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October commish (1/2) for Spiritwolf — his swashbuckling warrior-mage Shade, adding a bit of kick to his sword for this attack.
So Laughing Ogre Comics, my local pulp paper distributor of choice, had a small shelf of d20 game stuff that pretty much stopped moving some time around 2007 or so. One of the things on it was an almost-complete set of the 3.x Eberron books, which I’d always been kinda-sorta interested in but never had a compelling reason to get until my recent campaign started.
Having resolved to go in and ask if they’d give me a package deal, I was very surprised when on the very day I attempted to do so, they’d reorganized the store and the gaming shelf was gone. O.o Luckily, the stuff had all been just shipped off to a warehouse, so when I asked the manager if it was too late to buy them en masse, it was just a matter of logistics. He was more than pleased to get them off the books, too. Expecting something like a 10% discount, I ended up getting all of them for $5 each. Aww, yeah! I now have a big ol’ “Box of Eberron,” which should keep me in reading material during the long winter months.
In the meantime, now that SirFox has safely landed in California, and we’re hopefully just a week out from being able to game again, I need to turn my attention to cleaning up some of the mess made of the campaign in the last session.
I knew going into the last session that there was a bit of a plot problem. “Mark of Prophecy” (the intro scenario from the 4e Eberron Campaign Guide) basically consists of “a great opening, a solid middle act, and then a ball dropped.” After figuring out that Aric Blacktree was menacing them by proxy, of course the PCs are going to want to go after him– but the scenario as written didn’t account for that. It just had him come attack them while they were flying on an airship… somewhere. Because airship fights. The scenario as written didn’t even say where they were supposed to be going. (Ahh, 4e. So unrestricted by things like story structure.)
The airship fight encounter, as nifty as it was, also wasn’t enough to sustain a whole game session. So to fix both of these things, I stitched the beginning of the next scenario on and turned the “you can’t find Blacktree, but he can find you” thing into a plot point.
Looked good on paper. Didn’t work so well in practice. :-`
Basically, that removed all of the agency from the players. They were given a very obvious “Here’s the next plot hook, go get it!” at the beginning, but were understandably reluctant to start a new one before the previous one was resolved. And instead of enabling them to cleverly seek out and confront the villain like a bunch of Big Damn Heroes, I instead found myself giving them a series of “No, that didn’t work. No, that didn’t work either…” responses until they gave up and stepped into the airship fight encounter as presented in the scenario.
Not my best moment as a GM, sadly. I really should have foreseen that the players would have wanted to chase Blacktree down and had something ready for that. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, some cool “scouring the underbelly of Sharn” encounters leading to the eventual airship fight could have filled in the gap, felt a lot less forced, and not robbed the PCs of their roles as the ones driving the story.
Oh well, lesson learned, hopefully. Meanwhile, they’re already off and into the next scenario anyhow, but I’m not giving up on the whole “that’s actually a plot point” thing. There are wheels within wheels of competing factions who are all trying to manipulate the Draconic Prophecy to their own ends and the PCs are currently pawns in the middle of all this with only a vague idea of what’s actually happening. That part is working as intended– Eberron’s all about the intrigue. But I have to keep my focus on making sure that the story is about the players, not about the plots going on around them.
Part of that means remembering to throw out the plot-as-outlined when it doesn’t make sense or isn’t any fun. And having the PCs pound the pavement all day, get nothing, and then be ambushed by the badguy they’ve been searching for the whole time? Not so much fun.
I didn’t talk about it much on Friday because I wanted it to sink in a little first; but on Friday I was informed that my job in its current form would cease to exist at the end of September.
So, yeah. Not a surprise, if you’ve been following the saga of my transition to pro writer, but still A Thing. I had hoped to have a nice, easy transition period where we sold the current house and bought a new one on our own schedule, after which time I gave my notice and all was well with the world. And certainly, “the end of September” is about when I was projecting for that to happen, so Congratulations, me! The universe’s plans and my own are more-or-less in synch!
So what changes? Fairly little, actually. I will probably talk to some folks in the graphics department about taking some part-time or freelance graphic design work as a fallback, but we were on target to have the house on the market by the end of the month anyway, and certainly if we’re actually moving or moved by the time the job goes Pfft! I’ll be just as well off to say my goodbyes and throw myself into the new life.
