Monday, June 26, 2017

Shattered Star Poster Map Folio [RPG]


The Shattered Star Poster Map Folio contains three large 8-panel maps of the cities of Kaer Maga and Magnimar, and of the region of Varisia.  The maps are full-colour and quite attractive.  They're printed on regular poster paper, so they won't hold up to regular use without some wear and tear (I've had to fix one with tape after just a couple of uses) and, unless the marks are going to be permanent, they can't be drawn on without laminating them.  The three maps fold nicely between the thin cardboard covers of the folio, and the whole package can stand on a bookshelf even after the shrinkwrap is off.

The map of Varisia is my favorite.  It's done in a pen-and-ink style as if it were a real map used in the fictional campaign setting of Golarion.  I love how each settlement receives a custom illustration and how the placement of various monsters and intriguing, unlabelled structures hint at danger and the thrill of exploring the unknown.  Some might quibble that showing some of the monsters of particular regions, or mysterious structures, verges on spoiler territory for players--I haven't had any problems and I think the flavour of the drawings outweighs the risk, but I can understand the need for GMs running certain adventures to be careful.  The map is of real practical use as well because it denotes roads and trails, labels the distance in miles between settlements, and comes with a distance scale.  I had originally planned to just give this one to the players and privately use a more traditional map of the region, but I don't think that will be necessary.  GMs should note that, since the map is "zoomed out" to show the entire region of Varisia, detailed local maps will still be important.  For example, the area around Sandpoint looks like barren plains on this map, but anyone who has the map of the Sandpoint hinterlands from various products knows there's a *lot* more going on in the area.  It should also be noted that this map is exactly the same (although much larger, of course) as the map in the middle of the "Varisia, Birthplace of Legends" Player Companion.

The map of Magnimar is impressive in its detail.  94 different structures are listed in the legend, and if you look closely at the map, you can see that the cartographer spent time to make sure each structure has a shape and size that makes sense.  For example, Serpent's Run (the huge hippodrome) is indeed a huge oval with attached facilities, while the Lord Mayor's Menagerie does indeed look like an enclosed zoo.  The cartographer has even marked each separate piling of the Irespan and provided an inset map of what the Underbridge district looks like.  GMs running Rise of the Runelords should note that some key locations are noted in the legend that might otherwise require PCs to do a little investigation to find, but it's not problematic enough to keep me from wanting to use it.  Overall, the map really helps to clarify the layout of the city, and it would definitely be something worth using to track PCs' movement throughout the city.

I have not used the map of Kaer Maga in actual gameplay.  My first impression is that I'm not a fan of the colour scheme or the weird border running along the bottom of the map.  It is well-detailed (57 locations in the legend).  I've read the "City of Strangers" sourcebook and would imagine that Kaer Maga is a *very* difficult city to represent pictorially, but I'm afraid this map hasn't met the challenge.  It's less interesting and more bland than the Magnimar map, and overall the least impressive of the three.  Of course, some map is (usually!) better than no map at all.

I've only used the Varisia and Magnimar maps in the context of the Rise of the Runelords adventure path, and I would rate both as highly useful.  I haven't run Shattered Star, so I of course can't comment on how well the maps fit the need of that AP.  Overall, two excellent maps and a third average one make this a set worth buying if the price is right.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 19 [RPG]

[2 Neth 4707 continued]

Everyone gathers around to hear Shalelu’s tale of how she saw strands of silver hair on some tree branches and followed them straight into an ambush!  Nualia knew she was being hunted, and, having captured Shalelu, sent a goblin to the Sandpoint authorities to set up a trap.  Nualia used an alchemical mixture to dye Shalelu’s hair and hoped to enjoy the exquisite revenge of seeing the elf killed by her own over-zealous allies.  Shalelu says she’s been held in the complete darkness of that hut for days now, and that Nualia is probably long gone.  Bey, who has come out of her trance, helps tend to her wounds.

Ome decides to investigate a large, artificial cavern at the eastern end of the clearing.  The structure was made by covering several fallen trees with dead leaves and furs, and, as the largest area in the clearing, was probably the home of Big Chief Wortus.  Ome searches the place carefully and finds a hollow log stuffed with Wortus’ personal treasure trove!  Gold, jewelry, a mithral buckler, and a forked crystal rod that proves to be a magic wand are discovered.  Ome decides to repeat Arnald’s search of the other huts, and in one finds a polished human skull full of gold and jewellery.

The group escort the badly-beaten Shalelu out of the clearing and back the way they came through Mosswood.  A couple of hours’ journey sees them reach the Lost Coast Road, and from there they turn west.  Soon they spot a caravan of about twenty wagons headed towards them, with several guards mounted on horseback.  Arnald waves two of the guards over and asks them where they’re headed: they explain that they’re taking food to Galduria.  Arnald asks them some unusual questions about Galduria, leaving the suspicious guards to return quickly to the caravan.  About an hour later, the group see a wagon sitting in the middle of the road.  It clearly has a broken axle, and a terrified-looking farmer is standing in the wagon bed scanning the area with a nocked longbow.  Beside him is an adolescent girl who appears far less panicked.  Ome approaches slowly and tries to calm the man down enough to offer some assistance, but the farmer is so frightened he threatens to shoot if Ome takes one more step!  Artemis tries to offer help as well, but is equally rebuffed.  The group circle around the wagon and continue on their way, promising to contact Billivar Wheen in Sandpoint to render aid.

The travellers reach Sandpoint in the early afternoon.  Noticing that the guards at the northern gates seem agitated, Artemis asks what’s going on.  They reply that there were two murders last night!  Banny Harker, co-operator of the Sandpoint Lumber Mill, and Katrine Vinder, daughter of General Store owner Ven Vinder, were found dead.  After Bey tells the guards about the stranded wagon on the road and Shalelu departs to rest and resupply (determined to strike out on Nualia’s trail again as soon as possible), the group head straight for the mill.  When they arrive, they see several members of the Town Watch outside, some searching for clues while others make sure the small crowd of townspeople that has assembled stay back.  A breathless Jodar Provolost waves the four travellers in, saying that Sheriff Hemlock mentioned wanting to talk to them.

Sheriff Hemlock is just outside the entrance to the mill, speaking with his deputy, Bosk Hartigan.  Hemlock finishes giving Hartigan instructions and then turns to address the group.  Hemlock starts by saying that he’s speaking with them because, other than himself, they’re the only people in Sandpoint he’s absolutely sure aren’t responsible for the murders, since they were out of town last night.  Hemlock says that early this morning, the bodies of Banny Harker and Katrine Vinder were found by the mill’s other operator, a man named Ibor Thorne.  Hemlock says he and his officers are trying to keep the mill locked down to prevent a panic, because if people saw what was inside they’d be horrified and think the Chopper was somehow back.  Even more disturbing, Hemlock adds, is that the two bodies inside the mill are the second set of murders in the past few days: three known con men were found murdered in an abandoned barn on the old Bradley farm near Cougar Creek, just a half-mile or so from the old fisherman’s shack that Ome claims as home.  Finally, Hemlock says another personal link exists between the murders and the adventurers: a bloodstained scrap of parchment was found pinned to the sleeve of Katrine Vinder by a splinter of wood, and Bey’s name was on it!  Hemlock has his lead investigator on the case, Bosk Hartigan, show the group what the parchment says:  “You will learn to love me, desire me in time as she did. Give yourself to the Pack and it shall end.  Your Lordship.”  Hemlock says he has more to share but will have to meet with them at the garrison later as he’s pressed for time.  He asks them to take a careful look around the mill to see if they can uncover any clues that his officers have missed, with Artemis to report directly to Hartigan if they do.


