Friday, December 27, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Session # 38 [RPG]

[Flashback to 5 Kythorn 1372]

After several hours' ride, Markus realizes he's approaching the eastern edge of the Evermoors. In the distance, the tightly-packed trees of the Silverwood provide a welcome respite from the dreary grey moor. However, one last obstacle remains in Markus' path, as a quartet of rotting humanoid forms suddenly burst up from the ground. At first glance, they look like mere zombies, but the writhing mass of worms crawling in and through their skulls reveal them to be something far worse: Spawn of Myrkul!

Before Markus can react, one of the abominations spits a worm that flies through the air and lands on the adventurer's face. In seconds, it has crawled to the back of Markus' head and started to burrow its way into his skull! The arrival of other creatures spook Markus' steed. After enduring painful scratches from their bony claws, the horse rears up and gallops at full speed back to the west. Markus and his mount quickly leave the undead behind, but the damage has already been done. Markus feels the worm pierce his skin, and then start to gnaw through his skull! When the pain stops, the real danger starts: the supernatural worm has attached itself to his brain, and is draining away his intelligence and life force! Markus tries to remove the creature with his magic but fails, and as he grows more and more dazed and confused he opts for a cunning but spectacularly dangerous last resort: he sends his snake familiar to chase after the worm! Plunging its narrow head through the same wound in Markus' skull, the snake darts forth and clamps down on the worm, tearing it free and saving Markus' life. The wounded swordsman manages to stay on his mount long enough to spur the creature to head to the northeast, and this time escape from the Evermoors is unimpeded as the adventurer reaches the outer edge of the Silverwood. Danger remains, however, as Markus' mount did not escape the unliving grotesqueries unscathed . . .

[Flashback to 7 Kythorn 1372]

Ralkin, Flindle, and Katanya wake in the morning after an uneventful night's rest and continue on their journey.

[13 Kythorn 1372]

In the extradimensional space anchored above the site of a massive battle, Terreck proudly displays the spine of Aloysius which he has wrapped around his walking stick. Bearos is disgusted by the sight, but Fargrim takes it in stride: "interesting, very interesting", he says.

Meanwhile, down below, Sha'dar sets off north to find the bolted horses and Ellywick. Eve continues conversing with Mellia. The paladin of Ilmater asks the sorceress if the group has any other injured persons that need tending do. Mellia mentions that Bearos, Fargrim, and Terreck are nearby. She says that, although Terreck is a hobgoblin, he has helped the group fight slavers and is not necessarily evil like many of that race. Mellia calls for the trio to come down.

Fargrim and Bearos climb down first. Fargrim is wary of the newcomer, noting that "being trustworthy will get you killed in this place." Eve replies that her mission here is to hunt undead. Mellia speaks highly of Fargrim's bravery and skill in fighting against the slaving band led by the deceased Grim.

When Terreck climbs down, a cascade of dramatic events come quickly. Mellia sees the ghoulish walking stick wielded by the hobgoblin and is horrified, shouting at Terreck to explain himself. Terreck says he was only being true to the deceased gnome's acquisitive spirit, and Fargrim adds that "it is merely a spine on the end of a stick" and not something to get upset about. Mellia continues to vehemently argue that Terreck has acted in a grossly inappropriate way, and should think about leaving the group. Cain remains laying on the ground where Eve healed him and remains quiet, if perhaps slightly bemused by the drama. Eve, however, interprets Terreck's action quite differently. After putting some distance between herself and the group, she whistles to summon her pegasus mount (named Percy) and demands that the entire group drop their weapons, lay down on the ground, and surrender themselves for transport to Silverymoon where they will face trial. Spotting Sha'dar nearby, he orders the elf to do the same.

Eve's demands are initially met with uniform resistance. Fargrim defends Terreck and says there is no injustice in taking from the dead. Mellia, although aghast at Terreck's actions, tells Eve that what the hobgoblin has done may be disgraceful, but it is not illegal, and that there is certainly no reason to arrest everyone for his actions. Eve repeats her warnings multiple times and says that if the adventurers do not immediately comply with her orders, they will face "trial by combat." Mellia calls for a peaceful way to resolve matters, arguing that surrendering weapons would be tantamount to suicide in the Evermoors.