Good news is, staying through the end of September entitles me to get my yearly bonus.
But Enough of That Pain! Let’s Talk About Gaming!
Ran the third session of my Eberron Pathfinder game on Saturday. The characters had an epic battle in the skies over Sharn as their new would-be menace, Aric Blacktree, tried to kill them all for reasons still unknown (at least to them). For those who don’t know psionics, a word of advice: a 4th level Wilder can do horrifying amounts of single-target burst damage. Beware. By taking a wild surge, Blacktree’s “energy ray” power did 6d6+6 damage as a touch attack. The downside was that he kept suffering enervation (which left him dazed and ate an additional 4 power points), so could only get that shot off twice, and the first one missed. Still… dayum. The second shot incinerated the NPC skycoach pilot on the spot. Fortunately, when the skycoach crashed into a tower, the PCs managed to abandon ship without getting killed in the process.
The second half of the session was basically segueing into another scenario, this time going into the “goth deco” ruined district of Fallen in search of a mysterious statue for an even more mysterious NPC patron. This brought the party’s lack of a cleric into sharp relief, as an exactly on-level encounter with a pack of barbarian ravers (think the inmates from Escape From New York, that kind of thing) dropped two of the characters and severely injured most of the rest. (1st level barbarian, raging, two-handed greatclub power attack: +6 to hit, d10+9 damage. Ouchie.) A healer in the group would have made all the difference. I suspect there will be an investment in potions/wands soon.
And Then There Was WoW
Last night, after working on the whole “pack up and move” thing for a while, I broke down and bought the full updated version of Mists of Pandaria for World of Warcraft, mainly ‘cos I wanted to make a tanky pandaren and the warrior class was just too darn dull. So now I’ve got an up and running pandaren windwalker monk named Akiji (somewhere in the low teens) and a draenei ice mage named Duskgem (somewhere in the high teens), both on the Moon Guard server, both members of the Fortune guild. Look me up sometime.
I don’t honestly know how much time I will spend in WoW, given that I will soon be unemployed and might not have money to blow on a monthly rent-to-pwn fee, and given that I’ve always had a begrudingly-enjoy/hate relationship with MMOs, but for the time being it’s serving fairly well for my “Braindead, me go kill monsters until sleeptime…” needs. I’m also a bit uncomfortable about the “racial conflict is in the world’s DNA” nature of the setting, but honestly that’s a common thread in almost all contemporary fantasy– it’s usually just less blatant about it.
This is a Pathfinder adaptation of the “Mourning Haunt” creature in the “Mark of Prophecy” adventure from the Eberron Campaign Guide (4E). (Note that this is a CR 5 version, because I was running this adventure at 3rd level. For a CR 3 version, reduce it to 2 HD and lower its natural armor to +6, which will give it AC 16, hp 27, change its to-hit to +4, and change its Haunting Fog ability to DC 12, 1d4 damage.)
A Mourning Haunt resembles a white-furred demonic ape, and is about 7′ tall. Tendrils of dead-gray mist unwind from its fur, concealing it in a cloud of fog. Its eyes are blank white orbs, and its mouth is full of long, sharp teeth. Four curling horns jut from its skull.
CR 5/XP 1600
CE Medium Humanoid (demon)
Init +0; Senses blindsight, darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +4
Aura mourning aura (constant)
AC 18, touch 10, flat-footed 18 (+8 natural)
hp 57 (6d8+21)
Fort +4, Ref +5, Will +4
Defensive Abilities displacing hit (at will); Immune electricity, poison; Resist acid 10, cold 10, fire 10
Speed 30 ft.
Melee Bite +7 (1d6+2/x2) and Claw x2 +7 x2 (1d4+2/x2)
Spell-Like Abilities Haunting Fog (2/combat) (DC 14)
Abilities Str 14, Dex 10, Con 14, Int 9, Wis 10, Cha 12
Base Atk +5; CMB +7; CMD 17
Feats Iron Will, Multiattack, Skill Focus (Acrobatics), Toughness +7
Skills Acrobatics +5, Climb +6, Perception +4
Displacing Hit (Reaction) (Su) When hit by a melee attack, the mourning haunt instantly teleports to a safe space of its choice up to 60′ in any direction. It does not require line of sight, but cannot teleport through force effects. The creature must use this ability when hit by a melee attack, but may choose to teleport as little as 5′ away. This is an instant reaction and does not provoke attacks of opportunity.
