Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #22: Ooh, Shiny!

"Time of the Tarrasque" is my current homebrew Pathfinder campaign. For an index of past session summaries, see The Story So Far.

Our heroes include:
  • Edel Naergon, high elf bard (archivist) 5.
  • Fatou Damiri, human wizard (evoker) 3/cleric of Yaziel 2; and Nochaesh, owl familiar.
  • Jumari Boneface, half-orc inquisitor of the Lost Egg 5.
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 5; and Zafira, camel mount.
-----

The elemental shrines
Last time, our heroes discovered and explored an ancient ruin that was built by (or for) cyclopes. After fighting a giant skeleton, a weird elemental creature that emerged from the walls, and a trio of mephits, they discovered that the lowest level was a set of shrines to the four elements. Each shrine contained an idol of that element's giantish god, a central stepped pedestal, and walls carved with writing in the languages of both cyclopes and that shrine's element. None of these languages was known to our heroes, but they were able to determine that at least some of the inscriptions referred to tests or trials that would earn the blessings of the gods. Jumari experimented by burning something in a large brazier in the fire shrine, which caused that room's Ignan inscription to glow faintly.

Rather then wait until Fatou could prepare comprehend languages the next day, the heroes decided to experiment. To start with, the inquisitor went to the water shrine and cast create water over the dry basin set in that room's pedestal. This did not fill very much of the large bowl, but the Aquan characters on the walls glowed faintly in response.

Jumari then tried to blow upon the empty pedestal in the air shrine. Nothing happened, so Fatou tried using some cantrips to clean away the dust and attempt to cause a slight breeze. Edel tried singing, and when that had no immediate effect, the others attempted to join in to aid him (with less than stellar results). Jumari tried casting expeditious retreat so that she could run really quickly in circles around the shrine, but that too failed to produce any results. Jumari started asking the other two spellcasters if they had any air-based magic--perhaps a minor summoning spell?--but wracking their brains only led to the conclusion that none of them were experienced enough to use such magic yet.

The group then searched the earth shrine for any secret compartments, loose stones, or other clues. The pedestal here bore a polished sandstone pillar about the height of a man. ZhaZha tried placing a metal weapon on top, then some of the sand left behind when the wall-guardian was slain. Those had no effect, so Jumari suggested that the two of them try to lift it. This took a few tries for ZhaZha to work out her grip and leverage, but then the two half-orcs lifted it off of the ground a few inches. Fatou spotted something in a depression below the pillar, and Edel quickly pulled it out before the pillar dropped. It was a finely made heavy pick, which Fatou declared was magical [a +1 weapon]. Edel pointedly asked ZhaZha, "Is this yours?" and suggested that she leave her old pick in its place. She was reluctant to leave behind her favorite weapon, which had served her well up to now, but agreed.

The group then tried again in the shrines. Edel cast solid note in the air shrine, which finally made the inscriptions glow faintly. They then decided to try to trigger all four shrines at once. They waited for ZhaZha to go first, because lifting the pillar on her own would take even longer to accomplish without Jumari's help, and she was still somewhat fatigued from the first time. When the others could hear her growls turn from frustration to victory, they quickly made their own attempts: Edel sang in the air shrine, Fatou set kindling alight with burning hands in the fire shrine, and Jumari cast more create water. All three were rewarded by their location's script lighting up, but only Jumari's continued to grow brighter, as she cast her orison over and over to fill the basin. When the water reached the top, she could see a chain shirt of some fine metal at the bottom of the pool, and pulled it out. She hollered for Edel to keep singing, and he started drawing on his bardic powers.

Fatou soon gave up on trying to burn things in the brazier--she just didn't have enough flammables to fill its huge bowl. She pulled out the campfire bead she carried and activated it inside the brazier. The burning logs filled the space quite nicely, and the Ignan writing around her blazed as well. She could see something in the brazier, beneath the burning logs, so wet her arm as well she could with her own create water orison, then reached in to pull the object out. She burned her hand badly, but managed to drop the item--a red-hot falchion, with a blade shaped like a jet of flame--before truly maiming herself. As she created more water to quench the sword, Jumari came to her and healed her injured hand. Fatou then identified the weapon as magic [another +1 weapon] but failed to determine what magic the chain shirt held. She gladly let Jumari claim the falchion.