Eve gives the adventurers another chance to comply, and then, astride her flying mount, charges into battle with lance at the ready. Cain tries to deter Eve with a wall of flame, but the paladin flies right through it. Terreck quickly turns himself invisible, but Eve dives towards his last known position, and, with Tymora's luck, impales the hobgoblin through the throat, killing the already-wounded adventurer instantly! Cain remains laying on the ground, ostensibly complying with Eve's demands, while Fargrim drops his weapons but challenges Eve to attack. Mellia sits on a nearby rock, but repeats her assertion that she will never voluntarily be bound. Cain tries to talk Mellia into surrendering, but Mellia replies that Eve must be insane. Sha'dar tries to parlay with Eve, but meets with little interest. Soon, the elf decides to comply with Eve's orders, partially out of a desire to be close to such a marvelous creature like a pegasus.

Interpreting Mellia's actions as a failure to comply, Eve charges towards her and smacks her hard on the head with the blunt side of his lance. Mellia responds by launching unerring spheres of pure force and rays of fire, and then turns invisible. Ellywick stumbles into the camp from the north, witnesses the strange scene, and then decides discretion is the better part of valor and withdraws. Cain remains passive, and eventually agrees to give Eve all of his weapons. Sha'dar does the same and starts playing fetch with his hound. Fargrim climbs up into the extradimensional space, climbs down and picks up one of his weapons seconds after Eve has picked up the other, and then climbs back up. It remains unclear whether the dwarf plans to fight or not.

The battle of wills (and combat prowess) between Eve and Mellia continues, as the paladin tries to have her mount sniff out the invisible sorceress' position. Mellia manages to move with expert stealth and climbs up the rope to the extradimensional space. Seeing the swinging rope and realizing her prey has temporarily eluded her, Eve shouts up that she is willing to wait them out and that if they do not turn themselves over voluntarily, she will have no choice but to kill them.

In the space of just a few short hours, the two newest members of the adventuring party have been killed, and now a dangerous stalemate has begun. Who will be the first to crumble, either through concession or defeat?

Director's Commentary (Jan. 8, 2016)

This was one of those unforgettable sessions that makes gaming worthwhile!

Spawn of Myrkul
First, there was the encounter between Markus and the Spawn of Myrkul (renamed from "Spawn of Kyuss" in the Monster Manual II).  These nasty undead spit worms that crawl into one's brain cavity and drain intelligence.  When Markus got hit by one, and didn't manage to remove it immediately, his intelligence score began to slowly but steadily drop towards coma and death.  Since he was out there all alone with a worm in his brain, we were all certain he was dead.  But Markus' player hit on one last plan, sending his snake familiar into the same hole in his head that the snake crawled into to try to ferret it out--the plan was doomed to familiar given the enormously high AC I gave the worm, but a natural 20 is a natural 20 and the attack succeeded!  Markus lived to fight another day.

Just like in the Garden of Eden, Eve caused a whole host of troubles!
Second, the phrase (spoken with a German accent) "Drop your weapons and lay on the ground" is remembered with shudders by many in the gaming group.  This was the constant command of Eve the Paladin when faced with an adventurer's spine wrapped around a stick thanks to Terreck.  All hell broke loose and eventually resulted in the first fatal PVP combat I can remember in a long, long time of gaming.  Although Terreck cleverly turned invisible, Eve knew the hobgoblin's last known location and rolled a critical hit (with double damage from a charging lance) and instantly killed him.  This was met with gasps both in-game and in real life, and I think probably led to some personal animosity between the players running the respective characters involved.  I think Eve was one of those Paladins that make all Paladins seem virtually unplayable, but I have to give the player credit for sticking to his RP guns.

Tune in next time for the even-more dramatic conclusion of the stand-off!

Next Recap

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Communist Manifesto [Norton Critical Edition]

So now that I’ve finished the Worth Literary Classics, my next project intended to get me to read something besides genre fiction is to start going through Norton Critical Editions.  A wide variety of classic books in literature, history, and philosophy have been published as NCEs, and the reason I’m a big fan is that they come with thorough introductions and a nice selection of background materials such as extracts from scholarly articles on the main text.  Instead of reading and forgetting, you’re revisiting the text through several and sometimes divergent angles, which is a great way to think more deeply about it. 

