Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Arresta D'Avilos Cassadine, Love-torn Princess [Clone Wars Campaign]

It's hard to know where to start with Arresta; not only was she the most important PC in the game, her home planet and love life was the driving force behind many story arcs.  I guess it's best to just jump in.   After my comments, are those of The Wife; we wrote independently, so you may see some similar themes discussed.

The Beginning  It all started because The Wife "wanted to play a princess."  Well, that meant I needed to come up with a monarchy, a homeworld, and a reason why the character would decide to venture forth to the galaxy at large.  Because, let's face it: 52 straight sessions on the same planet just wouldn't have been very Star Wars!  Creating the planet of Mongui, which I honestly didn't spend much time on at the beginning, was a way to incorporate the setting of the campaign: the Clone Wars, as I wanted the Republic and Separatists to be duking it out with the PCs getting caught in the middle.  The Wife designed Arresta as a secretly kick-ass assassin/bodyguard for her father's regime, so having him betray her was a sneaky way to give her a reason to leave.  Bringing the other PCs to Mongui was also a way for me to start the campaign in a controlled condition before getting my feet wet and giving them a hyperdrive to go anywhere in the galaxy.  It's ironic to note that, for the first few sessions, The Wife didn't particularly like Arresta; indeed, she thought about ditching her in favor of her alternate character, a Jedi.  But she stuck with Arresta, and the character has clearly become her all-time favorite.

Secret Ninja Princess  Arresta kicked ass.  Not only was she a deadshot with a blaster pistol and handy with a vibroblade, she was damned near impossible to hit, with a Reflex Defence off the charts.  She was actually fairly decent at almost every skill (Heal, Pilot, Deception, you name it), with the one exception being Mechanics; this defect eventually became a fun way to keep the character recognizably human and flawed.

Friends  The friendship between Arresta and Daal was an interesting one, as they were the only two PCs to both start the campaign and to finish it.  They thus had a lot of shared history and experiences, and this naturally led to trust and concern.  On the other hand, Daal's picking of Team Tarn over Team Stefan (see below) drove a wedge between them.  The friendship between Arresta and Doxen was very much one of mutual respect, as the two often effectively made decisions for the group.  A'tel was, I think, very much the somewhat goofy and naive little brother who needed looking after because he kept getting into trouble.

The Love Triangle  I'd played in and directed a lot of RPG campaigns, and I had never seen a campaign where romance was a major plot point.  That all changed with Arresta on the scene, as her dilemma between choosing Tarn or Stefan added a layer of soap opera to the campaign that I never expected.  (as The Wife would say, "chicks, eh?")  But it paid dividends in making the NPCs "real" and getting the players motivated to see what would happen next.  I had great fun subtly manipulating events so that each of the two suitors remained viable alternatives until near the end of the campaign.

Family  Family was the biggest motivation for Arresta: not the one she was born into, but the one she made.  The stability that Stefan offered Arresta and Allegra was, I think, the main reason she chose him, and was a large part of her decision not to go to Mongui in the final story arc.  The hero didn't get the girl, but that's okay--RPGs are better than Hollywood movies because there's no guarantee everything will work out in the end.

In Conclusion  Arresta's story didn't end with the campaign; not only are there several short stories, there's a whole novel The Wife and I wrote together about events several years down the line.  As I presently gear up for a whole new campaign with new PCs set in the Rebellion Era, it's hard to imagine that any will have the same impact that Arresta did on the Clone Wars Campaign.

The Wife on Arresta

Arresta’s physical appearance is based on Tava Smiley, the actress who played Chloe Morgan on General Hospital. When I created Arresta and needed a picture, as always, I went to my soap opera roots. Of course, at the time I had no idea that Jhaeman would be including these things on his web-site. 

I loved the Stefan/Chloe romance on General Hospital and was dismayed with how it played out. Not only did they kill Chloe off, prior to that they had her deriding Stefan because of his devious ways. Stefan’s women always seemed to turn away from him for lying and plotting - something I would have thought they would have known about him from the start. I found that very frustrating and always wished that Chloe could have seen past the plans and schemes and been the Lila Quartermain to Stefan’s Edward.  

That’s why, when I needed a former paramour of Arresta’s to come on the scene, I selected Stefan Cassadine (again, not knowing this was going to end up on the web where it could end up looking like bad Mary Sue fanfiction) and the likeness of Stephen Nichols. 

Arresta wasn’t intended to be a girl caught up in a love triangle. When the campaign started, her character was focused on supporting her father, the Regent. She had given up her relationship with Stefan to stand behind her father after her sister Corinne’s “betrayal”.

When Arresta found out that her father been lying to her, she found her foundations crumbling and felt that she was adrift and alone in a dangerous universe. For that reason, she decided to build on the crush that Jedi Tarn Tamarand had on her to provide herself with information. Arresta was only about a year older than Tarn and thought that she knew everything there was to know about intrigue. Obviously, she was wrong. 

She ended up falling in love with him and was devastated when he cast her aside. This paved the way for Stefan to “reclaim her”. The rest of the campaign involved Arresta battling her desire to save Tarn (even when he didn’t need or want saving) and her desire to be a good mother and wife. This wasn’t helped by Tarn’s constantly saying the wrong thing, or her fear that he would abandon her (and their daughter) again. 

I was very pleased with her ultimate character arc. In the end, she made the decision that family was the most important thing to her - and that meant being there for daughter and not chasing off after Tarn on crazy adventures. She decided to grow up, and put her chid first. 

She didn’t really resolve her love triangle - she loved them both, for different reasons. Tarn’s decision to follow Master Creen into the anomaly (and his dismissal of Arresta’s concerns about his Master) pretty much sealed their fate. That plus the fact that she felt desperately guilty about “abandoning” Stefan for two years while in the CIty of Sand (despite no time passing for her) and she couldn’t find any other way that would keep both men alive (and stop them from killing one another). 