Inside the mill is a ghastly scene:  the body of Banny Harker has been affixed to the wall with lumber hooks, while mangled lumps of flesh and a decapitated head testify to the grisly fact that Katrine Vinder’s corpse has been through the logsplitter.  A handaxe is embedded in the floor nearby, and the whole area carries the lingering scent of decay, a curious fact since the bodies were found just this morning.  Artemis begins his investigation with the axe, and sees there are bloody handprints on the handle and bits of rotten flesh on the blade; the experienced guardsman is overcome by the nauseating scent and has to run to the pier outside for fresh air.  Bey is able to discern from the amount of blood-spray on the wall near the logsplitter that, distressingly, Katrine Vinder was alive when she passed through it.  The seer speculates that the attacker must have felt great rage or great disdain to do such a terrible thing to a young woman.  Next, Bey turns her attention to Harker’s body.  She sees it’s been mutilated, with the face and lower jaw missing entirely.  The body’s bare chest has been defaced as well, carved with the distinctive seven-pointed star that Bey instantly recognizes as a Sihedron rune, a glyph from ancient Thassilon that symbolizes power, magic, and mortal sin.  She’s also able to discern that Harker was killed by deep gouges to the abdomen made by claws, and notices that the rotten smell that permeates the room seems even stronger near these wounds.

Meanwhile, while lurking in the corner to allow his more experienced allies to conduct the investigation, Arnald notices an important clue!  Bloody footprints in the sawdust head towards the small pier outside the lumber mill.  Ome follows Arnald, and together the two discern that the attacker must have clambered onto the pier from the muddy area directly underneath it, scaled the outer wall, and entered the building through a second-floor window.  Arnald notices a spot on the opposite bank of the river that would make a perfect vantage point for anyone watching the mill.  He and Ome set out to investigate it more closely and find a relatively dry spot that carries the lingering smell of rotten flesh.  Curiously, the barefoot human-like footprints reveal tracks leading from and into the river, but never further inland.

The members of the make-shift investigative team assemble to discuss their findings.  Bey surmises that Harker was the first victim, and that Katrine was the second, as she interrupted something and caught her attacker by surprise.  The hand axe was probably used by Katrine to defend herself, which is why it shows petite handprints on the axe and rotten flesh on the blade.  Ome agrees, suggesting that Harker had probably been waiting for Katrine when he was attacked by the murderer.  To confirm Ome’s theory, the group scour the lumber mill for further clues and uncover a blanket and a bottle of wine hidden in a toolbox in Harker’s office: further proof of a planned romantic liaison. After reporting their findings to Bosk Hartigan and learning that Katrine had been seen coming to the mill late at night on previous evenings, their theory seems confirmed.  Bosk says that Ven Vinder and Ibor Thorne are in custody at the garrison for questioning, and that he can arrange it if anyone in the group wishes to speak with them.

Additional lines of enquiry are made that prove fruitful.  A sample of the rotten flesh is taken to Father Zantus and to Sabyl Sorn to see if either can identify its source.  Father Zantus is nauseated by a mere whiff and isn’t helpful, but Sabyl Sorn says she’s seen the like before on the bodies of the walking dead!  Bey takes a sketch of the Sihedron rune found on Harker’s body and shows it to Brodert Quink, asking whether it can be tied to a specific sin.  Quink’s knowledge of ancient Thassilon is unparalleled, and he says that the rotation and placement of the rune indicates it is related to the sin of greed.


The group take their findings to Sheriff Hemlock at the garrison and offer their conclusions that the attacker must have been a “corporeal undead” and that Harker’s death had something to do with greed.  Sheriff Hemlock is impressed, and adds that Harker was well-known in town as a penny-pincher.  Hemlock carries out his promise to tell the group more information about the first set of murders, which were discovered just two days prior.  He explains that a patrol of the Town Watch was making may their way south along the Lost Coast Road when they were assaulted by a deranged man near the old Bradley homestead.  The man, whose clothes were caked with blood, was obviously sick and insane: flesh fevered, eyes wild, and moth frothing.  Bey gives a gasp because she’s recognized something crucially important, but Hemlock keeps talking.  The guards subdued the deranged man, who was later identified as a Varisian thug named Grayst Sevilla, but when they followed his tracks back to the Bradley barn, they discovered the mutilated bodies of three men inside!  The bodies of the men bore the same seven-pointed star marking, and from a piece of parchment found in one’s pocket, Sheriff Hemlock concludes that the bodies belong to con men well-known to him: Tarch Mortwell, Lener Hask, and Gedwin Tabe.  He adds that the three bodies are in the garrison’s basement if the group think they could learn anything from an examination of them.

Once Hemlock’s explanation is over, Bey adds her surprising insight:  Grayst Sevilla is suffering from ghoul fever!  A mere description of his symptoms was enough for the oracle to identify the cause, and the fact ties in perfectly with the strong stench of rotten flesh (a well-known attribute of ghouls) found at the crime scene in the mill.  Bey says that Sevilla must be treated immediately lest he spread the disease elsewhere.  Hemlock says that the man is in the care of Dr. Erin Habe at a sanatorium south of Sandpoint.  Hemlock says he’ll write a letter of introduction for the group, and, when asked, says he’ll arrange for the town to pay for the magical scrolls that Bey said could be used to cure the man.  Before they leave, Artemis relates the details of the failed mission to capture Nualia and of Shalelu’s rescue.

The investigators walk to the basement of the garrison, where Vachedi shows them the three slabs holding the bodies of the con men.  Bey confirms that each has the same Sihedron-marking and claw wounds as Banny Harker.  Bey is careful to note that, because the bodies’ faces have been mutilated, there is no absolute confirmation of each victim’s identity.  Next, the group manage to get the attention of Vorvashali Voon in his shop (even though it’s now after dusk and closed), and are fortunate to find that he has two magical scrolls containing spells to cure diseases.

Sandpoint is again the target of a serial killer, but this time the clues are being assembled quickly.  What will the investigators discover when they question someone who could be the only surviving witness to the murders?
-------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (26/06/2017)

I put a couple of non-combat encounters on the road back from Mosswood.  I do this every so often as a role-playing opportunity for the players, to add some verisimilitude to the world, and to keep the players from thinking that every time they see something it must be monsters or an ambush.  It can be fun as a GM to see some PCs attach great significance to completely innocuous things, like Arnald being incredibly suspicious about the caravan heading to Galduria.

