Sunday, 29 July 2012

Ask Questions Later - A Bleaker's Gambit: Part Two


Chapter Two
It ain't easy but it's Necessary

“In the years before the rift, Alexandria was already facing a massive economic downturn and it's people were massively dissatisfied with the elitism of its leaders, who had monoplolised magic and denied knowledge to the lower classes. When the inviable rebellion took place, magic was given back to the people. Artifacts were handed down, and rituals were taught to those who could spread the power far and wide. The Library, however, Alexandria's largest and grandest construction, still remained in the hands of the disposed government. To this day the Library remains its own insular city state, hiding itself from the rest of the continent behind a stone wall miles and miles in length and breadth.”

- Emilio Whitehouse – Knowledge is Power: A History of Alexandria

So this was the first Cardia, Azreal and Trust only session, and probably the most tightly focused out of all the sessions. I'd planned multiple paths for the characters to take which meant they had greater freedom to choose their own way. The session began with the characters making their way to the free Kingdom of Alexandria, which they chose to travel to via sea. Bargaining for a boat at the first port they get to, the group manage to avoid some of the more dangerous possibilities I'd put in place. Choosing the wrong captain to take them by sea could have ended with a pirate raid.

The group safely make their way into Alexandria, but their main obstacle lies ahead. The library that contains the map piece is part of an independent state, fanatical about security and guarded by the biggest wall they've ever seen. The group shack up at a border town, where low lives make their trade smuggling people across, and mages bluff their way in as an attempt to get to the library's secrets.

I'd come up with several ways for the group to get past the wall. The Guard Captain of the gate was to have secretly been having an affair outside the Library state, and looking in the right places the group could have discovered this and bribed or blackmailed their way through. There was also a weak spot in the wall, which could have been blasted open. With Katie in the team, engineer minded, with the right ingredients she would have crafted explosives to use. Then there was the fact that the Library is open for the study of magical artifacts, and the option to bargain their way in this also presented itself. Finally there was the standard smuggling plot, where some shady characters could have helped the group over in return for some other favor.

As it happened the group went upon a mixture of several solutions. It was revealed that the head of the smuggling operation, Big Bubba, was an old informant of Kara's from her days working up the Andavian city guard ranks. Bubba could get the group over the wall in return for taking care of his hedonistic rival Quintus, who had been hoarding magical artifacts. The plan was tried and tested, the girls pretend to be 'entertainment' with Azreal as their 'pimp'. Azreal though, was voted as no good to take the lead, pretty much by himself, so it was down to Katie to take the lead.

Infiltrating one of Quintus' parties was easy enough, Kara and Cardia distracted the guests, Katie stood guard while Azreal and Trust robbed the store rooms. The magical artifacts he held were sensory stones (familiar to anyone who'd played Planescape:Torment), and on their way back to the main floor, Azreal and Trust find that Kara had turned the 'sexy dancing' into a bare knuckle boxing match, to which Quintus was throughly entertained.

From here on in it was pretty plain sailing. Big Bubba kept the bulk of the stones, leaving the group with enough to bribe their way through the gate with a bit of information regarding the Guard Captain's extra-marital relations. A few other stones were retained as additional reward. The rest goes like clockwork, and the session ends with the group entering the walled tunnel with armed escort.

Music used:

I'm also going to start discussing the music I used to set the mood. Up until this point it'd been a mix of the Assassins Creed soundtrack, The Call of Pripyat sountrack and a few songs from Lord of the Rings here and there. Oh, and some instrumental stuff from Show of Hands, which worked very well indeed. This session I needed some sleazy 70's style music for Quintus decant party, which came in the form of a sample song by somebody called Youth Explosion that was on my phone by default.

What worked:

Pretty much everything, this session was about as tight as it got. It was funny and challenging in places and the dynamics between characters really worked with the situations they got themselves into. The multiple solutions gave the impression that I wasn't railroading the characters, and that they had greater free reign to experiment and do what they thought best. Kara and Katie both supported the game as NPC's but didn't dominate the plot. Every player was also involved in equal measure.

What didn't:

Not a lot else. The stealth sections could have been a bit more challenging, and the start at the port could maybe have been a bit more interesting, but other than that there were no real failings in what I set out to do.


Chapter Three
Carnack's Eleven

“The Library of Alexandria has the reputation for being probably one of the most secure locations in the realms. The massive wall that guards the entire city-state notwithstanding, visitors are escorted at all times, and the structure itself has a standing garrison ready to repel attackers. Along with all this, the library has a complex series of traps and defenses, all controlled my a massive clockwork mechanism that changes its encrypted codes every few minutes. This mechanism activates the building's Guardians, massive stone constructs that demolish anything that moves. The mechanism itself is defended by a game of human sized chess pieces, also Guardians, and the most prised artifacts are kept in a vault which can only be unlocked through seventeen locks simultaneously. Finally, if one were to bypass all these obstacles, they would still have to face the Library's most elite force, The Whisperers.