Arresta D'Avilos Cassadine


Female Human, Height 5'6, Weight: 120 lbs.

Abilities:  Strength 16 (+3), Dexterity 19 (+4), Constitution 10, Intelligence 14 (+2), Wisdom 10, Charisma 16 (+3)

Hit Points: 100 (Damage Threshold: 35)

Initiative +13, Speed 6

Force Points: 14, Dark Side Score: 3

Defenses (add 10 if not using House Rules):  Fortitude +21, Reflex +26/28 (unarmed), Will +23

Attacks:  Unarmed +18, d. 1d8+12;  Deathhammer (blaster pistol) +19, d. 3d6+9; Vibrorapier +18, d. 2d6+9

Special Combat Actions:  Point Blank Shot (+1 attack & damage); Precise Shot (no penalty firing into melee), Extra Second Wind, +5 Condition Track 1/day, Can shift 5 from attack to defense, No penalties to two-weapon fighting, Improved Evasion, Command Cover 1 per ally, Bolster Ally, If adjacent to ally, no flanking bonuses against self or ally

Languages:  Basic, Bothese, Huttese, Rodese

Talents:  Wealth, Connections, Tough as Nails, Indomitable, Evasion, Improved Evasion, Inspire Fear I, Command Cover +2, Bolster Ally, Watch Your Back

Feats:  Linguist, WP: Simple, WP: Pistols, WP: Advanced Melee, WP: Rifles, Melee Defense, Dual Weapon Mastery, Extra Second Wind, Dodge, Point Blank Shot, Precise Shot, Martial Arts I, Martial Arts II, Improved Damage Threshold, Skill Focus: Persuasion, Skill Focus: Treat Injury, Skill Focus: Deception, Toughness

Skills:  Acrobatics +13, Climb +12, Deception +22, Endurance +9, Gather Info +17, Initiative +13, Jump +12, Knowledge: Bureaucracy +16, Knowledge: Tactics +16, Perception +14, Persuasion +22, Pilot +18, Ride +13, Stealth +13, Survival +9, Swim +12, Treat Injury +19, Use Computer +17

Equipment:  97,235 Credits, 2 Medpacs, Bindercuffs, Glowrod, code cylinder, credit chip, 29 spice vials, lighter, Hush-98 Comlink, Blaster Pistols (x2), Knife, Garrotte, All-Temperature Cloak, False ID "Tava Morgan", Slugthrower Pistol, Vibro-Rapier, Hold-Out Blaster, Concealed Holster, Hip Holster, Field Kit, Shadowsuit, Tool Kit, Security Kit, Datapad, Shadowsuit, Medpaks, Flimsy, Anomaly Datacube, 2 MWK Medpacs, Lightsabre

Character Background

The Princess Arresta Augustine Eugenie D'Avilos was born on Mongui, a rocky moon orbiting the gas giant Korvallis in the Essowyn system.  Arresta is the second child of the current Regent and his late wife and is currently the heir to the hereditary elected monarchy of Mongui.

Arresta believes herself to have had an idyllic childhood.  She was raised to have strong loyalty to her planet and to her family and to her father above all, as both head of the family and the planetary Regent.  Although currently estranged, Arresta was close with her elder sister, the former heir.  Arresta is unable to see her father as anything but a hero and, although regretful, fully supports his decision.

Arresta received a substantial education in both intellectual and physical arts.  From the time she was a small child, she was taught that it was her life's responsibility to serve her people, and, by extension, their regent.  Thus, from a young age she has been secretly trained to act as a 'hidden in plain sight' bodyguard for the Regent.  Very few, absent her father and his steward are aware that this training has taken place.

When she was fifteen, Arresta was sent off-planet to attend 'finishing' school.  In reality, she was trained at a secret facility specializing in training assassins and bodyguards for the political and social elite.  This Black Guild provided Arresta in training with weapons, unarmed combat, tactical scenarios, poisons, and escape techniques.  An apt and devoted pupil, who fully believes that her efforts could impact the safety of her father and her planet, Arresta was just completing her studies when her sister was renounced as heir.

Both Arresta and her father are adjusting to the fact that her new position as heir places her in a more visible position than they had planned.  She is still learning to adapt to having a more visible presence at court and with dignitaries, and her focus is occasionally more on security/safety than politics.

In light of the new position of Mongui in interplanetary politics, Arresta is now striving to determine how best to serve her country.  A new, and thus far, unwelcome concern, is increasing pressure for her to consider a diplomatic alliance/marriage of convenience to cement the security of Mongui.  However, given the latest attacks by Separatist forces, these pressures (to Arresta's relief) have somewhat eased.
Return to Clone Wars Campaign Main Page

The Buffy Comic Project: "Out of the Fire, Into the Hive"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 34

(Dark Horse, Vol. 1 1998-2003)

Creators:  Tom Fassbender & Jim Pascoe (writers); Cliff Richards (pencils); Joe Pimentel (inks)

Setting:  Season Four

T.V. Character Appearances:  Riley, Buffy, Xander, Giles, Anya, Willow, Tara, Spike

Major Original Characters:  Warren Whitcomb (entomologist) (corpse only); Cole (Initiative member/bug); Rebecca Stansberry (librarian)

Summary:  Having penetrated deep into the underground hive of the giant bug-creatures, Buffy and her friends are confronted by the corpse of Warren Whitcomb, animated by one of the bugs to speak.  Through Whitcomb's body, the hive explains that Whitcomb thought he could control the hive, but that the Scoobies' intervention disrupted his plans.  Still, the hive plans to continue breeding and then take control of the surface.  A massive fight breaks out, with Xander using a flamethrower and Buffy using an axe. Meanwhile, on the surface, Riley wakes from his coma and rushes out of the hospital room, while Spike cuts open one of the insects to discover its "power stone".  Riley finds Spike and forces him to help in finding the others.  Down below, Cole saves Buffy's life but gets killed by Spike, and the group discovers the source of the bugs mystical energy: crystals embedded in a wall.  The group destroys them all and returns to the surface victorious.  Rebecca is waiting for them and explains why she disappeared (she was in the hospital).  She tells Giles she might be interested in spending more time with him if ever leaves Sunnydale.