The return to Sandpoint sees the start of the murder mystery that officially kicks off Chapter 2 in the AP.  I thought this was a great part of the adventure path, as it gives the players a chance to do something different than pure combat (CSI!).  It definitely ups the stakes when it comes to death and horror (that lumber mill scene is nightmarishly grisly), and I really liked the direct tie to one of the PCs built into it.  Mysteries are really hard to do in role-playing games because the GM (or scenario writer, in this case) has to try to plan for all sorts of spells and special abilities the PCs may have, as well as provide contingencies in case important clues are misunderstood or simply overlooked.  If anything, there were probably too many clues at the crime scene as it wasn't hard at all for the players to deduce that the murderer was a ghoul, but I didn't mind because they were diligent in collecting information and intelligently talked over its implications.  It's always fun to see the players think up stuff that I (and the scenario writers) never would have expected, like taking the bits of rotten flesh to other learned people in town to see if they could identify it.

I loved how naturally the tie-in to the sanatorium worked.  I know from past experience running mystery plots that it's very easy for the players to think an important connection to the next stage of the adventure (like the crazed survivor has been put into care) is simply a throwaway line for flavour.  I originally thought there was a fair chance they wouldn't make it to the sanatorium at all.  They did skip interrogating Ibor Thorne or Ven Vinder, but didn't miss much.

My only disappointment was that the players (and their characters), having just reached the conclusion that the murderer was a ghoul and that ghoul fever was a thing, were expecting a battle in the morgue when they went to look at the bodies of the con men.  It was a bit of a let-down when the corpses really were just corpses!  I perhaps such have exercised some GM discretion and had one of the bodies suddenly lurch into motion . . .

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Plot Twist Cards [RPG]


The premise behind Plot Twist Cards for Pathfinder is that they allow players to influence the story in ways other than what their character directly does.  Each card has a theme, a picture to accompany the theme, a flat mechanical effect, and then four plot-related suggestions that could happen.  For example, the "Bad News" card shows a picture of a burning building, has the flat mechanical effect of "Target gets a -4 penalty on a single roll", and then has these plot suggestions:  "A messenger brings bad news", "An ally faces peril or death", "A favorite refuge is destroyed", and "Something important is stolen."  Players can use the card either for the flat mechanical effect or for one of the story suggestions; the latter use requires GM interpretation and decision-making, and the instructions are quite clear that the GM should feel free to modify the suggestion (or even refuse it) as necessary for the story.  The deck comes with 51 different plot twist cards, two cards of rules, a card with the Open Gaming License, and a card that's an advertisement for other products.

I've been using the Plot Twist Cards for about 20 sessions while running an adventure path.  Instead of giving one to a player every time their PC levels up (as per the instruction card), I've been more cautious and handed out one to every player at the beginning of each chapter of the AP (and drawing one myself to use against them!), with unused cards going back in the deck.  My players have used the cards to do some fun things, like have the "Broken" card cause the floor of an abandoned building to crack open, the "Sanity Check" card to have a tentacled water monster appear in the river, etc.  In my limited experience, PCs don't use the flat mechanical bonuses and instead use the plot suggestions, saving the cards for when they're needed in an important fight and centering their suggestions on things that can hamper the enemies or help their allies.  On the whole, I'm of mixed feelings about them.  I really like the surprising twists that the card facilitates and it's great for the players to have a little something hidden away for a rainy day.  On the other hand, it's often challenging as a GM to interpret the card and the player's suggested twist in a way that respects the integrity of the concept while also being careful not to trivialize an important encounter.  I think I would suggest the cards are good for a group that is a little easy-going and understands the role of GM discretion, but they'd be a bad idea for a very strict "Rules as Written" group.

Starfinder Lanyard [RPG]

What kind of a nerd would write a review about a lanyard?  One who is more excited about Starfinder than a 13-year-old girl is at a Justin Bieber concert, of course!  Made out of ultra high-tech futuristic materials (aka a fabric ribbon and a metal clip), this lanyard has the Starfinder logo on it fourteen times so you'll never look down and be confused about which lanyard you put on when you got dressed in the morning!  Clever nano-circuitry inside the lanyard is host to an A.I. who whispers things in your ears, or I could just be delusional.  You decide!  In any event, if you need a possibly magical item to occupy your real-world "neck slot", the Starfinder Lanyard is the way to go.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

River System [RPG]


The River System Pathfinder Map Pack delivers exactly what it promises: 18 full-colour tiles that you can connect to form a meandering river.  I have to give credit to whomever writes the description of the product on the back of the pack, as they make it sound much more exciting than it actually is.  Most of the tiles have a three-square-wide river down the center with a square of mostly featureless riverbank on either side.  A width of 10-15' for a river is fine for the sort of encounter where PCs are in the forest and attacked from the far side and have to figure out how to get across, but I think it's too narrow for a serious river-based adventure.  The pack would have been better if the river were wider, even if not as long (rowboats, barges, and keelboats would barely fit on the regular river tiles, and certainly wouldn't have room to pass).  Apart from the standard tiles, there are a few special ones:  a couple of tiles that have 90' turns, three tiles that are oriented the other way (with the river 7 squares wide but not as long), a tile with a few small rocks in the middle, and a tile with a log bridge spanning it.  The artwork is adequate but not the sort of thing that is going to draw "oohs" and "aahs" from your players.  Like with the Road System Map Pack, despite my terrible artistic skills
I'm not convinced that this one is a major improvement over simply drawing two parallel lines on a blank grid-mat.  It's okay, but for $ 14 there's probably a better gaming product to spend the money on.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The House of the Seven Gables [NORTON]


The House of the Seven Gables is one of those books that has to be classified as an interesting failure.  Nathaniel Hawthorne began writing it several months after The Scarlet Letter was published, and the theme he chose was an interesting one: the effect of the wrongs of earlier generations upon the present.  The plot concerns the eponymous house built upon land that an aristocratic New England family effectively stole from a working-class family generations ago, and the way the crime and the house has shaped the two bloodlines since.  Hawthorne worked in elements of murder, witchcraft, mesmerism, and all sorts of things that could have been grist for a fascinating story, but unfortunately it mostly falls flat.  The book has a mix of fully realized three-dimensional characters and featureless ciphers with key roles in the story (like the male half of an inexplicable romance).  The ending is trite and would seem intentionally satirical if Hawthorne wasn't such a sincere fellow.  Unfortunately, whether standing alone or compared to The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables becomes a forgettable disappointment.

The Norton Critical Edition has the usual collection of contemporary reviews as well as later scholarship.  The critical consensus is that the book is indeed a failure, though there are one or two pieces trying to defend it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 18 [RPG]

[Lamashan, 4707]

In the month following the second failed raid on Thistletop, the adventurers go their separate ways.

Arnald spends many of his days drinking and looking for work.  Occasionally, he assists Shalelu Andosana in trying to verify sightings of a “silver-haired witch” in the Sandpoint hinterlands.  On one such venture, he and Shalelu are ambushed by a group of goblins in Mosswood.  The last surviving goblin flees and tries to climb a nearby tree, but Arnald has no difficulty catching up to it.  “Wait!” the goblin screeches.  “Axeman and the Hunter Elf!  I can help you!”  The goblin has just enough time to say something about “Longshanks Silverhead” and the Bloodfangs before Arnald mercilessly chops its head off.  When Shalelu catches up and asks what the goblin was shouting about, Arnald replies simply “nothing important.”

