Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Sacbe 8 (Arrival in the Nexal Valley)

The travelers reached the valley of Nexal.  From a rocky outcrop, they surveyed the turgid brown lake, the listless fields, the swarms of desperate people approaching from all directions.  Based on a map Zolin had recovered, they identified three cities—Nexal iself on an insland in the lake, and the subsidiary city-states of Tezat and Azatl.  This was their destination, but what would they find?  Several members of the party were sick with exhaustion.  Zolin and Omechoka to go down for a closer look, taking with them Paal, Hoscotl and the two porters.

They crossed the dried-up fields and joined the procession of people making their way toward Azatl.  Omechoka’s jaguar armor inspired immediate respect.  The beleaguered families and haggard young man all gave them a wide berth.  Until another, larger man, also wearing jaguar armor came along, accompanied by 10 strong-looking.  This man challenged Omechoka with a cryptic greeting and, when Omechoka did not respond, accused him of not being a real jaguar warrior.  As the two faced off, Omechoka insulted Tezcatlipoca and promised that he would fight to the death rather than be sacrificed to him or any of the other gods.  He freely admitted that he had never captured a single prisoner and had stolen his jaguar armor from a warrior whom he had killed in ambush.  Such sacrilege so distressed the larger man that he ordered one of retainers to fight the duel in his place, encouraging him to do his best to capture Omechoka and so proceed to the next warrior rank.

The other warrior fought with a maca, while Omechoka fought with a knife in each hand.  They circled, Omechoka, constantly backing away from the wildly swung maca.  As Omechoka retrated, the other warriors tightened the circle, and one of them pushed him into the way of his opponents weapon.  The blade caught him above the ear and he was sent sprawling.  He lay face down in the dirt.  The jaguar warrior and his retainers cheered and the warrior brought out a rope to bind Omechoka. Omechoka let the warrior grab his arm, and then sprung into action. He kicked with his legs and stabbed the would-be captor in the armpit the warrior went down. His companions rushed into stop him from dying and the jaguar warrior ordered Omechoka to take his prisoner.  “You have defeated him.  Take him to the temple and give him the honor he has earned.”  Omechoka, still bewildered by the ways of city people, bound the man.

Omechoka himself was badly weakened by his wounds, so Zolin took charge of the prisoner.  As they proceeded toward Azatl, the other travelers were even more deferential than before.

Azatl did not seem to offer anything like what the travelers had expected when they left Otoch so many months before.  There were many more people, but they were all hungry.  Many of the houses were in ruins.  From the tops of the tall pyramids, fires burned day and night, but the constant sacrifices seemed to have purchased little in the way of divine favor.    In the market, those with money found little they wanted to buy—jewelry, feather clothing, and fine pottery were available.  But food was scare, half-spoiled and still too expensive.

The travelers spent the night in an abandoned house and the next day returned to their place on the cliff.

After a few days, it was clear that the sick people weren’t getting better.  Hoscotl thought that they should go back to Azatl to buy medicine and perhaps to find out something about the cloak of the one plume.  If they could find it and bring it back to the Village of the Cetay, then they would be honored and welcomed for a long time. Omechoka, still nursing his injuries, and Divemoye took his place.

Divemoye was shocked at the desperation of the of families traveling to Azatl.  He gave away all the food he carried and agreed to adopt a child from parents too poor to take care of him.  As the travelers reached the city, other migrants noticed that they carried plenty of food and begged to trade something for some of it.  Zolin firmly excluded Divemoye from these negotiations, and through shrewd trading, acquired a gold quill from a sunken-faced merchant.  This merchant said he could get them medicine, too, and also knew something about the cloak of the one plume.  He asked them to meet him that evening and told them where to find his house.

The travelers spent the rest of the days, looking for a safe place to rest.  They stayed well away from the pyramids where priests were preparing sacrifices.  The quiet parts of the city were barricaded and patrolled by jaguar warriors.  In the other parts of the city, they couldn’t avoid deserving beggars.