It's hard to go wrong with a huge battle against giant bug-monsters, even if their origin and concept (magical power stones?) was never particularly well explained.  Shoehorning every cast member into the story was probably unnecessary, as many hardly get a line of dialogue.  I did appreciate the "twist" that Rebecca Stansberry had (apparently) absolutely nothing at all to do with any of the demon business; though, alas, poor Giles loses at love again.  All in all, not a particularly memorable storyline (with Riley being particularly useless), but not terrible.


* No letters page this time out, but a house ad for the next story arc: "False Memories".

*  Do we care that the Scoobies basically committed genocide?

*  In what I think is a continuity error, Spike references having tortured and killed the Chaos Demon that Drusilla cheated on Spike with in Rio.

Next Issue

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 12 [RPG]

[23 Tarskakh 1372]

Leaving the bandit hideout behind, the group (along with the rescued slaves: Tazi, a merchant, and two caravan guards) heads in the direction of Mirabar, making slow progress through the hilly terrain. Along the way, they talk with Trigonnis, the bandit captured by the group who has since pledged his allegiance. Trigonnis decides that the group must be "treasure hunters," and shares his suspicion that Grim may have a hideout in the Evermoors, near the oft-besieged town of Nesme.

That evening, during a shared watch, Nakor talks with Trigonnis and the two establish a shared roguish bond.

[24 Tarsakh 1372]

The group continues walking, but the need to hunt and forage for food slows them down. Fargrim returns with a dead elk and the group feasts.

[25 Tarsakh 1372]

During the march, Nakor tells Trigonnis that the group is searching for the lair of a dead god filled with valuable treasures and magical artifacts. Later in the day, an expensive-looking carriage passes by. Nakor tries to get it to stop, claiming medical necessity, but the coachman refuses.

As the sun goes down, the group makes it into Mirabar with little problem. The rescued merchant provides the group with a small reward for their troubles.  That night, while sleeping in the Sign of the Forgehammer inn, both Cain and Fargrim fall prey to terrible nightmares, in which they see themselves as rising from the grave as undead abominations. Even when they wake up, they still hallucinate that their hands have become skeletal in nature.

[26 Tarsakh 1372]

Fargrim takes Nakor with him to meet Bearos. Bearos promises to arrange a meeting for Nakor with one of his old colleagues from the thieves' guild. That night, Nakor establishes contact, gaining a set of thieves' tools and a warning not to carry out any illicit business in Mirabar without giving the Guild a substantial cut. Nakor also arranges for receipt of a disguise kit the next day.

Cain spends the day working for the dwarven blacksmith he had worked for during his previous stay in Mirabar. His work is far better this time around, and he uses some of the profits to buy his own set of artisans' tools. During a break, he spots a cleric of Auril, the Frostmistress, talking to a mysterious figure in an alleyway, but Cain decides it would be too risky to start any trouble while on his own.

Fargrim tries to discover more clues about Grim's whereabouts and asks some contacts whether they have ever heard about a place "where the mountains meet the sky" that Tazi claimed he was being taken to, but no real leads develop.  The dwarf also arranges for a special chain and wrist-cuff to be made and connected to the pommel of his greataxe.

That evening, Fargrim again has terrible dreams. This time, after awakening as a living corpse on a massive battlefield, he sees that legions of such abominations are being led by a hideous figure wearing a strange black circlet, from which four jagged silver spikes protrude.

[27 Tarsakh 1372]

At breakfast, Fargrim is exhausted from a second poor night's sleep in a row.  He tells Cain, Nakor, and Markus about what he saw in his nightmares, but both Ellywick and Mellia are away on other business and do not hear about it. Tazi stops in to excitedly report that the two women have helped to find him a job as an apprentice cooper (barrel-maker) and that he now has a place to sleep above the workshop. He still tries to convince the group to take him with them, but they kindly refuse.

Cain begins work on crafting himself a spear, while Markus, Nakor, and Fargrim visit a gnome advertising himself as "Protius the Potion Purveyor" in a back-alley business. The trio purchase some healing potions, but find they cannot scrape together the funds to buy one that might relieve Fargrim of his suffering. Fargrim decides to visit Mirabar's shrine to Tymora. There, he
explains a little of his plight to an adventuring-priestess named Janith, and she offers to try a spell the following morning. Fortunately, that evening, Fargrim has a sound night's sleep and awakens well-rested.

While the others sleep, Nakor disguises himself as Markus and sneaks out of the inn. He spots Trigonnis outside, and hears a rumour that a small caravan will be leaving one of the dimaond mines outside Mirabar the next day at mid-morning to head for Luskan. Nakor continues on to a rowdy tavern, the Goblet and Gem.  There, as partial revenge for Markus' actions their last time in Mirabar, Nakor (as Markus) makes a fool of himself and challenges several patrons to a fight
outside the inn the next morning. He also "befriends" one of the Gems (professional escorts) and learns that The Axe has long suspected that the Lord of Feldspar House in Mirabar's wealthiest neighbourhood might have some information about Grim. Apparently, a party is to be held there in two days' time.

[28 Tarsakh 1372]

In the morning, Nakor tells Markus, Cain, and Fargrim of the diamond caravan and suggests following it might be a great way to set a trap for Grim's associate, the Scourge of Blackford Road. The group decides to see if they can find Mellia and Ellywick before heading out.

Director's Commentary (August 29, 2013)

Instead of pressing their attack in the bandit cave and trying to capture Grim (or his impersonator), the PCs decide that discretion is the better part of valour and that a return to Mirabar is warranted.  This hesitant adventuring is a trend for some time, and something I've teased the players about; but in their defence, they had an extremely long run without any PC deaths so maybe they were on to something . . .