Ome devotes her time to singing melancholy songs at the Pixie’s Kitten and collecting dossiers on certain members of the Sandpoint community.  One afternoon late in Lamashan, Ome arrives at the Pixie’s Kitten to see that a staff meeting is underway: discussion is being held about how to respond to a new push by Titus Scarnetti, conservative head of one of Sandpoint’s four founding families, to have prostitution made illegal in the town.  Scarnetti has posted fliers about a public meeting on 4 Neth at the town hall, and rumors are spreading that he and his backers are going to start a “name and shame” campaign against the clients of the Pixie’s Kitten.  Although some of the bouncers and working girls think Scarnetti is all hot air or that Sheriff Hemlock’s “being sweet on” Kaye Tessarani will be enough to protect the brothel, the establishment’s proprietor is clearly concerned.  Ome listens and offers her support, but the meeting ends inconclusively.

Bey has spent the last several weeks helping her old friend Brodert Quink continue his study of Old Light.  Quink remains convinced there must be chambers underneath the rubble, but after laboriously moving heavy stone blocks and examining every surface for runes, the pair’s efforts to find anything has so far come to naught.  Near the end of the month of Lamashan, Bey is working at the site one day when she sees Madame Mvashti slowly trudging across the street towards her with the help of a cane.  The aged Varisian seer seems unconcerned by the fact that a wagon pulled by two strong horses is bearing down on her quickly, and that the wagon’s driver is busy shouting at someone behind him!  Bey moves quickly and dashes in to save Madame Mvashti, but she need not have bothered: instants before a fatal collision would have occurred, the wagon throws a wheel and the horses drag it to a stop with inches to spare.  Madame Mvashti mumbles something about having told the wagon’s handler to get that wheel fixed and then shares with Bey her purpose for coming.  “What started five years ago ain’t done yet, cheri,” she says.  “Sandpoint’s gonna be in flames, no stoppin’ dat, but you an yer friends can keep it from getting’ too bad.”  Madame Mvashti goes on to say that although she was already old when Sandpoint was founded over forty years ago, this is her last winter and the town will need someone with their inner-eye open to help guide it when she’s gone.  Bey is completely nonplussed by the seer’s words.

Artemis Lahs
Meanwhile, over fifty miles away in the metropolis of Magnimar, a member of the City Watch named Artemis Lahs has just finished giving testimony against an offender in a courtroom in the Pediment Building.  Artemis is a tall, muscular man with an odd line of scales along the sides of his face and a pronounced ridgeline on his brow.  Once Artemis leaves the courtroom, he’s surprised to see his watch captain, Gibble Fank, waiting for him.  Fank explains that something unusual has come up, and that Artemis has received new orders.  Moreso, a member of the Justice Court (the city’s highest court) has instructed Artemis to come to his chambers.  When Fank and Artemis reach the elegant oak door bearing the nameplate “Justice Ironbriar”, Fank stops and actually looks a bit nervous.  “In ya go, lad,” he says.  “Mind yer manners in there!  Ironbriar’s been alive longer than both of us put together, an ya don’t wanna cross him!”  Eventually, a law clerk leads Artemis into a massive office dominated by looming bookcases and a wide desk.  The person sitting behind the desk is a stern-faced elf wearing an elegant red and purple cloak.  He doesn’t stand up when Artemis enters, but instead says in a crisp Chellish accent “Staff Sergeant Artemis Lahs.  You have a clean record.  Three commendations for valor.  A wife, no children.  I think you’ll do.  You’re being transferred.  Sandpoint.  You’ve heard of it, yes?”  When Artemis replies in the affirmative, Justice Ironbriar explains that the Shoanti sheriff of the town has made several dubious reports lately about goblin armies, demon cults, and more.  Artemis is to keep an eye on the situation and personally report, by letter, to Ironbriar every week.

[1 Neth 4707]

In Sheriff Hemlock’s “war room” in the town garrison, an unlikely combination of people have gathered at his request.  Present are Arnald, Ome, Bey, and Artemis.  As, apart from Sheriff Hemlock, only Arnald and Ome have met each other previously, introductions are made.  Sheriff Hemlock explains that, just hours ago, a goblin bearing a white flag arrived in Sandpoint hoping to claim part of the bounty on Nualia, the demon-touched former resident of Sandpoint responsible for masterminding attacks on the town.  The goblin said that Nualia has been living with the Bloodfang tribe in southern Mosswood at the foot of the mountains.  Sheriff Hemlock says that he’s received strict orders from Magnimar to “avoid arousing the anger of the surrounding goblinoid inhabitants.”  Thus, Hemlock can’t take any official action to investigate the sighting.  He mentions, seemingly off-hand, however, that the bounty on Nualia is 2,000 gold pieces, dead or alive.  Further, he says that Artemis isn’t officially on duty until Hemlock signs his commission papers, and that southern Mosswood would be the perfect place for a hunting and fishing trip this time of year.  Hemlock then dismisses the group.  Artemis and Ome instantly get the hint and explain it to Arnald, while Bey is consumed by one of her mystical visions.

Artemis has prepared for his secondment to Sandpoint by studying maps of the local geography and is able to lead the group towards Mosswood with little difficulty.  The journey east along the Lost Coast Road is uneventful, and in just a few hours, the group is at the northern borders of the forest.  It’s a beautiful autumn day, and the leaves on the trees have turned into gorgeous shades of red and yellow.  With little to go on besides word that the Bloodfang family of goblins lives near the mountains in the southern portion of the forest, the group pushes into Mosswood itself.  Their progress slows as they move off the road.  Several times they see signs that goblins and other creatures are in the area, but luck or the imposing sight of four heavily-armed warriors keeps anything from attacking.  Eventually, the bounty-hunters decide to set up camp near a stream so they’ll be fresh to push on for the Bloodfangs the following morning.

As dusk begins to fall over the camp, everyone present can hear the distinctive shrill voice of a goblin approaching.  The goblin is loudly lamenting his chore of fetching water and is oblivious to the fact that he’s almost walked right up to the campsite!  Artemis and Ome instantly take cover, but Arnald rushes the goblin, axe at the ready, and terrifies the creature into utter submission!  The goblin, who gives his name as Gurthak, is hard to get useful information out of given his low intelligence and bewilderment at his situation, but Ome is able to extract additional clues about the location of the Bloodfangs.  The group decide to pull up stakes in case other goblins use the stream.  They head further south, dragging Gurthak with them.  A couple of hours’ journey into darkness, they set up another campsite.  A debate ensues about what to do with Gurthak:  Arnald wants to kill him for the bounty on goblin ears, Artemis says it’s too dangerous to let him go, and Bey says the pathetic creature shouldn’t be murdered in cold blood.  Eventually, Ome kills the terrified creature with a point-blank arrow shot and Arnald cuts the ears off Gurthak’s corpse.

[2 Neth 4707]

A dire bat
The group’s journey south continues.  While crossing a portion of the forest composed of rocky, forested hills, the group pass by a small cave and unwittingly frighten a giant, furry bat nearly the size of an ox!  The creature, a dire bat, screeches and attacks, but Ome’s and Artemis’ archery skills combined with Bey’s bardiche are enough to fell it.