I’ve already picked up a handful of random NCEs at used book stores, and to get the project started I chose a relatively short one: Karl Marx’ The Communist Manifesto.  The editor, Frederic Bender, does a fantastic job setting the Manifesto in its historical context as a piece written at the request of and designed to serve as a statement of principles for a small group of activists named the Communist League in 1848.  Largely ignored upon publication, it wasn’t until a couple of decades later that “Marx’s little pamphlet” came to be seen as an influential and important exposition of the tenets of communism.  Bender’s introduction also clearly explains that the Manifesto’s role as a short essay to declare Marx’s (and the League’s) views, and convert others to the cause, meant that it was not intended to serve as a full theoretical argument for communism.  This can be seen by the rhetorical strategies employed and the devotion of one section to explaining why other perceived alternatives (varieties of communist and socialist organizations, now mostly long forgotten) were inferior or mistaken.

There were several things that I found quite useful in this edition in improving my understanding of Marx and The Communist Manifesto. First, a better understanding that Marx was not advocating the complete abolition of private property, but instead the abolition of private control over the means of production (p. 68).  A couple of the scholarly essays after the text (one by Michael Harrington and one by Bertram Wolfe) involved quite interesting discussions of Marx’s often-unclear (“schizophrenic” according on one writer) views on whether the proletarian revolution could be achieved through democratic means (on the whole, Marx seems inclined towards democratic means in countries that had advanced democratic systems like England and the U.S., while also acknowledging that in most other countries other means will be necessary for the proletariat to achieve control).  An essay by Rondel Davidson persuasively argues that much of the historical argument in the Manifesto is indebted to the work of a thinker I had never heard of before, Victor Considérant; however, Marx and Considérant had very different views on how the problems of exploited workers should be solved.  The book includes some very brief extracts from works by Lenin and Trotsky, and I wish this would have been an aspect fleshed out more; the various historical strands, movements, and counter-movements in the history of communism are not clear to me, and I can’t understand the difference between a Bolshevik, a Trotskyite, a Stalinist, etc.  (I suppose I could do a lot of Googling and some Wikipedia-ing, but that seems like too much work!) 

I suppose my final takeaway, and one of the essays (I forget which) talks about this point as well, involves Marx’ description of the state of the worker in the Manifesto as, of course, a very evocative and grim one, such that the reader can’t help but feel sympathy and a desire for justice.  How much of this alienated and downtrodden state of labor is contingent in terms of the evolution of capitalism, trade unionism, the legal system, geography, etc.?  In other words, has something Marx seemed to deride as simply stalling the inevitable proletariat revolution, labor reform, ameliorated the condition of the “working man” to such a degree that no revolution is necessary?  Of course, even if working conditions have improved dramatically in some contexts, the problems of vast income inequality have only increased, along with additional problems of privatization, corporatization, environmental injustice, etc.

Anyway, much to think about and a good sign that the NCE project was a good one for me to pursue!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Session # 37 [RPG]

[Flashback to 5 Kythorn 1372]

After an uninterrupted night's sleep, Markus spurs his horse at full speed to the east, hoping to escape the dreaded Evermoors. Danger, however, follows in his wake.

[Flashback to 6 Kythorn 1372]

Ralkin leaves Startop Keep and catches up to Katanya and her brother Flindle on the trail down the mountain. They are relieved to have the kenku's assistance, citing safety in numbers. The trio reach the bottom of the mountain and begin the journey east without incident, camping as night falls.

[13 Kythorn 1372]

The night passes uneventfully, but just before dawn danger arrives. Patrolling the southern perimeter of the camp, Mellia fails to hear the approach of another frost giant until it is almost too late. Unknown to the adventurers, the frost giant, Volstagg Ortleson, discovered the charred corpse of his brother and receive permission from his leader, Princess Gerti Ortleson, to follow the obvious tracks in the snow of the "murderers" and to take the white dragon Rynnarvyx for assistance. Volstagg has difficulty making out the tracks of the adventurers once they leave the area covered in snow, but sufficient moonlight exists to lead him in the right direction. In a small clearing hidden by the copse of trees, Mellia uses a spell to whisper to everyone that they may soon be under attack and then turns herself invisible.