Everyone then joined Edel to try to help him. Two of the other shrines had seemed to react with being filled with something, so they tried to fill this room with the loudest song they knew--an orcish drinking song from ZhaZha's village. The Auran inscriptions started glowing again, and Fatou and Edel noticed a very tiny glow from the apex of the ceiling (about 20 feet above). Detect magic registered a faint aura of abjuration, but whatever the thing was, it was too far embedded in the stone of the ceiling to read its aura properly. Edel used an enlarge person scroll (that Fatou had just scribed for him the previous day) to make his tallest companion, ZhaZha, large enough to reach the ceiling. She used her new, magical pick to carefully chip at the rock around the spot her friends pointed out. Her patience soon grew thing, so she knocked out a dinner plate sized chunk of the ceiling with a couple sharp whacks with her weapon. The glow from the walls abruptly ceased, which caused Jumari to say, "I'm glad we did this one last!" The cavalier chipped away at her shard until she finally freed a small metal ring from the stone. Edel's spellcraft told him this was a ring of protection +1, and that the chain shirt was +1 mithral. This prompted some discussion about who to award these last two items. Edel and Fatou finally agreed that Fatou would take the armor, because Edel already had Ragalash's magic darkwood suit, and he would take the ring.

Edel changed his mind about ZhaZha needing to leave her pick behind, so she went to reclaim it. The heroes collected their other loot, and their camels, and rode back to the kobolds, who had been waiting a short distance form the ziggurat for the past couple hours. ZhaZha told them about the creatures they fought, and judged the place safe to enter now that it was cleared out--but neither she nor her friends mentioned any of their new magical loot. Because it was now getting light, the caravan's leader, Vartoranax, decided to seek shelter inside, and the kobolds took over some of the large rooms on the middle level to make camp.

Vartoranax and Tyrrentyg were fascinated by the unusually good condition of the artwork and inscriptions throughout the structure. The herald cast comprehend languages, then she and her boss spent quite some time exploring and discussing the site before taking their rest with the others. Fatou expressed an interest in stopping here for a day, and the kobolds agreed--Tyrrentyg especially wanted to study the site in more detail. (The two half-orcs, whose curiosity was already amply satisfied, spent the day practicing tactics instead.)

After that day of study, the caravan headed north again. Their route stopped at a couple of oases, and the next few days were uneventful, until the travelers reached the last oasis before the town of Dal-Raman.

[At this point, the PCs were allowed to start using their newly-advanced, 5th-level stats. All continued in their previous classes, with Fatou becoming a 2nd-level cleric.]

During Jumari's watch, the kobold sentries spotted some jackals sneaking about, but one guard hurled a sling stone at one of the wild dogs and scared them off. However, later that night, during ZhaZha's watch, her camel was spooked by something. A jackal-headed humanoid appeared and tried to put her to sleep with its gaze, but she resisted. The two kobolds on duty with her were attached by two other jackal-things; one collapsed, asleep, but the other resisted. Each monster was accompanied by a couple of jackals.

The sounds of ZhaZha fighting just outside his tent woke Edel, and as soon as he looked out of the tent, he recognized the monsters as jackalweres. His shout of "Cold iron!", and the conscious kobold's terrified screaming as it was wounded, quickly roused the rest of the camp.


Jumari exited the tent and took up a central location in the center of camp so that she could hit all three jackalweres with blistering inventive [her new spell gained at this level]. She easily intimidated the monsters, and one of them caught on fire (though it soon extinguished itself). Because Jumari did not sleep in her breastplate, Fatou used her owl to cast mage armor on the riled inquisitor. However, one of the jackalweres put the half-orc to sleep with its gaze. Meanwhile, the third monster traded blows with ZhaZha, and came out much the worse for it.

As Edel began his bardic lecturing on jackalweres, some of the other kobolds finally emerged from their tents to join the fight--though not in time to save the wounded sentry, who was torn apart by (normal) jackals. Fatou dodged between jackals to deliver a burning hands that downed ZhaZha's jackalwere, so the cavalier charged another, killing it instantly with a critical hit from her pick. "This is a nice pick!" she exclaimed happily.

Edel woke Jumari, who recovered her falchion and endowed it with magical beast bane. However, Fatou took out the last jackalwere with a scorching ray, so the inquisitor led the clean-up fight with the jackals. Only one jackal escaped from the camp alive, and it tore off into the desert. Edel stabilized the only jackalwere who still lived, and they tied it up to question later.