At nightfall, they found the merchants house.  They traded some more food for the promised medicine and listened to the merchant’s tale. In these strange times, the beast people, including half-human jaguar were showing themselves again.  A group of tabaxi had come to Tezat recently, stating that they knew the location of the cloak of one-plume and intended to retrieve it.  The jaguar warriros, not knowing what else to do, killed or captured the tabaxi.  At least one was still waiting to be sacrificed.  Zolin noted this with interest, intuiting that his face would be to seek the rescue the tabaxi.

And then there were some surprise visitors.  Three men, with macas and spears, who demanded all the travelers’ food.  The merchant seemed little surprised.  Divemoye charged the leader of the thieves, striking at him with his bronze-headed axe.  The man was a powerful warrior; he repelled Moye’s blows and pushed his way into the room. The other two thieves chased Hoscotl and the porters into the corner of the room, stabbing them with their spears.  Paal stepped forward to defend Divemoye from the lead warrior while Zolin attacked and killed one of the spearmen.  The powerful warrior struck Paal a grievous blow and demanded again that Zolin surrender his food.  Instead, Zollin killed the second spearman with his stone axe.  The powerful warrior did not like these odds.  He fled, warning the travelers that they wouldn’t leave the city alive.

Zolin turned on the merchant.  He tearfully apologized and promised both that the medicine was real and the information about the tabaxi was true.  He returned some of the food that Zolin had traded.

It was now night but the travelers decided to flee immediately.  They climbed up onto the merchant’s house and crossed the rooftops to leave the city.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Sacbe 7 (Leaving the Cetay)

The travelers remained in the village of cetay for several days. When it was time to leave, two of the villagers, Hosa and Hoscotl, volunteered to come along on the journey to Nexal. The village had once been the guardian of a legendary feather-cloak and rumors suggested that the cloak was last seen in Nexal. The travelers showed little interest in the legends of another village but they were happy to have additional companion for their journey.

While waiting for the appointed day of departure, Zollin, Atl and Omechoka heard rumors that animals had been seen—or at least heard—in the forest outside the village. Reasoning that a few hours hunting could provide them with enough meat to sustain them in their journey and to leave a gift with their hosts in the village, Zollin, Atl and Omechoka asked their new friend Hosa to help them track the mysterious animals. After several hours hunting, they heard a strange and unbeautiful sound, a long, rhythmic shriek without pathos. They traced the sound to a pair of huge, many-armed creatures, with heads like men, but lacking features. Atl encouraged Omechoka and Hosa to attack the creatures.

Atl’s exhortation was irrelevant as the creatures were charging and the terrible sound that seemed to emanate from them reached a nearly deafening level. They resembled enormous ants or other insects. They were multicolored—gray on the bottom and reddish brown on top. Their mandibles were like knives and their arms were like spears. Theirs tails tapered to a sharp point. Omechoka and Hosa prepared their weapons.

Hosa’s first blow knocked off one of the creature’s arms. Without flinching, it lashed at him with its remaining arm and mandibles. The other creature attacked Omechoka. Attacking it with his knife, he found that it seemed to be made of a strange metal, much harder than gold or silver. Hosa struck his attacker another solid blow, knocking off its head, whereupon it began flailing wildly and running in circles. Omechoka, fighting with a knife, was forced to get much closer to his assailant, relying on his armor to protect him. The giant bug lodged its mandibles in a thick fold of Omechoka’s jaguar pelt. He used this opportunity to seize hold of its head and wrench it from its body. This did not incapacitate the creature, however. Instead, it thrashed at Omechoka with its arms, cutting him several times across his chest. Atl and Zolin rushed forward to club the monster to the ground. When its body ruptured, there was an explosion of cold vapor, but no blood or viscera. As the four companions in battle caught their breath and tended to each others’ wounds, they heard the sound of another creature approaching. This one moved much more quickly, especially with its stinging tail. Omechoka was struck and collapsed to the ground. The top of the creature’s back opened like the lid of a box. His friend’s, shocked and horrified, watched the creature lift Omachoka with its long, spindly arms and placed him in the box, and in the same motion turned and started to run. Hosa chased after it and knocked off one of the creature’s legs. In the same instant, he was felled by a quick dart of the tail and pulled inside the creature. Zolin and Atl, however, attacked it from the sides before it could run away and brought it to the ground. There was a sizzling sound like a strike of lightning and then the creature was still. Zolin and Atl pried open the creature and dragged their friends out of the cavity inside. They were cold and unresponsive, but alive. Zolin and Atl carried them back to the village, where Atl mixed a warming drink to revive his friends.

