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.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Over the Waves Part 7 (The Blind Captain)

As morning broke, everyone on board the Binggongchang. could clearly sea the ghost ship and its crew. Two dozen animated skeletons ambled about the deck. It means of propulsion seemed to be something below the surface that was pulling it across the water by three rusty chains. Bangqiu turned invisible,

As the ghost ship got closer, one of their number began the climb the tallest mast. He was dressed in the once-fine clothes of a merchant captain, with an elaborate hat and cloak. His face was completely wrapped in white bandages, but he climbed the rotten ropes of the mainmast without hesitation. Reaching the top, he – or it—metamorphisized into a flabby-winged, vaguely humanoid, pink thing that flew, clumsily from one ship to the other, landing in the crow’s nest of the BG. Immediately, Bangqiu appeared floating in the air beside it and, with a flurry of magic missiles, blasted away the soft pink flesh. The white skeletal creature inside turned to face Bangqiu and said almost gleefully, “Oh, a wizard, I’ve been looking for another wizard, I think we can help each other.”

Meanwhile, those on the deck, prepared to fight the skeleton crew. Bo Jing, in his eagerness, misjudged the distance between the two ships and in trying to leap from one to the other, landed in the sea. The three rusty chains were revealed to belong to three creatures with bodies like men, scales and fins like fish, and claws and fangs like hellspawn. All three attacked Bo Jing. With a special blessing from Shoji and a burst of his own ki power, Bo Jing grabbed one of the chains, and pulled himself out of the water. As the fish fiends lunged for him, Bo Jing, rappelled off the side of the ghost ship, leaping from side-to-side and slashing with his sword.

Captain Won ordered his sailors below decks to avoid the melee. Bangqiu, temporarily confused by the offer from the undead Captain, gave his response in the form of a trio of fiery shurikens. But before they could reach their mark, a gigantic skeletal hand appeared and deflected the missiles. Bangqiu called out to his friends for help. “Why am I fighting this one alone?”

Bayan started to climb up the best, but was both blocked and incapacitated by a giant spider’s web, cast down on her by the undead Captain. The sohei’s arrows passed harmlessly through his body. But Damai shot two magical arrows both of which found their mark. And a blast of steam from Bangqiu passed through the big skeletal hand and half-overcame the horrible invader. Bangqiu dropped to the deck and called out for Hyamsam. Coordinating their magic, the two living wizards, blasted the undead one out of the sky. He disappeared completely in a sudden burst of flame. By this time, Bo Jing had killed the underwater monsters that pulled the ghost ship. The skeletons on the deck simply crumbled to dust.

Shoji threw a rope down for Bo Jing. Bayan, after being cut free from the web, organized a boarding party. A gangplank was laid down and Bangqiu, Bo Jing, Shoji, and Bayan all boarded the ghost ship and found a flight of steps to take them below decks. The deck and mast were in bad shape, but the ships’s insides were nearly completely rotten. Bo Jing dropped from the bottom step into ankle-deep water. Sunshine, filtered through holes in the deck, and refracted by the surface of the water, created dancing patterns of light in the gloom. He stood half-dazed, waiting for his eyes to adjust when Shoji grabbed him, urging him to get back up the stairs! There was splashing, howls, and an unearthly scream. Bo Jing’s blade fended off an attack by a fish-zombie like those that had attacked him when he’d fallen in the sea. It was followed by two others, and a spectral form lurked behind the, in the deep shadows. He guarded the party’s retreat back up the stairs. Up on deck, the arty surrounded the top of the stairs, all prepared for a deadly battle. But the evil creatures cowered in the darkness. Shoji recommended that the others assist him in smashing more holes in the deck, and flooding the space below with sunshine. With axes and boots, they enlarged the gaps in the soft, rotten wooden, and in triumph as they watched the life-haters recoil in the vanishing darkness. Inevitably, the overzealous Bayan crashed all the way through. She fought her way into a large patch of light and called for the others to join her. Bangqiu found a beam solid enough to serve as a makeshift ladder, and everyone climbed down.

The undead monsters gnashed their teeth and cursed from the shadows, but Shoji chanted a soft, calming prayer so that his friends could take in their surroundings. A huge wooden box attracted their attention. Roughly cubical, it was taller than a man and the side that was fully illuminated was made of new-looking wood, much finer and more solid-looking than an ordinary crate or anything else on the ship. Bayan touched it and immediately regretted it, dropping her sword in a sudden mood of deep despondence to wander toward the shadowy bulkhead where the monsters lurked. The arrow design glowed wickedly on the side of the box. Bangqiu transfixed Bayan with hi magic and Bo Jing pulled her back into the light. Bangqiu went above desk and called for Kafka’s assistance. About a dozen sohei brought axes to chop their way into the box.