The travellers come upon a stroke of luck a little later in their journey.  They crest a small hillock and see that below them is a small clearing to the south that contains a handful of huts and a large bonfire.  With small mountains in the distance, the group rightly suspect this could be the location of the Bloodfangs.  Artemis climbs a nearby tree to get a better vantage point, and is able to discern a single goblin walking around the near side of the clearing.  In the hopes of killing the sentinel silently to pave the way for his allies to approach, the Magnimarian watchman takes careful aim with his bow and releases an arrow, but the goblin is still hundreds of feet away and the shot narrowly misses.  The goblin, realizing it is being attacked, rouses the camp!

Arnald charges into battle, while Artemis and Ome stay behind and rely on archery.  Bey, alas, has slipped into another mystical trance and provides no assistance.  At first, the Bloodfangs are confused about where the attack is coming from and scatter.  But they’re clearly more disciplined than the rabble the invaders have encountered before, and soon Arnald is surrounded!  The Bloodfangs have teeth stained a frightening shade of red, and, unbeknownst to the attackers, are part of a cult devoted to the demon-goddess Lamashtu.  One of the Bloodfangs runs to summon their chief while the others attack.  Arnald fights valiantly and is able to kill several of the goblins with his greataxe while Ome and Artemis stay hidden and fire arrows.  Even the Bloodfang’s pet wolverine is slain!  But suddenly Arnald is paralyzed as Big Chief Wortus, leader of the Bloodfangs, casts a spell and reveals he has approached while invisible!

Ome is close enough for Big Chief Wortus to see and thus draws his attention.  The goblin chief used the early seconds of the battle to prepare, and illusory duplicates of himself consistently foil the outsiders’ attacks.  Fortunately, Artemis and Ome keep Big Chief Wortus distracted by the hail of arrows long enough for the badly-hurt Arnald to shake off the malevolent enchantment and withdraw. The axeman decides to change his tactics and draws his own composite longbow.  With a single pull of the bowstring, he succeeds in doing what his allies couldn’t!  Big Chief Wortus dies with Arnald’s arrow protruding from his throat.

With all visible opposition slain, the group enter the Bloodfangs’ campsite.  Arnald tries to persuade Ome to magically heal his wounds, but instead the tengu offers to sell Arnald healing potions at the guileful price of 49 gold pieces each or two for 99!  The dim-witted mercenary takes the deal.  Ome casts a minor divination to discern that Big Chief Wortus carried an enchanted falchion and two magic wands in addition to other valuable, non-magical treasure.  Ome and Artemis persuade Arnald, who is still badly hurt, to take the lead in searching the huts one by one.  One hut contains a stack of polished human skulls, while another seems to be a crude workshop for the manufacture of dogslicers.  A third hut is barred with a wooden door and its outside is covered with layer after layer of tar, blood, and leaves to prevent even the smallest light from penetrating.  Arnald cleaves the door in twain with one swing of his greataxe and sees a flash of silver hair in the darkness inside!  But good sense overwhelms instinct, and Arnald refrains from attacking immediately.  Instead, he hurls his ever-burning torch into the hut and realizes it is not Nualia he has found: but instead, Shalelu, bound and gagged, her hair alchemically dyed silver!

The protectors of Sandpoint have defeated the Bloodfangs and avoided a cunning trap to rescue an ally they hadn’t even realized was in danger.  But are they any closer to finding Nualia?
-------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (19/06/2017)

This was the first session of Chapter 2, and the first session back after some weeks off for the winter holidays.  The timing of the real-world break coincided nicely with the in-game break advised by the AP after Chapter 1, and I used the optional Downtime system from Ultimate Campaign to reflect this.  I also had one solo RP encounter for each PC set during this period to foreshadow some coming events.  

Since Bey's player was back after a while away and Xeveg/Nedrin/Eugeni's player was debuting a new PC named Artemis, I again thought it might be a good idea to start the chapter off with a more straightforward one-session adventure to help the group bond before launching into the main storyline in the next session.  I also wanted to remind the players about Shalelu (since she otherwise wouldn't appear in this chapter) and tie in Nualia's escape at the end of the previous chapter.  I used the "Bloodfang Goblins" encounter from the first hardcover volume of the Pathfinder comic as a basis.  The encounter was fun and reasonably challenging without being overly difficult.  I was pleasantly surprised the group avoided (what I thought was) Nualia's clever trap of trying to get the PCs to kill Shalelu.

Having a member of the Magnimar City Watch as a PC was fantastic for story purposes and really added some extra dimension to later events in the chapter.  I had Justice Ironbriar appear now so that the revelation he was the head of the Skinsaw Cult would have some extra impact, because as the AP is written, he might be a perfect stranger to the PCs.  As an unrelated PC note, whenever the recaps describe Bey as "going into her mystery" or "entering a trance or vision", that's code for the player needing to do either babyminding or taking a nap--it's hard to game as the parent of an infant!

I'm still surprised by the bloodthirsty end of poor Gurthak, a goblin I made up on the spot when the random encounter table told me that 1d6 goblins would approach and the die result was a 1.  I liked the poor little guy, and I thought his end was rather cold and cruel.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

PaizoCon 2012 Pin [RPG]

I definitely wasn't at PaizoCon in 2012, but I decided to buy this metal pin from the Paizo website for two reasons: 1) It has the cool seven-pointed star ("Sihedron") immortalized in the Rise of the Runelords adventure path which I'm running right now; and 2) it was only fifty cents!  The "blades" of the stars contain images from the covers of each volume of the adventure path, while the center contains a certain infamous arch-mage.  It's a really cool design.  The actual pin (unlike the picture) has the Pathfinder logo at the bottom and the words "PaizoCon '12" near the top.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Buff Deck [RPG]

The Buff Deck for Pathfinder is a cheap but extremely handy way to remember all of those temporary little bonuses that are otherwise easy to forget about during an encounter.  The deck consists of 54 cards, 49 of which each contain the effects of a spell, ability, or action that gives a character a benefit to attacks, AC, or saves.  All of the usual buffs from the Core Rulebook are represented (like haste, bless, inspire courage, total defense, barbarian rage, etc.) but there are also several buffs from the Advanced Player's Guide (like alchemist's mutagen, cavalier's banner, etc.).  The face of each card is divided into six sections: the title of the buff, its duration, its source (including book and page number), a list of effects, a table showing the type and extent of bonus to attacks and AC, and a table showing the type and extent of bonus to saves.  It was an excellent choice by the designers to include the type of bonus (e.g., morale, deflection, enhancement, etc.) so that it's easy to see which buffs do and do not stack with each other.  The presentation is attractive and easy to read even across the table.  In addition to the 49 pre-made cards, there are 5 cards with the same formatting but no content so that a GM or Player can add a buff commonly used that isn't in the deck--for example, I added a card about the effects of a ranger's favored terrain when I regularly had a ranger PC at the table.  This might seem like a little thing, but it adds to the deck's longevity given the vast number of spells and abilities that come out every year for Pathfinder.

As for downsides, I don't have much.  Each card has the same artwork on the back, and it's kinda cartoony.  Some of the buff cards aren't precisely accurate: the card for protection from evil doesn't mention the added defence against mind-control effects or versus summoned creatures, the prayer card leaves out the fact that it imposes a penalty on enemies (which is technically a debuff, I guess), the invisibility card doesn't mention the 50% miss chance or +2 bonus on attacks, etc.  Still, the vast majority of cards accurately summarize the effects of a given buff.