The next day they finally set out, no richer for meat, but with three weeks’ worth of beans and maize. They traveled for three days in the jungle and reached a cliff where they saw that next section of their journey would take them across dry plains. They rested here for the night, and found places to refill their waterskins. During the night they heard voices. Atl called out that those making the noises should show themselves. Silence. A restless night for all.

The travelers reached the plains. The grass was brown. And, as the days progressed the dry grass turned to cracked earth. The wind picked up and tossed clouds of sand into the air, obscuring the white stones of the sacbe. The travellers pressed on toward Nexal and the valley of Zatal.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (collab with Rainbow Monkey Sock)

What happened inside the pyramid?

Bo Jing remembers it this way . . .

I Bo Jing was on the ship seeking adventure and new trade routes that would benefit my family.  I found many adventures, but as we reached Maztica, I wondered what new goods I would find. .But I really wanted adventure.

Inside the pyramid, I had many adventures.

There was a huge boulder that turned out to be a giant crab.  I leaped on top of it, drawing my fiery sword and with a great shout and a mighty blow, cleaved its shell in half and killed the monster.

Approaching another room, we heard singing.  We put wax in our ears to thwart any magical charm.  There was a woman swimming in a pool. I did my best to ignore her, telling myself she was an ugly siren, like a tadpole without a tail.  I knew that she wasn't really beautiful but just looked that way because of magic.

In another part of the pyramid, Bayan and I  got trapped behind iron bars that fell from the ceiling.  My friends noticed a painting of a sun and Shoji pressed it.  The bars opened and a secret passage was revealed behind the sun.

In that hall, there were four animal heads, one an eagle with a shiny thing in its beak.  When Kafka tried to get the shiny thing, the eagle's mouth shut and hurt him. Bayan unlocked the eagle's mouth with a tickle on the chin.

Continuing to explore the pyramid, we were alarmed when suddenly two iron doors slammed in front of us and behind us and sand began filling up the little space we had.  Singh got his axe and kept battering the door then he gave me the axe and I screamed my battle cry and smashed it down.

We came upon a room filled with giant beetles.  Bangqiu was a  coward. He floated up to scare the beetles and climb the mountain of trash and then he grabbed a shiny knife from inside the stinking pile of beetle excrement.

After the ball game (a tale for another day) my cowardly friend Bangqiu called out for help from Sardan. We got out of a hole in the roof that sardan made.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Play Report: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

Sometimes I write reviews of adventures that are five years old.  Sometimes I write reviews of reviews that are 5 years old.  In this case, Dungeon of Signs, reviewing The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan.  I'm doing this because I don't have much to add to what Mr. Lux wrote, except that I won't follow him to his bizarre conclusion that this is a really good module, but not good enough to play.  Because I did run the adventure, I have access to some additional insights, that I offer as tips on how to run the adventure.

As Lux notes, this one is hard to drop into a campaign, and I can't imagine re-skinning its Meso-American setting.  Its far from "accurate."  Mayan and Aztec pyramids were places for sacrifices, not burials, and didn't have much of an inside.  The Nereid (beautiful naked temptress) is from Greek mythology and feels really foreign to the Meso-American view of life as pain without pretense.  Despite this, the illustration booklet is very important to the adventure and everything in it looks Aztec  (or Chinese-- but only slightly and it's just one room.)  For me, the setting was easy.  My players wanted to leave their faux-Asian homeland to sail across an open ocean and discover a new world.

