates witty conversation.
    • Ideal. To defeat Count Magnus Karlok through stratagem and add his territory to her own in the name of Malcanthet.
    • Bonds. She is an especially generous patron of the arts. She also has a harem of intellectuals she keeps to stave off the boredom of immortality.
    • Flaw. Her vanity can be manipulated.

Next time I will tell you of Magnus Karlok and the town of Myrkrannia...

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Of Betrayal and Benediction

Of Betrayal and Benediction
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock/rogue
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

Following the map that had been provided by the innkeeper of the Coxcomb, the party arrived at the estate of Leonora Vos under the cover of night. The estate's grounds were heavily forested; the paths became too narrow to drive Bela's vardo along the paths that led up the hill to a darkened shape they assumed was Vos's house--but since there were no lights on in the edifice, it was difficult to tell. There were two rough paths to choose from: one that wound its way toward an object glowing with faint luminescence and one that headed toward what appeared to be a wooden bridge spanning a pond. They decided to leave Bela and Emilia in the vardo at an apiary and walk toward the eerie glow.

The luminescent object proved to be a statue of a bathing woman in the middle of a small pond. The statue was carved from an unusual white stone that mimicked the pale light of the moon. The group noticed that the statue also included a small bird perched upon the woman's outstretched hand. Traveling onward, the party found another statue carved from the same glowing white stone. This massive statue depicted a bearded man crouched on a bed of stones; on his knee was perched a vulture carved of the same strange material. The bird motif reminded the group that the people they had questioned about Vos at the Coxcomb had referred to her as "the bird witch." They had also claimed that she was mad, but harmless...but the atmosphere of her estate was not putting the party at ease.

After encountering the statue of the bearded man, the group spotted a partially ruined stone building. Scouting the atrium of the building with Tekla's dove familiar gave them a sense of the building's layout: inside was a raised dais with statue of a cloaked man (also carved from the now familiar white stone and also including a bird companion), a large circular hole that dropped down into a basement level, and a staircase also leading down into the lower depths. The party decided it was worthwhile to explore the lower levels, figuring that the darkling rose they were looking for might be growing in subterranean depths.

The group discovered a large oak tree growing beneath the circular hole they had found above. They also found signs that the ruins were currently in use: although the chambers were dusty, there were candelabras holding partially burned candles; gardening tools that showed signs of recent use; a library of horticultural books and a hand-drawn map (with a brass acorn atop it that Al' pocketed); freshly cleaned bird cages; and a laboratory with twelve carefully cultivated specimens of rare plants--some of which were revealed to have supernatural properties by a detect magic spell.

They also discovered stairs leading down into a deeper level beneath the ruins. This lower level had been roughly carved out of the bedrock. Following the tunnels in this level led them to signs of ongoing excavation: wheelbarrows, pickaxes, shovels, and a strongbox containing gold coins and a signed contract between Vos and six dwarves that secured their services. They also found the dwarves' secret drinking alcove, which contained several casks of ale and graffiti written in Dwarvish: "This woman is mad. Now we drink!" that had clearly been written while intoxicated. Also uncovered was a deep chasm that had been drilled through the stone leading to yet another lower level.

After using ropes to rappel down, they found the corpses of the six dwarven miners. The dwarves had clearly been attacked, but their bodies evidenced a multitude of different kinds of wounds: punctures, slashes, bites...and curious residue that looked suspiciously like oil paint. The sound of rushing water could also be heard, the source of which was an underground river. Alongside the river's bank grew black flowers...the darkling rose had been located at last!

On the way back through the complex, Al' was unnerved to discover that something on his person seemed to be talking to him. The brass acorn he had taken earlier turned out to be a magical device that allows the bearer to communicate with dryads over great distances. Al' found himself in a brief conversation with Rosalva, the dryad they had encountered in the grove on the grounds of the Convent of Our Lady in the Mists. Rosalva was able to confirm that the flower was indeed the darkling rose and that it should have the power to break Emilia's curse. She also extracted a promise that they would drink mightily again soon.

The party returned to the vardo, intent on affecting a cure for Emilia using the darkling rose, the Feywild waters obtained at the convent, and the grail of Ezra. When petals from the darkling rose and the Feywild water was combined in the sacred chalice, it formed a tar-black liquid. But before they could administer the draught to Emilia, Bela drew a dagger and attempted to stab Al' in the back!

Gnargar's tarokka reading had forewarned him of this act of betrayal; his hand shot out and forcefully grabbed Bela's wrist, preventing the strike from landing true. Gnargar then punched Bela in the face, knocking him unconscious. Using the manacles they had acquired from the bounty hunters who had previously tried to apprehend them, Bela was bound and then roused back to consciousness. Interrogation revealed that Bela was not Emilia's brother; he had been searching for her because he planned on turning her monstrous child into a weapon he could use to amass personal power. He had tried to prevent the party from giving Emilia the darkling rose decoction because he believed that it would remove the curse that had destined her child to be a monster.

What he said matched what they had been told by the Raven Queen; she said that the child had the potential to either bring about a bloody apocalypse or to act as this world's savior. All of this was taken as points in favor of administering the darkling rose to Emilia. Her body violently convulsed and her eyes fluttered open! The thing in her belly no longer writhed like a serpent; the curse was lifted!

Now awake, Emilia was amazed to find herself in Lamordia. She had never seen Bela Drachen before in her life; he was certainly not her brother. She reported that she had been kidnapped by masked figures while eloping with Piotyr, her beloved, but had no memories after that. 