Haunting Fog (2/combat) (DC 14) (Sp) A 10′ square area is filled with swirling gray mist that burns all within and may immobilize them. Anyone who enters the fog or is in the fog at the beginning of their turn take (1/2 hd)d4 fire damage (3d4) and must make a Ref save or be immobilized. Once placed, the fog remains until the haunt dispels it or is slain. Mourning haunts are immune to this effect.
Mourning Aura (Constant) (Su) The mourning haunt is surrounded by a 10′ radius aura of swirling gray mists. It has full concealment against creatures outside of the aura, and regular concealment to creatures within it. It takes no penalties from the concealment itself and its darkvision can see perfectly through the mist.
Hero Lab® and the Hero Lab logo are Registered Trademarks of LWD Technology, Inc. Free download at http://www.wolflair.com
Pathfinder® and associated marks and logos are trademarks of Paizo Publishing, LLC®, and are used under license. “Mourning Haunt” and its lore ©2009 Wizards of the Coast, from material written by James Wyatt, Keith Baker, Ari Marmell, and Robert J. Schwalb. This conversion is fan material only, no assertion of ownership is intended or should be inferred.
(Spoilers for “Mark of Prophecy” from the Eberron Campaign Guide ahead.)
Session two of the Eberron Pathfinder campaign began with incorporating Squant the ratfolk summoner into the story, which was quite easy, actually. Hired by Magister Thyrane of the Esoteric Order of Aureon, a self-appointed “arcane watchdog” over Sharn, Squant was given an “extraplanar compass” and tasked with tracking down mysterious and worrisome summoning energies that had been detected in the city. With a cry of “This sounds like fun!” he was off.
The trail led him to the Ambassador Towers district, where Yamashi, Nienna, and Cirano were all attending a ceremony of remembrance as guests of Lord-Major Bren ir’Gadden. It had been four years exactly since the Day of Mourning, and ir’Gadden hadn’t forgotten the mercenaries who rescued him on that day. Other ceremony attendees included other survivors who had been in or near Cyre that day and escaped the tragedy (including the Cyran solider whom Nienna had shot in the leg as he tried to escape the tower four years ago), or displaced Cyran nobles now at the Cyran embassy in Sharn. Doing their best not to commit too many gaffes in such a highbrow crowd (well, except for Cirano), they’d been mingling and eating hors d’oeuvres for a bit by the time Squant arrived. Squant had just managed to get a guard to go fetch “someone in authority” to let him into the ceremony, when a clock chime indicated that it was the exact moment that the Mourning had occurred. Lord-Major ir’Gadden started to make a speech, but then a door slammed open and swirling gray fog came spilling out, as if the Mourning itself had come to Sharn.
Panic, naturally, ensued.
The mist turned out to be an aura effect around a demonic creature known as a “mourning haunt,” which could not be seen from outside the mist, but was visible once you were in it. Looking something like an enormous four-horned demon ape, the mourning haunt began attacking ceremony attendees. The PCs engaged it, as did Lord-Major ir’Gadden, the Sharn guardsmen on hand, and shot-in-the-leg guy. (Shot-in-the-leg-guy, later revealed to be named Talsar, was suffering from a case of bad dice rolls and having a hard time fighting effectively, leading naturally to several jokes about one’s adventuring career being over once you take an arrow to the knee.) Unfortunately, the mourning haunt had a very annoying habit: every time it was hit with a melee attack, it would teleport away, usually to the far side of the map, where it would attack bystanders again. The first several rounds were a Benny Hill-esque chase back and forth from one end of the map to the other, until the PCs figured out the pattern and decided to hold their ground in strategic locations, letting the Sharn soldiers do the chasing and attacking the mourning haunt when it teleported back to being near them.
