Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Play Report: Skull? Skull Mountain!

This is my report on Skull Mountain from the perspective of a player.  I have never read the module so there are elements that have remained a mystery.  And I have forgotten some of what happened.  To the degree that memorable = interesting, this might indicate the best parts of the module.  Or it might indicate when both me and the DM got tired
 My character, Mouse, a 7th level thief, was the only PC.  His NPC henchmen/companions include Bharti (6th level bard—he likes money and it is mutual), Mwangi (4th level druid— he likes hippos, also mutual), Lomi (4th level fighter—beautiful and also virtuous, Mouse is still working on the mutual), and Speedy (1st level thief— he does his level best)
“We took a job to go and see the weird things happening at Skull Mountain, the place where long ago bad men decided they wanted to live in caves that look like a skull and do so many bad thigns to travelers and when there are no travelers bad things to each other.  And now those bad men have come back.  Or some other new bad men pretending to be them and doing the same bad things or other bad things like that.  Probably worse.  And with robbers.  The robbers and the demon worshippers they came together and made a plan to hurt the local big man—so they kidnapped his son and took him to Skull Mountain.”
Bharti cast invisibility on Mouse and Speedy.  The two thieves went ahead to scout the area while Bharti prepared invisibility spells for the other party members.

Skull Mountain by KristaE
Skull Mountain, a photo by KristaE on Flickr.
“And so myself, Mouse, or as people call me today, Big Mouse, myself and Speedy, we observed the site that is called Skull Mountain because it looks exactly like a skull even more than you can imagine would happen naturally, we watched it throughout an afternoon and evening. At dusk, about a dozen of the demon-worshippers, they came out and assembled in an open area in front of the skull to scream and shout in a frightening way like those men like to do when they are worshipping the dark powers.  We circled around the celebrants and climbed up to the cave mouth.  Guards were posted here.  I (Mouse) climbed up the rock face to look into the eyes of the skull.  In each eye hole, a pair of men tended a large hot fire, feeding it with a strange powder that created bright, oddly-colored flames.  I climbed down and with my young student, we ventured inside the cave mouth, going far enough to find the stairs that led up to the eye-caves.  That was enough.  The sound of the drums was starting to really bother us, especially Speedy because he is not used to danger.
“When we returned as a group the next night, we brought wax for our ears to muffle the sound of the drumming.  As expected, the evil worshippers were in the same place, once again conducting one of the rituals they enjoy so much. 
“Myself and Speedy, we led the others along the safe path to the cave mouth.  Since we all could not see one another, there were some times that would be awkward if we were not in the middle of danger.  “We waited for a very very loud part of the drumming and then dashed into the cave in couples.  Or, Mouse and Lomi were a couple.  The other three were a three.  We climbed up the stairs to the eye holes.  We climbed the stairs and found a pot of boiling oil next to a hole for pouring on people who enter the cave uninvited.  (This will be important later.)  We also found the tunnels that lead to the fire-chambers for those eye-hole-caves.

“Mwangi gave me a magical stone to make me dead quiet and then I did what needed to be done—sneak into the eye-hole-caves one by one, and wait for one of the guards to put down his sword and pick up the bag of power and then—stab him and push him into the fire.  Then hide.  The other guard is confused and turns around—now he is worried, where is his friend?  Why can’t he hear his own voice?  Stab, stab all his questions are answered. 
“After a few minutes, the evil people outside realize that something is wrong for them inside their home.  They end their ritual and come inside to see what’s wrong.   Too many things.

bonfire I by Brayo
“With arrows, standing side-by-side Mouse (i.e. myself) and Lomi shot the guards at the cave mouth dead and then replaced then, shooting arrows at the all these robed men trying to climb up the steep rocky steps.  Mwangi with his shaman magic and Bharti with his magic magic.  As the survivors make their way up, we retreat, using their own cave as our fortress.  They charge into their home—Speedy is ready for them—he pours the boiling oil.  (Learned men call this one irony. And draw a sign like this: #.)
“I call it ‘All the demon-worshippers are killed by their own wickedness!’  We take their money and then find our way down into the lower caves where we hope to find the big man’s son.

“It’s very strange down there.  Lots of tunnels leading here-and-there-nowhere.  Maybe the smoke from the fires caused some problems in my brain because this is where I forget so much.  There was someone invisible—not our friend, but an enemy, trying to stab us.  Also there were men with heads like lizards and this is very frightening and ugly and also evil because they are trying to stab us with spears and bite us with their mouths at the same time.
“But we just kill them and we find the big men’s son and we hear more lizrd people so before they can find us we just run away and go back and get our reward.”