In truth the Libary's reputation is mostly undeserved. It is built on soft ground with poor foundations, making tunneling surprisingly easy. The guards patrol a gantry when, if accessed, can get you to most parts of the building and the vault's locks are no more complex than that of a standard chests. The only real challenge is the cypher, but bypass this, and take care of the guards and an ambitious villain can be well on his way to some lucrative loot.”

- Zantir Xanderfell - Reflections on the Library of Alexandria

If the entire campaign could be compounded into one session, then this one is probably the most comparable. This was where ambition started getting in the way of things. I'd always wanted to have Carnack lead a team of badasses, and once again I decided to throw it all in rather than save it for some potential future campaign that may or may not happen. Lets not get ahead of ourselves though. Beginning with the groups arrival in the Library's city-state, the players quickly slip away from their escorts, bluff their way into a society presidents house, knock him out and vault his garden wall, bringing them to the front entrance. Once there the guards were currently being distracted by a halfling bard. This was the first of Carnack's group, so lets run through them shall we.

“Carnack Cousland's second attempt at the Library Heist was more well considered than the first. Many of the original team had perished in the attempt or refused to return for the second, so the tattooed mercenary had some slots to fill...

...First and foremost Carnack needed alchemist Bastillion DeRoque, who held the sole responsibility of the previous attempts failure. Bastillion had concocted a sleeping gas that was to knock out all the guards and staff of the library, giving the team safe room to make away with the painting, but Bastillion's gas was not long lasting enough. Unexpectedly, Carnack held no ill will against the alchemist, and Bastillion jumped at the chance to prove that, this time, his gas would work...

...Working as right hand man was Bostock Hawke, an Andavian expatriate of comparable might to Carnack himself. Hawke had been messily involved in the breakdown of the Navarre kingdom, and some say it was he himself that had executed King Ferdinand. In Carnack's opinion though, Bostock's one weakness came in the form of his lover Reece, a former elf slave and swordmage. Reece had his uses, however, as infiltrator for the team, and would be instrumental in helping Bastillion get in place to deploy his sleep gas...


...Returning to strategise the plan was Andavian military commander Lucas Anderson. Anderson was known as genius of his time when it came to military tactics and combat deployment, and it was he who had came up with the original plan and played an influence in recruitment. Anderson would oversee the overall operation, issuing orders and changing plan as the situation evolved...

...Halfling bard Elric 'Moody' Woodstock was to return for entrance and extraction. Elric had a long and strange history that had made him unnaturally charismatic. It would be he who would bluff their way into the library, distract the guards, and have a disguised cart waiting to collect the team when the operation was a success...

...Heading the pincer movement of the plan was Rune Blackforge, a dugrgar who had been raided by dwarfs and was an expert on tunnels and construction. She would create a series of passages beneath the building, allowing the team to quickly abscond if things went sour or move about quickly if plans changed....

...The Library's encoded mechanism was the biggest challenge, but fortunately Carnack had roped in Kerris Etherleaf, probably the realms greatest cryptologist and codebreaker, to handle this. The elderin was working for free on this job, as, since being exiled from the feywild for a transgression against the court of the starts, he filled his time seeking bigger and bigger challenges. Deciphering the mechanism was child's play for him, and was at once in control of the entire buildings defenses mere moments after his arrival...

...Taking care of the locks was Lilith Morau, a drow who had been exiled from the underdark for turning her back on Lolth in the name of her druidic studies. For a drow, Lileth was masterful at the earth magic, and she could manipulate the roots beneath the soil into working their way into the libraries vault locks, doing the job you would need seventeen lock picks for otherwise...


...finally bringing up the muscle was Mai Sukunami, a martial artist from far east who was in the reams on a quest of revenge for the murder of her father. Carnack had promised her aid in this quest in return for signing on for the library job. The other muscle was the undead revenant Garnet. Garnet was the embodiment of justice and retribution but had, in time, found himself bound to Carnack's will. Garnet had no real investment in the heist, but was forced to contribute anyway....

...And in tow, side by side with their murderous leader was Lerissa. Nobody quite knew why she had thrown in her lot with Carnack, but she had a sense of mischief and the power of a maturing warlock to keep her alive. The heist would be another strike against what the authorities back in Farrel had expected of her..."