Sessions like this really make me miss Nakor!  Although we've had a rogue in the group since who is extraordinarily good at the traditional thief skills (hiding, finding traps, etc.), we haven't had any character (rogue or otherwise) who was so good at ferreting out information and being manipulative for his own ends.  In this session, one of those ends is revenge on Markus, and it's fun to see it play out next session.

There's some discussion of a couple of different leads to track down Grim.  I think I mentioned in the past that I really didn't expect this to become a major plot point in the campaign!  At the beginning, I figured having a bandit or two around would help spice up the long travelling times between cities in the North; but as the sessions went on, Grim's mythology grew and grew, as did Fargrim's desire to catch him.  I may not have mentioned that Grim was part of Fargrim's backstory, so I have Fargrim's player to thank for coming up with the NPC to begin with.  Because Fargrim's backstory featured Mirabar and the Long Road (long before the PCs learned they would actually be adventuring in the interior of the North rather than the Sword Coast itself), his backstory was the only one I was able to really incorporate into the game for a long, long time.  And there's still some PCs I haven't been able to do as much with as I would have liked.

Next Recap

Castle Ravenloft Bonus Adventure "Search for the Sunsword"

The Search for the Sunsword official bonus adventure puts the heroes on the trail of the legendary Sunsword, a weapon said to be powerful enough to defeat Strahd himself.  The unique thing about this scenario is that the heroes are entitled to keep the Sunsword and begin the final battle against Strahd with it in their possession.  It's not a gamechanger (+1 damage against vampires), but it sure would've been useful during the many narrow defeats we suffered at Strahd's hands.  Alas, we didn't know the scenario existed . . .

Anyway, as a standalone adventure, The Wife and I found it incredibly easy.  It's in standard "turn tiles over until you find X and then escape" format, with a twist in that a Young Vampire appears after the heroes use their first healing surge.  Well, we never had to use a healing surge, and found the Sunsword and escaped with little difficulty.  The end.

We've now completed all the official adventures for Castle Ravenloft and I think it was a good investment; we got several hours of entertainment out of it, and I can swipe the miniatures to use during traditional D&D sessions.  We've had Wrath of Arshadalon on the shelf for a while, and we're looking forward to cracking it open.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

FBI Paranormal Cases [GAMES]

Jhaeman:  A couple of weeks ago, The Wife and I completed FBI Paranormal Cases, a seek-and-find game by the same company that made that Jack the Ripper game we reviewed recently (HdO Adventures).

The Wife: It was....better than Jack The Ripper. Definitely longer, something that turns out to be a big deal. This one took us multiple sessions to complete.

Jhaeman:  I liked that it had a little bit of a sense of humor, as the idea is that you're an FBI investigator very much in the vein of Mulder in the X-Files.  There's some fun gags if you pay close attention, like a villain who leaves chewing gum everywhere instead of cigarette butts . . .

The Wife: It also had some fun mini-games built in, including point & shoot games and a variety of logic/spatial puzzles. They added some nice dimension to the game. What did you think of the plot?

Jhaeman:  Exactly like the X-Files; at first it seems very cool, but ultimately incomprehensible.

The Wife: Heh. So true. The game has a built-in conceit that has you revisiting all of the locations a couple of times - for really stupid reasons like "I need to take a picture." It creates lots of interesting "cases" but never really explores them.

Jhaeman:  So all in all, an average one.  Can't say I'm inclined to go and find more HdO games.  What about you?

The Wife: I tend to agree - although since the games were among the few offered for Macs, we may end up checking them out again some time. Ultimately I'd say no where near as good as Valerie Porter, but better than Jack The Ripper or that one that was about flirty adventures in Europe.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Best Show in Football: The 1946-1955 Cleveland Browns

In 2012, the Browns have the current streak for most consecutive games without a win, and may set a franchise record for the same thing on Sunday.  But the Browns weren't always a pit of despair!  The Browns were once the most feared team in professional football:  four straight championships from the team's inception in the the All American Football League, including an undefeated season in 1948.  Once the Browns entered the NFL, they were again dominant from the very beginning, winning the championship in their first year.  All in all, the team won 7 championships in the 10 years from 1946-1955, making the championship game in the other 3 years.  All in all, this makes a strong case for that era's Browns being "Pro Football's Greatest Dynasty", the core argument of The Best Show in Football: The 1945-1955 Cleveland Browns, a recent book by Andy Piascik.

I can't claim the book is full of exciting and well-written prose; at times its even a bit dull.  But it did educate me about Paul Brown and the team's best players in the era, like Otto Graham, Marion Motley, and Mac Speedie.  It certainly establishes that the team has a legacy to be proud of, and puts into even more stark contrast the depths to which the franchise has fallen since the "new" Cleveland Browns appeared over a decade ago.

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day 22: "The Eternals"

I've never had much affection for the Eternals, as I can't say I ever really connected to any of them--they all just seemed somewhat distant and uninteresting.  Neil Gaiman's recent take was really good though, and I could imagine reading more if he were writing them.  The series begins with a good conceit: the Eternals are locked in mortal form, with little memory of their former lives.  I won't spoil who's behind it, but it's both interesting and clever.  The series actually fits in with Marvel continuity well, with the aftermath of the Civil War lurking in the background.  I still wouldn't rank the Eternals among my favorites, but Gaiman successfully reinvented them while remaining true to their original versions.  Good stuff.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 11 [RPG]

[23 Tarsakh 1372]

There's a temporary lull in the battle as the group tries to decide what to do; should they retreat now while they still can or should they advance quickly and attack the group of bandits that Markus discovered?  While they're discussing the matter, they realize that one of the bandits has been spying on them.  He quickly retreats, and after some more discussion, Ellywick decides to advance down the narrow tunnel.  She's immediately fired on by archers at the end of the tunnel, where it splits into a "T" junction.  The group then advances, intermittently and with much hesitation, down the tunnel in single file.  The bandits and adventurers exchange arrows inconclusively in a long skirmish, as the bandits are determined to maintain their excellent defensive position and the adventurers seem reluctant to advance.  Fargrim, at the rear of the group, is exhausted and unwilling to take the lead, leaving the group without their best front-line fighter.  Finally, Ellywick charges towards the bandits, only to be struck down by multiple stab wounds!