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Beatriss, Tetsukichi & co. arrived in Pasar.

Beatriss, Tetsukichi & co. arrived in Pasar. At once a cosmopolitan, lakeside market city and an overgrown fishing village with drainage problems, Pasar provided an easy answer to the travelers most immediate needs—anyone with money can find food and a comfortable place to sleep.
floating market merchants by adiv
floating market merchants, a photo by adiv on Flickr.
All but the simplest communication is difficult. Few of the locals speak Zhou. The foreign merchants who do come from the Southern Empire and they use a pronunciation very different from what Beatriss and Tetsukichi learned in the North. Another set of merchants share Al-Fitar’s religious beliefs (One Law) and can exchange scriptural references, but unlike al-Fitar, few of these merchants know the religious language well enough to use it for general conversation.

Despite this, “Gwinch, the cursed blessing” is a hot topic of conversation. Although there are conflicting rumors, most people seem to believe that Gwinch left town about a month ago after getting involved in a violent clash between rival temples and rival merchant guilds. Some believe that he was killed in the fighting while others believe he gone into hiding, either as a member of a an emergent mercenary gang known as the Black Flowers, or in some other capacity.

Gwinch’s intial appearance in Pasar was not unexpected. There were legends about a foreigner who would revive an ancient empire based in Tempat Larang. Both General Goyat and Governor Kawabi had expressed keen interest in these legends when their rival armies tore through Pasar. During most of his stay in Pasar, Gwinch’s conduct supported the theory that his part in fulfillment of ancient prophecies, if any, was likely to be benign. He presented himself as a monk and attached himself to the monastery of the Two-Fold Path—one of many “second-tier” sects that had representatives in Pasar.

The quiet, respectful presence of Gwinch and his companions raised the status of his sect, with the result that the Two-Fold Path was chosen as the site for conciliatory negotiations between two rival merchant guilds. In the past, this honor had alternated between the Shining Path and One Law Temples. The appearance of bias had always been a problem. Most members of the Silk Guild made their largest offerings to the Shining Path Temple. And most members of the Spice Guild were One Law adherents. So it seemed like a really good idea . . .

By all accounts, things did not go well, and while there are differing opinions on who instigated the violence that disrupted the negotiations at the Two-path monastery, all agree that the leader of the Spice Guild was killed. Every witness had a different explanation of how this happened, and so, rather than punish any one individual, the Elders of Pasar visited collective punishment on the Two-Path monastery for failing to preserve the peace. The abbot and half of the monks were to be banished for one year. The Two-Path monks responded in a way that seemed to confirm their guilt—by attacking and ransacking the Shining Path Temple. Monks from the Shining Path retaliated, and the Two-Fold Path was all but obliterated from Pasar. The remnant was eager for the protection offered by a band of former soldiers that soon began calling itself the Black Flowers. This group has not been good for Pasar.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Overmountain Road to Pasar

Beatriss and Tetsukichi have an unspoken policy of switching from one objective to another with little deliberation.  Is this strategy?  Religion?  Something else?

Regardless, after having discovered bandits' hideout and the palace of Sakatha the lizard king and and after having slain the dragon who guarded the entrance, the heroic pair-- after returning with the dragon's horde to Khan Eor's encampment-- elected NOT to go back and eradicate the bandits completely.  Instead, they decided it was time to resume the Imperial Quest to track down Governor Kawabi, General Goyat,  and Gwinch.  They met with a sage and magician named Mustapha who explained that he had knowledge of a lost highway that led over and through the mountains, connecting Menkan with the ancient ruins of Tempat Larang.

The highway had been built for armies to  traverse the mountains, and featured both miles-long tunnels, and bridges spanning deep canyons.  It had survived for centuries, but some of the connection points had fallen into disrepair.  He could show them the highway and lead them along it to a misty valley-- an apparent dead end.  But, he explained, there was a secret entrance into the mountain there, one not intended fr armies, but for the highway's toll-takers and maintenance crews.  Now a lair for monsters and wicked men, Mustapha suggested that with the parties' help, they could vanquish the monsters and revive the long lost road.  He was sure it would take them at least to Pasar.

For a few weeks they followed the lost highway with little incident.  In some stretched the distintive hexagonal paving stones had disappeared completely, but Mustapha knew the general way well enough that he could help the navigate from one landmark to another until they rediscovered fragments of the ancient road.  It led into the mountains, and at last to the misty valley where they left their horses.  A tunnel, too dark, narrow, and treacherous for their mounts led into the rocky cliff.