Volstagg brings forth a torch that gives off a flickering blue-white "flame" but no heat, and searches the ground for tracks again. Looking directly at the copse where the party is hidden, he calls out a challenge to the "fire warlocks" who killed his brother and then whistles loudly. As the adventurers in the camp ready themselves for battle, Volstagg draws a massive battle axe and then charges into the darkened copse, knocking over small trees in his path. He spots Terreck first and his axe cuts deeply into the hobgoblin. Terreck manages to stay alive long enough for the invisible Mellia to send her familiar to deliver Terreck a spell to turn him invisible as well.

Aloysius is struck while trying to sneak away from the giant, and stumbles behind a fallen tree. The gnome hurtles a ray of magickal fire at Volstagg, but the enraged giant, shouting again about "murderous fire warlocks", charges the gnome and sinks his axe deep into Aloysius' chest, killing the adventurer instantly! About the same time, Volstagg's companion, Rynnarvyx arrives, and breathes a cone of painful ice and snow at Cain and the adventurers near him.  Ellywick flees in mortal terror, as do Cain's and Terreck's mounts. With Aloysius dead and Mellia and Terreck concealed by invisibility, Cain seems to be the likeliest "fire warlock" in sight, and Volstagg charges across the campsite. Soon, between the giant's axe and the dragon's freezing breath, the cleric of Kossuth has fallen as well, though his wounds are not quite fatal.

Fargrim ensures that Bearos is well-hidden and then engages in battle. Between Fargrim's greataxe, Sha'dar's arrows, and Mellia's fire spells, Volstagg is worn down and finally collapses to the ground. Rynnarvyx continues to circle and sweep down on Fargrim, biting and clawing at the dwarf who is heroically fighting the dragon on his own, as Sha'dar and his hound flee to the east to escape the dragon's attacks. Fargrim manages to keep his feet and his courage, surviving just long enough to take advantage of a desperate escape attempt launched by Mellia. Still invisible, the diviner again creates a hidden extradimensional space for herself, Terreck (who has brought Aloysius' body), Bearos, the unconscious Cain, and Fargrim. Confused by the sudden disappearance of her foes and clever illusions cast by Terreck, Rynnarvyx picks up Volstagg's body with her claws and flies speedily to the southwest.

While the others hide inside the extradimensional space, Sha'dar has done his best to conceal himself, his elven hound, and his mount in a small culvert covered by branches and canvas. He hears the clink of armor and notices a figure approaching on foot, however: a human woman in early middle-age with reddish hair, dressed in full plate mail and wearing a massive sword. The stranger spots Sha'dar's hiding space and challenges him to come forth. Sha'dar does so warily, and inquires about the woman's purpose in coming to the Evermoors. The woman, who gives her name as Eve, explains that she has come seeking evil and the undead. Such a purpose accords well with Sha'dar's own, and he leads the newcomer to the west in search of other survivors of the night's terrible assault.

Inside the extradimensional space, Mellia notices Sha'dar and Eve approach. The diviner climbs down and into view, and greets them both. Upon hearing that there are wounded individuals nearby, Eve offers her abilities as a healer.  When Cain is lowered to the ground, Eve places her hands on the clerics chest and draws out some of his pain, knitting together flesh that has been torn.  Cain comes to consciousness with a start, and noticing the red cord wrapped around his saviour's hand, correct deduces that she is a worshipper of Ilmater, the deity of perseverance and relief of suffering. Sha'dar quickly scouts the rest of the camp, and, calling for Aloysius' cat, is delighted to see it spring out from hiding and jump into his arms.

Meanwhile, hidden and alone in the extradimensional space above, Terreck searches Aloysius' body, taking the gems the gnome had himself taken from an earlier foe. The hobgoblin then proceeds to expertly cut into the corpse and remove its spine, wrapping the grisly trophy around his walking stick.
Director's Commentary (November 7, 2015)

This session began one of the most infamous sequences in the campaign.