The illustration booklet is great and essential.  I very much agree with Lux that rather than try to describe the various trap-ridden rooms, it's great to have a picture to pass around.  My copy had no map booklet, but it's easy to find the illustrations online.

In the 70s, everything was foreign and foreign was always a license to weird.  Unlike Maztica, which tries, oh so earnestly tries, to respect other cultures (and makes them all sound like hippies), this module's authors have no embarrassment about their ignorance and rely on their imaginations to fill in the gaps.  Again, the Nereid makes no sense but provided a lot of laughs, even though none of the PCs wanted to play the straight man and instead went to great lengths to avoid looking at the cavorting nymph. (Shoji revealed that he was asexual.)

The monsters are good, though as Lux notes, PC will easily miss the most interesting ones. This could be fixed by coming up with a quest to retrieve a particular object rather than simply escape the pyramid.  He's also correct that all the monsters all seem attack-oriented.  (Except the Nereid, I keep coming back to the Nereid.)  I'm not sure this is a problem worth fixing.  The rooms are self-contained and the residents are so alien that it's believable that they wouldn't have knowledge or interest in other parts of the dungeon.  And the aggressiveness kind of fits with Aztec views of the world.  On another note, the monsters, while individually tough, are not numerous.  My party of 10 (PCs and henchman) was probably too large.

Lux disapproves of the poison gas, but it worked well for me.  We have limited time IRL so it was good to have an in-game reason for haste.  I didn't track the time closely, but the players had a sense of urgency about them. And they could not take a brute force approach to every problem ("Everyone stands guard and I individually press each block on the south wall.  Ok, now the west wall.  Ok, let's rest and heal and re-learn spells.") Lux is correct that this feeling of haste creates tension with all the weird objects begging for attention, but I think this helps preserve the wonder.  My PCs know they missed some things and are talking about going back.

Lux is correct about the clunky text and clunkier special mechanics.  I don't agree, however, that this necessitates hours of preparation.  Because the rooms are self-contained and because the residents are combat-oriented, you don't need to think too much about how it all fits together.  The adventure kind of runs itself so you can just pause and skim each room while your players look at the illustration.

Here's what I would do to prepare:
  1. Look at the map.  Starting with a cave-in that lands the PCs in room 1 works well and the gas extends through to room 39.  Like Google maps, there are three routes that lead to the same destination.  The routes cross over each other, so there are probably 7 or 8 combinations that will get PCs through the maze.
  2. Think about whether you want to move the cover star to a different room where the PCs are more likely to meet him.  Or if he has something that will cause them to seek him out.
  3. Be ready to wing it on things like drowning or dodging boulders.  The mechanics are complicated and inconsistent and rather than study them it might make sense to use saving throws.  As with the poison gas, the threat of sand filling up a closed room is scary.  But the in-play emphasis should be on the atmosphere rather than the mechanics.  Rolling dice doesn't really enhance the suspense. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Over the Waves Part 10 (Landfall)

And so the Binggongchang left the Island of Wisdom and after another day of smooth sailing reached a suitable place to land.  Bangqiu dropped anchor about one hundred yards off shore and the boat was lowered.  All passengers and sailors were ferried to shore, just to give everyone a chance to walk on dry land after their many weeks at sea. 

The landing place was a narrow beach surrounded by marshes and jungle.  Rhialle recognized a mountain range further inland and Bagqiu concluded that he had made good use of Sakatha's ring.  The sailors and sohei returned to the ship while Bangqiu organized an exploration party that would travel inland to find Rhialle's settlement.  Kafka argued that he should remain with the ship to maintain order among the sohei and sailors.  But Bangqiu insisted that he would need his help in this strange new land.  Kafka relented and placed Mai-Thi in charge.

Thus, the exploration party comprised:
Bangqiu, with Kafka, Damai, and Rhialle
Shoji and his bodyguard Singha
Bayan and her adviser Minh

The Lucky Ten camped on the beach and then set off into the jungle the next morning.  By midday, they came upon a human settlement, one where the people spoke the same language as Rhialle.  They did not know him, but they knew the way to his home.