This chewed up the mourning haunt fairly quickly, causing it to change its tactics. Although killing bystanders was fun and part of its overall agenda, its real mission turned out to be assassinating Lord-Major ir’Gadden, Yamashi, Cirano, Nienna, and Talsar, for reasons unknown, and it began targeting them specifically. By that point, however, the PCs had figured out its gimmick and worked around it, dispatching the thing quickly. As it died, its body dissolved in a flash of arcane energies that briefly formed the dragonmark from the tower of prophecy– “Five at the brink of destruction stand as one against the tempest’s roar.”
Once the immediate crisis was under control and introductions were made, Squant explained that he’d been tracking the mourning haunt, and that the extraplanar compass suggested that the ritual that had brought it to Sharn was still going on. Lord-Major ir’Gadden tasked the PCs with finding the ritual and shutting it down; Talsar insisted on joining them. Like the PCs, he’d had recurring nightmares since the Day of Mourning that contained voices whispering that damn prophecy. “I don’t know how or why, but I’m part of this.” ir’Gadden basically replied “Fine with me,” and off they all went.
This led to a skill challenge sequence in which the PCs questioned shopkeepers, followed the extraplanar compass readings, and searched for traces of the wispy fog or other clues of the haunt’s passing as it traveled from its summoning point to the attack at the ceremony. Two failed rolls led to a pair of complications: the first came when, tracking the gray mists down a drainage pipe, they got battered (and in the case of Talsar, washed away as the dice failed him again) by a flash flood that dumped them into a cold, dark cistern. The second came when, climbing out of the manhole access to the cistern, they disturbed a murder of Sharn crows, a particularly aggressive breed that swarmed all over Cirano. The swarm was quickly dispersed by one of Yamashi’s bombs and some well-place arrows, and the group went on their way.
Eventually they reached their destination: a normally-unremarkable townhouse at the base of one of the towers in the Center Bridge district. (“Normally” unremarkable because at this particular moment, it was anything but: from inside came noises suggestive of a storm, a roaring sound punctuated by peals of thunder.) They decided, as PCs tend to do, to go in the side door, but in this particular instance it didn’t matter: the bottom floor was devoid of any light or activity, everything was happening up above. On the lower floor they did find some personal effects, including a holy text of the Blood of Vol (Divinity of Blood Revealed, sort of the Pocket Bible of the blood cult) which had the name “Blacktree” written inside the back cover.
The upper two floors of the house had been gutted and converted into an eldritch machine that opened a gate to the Mournland. The machine was attended by a dolgaunt and a pair of shifter mercenaries, who seemed to be frantically trying (without much success) to keep it under control. The machine was the source of the roaring thunder, and the sound and lightning cascades from it were growing more intense by the moment– if allowed to keep going, the machine would open an interplanar rift that would cause an explosion that could take out most of the Menthis Plateau. The PCs quickly dispatched the machine’s attendants, then disassembled the device, getting only partially battered and singed by the lightning strikes in the process. As the last piece was smashed, the gate to the Mournland popped like a soap bubble and an unnerving quiet fell over the building.
At this point, Talsar said, “You realize what just happened, right? Five at the brink of destruction stood as one against the tempest’s roar.” Yamashi replied, “Don’t you just love being in the middle of a prophecy?”
The session wrapped up there for the night, with the characters heading back to report to Lord-Major ir’Gadden what they found and did about it. They have also been promised a reward from a Cyran ambassador who survived the attack at the ceremony of remembrance, but they have precious few clues to the scope of the plot at hand and what it all means. Written instructions they found on the slain shifter mercenaries indicated that they were to shut the machine down after two more mourning haunts had come through the gate– it appeared to be mostly luck that hadn’t happened yet. And other than the implication that Aric Blacktree and a man described by a witness in the skill challenge as having “a peculiar curved posture” are involved somehow, they’ve got little to go on.
Perhaps more will become clear next time…
PS: This scenario was written as 1st level for 4e, but it’s been fairly simple to convert to 3rd level for Pathfinder. I will provide stats for the mourning haunt tomorrow as a “Monday Monster” entry. The skill challenge I ran pretty much straight as written, although I altered the complications for things I thought were a little more interesting than just “random fight with thugs.” Finally, the shifters were changelings in the original scenario, which is more cosmetic than anything else. I was surprised that the group didn’t try to intimidate or otherwise get the shifters to flee, that’s a tactic this group often uses and the shifters were already looking for an excuse.