As she lays bleeding, Nakor expertly dodges bandits and reaches their left flank.  A bandit puts his sword at Ellywick's throat, threatening to kill her if her allies don't flee, but Nakor dramatically dives and pushes her out of harm's way before the bandit can act.  A burly, muscular human in a skull-mask carrying a greataxe pushes his way to the front of the bandits and begins to attack.  At first glance, he appears to be the mysterious marauder Grim, but Fargrim is suspicious that he might be an impostor.  After Markus casts a spell to make it sound like reinforcements are about to arrive, the bandit leader orders his men to withdraw down the east tunnel.

Instead of following, the adventurers travel down the western tunnel and come across the room Markus has briefly glimpsed earlier.  Piles of coins, furs, and a gold bracelet are heaped on a table, and make-shift cages line the walls to hold slaves.  One of the slaves, a young boy, cries out upon recognizing Cain, Nakor, and Fargrim, and they realize it is Tazi, the cabin-boy they rescued from the strange island only to leave at the hands of the slavers of the The Woeful Tide when their attempted mutiny failed.  Tazi says that the slavers threw Illanus, the priest of Waukeen, overboard because of his broken leg, and then arranged for the boy to be sold and transported by Grim's bandit army.  He doesn't know where he was destined to end up, but did hear something about "where the stars meet the mountains" and "worse things down below."  The remaining slaves, a merchant named Mortellus and his two caravan guards, talk to Markus and offer him a reward if he can safely return them to civilization.

After Nakor is seen pocketing the gold bracelet, the others decide to split up the loot, and both Tazi and the bandit-turned-henchman Trigonnis are given a small share.  Trigonnis claims he can be very valuable to the group, though he also claims not to know much about Grim or his operation, beyond the fact that he often uses body-doubles and communicates through a raven.  As the others continue talking, Nakor decides to cautiously investigate the eastern passage, which he had been told was full of traps.  After just a few steps lead him to almost fall into a hidden pit, he decides to return to the others.  After some discussion, the group decides to leave the caves and head back towards Mirabar, with their foray having yielded mixed results: the rescue of some captives and discovery of treasure, but the escape of most of the bandits, including, possibly, Grim himself.
Director's Commentary (August 23, 2013)

Looking back over previous commentaries, one of the things I didn't talk much about was my goal for this campaign to be very friendly to newcomers to D&D by sticking with as many of the tried-and-true (a.k.a., cliched) tropes of the game: bandits, skeletons, orcs, etc.  My goal was that they come out of this campaign having had a taste of all the "core" monsters, themes, and rules, and would then be in a good place in the future to tackle all of the exotic variants that are out there.  I tried to rely heavily on a campaign setting that fits very closely to what people think of in terms of "fantasy" (the Forgotten Realms) and inserted, where I could, pre-made scenarios that fit the "classic" theme (Dungeon Crawl Classics modules were a start).  Doing it like this meant that I haven't put much of my personal spin on fantasy: I haven't created any new monsters, cultures, religions, etc., which is certainly something I'd like to do with these players in a future campaign.  In the future, I'd love to do something more like my Clone Wars campaign, where I relied on some established settings and enemies but invested a lot of time in creating major new NPCs, worlds, and story themes.  But on the other hand, to be frank, one of the reasons for picking D&D as a campaign to run was the idea that it would be very low in terms of preparation time, as free time is simply not something I've had a lot of since moving to Australia (and now even less since I've foolishly decided to run an online Star Wars New Republic campaign).  In conclusion (not really), both types of campaigns can be awesome; a "beer and pretzels" game is a great way to hang out and make new friends, while a deeper and more involved game is rewarding in terms of creativity and character/story development.

Anyway, this was a battle heavy session and sort of funny in a way.  The PCs were advancing along a corridor that ended in a T-junction when they were fired on by the bandits, who had a very defensible position because any PC who advanced would be up against multiple enemies while their ally PCs would be stuck behind them and unable to attack except with ranged weapons firing into melee (in a couple of levels, of course, an area of effect spell like Fireball would render this sort of defensive tactic useless, but it worked at this point in the campaign).  The PCs weren't sure how to respond, so there was a long and indecisive ranged battle, caused in part because no one was willing to take command or take the risk and charge into melee until, of all people, the gnome charged in and was quickly dropped (this may have been one of those situations where the player was as frustrated by delay as the character).  What happened next was pretty exciting, as Nakor was told that if his character failed his disarm attack on the bandit with the blade to Ellywick's throat, a coup de grace would be the result and she'd be dead; he went ahead and tried it anyway, and it worked!  D&D isn't often the best system for modelling exciting, cinematic events like that, but it sure worked this time.