A few more days of travel brought them to the village of Tamoachitz.  Here Rhialle was recognized and the party was welcomed and honored-- but not in a manner that they recognized as friendly.  After a few nights, Rhialle heard the shrill piping that he recognized as the prelude to a special sacrifice.  He thanked Bangqiu for bringing him home and urged him to flee with his friends. Bangqiu agreed that he did not wish to be sacrificed but convinced Rhialle that he was ready to explore other paths to enlightenment.  And so the Lucky Ten left Tamoachitz in the middle of the night, setting up across the surrounding jungle.

A full moon guided their path, and they made their way toward a light that glowed in the trees.  This turned out to be the ruins of a towering pyramid.  They slept on the white stones of the deserted city.  In the morning, while planning their next move, the explorers heard the noise of the pursuers.  In controlled panic, they ran toward the pyramid.  Then the earth shuddered and gaped open beneath the party's feet.  They fell amidst a roar of collapsing masonry.  Dust filled the air and the sunlight disappeared as the darkness swallowed the,. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Over the Waves Part 9 (The Island of Wisdom)

Morning showed no obvious place to seek harbor.  Binggongchang skirted beneath the rocky cliffs of the new continent, close enough to enjoy fragrant breezes but without finding a place to put the boat ashore.  After a few hours, the tantalizing cruise seemed to offer something better-- a verdant island with a deepwater harbor with a channel that was navigable into its interior-- a huge flooded cave. 

Shoji and Bo Jing who had improved on their rudimentary knowledge of sailing during the course of the voyage were able to bring the Binggongchang to a natural dock.  Artful placement of the gangplank allowed the passengers to walk down to a gravel beach without getting their feet wet.  The dripping water sounded like music.  Or maybe that was music, even singing.

Was this Party Island at last?

No,  it was her older, wiser older sister.  About half the sailors refused to get off the ship.

The leaders of the expedition, however, were intrigued and after disembarking made their way eagerly toward a gentle light.  They met a man there who introduced himself as Saridan and invited them to join him in meditation. 

Weeks passed.  Those who weren't familiar with seaweed salad learned to love it.

And then it was time for The Tests.

Hyamsam was brought into a small room and told to sit at a table and watch a rock until it jumped.  It seemed boring and pointless but (with some meta-game encouragement from White Bear) he persisted.  Saridan reward him with this lesson-- moderation in all things including patience, especially when someone asks you to wait for a rock to jump.

Shoji was brought a shrine dedicated to The Path of the Red Mountain and invited to re-dedicate it to his own School.  Although he found the practitioners of The Path of the Red Mountain to be insufferable busybodies, he allowed that their beliefs affirmed goodness in thought, word, and action, and that he refused to treat his faith as a tribal affinity.  He declined to disturb the rival shrine.  Saridan congratulated him.

Next, Saridan invited Bo Jing into a cave lined with swords and asked him a provoking question.  "What would you do if I tried to kill you?"  Bo Jing laughed off the piece of hypothetical sophistry.  When Saridan picked upa fiery sword, Bo Jing drew his katana and fended off a flurry of attacks without seeking to strike Saridan.  Saridan congratulated Bo Jing on his ability to defend himself without excessive force and gifted him with the fiery sword.

Finally, Saridan led Bangqiu and Bayan to a cave with a seemingly bottomless pit in the center.  He told them that they would be leaving the island soon but that he would answer a call for help if they were willing to sacrifice their most valuable possession.  After some debate between the two of them Bayan cast her magical sword-- a gift from her mentor Beatriss-- into the pit.  Bangqiu, reasoning that even though he didn't see much use in the Blood Gem Crucible, he had fought a dragon to get it and assassins to keep it, and thus it was, objectively, the most valuable.  He cast it away with little reluctance.  Saridan scolded them for their lack of confidence in their own abilities but promised that he would honor his promise.