I've used the Buff Deck for several years now, propping up a card in effect so that everyone at the table can see it.  Although not foolproof (even the cards can be forgotten when encounters get harry), they are quite useful and speed up game play.  What more could you want?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 17 [RPG]


[7 Lamashan 4707 continued]


After the difficult battle over the Shadows in an ancient crypt below the surface of Thistletop, Ome finds a secret door hidden in an alcove.  Arnald, weakened from the strength-draining touch of the creatures, takes off his armor and gear and decides to rest while the others continue exploring.  The secret door leads to a passage sloping steeply downward, and eventually ending in what was once a treasury but is now partially submerged under seawater.  Two of the remaining walls of the chamber depict carvings of incredible treasures, while the third shows a towering mountain, its peak carved in the shape of a stern face above a great palace on the side of the mountain, overlooking an immense city of spires.  Eugeni draws closer to the pool of water and notices thousands of coins glinting from the light of Ome’s everburning torch.  The pool contains a stranger treasure, however: a massive helmet, almost five-feet wide, made of gold.  But as Eugeni looks at it more closely, he sees eyes move within it and then the helmet rotates!  

Giant Hermit Crab
The giant hermit crab which has adopted the helmet as its shell watches the adventurers closely.  Shalelu tells her allies that, obviously, Nualia is not here and that they should depart, but Ome and Eugeni are transfixed by the amount of treasure in the pool and decide to attack!  Eugeni transmutes his hair until the strands are dozens of feet long and wrap around the hermit grab.  Ome and Shalelu begin shooting arrows into the trapped invertebrate, but then it breaks free and charges towards the adventurers, opening and closing massive pincers!  Shalelu shouts in agony as one of the pincers crushes her ribcage and throws her unconscious form against a wall.  Some distance away, Arnald hears the cry and decides to come to his companions’ aid.

As Ome darts in and out of the chamber to avoid the giant crab, Eugeni tries to entrap it again with his magically-enhanced hair, but he gets caught by a pincer as well!  Arnald arrives on the scene and revives Shalelu with a healing potion, but no one is fast enough to aid Eugeni as the half-orc is grievously wounded and tossed aside like a rag doll.  Ome appears cornered, but manages to tumble her way free and runs out of the room to rejoin Shalelu and Arnald who have already withdrawn.  With all of the intruders out of sight except for the unconscious Eugeni, the giant crab begins to devour its fresh kill.  Ome returns to the chamber just in time to see her friend die and cries out in sorrow.  She begins firing arrow after arrow into the crab until it finally succumbs.  The overwrought tengu tears the crab apart with her bare claws before realizing something significant: with all of the treasure in the chamber, perhaps she could pay a cleric to bring her friend back to life!  The three survivors work hard to collect the thousands of coins, precious stones, and other treasures in the chamber and then return to the surface stockade.  There, Arnald takes the lead and uses his axe to chop down enough planks to build a makeshift catamaran capable of hauling the adventurers, Eugeni’s corpse, the coins, and the massive helmet back to Sandpoint.  Exhausted and demoralized, the invaders rest in a secure chamber for the evening.

[8 Lamashan 4707]

The adventurers row, with some difficulty, the makeshift catamaran all the way back to Sandpoint.  At the dock, Shalelu says her farewell for the time being, saying she plans to rest and then head for the wilderness to see if she can find any trace of Nualia.  Ome and Arnald haul the thousands of coins and the massive golden helm to the town hall and barter with Sister Arva, the town banker, to exchange the treasure for platinum pieces.  Subsequent visits are made to the town jeweller and the Feathered Serpent, the proprietors of each of which watch Ome quite closely as the reputation of tengu as thieves and scoundrels is well known.  At the cathedral, Father Zantus is saddened to hear that yet another has died to protect Sandpoint.  When pressed, he acknowledges having a single scroll with the power to raise someone from the dead, but claims it is intended for the truest of emergencies only (such as the death of Mayor Deverin or Sheriff Hemlock in a time of crisis) and that he can’t guarantee it will work.  He is reluctantly persuaded to use it on Eugeni on the condition that the funds necessary to replace the scroll are provided to him as soon as possible.  Ome and Father Zantus agree that, in the morning, Eugeni’s spirit will be contacted through magic to determine if the half-orc would wish to return to the mortal plane.

Kaye Tessarani
Later that day, Ome visits a location she is quite familiar with: the Pixie’s Kitten.  Many of the employees of Sandpoint’s elegant and tasteful brothel are fellow devotees of the goddess Calistria, and Ome is personal friends with the owner, Kaye Tesarani.  Ome receives consolation on her friend’s death and a safe place to sleep for the night.

[9 Lamashan 4707]

In the morning, Ome and Arnald meet at the cathedral where Father Zantus has prepared a spell to speak with Eugeni’s spirit.  Although the answers received are brief and cryptic, those assembled understand them to mean that Eugeni’s spirit is willing to return and that, if necessary, his possessions can be sold to raise the necessary funds to do so.  Father Zantus suggests the ceremony should take place at dusk, and says he’s willing to go forward with it even if the adventurers haven’t quite raised the total funds necessary to replace the scroll.  However, he notes again that there is a risk of failure, and that clerics in Magnimar will prove more capable than he; but also, less willing to be as understanding about payment.

Ome decides to sell a dagger, possessed by Eugeni, that is made out of the rare and valuable metal adamantine.  She first visits the Red Dog Smithy and sees Das Korvut hard at work on a bardiche; the blacksmith sends the tengu over to Savah’s Armory.  There, after repeated assurances and even a signed document attesting that the dagger came into her hands lawfully, Ome is able to sell the dagger for over 2,000 gold pieces.  Later, she persuades Arnald to do the talking when the pair walk to the headquarters of the Sandpoint Mercantile League to collect the posted bounty on the bandit Shank.  However, not having obtained any proof of their deed, the adventurers are turned back.  Ome spends the rest of the afternoon at the Pixie’s Kitten, drinking and telling stories to his friends about some of the previous adventures she and Eugeni had.  Arnald, having been turned away at the door by Shoanti bouncers due to a refusal to have his weapons checked, waits across the street.

At dusk, the final preparations are in place at the cathedral. Eugeni’s body lies on a stone altar in the centre of the cathedral, under the open sky of the central courtyard.  Father Zantus has assembled all of his available acolytes to assist him with the complex spell, and thus represented are the faiths of Desna, Gozreh, Abadar, Shelyn, and Erastil.  Receiving a final nod from Ome, Father Zantus unfurls the scroll and begins intoning its pleas for the spirit to return to the flesh.  But whether from Father Zantus’ inexperience or the will of the gods, the spell summons not life but a bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky that incinerates Eugeni’s corpse to ashes!  “This was a being never meant to return to life!” shouts Father Zantus, interpreting the result as divine disapproval.  Ome is furious at what she perceives as Father Zantus’ bungling, and she demands a return of the several thousand gold pieces she gave him to conduct the ceremony.  But Father Zantus is uncharacteristically unyielding and says that the gods have spoken and that the scroll must be replaced.  Ome calls him a thief, eliciting a gasp from the assembled acolytes, before scraping the ashes into a  porcelain jar to be given to Eugeni’s parents.