Apart from the one dead sentry, who was wrapped up gently for now, the kobolds had only a handful of wounded. Fatou channeled energy to heal them and her friends. (She had suffered a few small bites herself.) Tyrrentyg recognized the jackalwere bodies for what they were, and reported what she knew of them to Vartoranax.

The rest of the day's watches passed uneventfully, but the heroes still have a severely wounded jackalwere on their hands...

-----

This campaign uses fast progression, and I'm still trying to get the hang of the greater monetary awards required to keep the PCs on track for their wealth by level (Core Rulebook 399). These trials in the elemental shrines were an attempt to start rectifying the fact that they're very poor for their level, which seems to be my players' biggest criticism of the game so far. Finding that balance still needs a lot more work, but it's a start, and they all seemed pleased with their new toys.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

TBT: Madness in Freeport

freeport1.jpg
Heroes of "The Ooth-Nargai Campaign" (Freeport Trilogy PCs):
(L-R): Amanashaya (cleric/wizard), Zafir (fighter), Thaddeus (rogue), Willow (gnome ranger), Ivellios (elf sorcerer)
I ran Green Ronin Publishing's original (D&D v.3.0) module Madness in Freeport in the winter and spring of 2002. By that time, I was an active member of the community on the Green Ronin Forums, and had started posting fan errata for the Freeport Trilogy. For Madness, I decided to post summaries of each session of my run, to share my own experiences with the module, including solutions to some of the weird problems that arose in play. (Most notably, two of the five PCs died halfway through the adventure, so I had to improvise heavily to keep the adventure moving forward.)

That reporting was followed by accounts of my later two Freeport campaigns, and ultimately led to my habit of posting session summaries for other, later campaigns (like "Time of the Tarrasque" and "Tales from the Yawning Portal") here at Studded Plate. In fact, being able to post those accounts was one of my chief motivations for starting this blog.

That first set of reports, for Madness, can still be found in the Green Ronin Forums Archive, at  Ronin Army (the current Green Ronin community website). I have copied those run notes to my errata site as Tim's Run Notes: Madness in Freeport. (See also my errata and notes for Madness in Freeport.)

Sadly, the complete account of my second campaign, "Secrets of Freeport" (v.3.5, 2004-2005), no longer exists online. I posted periodically in the Green Ronin Forums about the game, but the more detailed accounts only appeared on my GeoCities site. Those pages vanished when that host did, and the Wayback Machine does not appear to have captured copies.

For my third campaign, "Winds of Freeport" (v.3.5, 2011-2013; Pathfinder 2014-2016), I posted my session summaries to the Freeport forum at The Piazza. (I was more active there than at GR's forums at the time that I began them.) After the campaign's end, I archived that material at my wiki for the campaign. See the Winds of Freeport Session List for that material (as well as GM Notes for some adventures).

Finally, I hope you enjoy these very old, low-res photographs of a few of the models I built for that first Freeport campaign. My use of LEGO minifigures with RPGs predates Freeport (and D&D Third Edition) by at least a couple of years.

lighthouse1.jpg
The Lighthouse of Drac, AKA "Milton's Folly"
miltondrac2.jpg
Milton Drac (from the cover of Madness in Freeport)

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Spring update

I'm not going to have time to write a regular game content post this week, due to a combination of factors:
  • This is a peak time for my day job in graduate admissions.
  • My wife and I are putting an addition on our house, which has made the rest of the first floor a disaster area until the new space is ready.
  • We're taking our kids are going to a gaming convention this weekend. My wife is GM-ing enough to earn a free badge, so I've been doing what I can to help her prep without getting spoiled for adventures I haven't played.
  • We're greedy fools who haven't cut back on our busy gaming schedules while all this is going on. 
So, instead, I thought I'd talk briefly about my plans for the blog over the next few months:

My "Time of the Tarrasque" session summaries will continue as the campaign progresses. We are currently playing every 2 or 3 weeks, so expect to see those roughly twice a month. I try to get those written up and posted fairly promptly because I, and some of my players, find them helpful reminders of what we did last time.