Shoji and Bo Jing were each presented with an additional gift, a glowing pearl, that when dissolved in saltwater, resulted in a bubbling ruby-red drink that was sweeter than honey.

Everyone else-- except those sailors who had refused to leave the ship-- got a vial of holy water.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Over the Waves Part 8 (Another Blind Captain)

Shoji ministered to Bayan and those sohei who were troubled by their contact with the box. As their condition improved, Bayan asked to see the contents of the box. Bangqiu claimed the most obviously valuable item, the mirror. But Bayan recognized that among the pieces of oddly-formed metal, there was a functioning astrolabe and time-measuring device. Bo Jing pocketed a set of intricately-cut keys, reasoning that they must fit the lock to a valuable treasure. The large jar of dark liquid was too strange to throw away or to keep; Shoji agreed to store it in his cabin. The great miscellany, comprising an assortment of oddly-formed metal shapes and stacks of mouldering books were turned over to Bangqiu with the thought that he alone might one day be able to make sense of them.

But they were still stuck at sea. Hyamsam noticed how hungry the crew was and shared his food with them. Captain Won asked Bangqiu if he could have some of the sohei’s rations for his sailors, confessing that he had not purchased an adequate amount. Bangqiu declared that everyone on board would ration their food to provide for the sailors.  

Meanwhile, Shoji noticed that jar of dark liquid was starting to fill with vapor or steam. This troubled him and he resolved to keep it with him at all times.

Bangqiu’s provision of better rations for the crew seemed to improve everyone’s mood, even as the sailors rowed southward with the long oars day and night, hoping to escape the doldrums. Captain Won resumed his sparring lessons with Bo Jing. In the middle of one bout, one of the sailors hurled a hammer at the Captain. It flew harmlessly past his ear, but the rest of the crew took this as a signal—about a dozen attacked their Captain with fists and clubs and tools. Dropping his wooden sparring sword, he drew his steel blade and cut his down 2 or 3 of his attackers. The others hesitated for a moment, and then Hyamsam shot two magic missiles at the Captain—the crew pressed their attack, knocking the Captain to the desk. Bangqiu suddenly appeared and commanded the crew to stop. They were visibly afraid of him and he learned that the Captain had told them he wanted to eat them. When Won stood up and killed another member of the mutinous crew, Bangqiu responded with a blast of blue-green missiles, blasting Won to the deck. He did not prevent the crew from finishing him off.  

The crew cheered and named Hyamsam their new Captain. Hyamsam promised that he woud bring them to the mythical “Party Island” that Captain Won had tempted them with in Heng-Shai.

Bangqiu, meanwhile, ransacked the Captain’s cabin and in reviewing the ship’s log and pages of angry calculations, was rewarded with the troubling knowledge that Won had given up hope of finding his way out of the doldrums.  

After a few minutes in his own cabin, listening to the sailors open a barrel of strong wine, Bangqiu took a deep breath of the stifling air and put on Sakatha’s ring. Twisting it, he imagined the places Rhialle had described to him. As the ring turned into lead and broke apart, the breeze picked up and turned the ship’s course once again to the north. A day of fine sailing brought them into a strong eastwards current. Combined with favourable winds, five more days of easy sailing brought the Binggongchang in sight of land. Not just an island, but a huge continent.

That evening, the sailors danced and sang, Bangqiu tried to sleep, and Shoji instructed Bo Jing and three sohei students on mindful meditation. The ascetics’ session was repeatedly interrupted by noises from the jar of dark liquid. As the liquid began to boil and the jar rattled so violently it seemed about to burst, Shoji grabbed it and hurled it out the window. The glass exploded and a man emerged. His skin was like a baby’s but in the flash of the explosion Shoji recognized his twisted visage as that of the skeletal captain of the ghost ship. He landed in the sea. Bayan heard the commotion and looked out the window of her own cabin. In the moonlight she saw the hand of a man clutch something to his chest as he went below the waves.