All that remained for the party was to locate Leonora Vos and see if she could help them find a way back to their own world. And so, with Emilia in tow, they made their way to the house now outlined by the moonlight. There were signs of danger, however; the front door had clearly been forced and more paint stains were discovered. Exploration of the house culminated in an encounter in the ballroom: the hated villain Donna Pietra Sangino appeared within one of the landscape paintings on the wall--she had contrived to have her revenge on the party for ruining her schemes in Ghastria! At Sangino's behest, three painted monsters stepped from the frames on the walls: a ravenous maw positioned atop three stumpy legs, a black hound with eyes of flame, and a hideous combination of owl and bear. To arms! Will our heroes survive to continue their search for Leonora Vos and the long-promised return home?

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

A Song of Heroes, Past and Present

A Song of Heroes, Past and Present
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock/rogue
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

The weather grew colder as the party ventured into Lamordia. Snow began to fall gently, settling on the bare limbs of trees and blanketing the roads that led north. Bela Drachen had been withdrawn and mostly silent as they traveled; he seemed lost in worry over his sister’s accursed state. Emilia remained catatonic. However, there was one sign of activity: something within her belly moved, wriggling just below the line of her flesh like a caught eel.

The party stopped to ask for directions to Leonora Vos's house at The Coxcomb, a small-but-cozy wayside inn. Inside, the proprietor stood behind the bar, chatting to two farmers. A bard, a young woman dressed in a stylish approximation of jester's motley, sat on a stool near the fireplace, strumming a lyre. The only occupied table had four figures seated around it: a grizzled man, gray of hair and beard; a feral-looking woman in furs; a woman with dark, curly hair and a gold chain extending from her ear to her nose; a man with a militaristic haircut clad in black robes.

Tekla chatted to the innkeeper. Eyeing the weaponry the party was carrying, he stammered, "Please, don't start any trouble here. Just...just don't kill anyone." After assuring him that no blood would be spilled on premises, Tekla convinced him to draw them a map that would take them the rest of the way to Leonora Vos's home. 

The bard began to sing a ballad in a clear, sorrowful voice while plucking the strings of her lyre. The first verse concerned a group of five unlikely heroes who banded together to prevent a monstrous child from being born under an apocalyptic prophecy. One of the heroes was a mighty orc warrior; although reviled because of their orcish blood, they were unfailingly brave and valorous. Another of the heroes was a feline trickster, cunning and clever, always able to squirm their way out of a scrape. And then there was a witch of the Vardegan clan, wise in the ways of the arcane and a staunch defender of the natural world. Yet another of the heroes was small in stature, but large in heroic deeds--she noticed things that other could not. The last verse told of the betrayal wrought by the last of the heroes: a drow matriarch whose faith in the goddess of life masked a deeper devotion to Lolth, the Queen of the Demonweb pits. This last hero forestalled victory; through her machinations, she managed to delay the birth of the apocalyptic child until a time more advantageous to Lolth instead of lifting the curse as the group had planned.

The content of the ballad was another strange echo that resembled the individuals assembled in the party, though inexactly, much like the group portrait that had been painted by Donna Pietra Sangino. Al' was also troubled by the last verse, which made him question whether the religion that had been passed down through his family was only a mask that hid devotion to Lolth. The tarokka reading he had been given did mention a crisis of faith and betrayal, after all.

13 Shattered Mirrors approached the bard after her performance, and she introduced herself as Cassie DuVal. When asked about the provenance of the ballad, she explained that the subject was an ancient tale, passed down through the generations, and that there are others like it in throughout the land that told tales of evil that was never quite vanquished--the tragedy of unfinished business. “That’s how it is, isn’t it?" she said, "We're all just living amongst the debris of the failures of past generations.” 13 Shattered Mirrors couldn't help up agree.

Figuring the seated group for a party of mercenaries, Tank approached them for some soldierly camaraderie with Gnargar in tow. The man in the black robes produced a folded piece of paper and showed it to the man with the gray hair and beard. The man put the paper face up on the table and threw a pair of manacles beside it. The paper was a wanted poster from Ghastria with drawings of Tank, Gnargar, 13 Shattered Mirrors, Tekla, and Al'. It offered five hundred gold pieces for each of them, dead or alive! "Well, looks like we found ourselves a nice, fat bounty," the grizzled man said as he drew a scimitar and a dagger.

Despite his eagerness to apprehend the party, the bounty hunters' leader spent almost the entirety of the fight paralyzed by a hold person spell until he was cut down. The feral woman was another story; despite fighting with a ferocity that left her open to counterattack, she dealt horrific wounds with her two-handed cleaver and withstood quite a few injuries herself. The dark haired woman charged at 13 Shattered Mirrors, keeping him pinned down at the bar. The man in the black robes cut himself with a razor to summon a scythe made of his own wretched blood.

The party was ultimately triumphant; the bounty hunters lay dead on the floor of the inn's common room. Suddenly, the door of the Coxcomb blew open, and a figure clad in a hooded black robe entered. His face was entirely obscured by his hood. He floated slightly above the ground as if the very act of walking was beneath him. He spoke to the innkeeper: “Ah, another fine harvest. Pleasure doing business with you.” With that, coins began to spill from his black sleeve onto the bar. More hooded figured entered and began to drag the corpses of the bounty hunters to a waiting cart outside. 

When this strange interloper had departed, the innkeeper was asked to explain what had just happened. He claimed that when he bought the inn he had also unwittingly inherited a bargain: anyone who died through violence in the inn would be claimed by that strange figure--a being known as Kalarel the Vile. Tekla was certain that the bodies he collected were being used for some unwholesome ritual purpose. 13 Shattered Mirrors asked Cassie if she would like to accompany them on their adventures. She asked if this kind of thing--random attacks by mercenaries, followed by the intercession of icy-voiced, floating magi--was usual for them. When they were forced to concede that it was, her answer was clear: "Hell no."