Thus ends the beginning chapter in an epic story of ancient threats risen anew and the heroes who will face the greatest of perils to stop evil from sweeping across the land.
-----------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (12/06/2017)

A dramatic and somewhat bitter end to the first chapter of the adventure path.  It was definitely a more lethal chapter than the writers and most groups have experienced, and made me very, very nervous about what would happen when the real threats started mounting in later chapters!  Although Bey's player would be back for the start of Chapter 2 so the group would have four PCs, the death toll made me start looking very seriously for a fifth player.

The death of Eugeni was a disappointing but avoidable one, and perhaps encapsulates the theme of adventurers and their greed.  The timing of the battle was unfortunate, as Arnald had decided to rest in an adjoining chamber, Shalelu was badly hurt, and Eugeni's and Ome's players were still learning the best ways to use their characters.  The battle started off well, but then went downhill fast.  Giant hermit crabs are tougher than they look!  On the other hand, no risk, no reward.  That's the life (and death) of adventurers.

The disaster of the attempt to cast raise dead on Eugeni was because Father Zantus was much too low of a level to automatically succeed in using the scroll, and thus had to roll a caster level check: he rolled a natural 1.  Natural 1s on rolls are treated as automatic failures and critical fumbles under our house rules, so I had the body struck by lightning and the scroll destroyed.  The scroll being destroyed was a mistake, as I assumed it automatically happened with the failure to use a scroll, but I didn't discover I had messed up until talking with a fellow GM a couple of days later.  I gave Eugeni's player the option to assume another scroll became available, but he was happy to move on and work on another PC--and this one would go on to survive the entirety of Chapter Two!

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Buffy Comic Project: "A Stake to the Heart, Act 1" [COMICS]


Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 60
(Dark Horse, Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators: Fabian Nicieza (story), Cliff Richards (Pencils), Brian Horton (paints), Will Conrad (inks), Michelle Madsen (colors), Clem Robins (letters)

Setting:  Between Movie & Season 1

T.V./Movie Character Appearances:  Dawn, Buffy, Hank Summers, Joyce, Angel, Whistler, Giles, Xander, Wille, Jesse,

Major Original Characters:  N/A

Summary:  Giles' flight arrives in Sunnydale.  Joyce and Hank explain to Buffy and Dawn that they've decided to get a divorce, and both girls are quite upset.  Buffy sneaks out that night to slay vampires, not realizing that she's being observed by Angel and Whistler.  Angel sees how much pain Buffy is in, and Whistler says that with an Orb of Alhambra and black magic, he could take away her hurt and absorb it into himself.  Angel goes through with the ritual, but instead of the emotions being absorbed, they create monsters known as malignant demons.  The first one, Deceit, appears to Buffy as a constant voice in the back of her head, telling her that Hank has been having an affair and that's why he and Joyce are getting divorced.  Buffy comes close to killing a woman she (wrongly) thinks Hank is having the affair with, and then confronts Hank himself--but instead of accusing him of having an affair, her own guilt overcomes her and she asks whether the divorce is because of how much trouble she's caused.  Hank assures her that no one is to blame and that these things happen, and the two hug.  However, there are other malignancy demons, and Whistler warns Angel that Buffy might not be able to overcome the next one on her own.

Review

Really like the throwback photo cover as, continuity-wise, we're *almost* at the point where the show starts.  The scene of Joyce and Hank telling their kids about the divorce was well-written and sad, and will hit close to home for a lot of families.  The artwork is fantastic, as the malignancy demons are incredibly creepy and lurk in the background.  I appreciated little easter eggs, like references to Wolfram & Hart or the (future) Scoobies seen walking through one scene.  Overall, a really good story that fits perfectly and tells a story (the break-up of Buffy's parents) that has been a major facet of the character's life but has never before been depicted.

Notes

* We're officially in the last story-arc for the book, with the show over and the letters' page promising Tales of the Vampires as the next Buffy project from Dark Horse.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

RealmsToowoomba Recap # 63 [RPG]

[10 Flamerule 1372 continued]

Having passed yet another test of purification, Mellia gains access to the sixth terrace of the Flaming Brazier.  She finds it necessary to pass through a glowing portal, and discovers herself in a realm of fire and flame.  Waves of heat wash over her, and she feels her skin start to blister and burn.  She hurries through the cracked and blasted landscape of volcanic rock in the direction of the lone landmark in the featureless land: a high throne, seemingly composed of flowing lava, on which sits a living being of flame.  A guttural voice issues forth, “You have come to the Sixth Terrace, human.  I serve the Lord of Flames as the Grand Purifier.  You have proven thyself worthy in mind and body.  Now you must show your commitment to the Great Lord by spreading his purifying flames to another.  Open your mind to me, and choose who shall be tested by my minions.  Choose who you know to be the most impure, the most deserving of flame and the inner strength that only the Flamelord can provide.”

Mellia sees visions of her closest friends and allies, including her mentor, Gideon, her daughter, Allia, and the adventurers that have accompanied her to Thay.  She responds quickly to the Grand Purifier, stating just one word:  “Fargrim.”  The elemental being nods.  “The one you choose will be tested, at a time and place that is most apt.  You must speak nothing of this.  Consider yourself bound.”  The creature of flame then tells Mellia that she may return through the portal, as the final test awaits: obstacles of impurity that must be utterly destroyed.

After returning through the portal, Mellia finds herself at the base of a stairway.  First, a creature of swirling air attacks and tries to pin Mellia to a wall.  She responds by quickly turning invisible and then evoking powerful magicks of fire and black tentacles of force.  Soon, the air elemental is destroyed.  Next, an imposing creature of living rock appears and tries to smash Mellia with its fists.  She dodges its clumsy attacks easily, however, thanks to her invisibility, and once again destroys it with fire.  Last, a resident of the elemental plane of water coalesces.  Mellia prepares to contain it with a wall of fire, but her thoughts are suddenly interrupted by a telepathic message from Gideon, stating that he’s finally recovered and that he’s located her daughter’s prison and is gathering information on its weaknesses.  The intrusion almost breaks the diviner’s concentration, but she focusses enough to complete her spellcasting and destroy her final opponent.  At last, she gains access to the seventh terrace.

Meanwhile, a short distance away in Bezantur, Mellia’s allies find themselves in the midst of general panic.  From the inn where they’re staying, they can hear screams and see pedestrians running at full speed.  “It’s tearing them to pieces!” one of them shouts, and points in the direction of a squat tower that houses the city’s chapter of the Order of Summoning.  As the group watches, a body comes flying out of an upper balcony and lands, broken and bleeding, on the ground below.  Dolcetto, in Fargrim’s body, is eager for action and rushes to investigate with Syd, in the shape of a giant eagle, serving as a mount.  Fargrim, in Dolcetto’s body, also moves toward the tower.  Myst and Ralkin, however, are far more reluctant to intervene but eventually decide to follow along cautiously.