I plan to write a couple more installments of my "Building the Bestiary" series in the near future (magical beasts, and maybe monstrous humanoids), but those will have to wait until our house isn't a disaster area and I actually have enough clean space to build and photograph my brick critters again. (A few have already been built--including three sizes of owlbears!--because I needed them for recent Pathfinder Society scenarios.)

The LEGO Group is releasing Disney Minifigures Series 2 on May 1, so expect a review of those sometime next month. With Toys 'R' Us out of business, it's become more difficult to acquire the minifigures I want. (Oh, how I miss having a local LEGO Store!) However, my FLGS recently started stocking LEGO toys, just in time for me to collect The LEGO Movie Minifigures Series 2. I look forward to their help in acquiring this new series as well.

Of course, those topics won't fill up all the weekly slots, so I'll be on the lookout for other things to write about. If you have a question or subject that you'd like to see me tackle, please let me know in the comments!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #21: Really Big Words

"Time of the Tarrasque" is my current homebrew Pathfinder campaign. For an index of past session summaries, see The Story So Far.

Our heroes include:
  • Edel Naergon, high elf bard (archivist) 4.
  • Fatou Damiri, human wizard (evoker) 3/cleric of Yaziel 1; and Nochaesh, owl familiar.
  • Jumari Boneface, half-orc inquisitor of the Lost Egg 4.
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 4; and Zafira, camel mount.
-----

Last time, our heroes and the caravan traveled up The Stairs, to the top of the Shalash Escarpment. Along the way, they spotted a small dragon (of unknown species) stalking them, and met a small group of high elves going in the opposite direction. From the elves, they learned a bit more about the town of Galdar, where their own caravan is headed, as well as news about Dorthyra, home of the academy where Edel studied.

(Addenda to last session: Fatou asked the elf mage Bellesor to deliver a brief letter to her religious teacher, Jenana Nasrud, in Zahallan. Enclosed with it was a second letter for the mullah to send on to Fatou's old friend and mentor, the wizard and noble Buthayna Najmi, in Almazur.)

The caravans's first few night's travel north from The Stairs was uneventful. Near the end of the sixth night, however, they spotted a stone structure partly buried by sand. The heroes went to investigate as the kobolds rested nearby. The building was a sort of simple step pyramid consisting of a square structure on top of a larger one. Stairs led from the ground up to a entrance into the top level, but the steps were cut for creatures much taller than humans. A short distance from the bottom of the stairs, the explorers found a handful of footprints from a small, barefoot humanoid creature; these prints showed the feet to be spindly, with long toes. After some study, Jumari guessed that they were left by a flying creature, because they started and ended very suddenly, but were otherwise clear.

ZhaZha's camel was able to negotiate the stairs, albeit slowly, so she followed the others to the entrance. Inside was a small landing with stairs at each end, going down to a hallway that gave access to the lower level as well as another flight of stairs going down. The walls here were carved with images of daily life in a town or city--except that the subjects were one-eyed humanoids. The relative scale of plants and animals in some images made it clear these people were giants--cyclopes. Some images were accompanied by inscriptions in an unknown language that Fatou guessed was Cyclops; the script bore some resemblance to written Giant. She also concluded that the artwork must have been created very long ago, because as far as she knew, the cyclopes were little more than savages in the present day. However, the carvings were in exceptional condition for their apparent age, in stark contrast to this structure's sand-scoured exterior.

ZhaZha left Zafira here rather than take her down these steeper stairs. On the level below, they found a giant-sized kitchen, with two long-unused hearths. The room was empty except for a thin coating of dust--in which they found more of the small, strange footprints, and a few handprints from the same creature. One of the hearths had recent scorch marks, but the flues of both were clogged with sand.

The next room was a storeroom with built-in stone shelves, but it was bare. Beyond that was a workshop that still held some tools--some giant-sized, some closer to human scale. Fatou judged these old metal items to be too fragile for their original use, but they might have value as curios to other scholars, so the party packed them up to take with them. This room had more images carved into the walls, showing cyclopes teaching skills to a smaller race. This second group had short, squat builds and rocky skin, and lacked hair; Edel and Fatou identified them as oreads, a partly elemental race.

Continuing clockwise around the level, they next found a room that had niches carved for lamps or figurines (all long gone) and images of cyclopes worshipping and studying. No gods were depicted in these carvings, but some of the people wore or bore items suggesting the four elements. This room no longer contained any furniture, but there were depressions in the walls and floor that suggested it once had, and had been used as living quarters.