First, we have the first PC death of the campaign. Aloysius was a memorable character role-played extremely well by a first time RPGer, but a mad frost giant can deal out a hell of a lot of damage to a gnome wizard in melee!  Character deaths are rough on some players, but I have to say Aloysius's player handled it extremely well and promptly went about creating a new character.  My only regret is that weeks after the session, I was reviewing the rules for large creatures squeezing through areas smaller than them, and I'm not 100% the giant had the movement speed left to actually reach Aloysius.  Sometimes that's the hard part of DMing: a lot of hindsight thinking, especially for decisions (or possible mistakes) that are irrevocable.

Second, the player who ran Aloysius introduced his new character quickly, a Paladin of Ilmater named Eve.  Everything was fine this session, but just wait until next session.  For years the players would cringe when they thought of Eve and her faux-German accent.

Third, that last line about Terreck wrapping Aloysius' spine around his walking stick?  Not going to end well.  This session started an avalanche of PC deaths rolling, and some of them involved PvP.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Planet Stories # 29: Sojan the Swordsman/Under the Warrior Star

The 29th book in the Planet Stories series is unique in that it's a so-called "double feature", featuring two "sword and planet" novels by different authors back to back. The elements of the sword and planet genre are aptly summarized in the introduction: an earthman is somehow transported to another planet that contains a mix of futuristic and ancient technology, gets swept up in a war or rebellion, and falls instantly in love with an alien princess. The two novels in this collection fit quite comfortably into this pattern. The first novel, Sojan the Swordsman is actually a collection of short stories written by Michael Moorcock when he was a teenager. Unfortunately, it shows. They are about as flat and one-dimensional as possible, and there is absolutely nothing novel or memorable about Sojan. Sometimes it really is best to let juvenalia stay forgotten! The contrast with the second novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Under the Warrior Star, couldn't be greater. Although Lansdale follows the same formula, he writes with verve and enough originality to keep the pages turning. The alien world he creates, full of trees the size of mountains and a menace that is quite Cthulhuesque, is used as the setting for some quite good action scenes. The characters are still not deep, but they are serviceable. One doesn't see a lot of sword and planet fiction these days; let's hope newcomers weren't turned away by Sojan

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sense and Sensibility [Worth Press]

It's interesting how movies based on books change your perceptions of those books.  When I read Harry Potter now, I picture Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, etc.  I've read Sense and Sensibility before and never had any particular affection for the characters of Edward and Colonel Brandon.  But now that I picture Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman, respectively, the choices of Elinor and Marianne make a little more sense.  Anyway, I continue to find Austen's writing quite charming and affable.  It's a great picture into a particular period in English history's obsession with wealth when it comes to marriage among the idle gentry.  Although I've now read each of Austen's books a couple of times over my life, I have to confess that they tend to blur together in my mind: young female leads of the lower gentry (often sisters) entangled in romantic dramas that turn out for the best in the end.  But that's okay: Batman stops the villains and Buffy slays the monsters in issue after issue and episode after episode, and I don't complain.

The Worth Press edition of Sense and Sensibility comes with four essays.  "Modern Interpretations" by John Wiltshire contains a very interesting discussion of how literary critics have offered different views on whether Austen favours Elinor's "sense" (wisdom) or Marianne's "sensibility" (passion).  The distinction between the two characters is, of course, the theme of the book and so this essay is well worth reading.  "Regency Life" by Maggie Lane discusses the landed gentry and issues of class during Austen's time period, and then turns to the aesthetic appreciation for the "picturesque", a term which had a particular relation to the works of William Gilpin.  Caroline Sanderson's "Geographical Settings" takes the reader through the various fictional and real-world locations the book is set.  Finally, "A Modern Perspective" by Josephine Ross, offers a somewhat rambling defence of the book.

So that's the last Worth Press edition in the black faux-leather binding that I know of.  The fifteen volumes make a nice collection on my shelves, and blogging about them was a good way to get me to read something more than genre fiction.  My next project along the same vein is to start collecting Norton Critical Editions, and I already have a few to read in 2014.