The PCs finally earned some treasure, which was much needed since they lost everything after being sold as slaves.  Tazi's statement about "where the stars meet the mountains" is, of course, planting the idea that Grim's hideout is really in Startop Mountain.  It took me a long time to decide where I wanted to set the Castle Whiterock adventure, and I eventually decided to use Startop Mountain in the Evermoors.  The idea was that "Startop Castle" would be in a dangerous, foreboding place, but not actually too many days' ride  from civilization (Nesme to the west, Silverymoon to the east).  The setting also fit in well with some other adventure seeds.  As we'll see, of course, the PCs have barely scratched the service of Castle Whiterock or much of what I'd planned for the Evermoors, as events have led them into many different adventures, and it's not clear at this point in the campaign (circa Session # 52) whether they'll ever return; and if they do, they'll be far too high a level to be challenged by most of it.  It ties into the difficulty sometimes of making adventure hooks that are good enough to entice PCs to go where you want, without making them so blatant or irresistible that it becomes railroading!  But more on that in a future commentary.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Thirty Days of Graphic Novels, Day 21: "The Return of Superman"

Part of the reason I'm so far behind is that I've simply gotten busy; the other reason is that The Return of Superman is a huge book!  Weighing in at almost 500 pages, it's taken me a while to get through it in 5 to 10 minute chunks.  I enjoyed it though, as it's a good collection of solid superhero story-telling that very much encapsulates the art-form as it commonly existed in the early 1990s--thus, it's very comforting, like watching re-runs of a TV series you followed as a kid.  The lengthy story collected in this volume follows the introduction of four would-be Supemen who appear in Metropolis after Big Blue bit it.  Each of these characters are individually well-written, and a couple ( Superboy and Steel) continued to appear in DC Comics for years.  The story also had some major ramifications in other comics, with Coast City getting effectively nuked.  There's too much happening here to sum it up effectively, so I'll mention just a few points:

*  The writers do an excellent job with Supes' large supporting cast; even though he's absent from the vast majority of the book, you don't get bored with seeing Lois Lane or Lex Luthor running around.

*  Mongul and Cybor-Superman make for some good villains, though I could have done without Green Lantern's johnny-come-lately intervention at the end.

*  The return of Superman himself is a little underwhelming--black tights and massive rifles?  Meh.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 10 [RPG]

[22 Tarsakh 1372]

From his hidden position behind a tree, Nakor sees a bandit trying to surreptiously come around the hill. Before long, it becomes clear that the bandit has an unseen ally who has picked up the group's trail. Nakor begins to carefully move away from the hill and towards his companions, who have gathered about a half-mile away. They decide to set up in a defensive position on a hilltop, but, after a few hours have passed, conclude that the bandits have decided against sortying out. Markus sends his snake familiar to investigate
the escape tunnel; the snake comes back covered in oil, having fortunately evaded a cunning fire trap. The group discusses what to do, with Mellia arguing that, with the element of surprise lost, it would be better to instead march west and attack the other bandit encampment. However, the majority agrees that it would be best to simply set up camp for the night and attack the cave early in the morning.

During the night, the heavy snowfall begins to recede. The group sets a double watch, and their sentinels are startled by the appearance of a small herd of brantas. Fearing the large hooved animals could charge and trample them, Mellia casts a magical spell that creates a loud noise to scare them away.

[23 Tarsakh 1372]

In the early morning hours before sunrise, the group puts a plan into motion. Ellywick sneaks up to the rear of the bandit's cave and sets the oil-covered tunnel on fire. Meanwhile, the other members of the group have worked their way around to the front and hidden themselves in the sparse treeline. Seeing the smoke from Ellywick's action, they move forward towards the cave opening. A huge, greasy, smelly ogre stumbles out, awakened by shouting from inside the cave. As missiles launched by the group sink harmlessly into the ogre's thick hide armor, Mellia tries once, and then twice, to lull the dim-witted creature into somnolence with Slumber of the Innocent. The spells finally take effect, and the ogre slumps to the ground. With the first swing of his new masterwork greataxe, Fargrim decapitates the ogre.

Advancing inside the cave, the group follows a narrow tunnel that soon opens into a larger cavern. A crude stone wall, four feet high, cuts the chamber in two, and behind the wall are bandits with shortbows and swords. Fargrim charges to an opening in the wall and soon dispatches one of the bandits, and then
smashes in the skull of another whose blade has been expertly disarmed by Markus. Cain summons magical flaming spheres, but the bandits manage to evade them. Ellywick arrives on the scene, but the battle is nearing its end. Nakor swallows a magical potion that increases his leaping ability, and he scales the
stone wall with a single bound to land in the middle of the surviving bandits. Soon, one bandit has fled down a tunnel on the far side of the cavern, one tries to escape towards the cave entrance but is stymied by Cain and Mellia, and a third, badly injured, pleads for his life.

Marcus dashes off after the first bandit, but finds himself the target of a volley of arrows from another group of bandits who have taken up defensive positions in a room with a large table full of loot and slave-cages along the walls. He quickly retreats back towards the others. Cain and Mellia have little difficult convincing their captured bandit to surrender, and they extract from him both a rough map of the tunnel network and his coin-purse. Fargrim, on the other hand, cruelly slaughters the helpless bandit in front of him.
Director's Commentary (July 30, 2013)

A combat-heavy session.  Markus' familiar was quite lucky to evade detection, as otherwise it would have gone up in flames (and then it wouldn't have been around later to pull a worm from his brain; we'll save that story for another day!).  I think I might have been a bit more charitable then the rules provided early on with how much familiars could communicate.  As an aside, I haven't been particularly impressed with how familiars function in D&D 3.5--they almost alway stay hidden because they're so vulnerable and it's hard to role-play them effectively because of their limited communication ability early on (and it's tough to personify an animal), so mostly they just end up being a bit of a stat boost to sorcerers and wizards.  It's something I'd like to think about how to improve for future campaigns.

My fearsome ogre ended up being dropped by a Sleep spell.  The Wife, playing Mellia, has remarked once or twice how the players always give Fargrim the glory for decapitating the creature, when it was her character who rendered it helpless in the first place.

The PCs handled the first group of bandits without much difficulty.  The captured bandit would become a fun, minor NPC by the name of Trigonnis.  Trigonnis considered the adventurers just another group of bandits, but was happy to join up once they promised to spare his life in exchange for information.  He was never quite trusted, however, and some sessions down the line was unceremoniously abandoned by the party without even a good-bye note!