On the far wall was the first door they had found in this place: a huge stone rectangle firmly wedged shut. The two half-orcs had to make a couple of attempts before they forced it open. Inside was an octagonal room with a large dry basin set in the floor. The walls held large sheets of tarnished metal that had been obviously installed to serve as mirrors. Between these panels, the walls were carved with images of nude giants bathing and frolicking. Fatou wondered aloud how the cyclopes had heated water for their baths. Jumari and ZhaZha, who had spent their lives living in the desert, found this idea bizarre--why would anyone want to boil themselves?

There was a second door out of the bath room, but Jumari grew impatient and returned to the hallway that connected most of the rooms on this floor. She soon found herself at the entrance to a large room with a throne upon a dias--and the skeleton of a cyclops seated in this huge chair. Rather then enter by herself, she took a step back and examined the room from the hallway. The wall opposite the throne was covered with the largest, most elaborate, and best reserved relief she had seen in the structure so far: A cyclops king dominated the center of the image, and was surrounded by various followers offering gifts and praise.

As she was studying the room, ZhaZha and Fatou managed to pull open the door between the bath and the throne room. The three women cautiously entered the room and looked around, while Edel hung back inside the bath. When Jumari and ZhaZha approached the throne, nothing happened until they stepped onto the steps of the dais. At that moment, the skeleton's head swiveled to look at the inquisitor, and the dead giant began to rise. ZhaZha struck it with her pick as it did so, which drew its attention to her, and it struck back with a large bony hand. Jumari moved to flank it, but both her blade and Fatou's scorching ray missed their mark. Edel identified the creature as a mindless skeleton made from a cyclops, and began offering advice for how to fight it [using his archetype's naturalist ability]. ZhaZha and the skeleton traded more blows, but when Jumari's blunt morningstar proved more effective, the cavalier switched to shield bashes. After the bard and cleric healed their wounded friend, Fatou then began casting enlarge person, but ZhaZha finished off the undead before the spell was complete.


Jumari and Fatou spotted movement coming from the sculpted wall, but Fatou could not use detect magic due to holding the charge on her previous spell, so Edel tried it while Jumari used sift. Neither spell revealed anything immediately, so the inquisitor continued scanning the wall, and eventually tried climbing it so she could examine the higher parts better. Despite ample handholds, she had difficulty pulling herself up--and was interrupted by something emerging from the wall to attack her. It looked like part of the wall was extruding itself to form the top half of a stony humanoid figure. Fatou cast her held spell onto ZhaZha, who attacked the monster but missed. As Jumari and the creature traded blows, Edel tried calling out in Giant that there was no need to fight, but it ignored him. The cavalier challenged the monster, and the inquisitor intimidated it. It continued attacking Jumari, so ZhaZha repeated her demand for it to fight her, and finally struck it. Her pick bit deep into the wall behind it, and it collapsed into a pile of sand. As Fatou provided more healing, Jumari angrily poked at the wall in several more places, but nothing else emerged.

Another large stone door (which ZhaZha found easy to shift while enlarged) led to another chamber that held a hearth, a set of shelves, and a large stone platform obviously meant for use as a bed. The shelves held only piles of moldering dust, except for one scroll that detected as magical due to ancient abjurations used to preserve it. The rods around which the scroll was rolled were at least as long as the tall cavalier's normal arm length, so the heroes awkwardly moved it out into the throne room to unroll partway and examine. The script was large, obviously written by giant-sized hands, and appeared to all be in the same handwriting, though clearly recorded in sections over a long period of time. The text included few images, but a four-lobed symbol for the elements appeared a couple of times. They carefully rolled it back up so that they could continue exploring the site.

The last room on this level appeared to have been a barracks; the walls here bore images of warriors and athletes. They piled their loot--the scroll, the tools, and some jewelry the skeleton had worn--near the stairs to the exit before going down to the underground level.

Passages led in two directions to round rooms, each of which held a stepped pedestal before a large stone idol. The first statue they examined was a one-eyed monstrous bird, very similar to the idol they had seen beneath the sphinx where the caravan had camped below The Stairs: an image of Chazital, god of air. This room's platform was bare. The second room's platform held an empty depression. The idol was a multi-headed dragon with only one eye in each head. Fatou concluded that this must be a variation on Talusoka, goddess of water. The walls of both rooms bore inscriptions in Cyclops and some other unknown languages.