- Maxil Bluchide: History of the Library: Volume 2

Each character was essentially a challenge. Katie and Kara remained outside to guard the main entrance. It was intended that all characters could be disarmed or persuaded to stand down, since I was planning on them each playing a greater part in the story further down the line. Unfortunately I failed to consider that the most popular opinion of the group was to kill em' all. Bostock bought it against Azreal, which caused Reece to abscond with his body.

I made the players play human chess with an Aztec chess board to get to Kerris, who had to use the defense mechanism to stop them murdering him too. Kerris stood down, because they'd need him later, and the group also managed to free Garnet of his bindings to Carnack. The others all had to flee through Rune's tunnels to avoid the same fate as Bostock, and finally reaching the vault managed to force Carnack into a truce. The final portion of the session was to escape to the roof of the library, perused by enemies, then jumping off it's highest point to land on a haystack and escape with Elric

Music used:

Same as usual so far. At this point each session would start with a character haveing a dream sequence involving a mysterious stranger, tempting them into an unusual deal. These were accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti's Dance of the Dream man from Twin Peaks. These would hint at later things to come in the story.

What worked:

As an ensemble piece it wasn't bad. Each character represented a different challenge that the group would have to change tactics for. Their goal was always clear and present, and securing the map piece essentially sorted their current goal. The Library felt like a well construed concept, and nobody had to spend too long figuring out what to do.

What didn't:

In retrospect what I should have done was present Carnack's Eleven as straight up antagonists. If fighting to the death was given as an actual option then it would have been less frustrating for the players and less frustrating for me wanting them to do something else. Thinking back I really should have guessed the team would just want to kill them, and if I wanted them kept around, should have set them up more as allies than the 'friendly rivals' I portrayed them as.


Chapter Four
X marks the Spot

“The death of King Ferdinand signaled an end to civility in the nation of Navarre. With no monarchical authority, no national identity, and no common belief with which to come together, the country practically imploded, socially speaking. Factions and independent states began popping up and warring against each other. Warlords and troublemakers both rose to capitalise on the chaos. Maybe there was a new future coming for the nation, a better one, but when the bodies started piling up on the streets everyone knew that Navarre was no place for a civilised man to be.”

- Clive Brackstow – The Navarre Civil War

Okay. So by this point the first goal in the overall arc had been completed. Action points and XP had been dished out accordingly. The two map pieces were united and the location of the map room was revealed. Surprising no one was the fact that it was in the recently fractured nation of Navarre that had been unsubtly mentioned a few times already. Just before this, Cardia, Azreal and Megi had the chance to question the remaining of Carnack's Eleven on info that would foreshadow things later in the campaign. A chance they didn't take, oh well.

Once the gang had reunited in Andavia they spent a night at an inn, then hit a trading camp to spend their spoils. On their way to Navarre they had a combat encounter with some mercenaries, which took forever because each player had two characters to control. Once finished, I revealed that it had been instigated by an old rival of Megi's, my first of many attempts to try and get the players to invest more in the story.

Once in Navarre the team are accosted by some armed thugs and escorted to Bostock Hawke's residence. At this point I was still planning for him and Reece to play a more important role later on, so said that Recce had taken Bostock's corpse and got him resurrected by a local priest (what? This is what everyone does when someone dies), Trust was still set on murdering him though, and I had to resort to using an indestructible laser eyed teddy bear (yes really) to keep her in check and stop her ruining my plot thread. Anyway, after all that, the team find out they need to track down the specific location of the map room.

This next bit was pretty inspired, the group are forced to get information from the 'Half-orc minstrels', a bunch of sort of gypsy type mimes. The entire sequence involved Nero trying to obtain information when I was giving it mostly in mime. Nero's player was practically catatonic with laughter by the end, so the whole sequence was fairly memorable and taken in good humor.

They finally find that the room is buried under a temple to 'the ten who are one', which the group eventually track down. This next part was unsubtly taken in whole from the roman numeral sequence from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which everyone failed to realise. After some wandering around the temple following stained glass windows and statues with numerals on them, they finally realise that 'X marks the spot' and smash through the floor.

Music used:

The half-ork minstrel sequence would have been nothing without Tom Waits' Dave the Butcher, from Swordfishtrombones. A few other tracks from that album were also used as well. God I love Tom Waits.

What worked:

Reuniting the group was refreshingly in character and there really felt there was a bit of camaraderie between our in game personas at this point. As already mentioned, the half-orc minstrels were appreciated by all and will be one of the campaigns most enduring memories. Despite nobody spotting the homage, the roman numeral sequence was also fun.

What didn't:

The combat encounter was overly long because of the sheer amount of players. I failed to motivate any discussion with Carnack's band of characters. Bostock felt unnecessary and was never really used again. Indestructible laser eyed teddy bear.