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Realms Toowoomba Recap # 9 [RPG]

[20 Tarsakh 1372]

On their first full day in Mirabar, members of the group try to avoid being seen together in order to keep a low profile. For the most part, they go their separate ways with a pre-designated meeting point to share what they've learned.

A somewhat hungover Fargrim tracks down his even-more hungover friend Bearos, and learns that one of Bearos' old contacts in the Mirabar thieves' guild has a potential lead on Grim's whereabouts: it seems that the contact returned to one of his hideouts in the hills southeast of Mirabar only to find it occupied by a
band of highwaymen. Soon thereafter, Fargrim spots his recent gnome acquaintance, Ellywick, and she tells him of another possible lead: she tracked a group of bandits to a wooded area two days southwest of Mirabar.

Mellia gets permission from the keeper of the Sign of the Forgehammer to advertise the scribing of mystical scrolls. He promises to spread the word for a share of the profits, but, at least on the first day, she has no customers. She investigates serving as a tutor for apprentice battle-wizards serving with Mirabar's standing army, The Axe, but they don't seem interested.

Cain spends most of the day working for a dwarven blacksmith. His work is minimally acceptable, and he earns a handful of silver pieces for his trouble.

Marcus buys a foppish hat with a feather sticking from the top, and is persuaded to buy a somewhat dodgy "healing potion" from a local hedge-sorceress.

Nakor tries to weasel a better price on some armor from a craftsman by claiming he plans to join The Axe, but the armorer sees through his deception and banishes him from the smithy. The Sembian has better luck tracking down a purveyor of magical potions, as he locates a back-alley gnome who seems to have one of everything. Nakor also learns of the reward for capturing or killing Grim: 5,000 gp, with another 1,500 gp for The Scourge of Blackford Road.

The group works so hard at being incognito that they begin to confuse themselves. Two planned meetings, one at the walled gardens in the center of Mirabar, and another outside the city, are not attended by everyone in the group and there is a lot of back-and-forth as messages are passed and sometimes
misinterpreted. Nakor ends up locked outside of the city after retrieving the military plans he had buried on the way in to Mirabar. He spends a wet, cold, and lonely night on his own. The others end up drinking, talking, and sleeping in comfortable beds in the Sign of the Forgehammer.

[21 Tarsakh 1372]

The group reunites south of the city, with Marcus bearing the brunt of Nakor's veiled frustration over the confusion. Members of the group split on the question of whether to pursue Fargrim's lead to the southeast bandit cave or Ellywick's lead to the southwest forested encampment. Finally, the deadlock is broken when the group realizes that they would have to reenter Mirabar and cross a bridge in order to go to the southwest. They decide on the southeast and begin marching along the Long Road.

[22 Tarsakh 1372]

A surprisingly heavy snowfall begins early in the morning, its effect heightened by a strong wind. Fargrim, however, manages to follow the directions he had been given and leads the group to the cave they suspect of sheltering Grim's band. The group decides to keep their distance, and Marcus sends his snake familiar to investigate. The snake sends back murky thoughts of multiple beings, one much larger than the others. The group decides to circle the hill and see if there might be a back way in. Nakor's keen eyesight comes in handy, as he discovers a concealed tunnel that angles sharply upwards into the hill. Further investigation reveals it was clearly meant as an escape tunnel, and Nakor is able to follow its dark, narrow confines to a sliding door carved out of rock. He returns, and the group decides to try to sneak through it and catch
the bandits by surprise.

All seems to be going well, until Marcus' coin-purse catches on a rock, loudly spilling its contents down the tunnel! A bandit on the other side of the secret exit slides the door open and is surprised to see Nakor there. Nonetheless, he has the presence of mind to stab Nakor twice before the group manages to start a
backwards retreat. Instead of trying to follow, the bandit decides on what seems like a can't miss shot with a shortbow--but a shout from further back in the cave distracts him, and his arrow richochets off a jutting rock and strikes a companion fatally in the throat!

Having failed in their otherwise-clever attempt at stealth, the group retreats into the lightly-forested area to regroup. Nakor hides between a tree just a few dozen yards from the secret exit, hoping to see what sort of response the bandits have planned.
Director's Commentary (July 22, 2013)

This was one of the sessions that helped give the group its reputation for being able to spend a lot of time in town doing somewhat mundane things: shopping, running errands, haphazardly gathering information, and discussing/arguing about what to do next.  I find it hard as the director not to want to make more exciting things happen sometimes during their time in cities, but as the same time I don't want to always jump in and curtail their "down time."  Plus, a city like Mirabar isn't really meant to be exciting--I've portrayed it in the campaign, based on my research, as a fairly dour, grim, unexciting city of tired miners, busy craftsmen, and very serious dwarves.  In retrospect, though, I might have tried to come up with some city encounters.

Markus' floppy hat with a feather sticking out of it, purchased in this session, became a trademark of the character.  As I write this, Markus just died in the last session (skull crushed by a flesh golem!), so here's hoping his friends can figure out how to get him raised.  The scene with Nakor getting stranded outside the closed gates of the city and freezing while his friends, who forgot to meet him, enjoy the comforts of a nice warm inn was pretty funny at the time.  Nakor would get his revenge, however.  The one recurring NPC to come out of this was Protius the Potion Purveyor, one of those little things a director comes up with on the spot that turn out to be fun later on.

For the bandit's cave, I modified material from a short adventure called Dry Spell.  I had the secret escape tunnel in the map because I thought it was a natural bandit trick, but I was really not expecting the PCs to find it from the outside! (A natural 20 on a Search check works wonders).   The PCs plan to sneak through the tunnel to attack would likely have been enormously successful, as they would have caught the main bandit leader (a Grim impersonator) on his own with only a couple of mook bodyguards.  Markus' natural 1 on his Move Silently check, however, put a stop to that plan!  On the other hand, they benefited from a natural 1 rolled by one of the bandits who tried to fire a "can't miss" arrow down the shaft.