While examining these details, the party heard faint voices from the far side of the central stairs. They tried to sneak down the hallway, and found a third shrine, with a large, unlit brazier. However, before they could see more, a small, winged, imp-like creature flew around the corner and breathed a cone of dust at the heroes, sickening Edel. A moment later, two more joined it: one stony and one flaming. Fatou identified the three creatures as mephits: dust, earth, and fire.

The two new mephits breathed rocks and fire, respectively, while the dust mephit cast blur upon itself. The three outsiders then started clawing at the heroes, though the earth mephit enlarged itself first. The heroes struggled to overcome the creatures' damage resistance--Fatou and Edel couldn't hurt them at all with their ranged attacks. However, the mephits had trouble landing solid blows on the heroes, and even when they did, the wounds were merely minor scratches. But then Edel's hideous laughter spell neutralized the earth mephit. Jumari downed the dust mephit with a critical hit, then dismissed her savage maw spell to demoralize the conscious mephits. The inquisitor then started hacking at the earth mephit to take it out before Edel's spell wore off.

Meanwhile, ZhaZha faced off with the fire mephit, taking a second flame breath attack that Edel and Fatou helped to heal. The mephit soon concluded that the other half-orc posed a worse threat, and it cursed in frustration when Jumari resisted its heat metal attack. Fatou's force bolt finally downed it, and the half-orcs coup de graced the other two mephits, who were healing very slowly.

The room with the brazier held a statue of a cyclops women with flames for hair, which Fatou easily recognized as Lutoran, goddess of fire. A fourth and last shrine held a platform with a stone pillar, and a statue of a muscular cyclops with its large eye carved to look like a faceted gemstone. This was Genesib, god of earth. Fatou guessed that the statues would be worth a small fortune each, but weighed far too much to move without a large crew of skilled engineers.

The walls between the shrines also bore intricate carvings: thunderstorms between the water and air shrines, smoke between air and fire, volcanoes between fire and earth, and swamps between earth and water. This last one was unlike anything the desert-bred half-orcs had seen before; Fatou only recognized it from descriptions in books. Finally, there was a 5-foot-square stone set into the wall beneath the stairs, which bore an inscription in some non-giantish language. Fatou and Edel studied it and the writing in the shrines, and determined that the second language in each shrine was the matching elemental tongue; the large stone was also marked in Terran. They were unable to translate any of these inscriptions, except for working out that the words in the fire shrine referred to some kind of test or trial in order to get a blessing from the god.

Growing bored with waiting for more concrete details, Jumari decided to experiment, and set some old, bloodied bandages on fire in the metal brazier. They ignited easily, and burned quickly. As they did so, the Ignan portions of the room's inscriptions glowed faintly.

-----

Next time, our heroes will continue to try puzzling out as much as they can about the "tests" mentioned in the shrine's inscriptions, before they have to give up and wait for Fatou to prepare comprehend languages the next day.

The PCs have earned enough XP to reach 5th level, so I have asked the players to work out their advancements before our next session. They will get to use those improved statistics once they leave this dungeon behind.

For the cyclops skeleton, I wanted a sturdier and more compact
model than the ogre skeletons I built for The Forge of Fury

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Unearthed Arcana and Freeport, Part 10

Welcome back to my ongoing series of capsule reviews of "Unearthed Arcana" with an eye for how to use them with the Freeport setting. This time, we'll take a look at articles released in December 2018 and February 2019.

For my past columns about using D&D Fifth Edition sourcebooks with Freeport: The City of Adventure, see the Freeport 5E Index.

Sidekicks (12/17/2018): This article provides rules for sidekicks--creatures befriended by a PC who accompany them on adventures--who improve by gaining levels alongside their PC friends. The sidekick must be CR 1 or less, but gains levels in one of three sidekick classes (warrior, expert, or spellcaster). Most of the class abilities are borrowed from PC classes, but are simplified. A few seem very powerful, and hard for even a PC to qualify for (such as the warrior's Improved Critical), but in general they seem to be in line with characters of their level. But note that even with this system, sidekicks only start gaining levels when they join their heroic friends on adventures, so will almost always be some number of levels behind the PCs; they will frequently need those strong class features just to survive.