Thoughly roughly-hewn, this was not a natural cavern.  The party found fragments of tools and building supplies for maintaing the highway.  Among these supplies they found two sheets of cured leather, both encrusted with looked like salt crystals.  And then Naron, scounting ahead, found the floor open beneath him, dropping him into a dark hole.

The rest of the party followed soon after.  They landed on a tall pile of salt crystals, and rolled down it into in a dimly-lit men where a dozen evil men were waiting to attack them with spears and bows.  Though disoriented by their roll down the salt pile, the party resisted the attack, and through aggressive use of magic, incapcitated or killed most of their enemies and drove the others away.

Finding they could not re-ascend the salt pile, and heeding Mustapha's advice that they had stumbled into one of the hidden citadels for controlling traffic on the highway, they decided to explore further. 

under under by Brayo
under under, a photo by Brayo on Flickr.
Following a series of tunnels, they passed into a large natural cavern, half-lit by glowing fungus and featuring a phalanx of stalactites and stalagmites.  Pausing but a moment to admire the natural wonder, the party began making their way across the cavern.  And as they did, the stalactites began falling from the ceiling. 

They didn't fall at once, but one or two at a time.  But almost every single one of them seemed to land directly on a party member.  Ju-May was severely injured, and would have died without immediate assistance.  As Tetsukichi and Al-Fitar supported their fallen comrade, another stalactite fell on Tetsukichi, splitting his shield and knocking him the floor, terribly bloodied.  He too, was unable to continue without the assitance of others.

Just as they left the cavern, they were set upon by another group of evil men, these ones supported by huge, rabid fighting dogs.  Mustapha used his magic to temporarily blind the attackers, giving Beatriss time to organize a defense.  They created a shield wall to defend Tetsukichi and Ju-May and fought the waves of attackers as they came.  The dogs were savage and fearless, but ultimately ineffective against the cool-headed and well-armored warriors.  The human assailants shot at the party with arrows.  Once the dogs were dead, the warriors charged and killed the archers.

Considering that two of the party members were on the brink of death, and the other five were all wounded, there was talk of going back. But going back would mean going back through the cavern of falling stalactites.  And hey look at that, is it our imagination or have those "fallen" stalactites not moved toward us while we were fighting?  Let's not go back. . . .

So they pressed onwards. Until they came upon something very strange indeed.  The path ended at the edge of finely carved swimming pool with steps leading down into the-- translucent goo.  Helpfully, there was a stone bridge that arched over the goo to a passage on the other side.  Not so helpfully, there was a shimmering blue curtain of cracking energy halfway across the bridge.

Al-Fitar, always brave, always weighing his own suffering lightly against that of his friends, crossed the bridge first.  And yes, walking through the crackling blue energy hurt.  A lot. Enough to kill someone like Ju-May or Tetsukichi who were on the edge of death.

So then (this is my favorite part), Beatriss removed her heavy armor and slipped into the goo.
quiet by Brayo
quiet, a photo by Brayo on Flickr.
She swam through it then ducked her head under the curtain of energy and emerged on the other side. Unharmed, but gooey.  And really tired.  So tired that she realized some members of the party would not be able to do it. 

So the party decided they should regroup.  Let Beatriss swim back and let Al-Fitar, who still wore his heavy plate mail, walk across, and suffer the shock of shimmering blue energy.

Except this time, Al-Fitar got shocked so bad he lost his balance and fell.  He sank like a warrior in plate mail dropped into translucent goo. 

Beatriss dove down to rescue him.  She found that walking along the bottom of the pool was a lot easier than swimming through it.  Once she got to the bottom, she found Al-Fitar walking through the goo, happy as if he was walking through a light breeze (he waved).  She also found a long, heavy, and invisible object. (A sword.)

Lots of great news.  When she drew the sword, Beatrss found that she became invisible.  Even more important in the short term, everyone, even Tetsukichi and Ju-May, found they could walk through the goo unharmed.  Beatriss retrieved her armor and the party continued their progress through the dungeon.

Underground hospitalFor an hour or more they wandered in a maze of tunnels and kept returning to the goo room.  On the one hand, they seemed to have reached an impasse.  On the other hand, they seemed to have found a safe and quiet place to rest and meditate.  Settling in an empty room, they set down their packs and caught their breath for a moment. Afu lightly tapped on his small prayer gong and began to meditate.  But they were soon interrupted.  A section of wall slid open and four half-human monsters stepped into the room.  They had large, horned, bestial heads, but walked on two legs and carried weapons into their long, fur-covered arms.  The able-bodied party members rose to their feet and put their hands on the weapons. Al-Fitar responded first.  He greeted the monsters and explained he had no quarrel with them.  They were looking for the way out and were willing to pay.  Beatriss presented some of the gems she'd taken from the dragon's horde. 