We’re finally getting to session two of my new Eberron game this weekend; I’ve been champing at the bit for the past two weeks to get back to it. It’s also probably the last session before one of the players moves out to California, which fills the rest of us with terror and dismay. Regardless of whether we set up an iPad in his chair and have him here remotely, or he moves on to something more local to himself on Saturday nights, our group is about to go through another one of its periodic sea-changes, and as the current configuration has probably been the best our group has had in years, we’re anxious as to what will come. But that’s another topic! I want to talk about this Eberron game and what’s got me so eager for it.
Normally when I come up with a campaign idea, I start with a general vision of what kind of experience the campaign should be, try to figure out potential ways my players might engage with and enjoy it, and present it to them, knowing that they’ll probably come up with something at complete right angles to it and we’ll have to work as a group to synthesize it all. I often try to emulate a particular feel for a campaign, whether it’s Howardian sword-and-sorcery, loopy CRPG/cartoon silliness, or “old-school dungeon crawling.” Sometimes it works beautifully, sometimes it crashes, and sometimes it just sorta sits there.
This time, I came to it from the other direction: specifically, certain players had characters I knew they wanted to play, and there were certain fantasy elements I knew I wanted to play with but hadn’t yet, and so I came up with a campaign framework that had room for those things, handed it to the players, and said, “Here you go– as long as you can think of a reason your character would be in situation X, you can play whatever you want.” The players responded with enthusiasm, which is always gratifying.
Note that I’m not advocating one of these approaches over the other: they can both serve a campaign and a group well, but they can also both go pffft. The structure of my usual approach can be very useful for players who don’t know what they want to do and can simply take their cues from the background, but of course it can also be quite shackling to somebody who wants to play a bomb-throwing alchemist in a Tolkien-style fantasy where such things would be the craft of The Enemy and not suitable for heroes (to use a real-life example). The approach I took for this game is great for someone who has a character near and dear to their heart that they want to get some action, but it puts a lot of the burden of “making your character work” on the player and might not provide as in-depth an immersive experience.
In any case, for this particular campaign, and in the context of “play what you want, we’ll make it work,” Eberron is in some ways the perfect setting. Heck, Rule #1 of the Ten Important Facts About Eberron is “If it exists in the D&D world, then it has a place in Eberron.” Human fighter? Come on down. Gnome half-dragon with a crazy quilt of prestige classes? We’ll find a spot for you. That’s what Eberron is for.
In spite of all this wiggle room (or possibly rope with which to hang yourself), Eberron never feels like a giant “just toss it all in” mess. In fact, it’s one of the few RPG worlds I’ve seen where the system artifacts and the game setting actually seem to work together as a cohesive whole instead of actually fighting with one another.
The quasi-medieval default of most fantasy settings really starts to break down when you add magical healing as common, monsters in vast complexes just outside of town, and groups of mercenary adventurers sporting items of power that are worth more gold than the entire kingdom will ever see. Eberron starts from the premise that these things exist and then says “What would a world be like where this happened?” Magic shops? Heck, Eberron has an entire magic economy. The fortunes of House Cannith, House Lyrandar, and House Sivis were built on the manufacture of magic items. That kingdom across the border with an army of the dead? We can’t just go to war with them, we’ve got trade agreements to think of!
There are lots of other cool little touches, too, from “manifest zones” (places where the borders between dimensions get a bit wibbly-wobbly, giving you an in-world reason to have a random sea of lava in a dungeon room if you want one) to “flying carpet races” in Sharn. In short, while having all the underpinnings of Dungeons and Dragons (or Pathfinder, in my particular case), Eberron is a setting that smiles and says, “Go on, have fun with it. I can take it.”
I intend to do just that. And with the players eager to go as well, I expect many good times to be had with this game. Although I originally intended for it to be a self-contained 4-6 level story arc, it may just end up being something that goes on indefinitely. And even if it doesn’t, I’ve now got some cool ideas for future campaigns that could also work in Eberron down the road.