When the adventurers push through the mass of fleeing citizens and reach the grounds of the tower, they hear more screams coming from it.  Suddenly, the tower itself shakes and then the upper level explodes, scattering debris everywhere, revealing a massive demonic creature from some foul nether plane!  “Foolish mortals!” it growls.  “Did you think to contain my might!”  It sniffs the air, turns slowly about, and then points directly at Ralkin (occupying Myst’s body).  “The stench of magic betrays you!” it shouts, and leaps from the top of the tower to land near the tiefling!  The assembled adventurers attack, but Syd’s lightning has no effect, nor does magic slow it down.  Dolcetto wields her new body’s strength to great effect and slams a greataxe into the creature repeatedly, but it continues undeterred towards Ralkin.  Ralkin drops to his knees and begs the demon to take him into its service, but the denizen of the lower realm gives a wicked smile, says “thank you for making this easy!”, and proceeds to rip the adventurer’s arms off!  The body of the tiefling that was once Myst dies instantly, leaving Ralkin’s spirit to an unknown fate.

The demon sniffs again, and this time it catches the scent of Dolcetto’s body, currently occupied by Fargrim’s soul.  It starts to move towards it, but Dolcetto, in Fargrim’s body, continues to hack away at it, while Syd summons a giant air elemental to slow it down before calling down fire from the heavens.  Fargrim uses his new body’s magickal might to summon a steady stream of giant tainted insects, while Myst, seeing what had happened to his true body, runs and hides.  The bloody slugfest continues for some seconds before the adventurers decide the demon is too powerful to destroy and try to escape.  The demon gives chase, but is soon distracted by the timely arrival of the Thayan Legion and a contingent of Red Wizards.  The adventurers manage to retrieve the body of their fallen ally and decide to head straight for the Flaming Brazier.

Meanwhile, Mellia reaches the seventh terrace: a small chamber made entirely of obsidian.  On one side of the chamber is the curtain of fire that serves as a barrier between the chamber and the ziggurat’s outer steps.  Above, the roiling sphere of flame known as Kossuth’s Gaze looms large.  Mellia is awed by being so close to a manifestation of the divine, and falls to her knees.   Although the room appeared empty, a figure suddenly stands before her.  The Eternal Flame, high priest of the Flaming Brazier, is a tall man with skin that appears to be made of cracked block rock, with liquid fire coursing throughout.  There is only fire where his eyes should be, but his manner is relaxed.  “Few foreigners make it to this place.  You have been tested, and found worthy.  I know why you have come, but the formalities must be respected.  Speak of what thou dost desire from the Eternal Flame.”

At his nod, Mellia stands up.  She activates the special enchantment woven into her dress when she purchased it in Silverymoon, and it blazes into the illusion of a phoenix.  She explains that she has come for a better understanding of the Lord of Flames, and that she seeks her friend and ally, Cain.  The Eternal Flame grasps her hand and suddenly the two of them are standing in a darkened chamber.  A man, with his back to Mellia, is strapped to a vertical crossbar connected to a winch and pulley.  Another man, dressed in the heavy armor of a holy champion of the Flamelord, operates the winch and suddenly the crossbar falls forward, immersing the prisoner’s head in a trough of water.  “Death by drowning.  The worst and most dishonourable way to die,” the Eternal Flame explains.  “We reserve it only for traitors and heretics.  But I know you wish to speak to your friend.”

When the Eternal Flame calls out, the armoured figure turns away and removes his helm.  It is Cain, head covered in brands and scars, with the holy mark of Kossuth literally burned into the side of his face.  “The one you knew as Cain has been reborn in the purifying flames,” the high priest explains.  “He is now an archon of Kossuth, a paragon of our faith.  You have my leave to go, but you both will be bound to rectify a mistake.  The faith of the Frostmaiden cannot be allowed to spread like a disease.  You will return to Nesme, kill every priestess of the bitch goddess you find, and raze the city to the ground.  Let the rabble flee to spread word of the punishment sent by the Flamelord for their blasphemy!”  Mellia and Cain willingly allow themselves to be bound by powerful oath-keeping magic, and are given leave to depart.

As they journey down towards the first terrace, Mellia tells Cain that she now fully understands the appeal of the Lord of Flames.  She also begins to tell him about Multivar’s mirror, the death and resurrection of Markus, new allies Syd and Myst, and more, but her complicated tale is interrupted when they step outside and see the others arrive.  Dolcetto, in Fargrim’s body, holds Myst’s mutilated corpse.  The tale of the escaped demon is related, and the conversation quickly turns to whether the adventurers should wait until the portal brings them back to Silverymoon to have Myst’s body raised from the dead, or whether they should try to have the deed performed in Thay.  For his own part, Myst’s mind and soul (in Ralkin’s body) has been stunned by the day’s events and he lets the others take the lead in decision-making.
  
Cain is terse and dubious when asked if a priest inside the Flaming Brazier will cast the necessary spell, but he agrees to accompany Mellia back inside to ask.  In conversation with the Mistress of Torches, Mellia explains that Myst was a scholar and trickster; the priestess says such a being is not worthy of Kossuth’s touch, and suggests trying another temple in the city.  As Cain and Mellia exit, Mellia explains about the body-switch and says that Ralkin would be quite useful in their future endeavours.  Cain shrugs, stating that a few days’ decomposition will not materially affect the success of a resurrection spell in the future.  The two talk about the best way to approach their sworn mission to Nesme.  Fargrim, however, overhears some of their conversation, including their commitment to “raze the city to the ground.”  He hurries to share the information with Dolcetto, and both remark how much Mellia and Cain have changed.  Dolcetto says she wants no part in attacking Nesme, but Fargrim convinces her not to say anything to them until they bring it up.

When the adventurers return to the red-brick inn where they’d been staying, Syd introduces himself to Cain and asks why the cleric hasn’t healed the injuries of their friends hurt by the rampaging demon.  Cain says that only the pure deserve to be saved.  When Syd confronts Mellia about coming all the way to Thay to rescue someone like Cain, Mellia replies that Cain is worthy because he is pure.
Later, Dolcetto and Syd converse, telepathically.  Dolcetto shares what Fargrim had overheard regarding Mellia and Cain’s plans to raze Nesme.  Syd exclaims that it can’t be true, and that perhaps Fargrim misunderstood.  The halfling says he’ll confront Mellia and set her straight if need be, but Dolcetto says she is a lost cause.  The group should focus on retrieving the Crown of Horns.  Syd says he will think about Dolcetto’s words.  

Meanwhile, Cain and Mellia are having a conversation about Nesme as well.  Mellia tells Cain that the others will be useful on their quest, but that they don’t need to know every detail about why they’re doing what they’re doing: “let them think we’re doing it to save the people of Nesme,” she says.  Cain replies saving people is exactly what they’ll be doing, in a manner of speaking.  That night, alone by the fire in the common room, Mellia talks with Cain about the themes of fire and purity that resound throughout the dogma of the Flamelord.  She shares with him an intimate secret of her past.  “He hurt me,” she says.  “I killed him, and I came out stronger.  That’s what the suffering is for, that’s why it happened.”  The two continue to talk long into the night.

[11 Flamerule 1372]

At exactly two hours after midnight, as most of Bezantur slumbers, Multivar’s mirror-portal activates and pulls the adventurers back.  Mellia leaps to grab Cain to make sure he is not left behind.  

A difficult quest has been completed, but a price has been paid.  And what lies ahead may tear the group apart.