Chapter Five
Bright Lights, Big City

“What had happened to the Modrons over the last half decade was generally unknown. Despite being the spiritual staple of Mechanus, Plane of pure order, their appearances in the outlands had been in decline for many years. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in Sigil, City of Doors, The Cage, The Great Donut, The center of the multiverse. While Modrons were rare even in Sigil, they were still seen now and again as agents or observers. But as the planes changed, so Sigil changed with them, and pure alignment based universes began to see themselves shrink, to make way for new planes of existence like the Shadowdark. In times like these one expects change. Alas though, we were still without an answer: What had happened to the Modrons?”

- Gunter Mackapee – Case Notes: The Foltsom Wainright Case, for submission of review to the Mercykiller Factol

I'm a massive fan of Planescape: Torment. I won't hide that fact. It's my favorite game of all time, and with it come the fondest memories. As a work of fiction, its probably influenced me as a budding writer more than any other piece of literature I've consumed. So naturally, I had to have a jaunt to Sigil and the planes at least once during this campaign. This entire session itself was seeped with nostalgia for Torment, though few of the players themselves felt the benefit of this.

The session began with the group discovering the mechanism of the map room. It's encoded with three languages; Ancient Elven, Ancient Abyssal and Binary. The group recruits Kerris, the elderin codebreaker, to aid them, but he reveals that he can't crack the code without knowing a translation for the cipher, text surrounding Magnus Fallon's original map. Kerris says he'll get to work, but recommends that if you want obscure translations sorted, then you need look no further than Sigil, the titular city built inside a spiral at the center of everything.

For transport, the group get Azreal to track down his some time lover, Spelljammer Captain Sofia Sloan. Sofia is, as usual, bootlegging throughout the multiverse, and agrees to give the group a lift to Sigil, while Jocasta and co stay behind to keep an eye on Kerris. The Spelljammer takes off, and the team have to pass a will check to keep their astral sea legs or throw up as a consequence. During the journey they must do battle with an Astral Dreadnought, though they just have to hold their own for a set amount of turns rather than kill it outright.

Arriving at Sigil, they check in at the Touch of Fey bar with Sofia's associate Harry, who I put my best Ron Pearlman voice on for. Harry can hook the group up with some people who can translate two of the texts, but needs a few favors in return. Azreal, Trust and Cardia leave this session head for a gate town called Dast to deliver a message for Harry, Leaving Megi, Nazrin and Nero to look into some recent thefts. Nazrin, led on by memories of a previous life, finds the fallen Dabus Fell, who creates some powerful tattoos for the group, based upon past experiences.

Tracking down the thief, it seems, whoever he is, is working for a gang known as the beast men. The three infiltrate their headquarters and find that it is the thief is the tiefling Tristan, who has been press ganged into service by the beast men. Megi wants to kill him, but fortunately Nazrin remembers she's Lawful Neutral and forbids it, this still doesn't stop Megi setting fire to his pants though, and Nero, rather unprovoked, punching him in the face. Some bystanders see this, and the formerly well thought of noble starts to get a bad reputation.

With that favor sorted, Harry refers the three to the Society of Sensation, where one of their lecturers, in return for some more of those sensory stones, reveals there is a sole Modron holed up in a secret vault in the undercity. The team battle carrion crawlers and undead in the crypts under the city, where they eventually locate the vault. Inside, a lone Modron has been left with some drones to maintain their presence. The Modron recognises Nazrin from a past life, and is prompted to play a holographic recording by Magnus Fallon. It is revealed that the two had worked together in one of Nazrin's past lives, and that in order to use the God Maker, the precision of Mechanus would be required. The Modron serves this purpose, but can only be fully activated by the genetic structure from two of Fallon's descendants.

The session ends with the binary encryption translated, and more questions than answers.

Music used:

I went hell for leather with the Planescape: Torment soundtrack on this one, which I think drew everyone in. Also used some of Vangelus' Blade Runner Volume 3 for the Spelljammer sequences.

What worked:

This was probably my second best session of the entire campaign. Everyone bought into the quirky Planescape setting. Fell's stat boosting tattoos worked really well and gave everyone a feeling of extra power as well as the personal investment of each boost being unique based on the character and actions they'd taken in the past. The goals were clear and worked well. The combat short and sharp, and the Modron sequence really brought Nazrin's previously indifferent character into her own. Sofia's return also went down quite well as a secondary character (well, nobody tried to kill her at least, which is the best I could hope for at this point).

What didn't:

Summoning Sofia and her Spelljammer was somewhat contrived and convenient, I think I could have come up with a better way of bringing her into the story. As with Carnack's eleven, most players just wanted to kill Tristan, and if it wasn't for Nazrin I would have had a hard time keeping the guy alive.

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