It was good to have this encounter, as a classic "mini-dungeon" is a good bonding experience for new PCs and, after the defeat at the slaver's hands and the long trip from Luskan, some old-fashioned adventuring was called for.

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Realms Toowoomba Recap # 8 [RPG]

I'm still here, just very, very busy . . .

[13 Tarsakh 1372]

In the aftermath of the battle on the bridge spanning the Black Raven River, the group searches the bodies of the fallen Luskanites. Cain takes a suit of half-plate armor while Nakor distributes some platinum pieces. Mellia strikes up a conversation with the injured dwarves and learn they were part of a diplomatic caravan heading to Luskan who decided to stay behind and watch the bridge when they heard several reports of caravans being harassed. The topic of the bandit leader Grim comes up, and the dwarves from Mirabar confirm he is still at large and that a large reward has been offered for his death or capture. Later, as the group has moved some distance from the bridge and finds a campsite, Mellia has words with Cain about the latter's failure to follow the plan.

[14 Tarsakh 1372]

After Cain manages to hand-carve a makeshift holy symbol to replace the one lost to the slavers, Fargrim sets about shattering the manacles and the locks on the steel boxes the group was told to deliver. Inside Cain's box is a decomposing hand with a large ring (black band with a raised gold heron) on one finger. Inside Fargrim's box are several secret Luskan military plans on how to respond to an attack by Mirabar. The group discusses various approaches on what to do with these pieces of incriminating evidence--including burning them, burying them, or holding on to them. For now, the latter is chosen. Nakor spends a few minutes trying to fabricate a new document indicating that Luskan had received intelligence that Mirabar is planning an attack. Later, Meillia asks about a mysterious "Crown of Horns" but no one has any useful information on it.

As they continue marching along the road east, the group chats with a caravan that has stopped briefly. Marcus trades a masterwork longsword for a tenday's rations, much to the delight of the lucky recipient. While camped for the night, Nakor sees a contingent of Miraban heavy infantry march by heading west.

[15 Tarsakh 1372]

The group continues marching east. Marcus inadvertently insults Mellia by making a juvenile remark, and she gives him the cold shoulder. The gnome spots something that could be tracks left by bandits, and she decides to investigate on her own, promising to rejoin the group before she takes any hostile action.

[16 Tarsakh 1372]

The group has the good fortune to come across a wagon carrying merchandise from the House of Bright Blades that was hurrying west to catch up with a large caravan. The group pools their resources to purchase Fargrim an exquisitely crafted greataxe, and Nakor does some hard bargaining to buy himself some bladed weapons.

That night, terrible nightmares of their friends and families being menaced by undead abominations haunt the dreams of Nakor, Fargrim, and Cain. Fargrim seems the worst affected, and finds great difficulty getting back to sleep.

[17 Tarsakh 1372]

The group continues marching east.

[18 Tarsakh 1372]

The group continues marching east.

[19 Tarsakh 1372]

The group reaches the outskirts of Mirabar. They decide to stagger their entry to avoid detection by anyone looking for them. On his way in alone, Fargrim comes across an overturned arrow-pierced wagon with an apparently dead kobold nearby. A woman inside screams for help. Fargrim resists the impulse to go to her aid, and instead jogs back down the road for reinforcements. By the time they return, the wagon is mysteriously gone.

When Fargrim does enter Mirabar, he soon finds his old friend Bearos. The two have a joyous reunion and begin drinking at a local inn. Bearos promises to use some of his old contacts in the thieves guild to get information on where Grim might be hiding.

On their entry into Mirabar, Marcus and Nakor report they have confidential information about Luskan's movements. They are escorted to a massive fortress near the center of the city and give an account of the battle at the bridge to Thorgrim, one of the leaders of The Axe, Mirabar's army. However, they leave out any mention of their having been apparently framed for the Third High Captain's murder.

Mellia and Cain have a difficult time when they try to enter Mirabar, as a suspicious gate guard catches them in a poor lie. They're taken for interrogation, and only clever spell use by Mellia manages to get them out.

Eventually, everyone finds their way to Mirabar's most well-known resting place for travelers, The Sign of the Forgehammer. It has a dark, confusing layout, but the members of the group mostly stay apart from each other anyway in order to preserve their cover. As morning dawns, they find themselves in safe, comfortable beds for the first time in weeks.
Director's Commentary (July 5, 2013)

Nothing particularly dramatic happened this session, but it was good for the group to reach Mirabar as it was the first chance to really had to enjoy the fruits of civilization (stores, beds, etc.) since the campaign began.  The plot did progress some, as the group got some more of the Grim adventure hook (something I need to write about in greater length soon), figured out what's in the other boxes they'd been stuck with, and met Bearos--an NPC from Fargrim's backstory who will become quite significant later in the campaign.

The recap mentions that Cain took a suit of half-plate armor off one of the dead Luskans. Cain wore that armor in every subsequent session, and it became one of the memorable things about him, as the armor check penalty alone made it virtually impossible for him to do any athletic (I think his modified Swim check was -13 or something).  As I write this, we just had Session # 45 and in Session # 44 Cain finally lost the armor when surrendering to a foe.

The line about Cain carving a holy symbol out of wood also became significant.  Everyone teased him for being a cleric of the god of fire and having a wooden holy symbol, and I was able to tie it in perfectly when the character cast an attack spell and rolled a natural 1: the critical fumble card said that Cain was permanently cursed with a -4 penalty, and so I interpreted that as Kossuth being displeased with Cain's choice of holy symbol.  Synchronicity!

I'm not sure why I'm focussed on equipment right now, but this line cracks me up:  "As they continue marching along the road east, the group chats with a caravan that has stopped briefly. Marcus trades a masterwork longsword for a tenday's rations, much to the delight of the lucky recipient."  I had forgotten about that, and it's kinda like trading the family cow for a handful of beans.  Fits well with Markus' character, though.

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