 It was gruelling work, physically and spiritually. The effort in chopping through a single plank reduced a discipline monk to tears. As the hole expanded. The monsters ben working on ehe other side, but they were not immune to the box’s terrifying psychic effects. When the hole was large enough, Bangqiu squeezed inside. The contents were strange and, except for a large, highly-reflective mirror, did not, at a glance, seem to deserve such protection. Nevertheless, he called for baskets, sacks and ropes so that the entire contents of the crate could be removed from the ghost ship to the  Binggongchang. As the sun was setting, Bangqiu followed the last of the dubious treasures—a large jar filled with dark liquid—out of the hole and back to his own ship. Once everyone was accounted for, they cast off from the ghost ship, tossing an oil-soaked torch behind them. The sailors had brought up the long oars and those who had strength joined them in rowing the ship slowly forward through the seaweed-choked sea. All night, they watched the ghost ship burning. Those who slept pretended to forget their dreams.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Over the Waves Part 6 (Strange Sightings)

A few days later, the Binggongchang was attacked again, this time by denizens of the deep. Hyamsam spotted something moving toward them at high speed, just below the surface. This something turned out to be a group of about a dozen mermen, who, in surfacing, hurled iron javelins at the ship’s passengers. Hyamsam led the counter-attack—sling stones, arrows, and magic missiles broke up the mermen’s attack. Moments later however, more mermen surfaced, over one hundred, surrounding the ship on all sides. `More frightening, another group of mermen surfaced with what was later referred to as a “demonic eyeball” (Bayan) and “Billy” (Bo Jing). Billy Eyeball was restrained with thick ropes by seven or eight mermen. He struggled ferociously against his captors, but was not friendly to those on the ship either. A beam from his eye stunned several sailors and sohei. This combined with javelins from every direction threatened complete chaos on board the Binggongchang.

 Not all the javelins were hurled as weapons. About a dozen were hooked on one end, and trailed a rope on the other. The mermen were using the hooks to catch hold of the ship itself and pull it to a stop. Shoji chanted a prayer to maintain courage on board the ship abd Captain Won ordered full sails. Bayan and Bo-Jing coordinated the cutting of the tethers. Hyamsam hurled spells at the eyeball wranglers and as their numbers dwindled, they were forced to pull the Billy back under the waves. With the advantages of a strong wind, quick thinking, and sharp blades, the Binggongchang. escaped. The mermen pursued, as the BG passed over an extensive underwater city of stone houses and places, populated by merpeople. On a vast plain of seaweed, Hyamsam counted the wrecks of seven other ships. The mermen continued their pursuit until the Binggongchang had passed over their city.

Captain Won complimented Bo Jing for his bravery at the hostile island and against the fishmen. “If it had been your choice, you would have fought them with your sword, I believe.” And he challenged him to spar, bringing out a pair of wooden swords. He showed himself to be a skilled sword-fighter, more accomplished than Bo-Jing or Bayan. He offered to teach Bo Jing some advanced techniques in exchange for some of the trophies and treasure Bo-Jing had collected. Bo-Jing as reluctant; he did not like the Captain because of the way he treated his crew. But this seemed to be a special opportunity and timely It was likely that Bo-Jing would be pulled into another mortal combat before the voyage was over. A bargain was struck and in fact, Captain Won seemed to benefit from his new role, and was distracted from gratuitously beating his crew.  

And from the weather. A fierce storm overtook the ship, buffeting it from wave to wave for three days and blowing it from its easterly course due northwards. When the storm ended, they founded themselves in a dead calm, in a sea choked with seaweed. Captain Won punished his crew for his shame. And he became vicious in his sparring with Bo-Jing, one day suggesting hey fight with real swords-- to first blood. He won handily—and to relief of Bo-Jing’s friends, made a single slash across the young warriors chest before ending the duel with a smile and a bow. “You have learned much, but I’m still better!” His mood of happy triumph lasted another day in the doldrums, but then he returned to lashing his crew. Hyamsam shared his food with the starving crew members. Bangqiu directly demanded that Won treat his crew better. Captain Won flatly refused to take any advice regarding his methods for performing the job he’d been paid to do—crossing the Unknown Ocean to the land of gold! Bangqiu, after admitting did not wish to turn back, had no choice but to acquiesce.

Temporarily defeated, Bagqiu used his magic to become invisible and hover high above the ship, tethered to the highest mast. From this vantage point, towards dusk, he spotted a ship on the horizon. He shared the news with his friends and Shoji watched the ship with interest. A slight wind had filled the sails of the Bg. The other ship followed behind them throughout the night. By moonlight, Shoji caught the occasional glimpse of the other ship’s sails—its masts were crooked and its sails so badly torn that rather than catch the wind, they fluttered in tatters. Nevertheless, it was moving, in unnatural lurches and gradually closing the distance.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Over the Waves Part 5 (Not Party Island) with guest editor Rainbow Monkey Sock!


“After a few more days sailing, we found an island that the crew thought was party island. Party island was supposed to be a place where there were going to be food and wine and welcoming women. We discovered instead that there were hostiles. They welcomed us by try to kill us Using spears. They were along  half the beach  in numbers about a 100.  Bangqiu  commanded  a retret. We shot are connons at the the hostile men. There were moaning cause they wanted party island.”