The monsters had things to do and wouldn't serve as guides.  They were willing to accept tribute and pretend they'd never met the intruders.

Beatriss wanted a better deal.  The monsters were impressed by the gems.  "We're not afraid of you," Beatriss said, "but this way would be easier for all of us." Naron pushed in closer.  who else is down here," Beatriss asked, "who's in charge?"

The monsters retorted that they were in charge of themselves, but allowed that they worked for a wizard.  "Take us to him, then, in exchange for the gems.  One for each of you."

A deal was struck. The monsters led them through the secret door and then through a series of additional tunnels.  They moved quickly and quietly and resisted any further attempts at conversations.  They stopped suddenly in the middle of a tunnel and pointed at a light beyond.  "He's in there."

Beatriss objected that they should lead them the entire way, but the monsters refused.  With a shrug, they left the party and went off the way they'd come.  After a couple minutes whispered debate, the party advanced down the tunnel toward the light.

The party entered a large, monumental hall.  Thick columns rose to a ceiling too high and dark to be clearly seen.  At the far end of the hall, a tall emaciated figure with the head of a hyena sat on a throne, surrounded by a crowd of ghouls and monsters.  Most immediately, a huge lizard, with spikes and armored plates on its back lumbered toward them.  Al-Fitar's efforts to converse with the demonic king at the far end of the hall were curtailed by the advance of this terrible lizard . . .

With astonishing quickness, the lizard reached Al-Fitar-- and began to lick him.  The touch of its long tongue turned his well-polished plate mail into rust.   The armor fell off of him in crumbling chunks.  Meanwhile the other warriors attacked the lizard, plunging their blades into its underbelly.  As they attacked the creature-- its own armor, or more correctly, the illusion of its armor likewise fell away revealing a much smaller and less fearsome, but nonetheless disgusting creature that made a last quick meal of Al-Fitar's rusted armor, even as the swords of Naron and Beatriss found and burst its heart.  Blood gushed over Beatriss's long-treasured Sword of Madarua, her last memento of Cynidicea-- and turned it to rust.

In the meantime, Afus cast a spell against the demon king and Ju-May though barely able to stand, began reading from a prayer scroll to ward off the undead.  Arrows flying over their heads from behind the pillars alerted them to more beast-men.  Beatriss brought out her own bow and returned fire.  Al-Fitar, Naron, and Mustapha charged down the hall toward the demon king and his retinue.  Afu remained at the back of the hall to protect Tetsukichi  and Ju-May.

Although outnumber, Beatriss was a much better shot than her enemies.  Whenever one of them emerged, she shot him with one arrow before he could aim properly and with a second to finish him off.  As she fired her arrows, she zig-zagged down the hall, because her companions were not in a strong position.

Although the demon king was frozen in place and his minions at the top of the dais seemed unable to descend tot he floor of the fall, other snipers from behind pillars had isolated Naron and Mustapha.  Both were practically unarmed and could do little but dodge arrows and try to grapple with their enemies.  Al-Fitar ahd discover that the demon king's throne was behind a wall of glass.  He tried to break it by throwing his war hammer and then with his fists.

subterranean highwayAt last someone-- and here the chronicles are uncertain-- broke away from the archers and circled around the glass wall to attack the demon king.  Drawing closer, his bodyguards proved to be spectral forces that were swept into nothing when touched.  And the "demon king" was in fact a decrepit wizard, also shrouded in illusion and now very vulnerable to attack . . .

When the wizard died and his illusions evaporated, the remaining archers lost their courage.  The heroes rallied, coordinated their tactics and destroyed their enemies.

When the battle was over and wounded had been tended, the party surveyed the room, and examined their enemies, and searched for an exit.  They found many things to celebrate:

First, despite their wounds, all were stable and could hope to recover.
Second, a tunnel behind the throne seemed to lead toward light-- daylight.
Third, the wizard wore the signet ring of Governor Kawabi.  And he carried maps and descriptions of incantations associated with the Lost Highway.

The party followed the tunnel and emerged near the top of a high cliff with the highway far below.  From this vantage point they could see not only that the highway continued to lead south, presumably toward Pasar, but also the hidden connection to the green valley where they'd left their horses.   With the help of the documents they'd recovered, Mustapha was able to suggest a safe way down the side of the cliff.  They returned to the green valley to retrieve their horses and rest and their resumed their journey toward Pasar.