I'm not certain how adding sidekicks will affect the PCs' own rate of advancement, as the sidekick rules don't explicitly address their effects on encounter Challenges and rewards. (Sidekicks simply gain a level whenever their friend does.) And the rules seem overly extensive for someone who is essentially a henchman or follower. But these rules could be very helpful in providing stats to a knight's retainers, or a more robust animal companion for a druid or ranger. (5E druids do not get companions unless you introduce the Circle of the Beast from DM's Guild, and many players find the Beastmaster ranger's companion to be underwhelming, especially in light of its poor action economy.)

The urban setting of Freeport: The City of Adventure makes acquiring townsfolk as sidekicks rather easy to justify. (In some cases, perhaps too much so, if a new friend embodies the label "follower" too literally!) These rules could also be useful at sea, to detail a friendly ship's captain who helps the heroes out from time to time, or important NPC officers if the PCs have their own ship.

(Nitpicky rules note, because I'm "the errata guy": Creatures of CR 1 or less already have a proficiency bonus of +2, so that bonus will not improve until they reach 5th level in their sidekick class. That should be stated more explicitly in the article.)

January 2019 had no "Unearthed Arcana" article, and February did not until its very last day. Wizards has announced a more "flexible" schedule for the column going forward, without a set date for each installment to be posted. 

On a related note, the Mike Mearls Happy Fun Hour seems to have ended in December, or at least no new episodes have been posted on YouTube since then.

The Artificer Revisited (2/28/2019): This is the third iteration of the artificer in the pages of "Unearthed Arcana," following its appearance as a wizard subclass ("Eberron," 2/2/15) then as a base class ("Artificer," 1/9/17). This new version gives the class spellcasting from 1st level (rather than 3rd) and adds cantrips, but delays the specialization (subclass) to 3rd. The class's magical crafting abilities are recast to be rather more flexible, which fits its constantly-tinkering nature.

The two artificer specializations presented here are the Alchemist and Artillerist. Both grant additional spells known, and give the artificer a powerful magical assistant. The alchemist is fully revamped from the previous version, and now gives the character an alchemical homunculus servant. not all worlds with artificers have guns, so the previous version's Gunsmith has been replaced with the Artillerist, which is accompanied by a turret--a machine that provides both ranged attacks as well as some protection for those adjacent to it.

The article ends with a new spell, arcane weapon (which imbues a weapon with a small amount of energy damage) and information for using the optional multiclassing rules with the artificer.

As I said the last time this class appeared in UA, artificers work very well with Freeport's unusual mix of eldritch magic and experimental technology.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #20: Too Much Climbing

The Stairs
"Time of the Tarrasque" is my current homebrew Pathfinder campaign. For an index of past session summaries, see The Story So Far.

Our heroes include:
  • Edel Naergon, high elf bard (archivist) 4.
  • Fatou Damiri, human wizard (evoker) 3/cleric of Yaziel 1; and Nochaesh, owl familiar.
  • Jumari Boneface, half-orc inquisitor of the Lost Egg 4.
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 4; and Zafira, camel mount.
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Last time, our heroes came within sight of the Shalash Escarpment. They killed some hyenas in order to secure their intended camp site, and the next day fought several undead--and their master, Ragalash--on their way to the base of The Stairs.

The four PCs had little difficulty following the caravan's tracks through the gullies, and caught up with the kobolds at a point where they would have to emerge from cover before advancing further. This last short leg before reaching the Stairs was barren and rocky, with little to hide them until they entered the base of the steep ravine that formed the lower part of the route up the Shalash Escarpment. There was an obvious path across the rocky terrain here, worn smooth by long use as a caravan trail. The kobolds were very jumpy as they emerged into the open to follow this path, despite the dark of a moonless night and having their larger escorts back with them again. Fatou sent out her owl as a scout again, but the familiar found nothing to panic her this time.

Just before the entrance to the ravine, two broken and very worn stone statues of dragons flanked the path. Both were missing most of their wings, and bits of their tails and crests, and the head of one lay in fragments beside it. The kobolds calmed down as they approached these monuments, and half-bowed as they passed between them. The merchant Vartoranax gave Tyrrentyg some small object, which the herald carried to the more intact dragon and placed inside its mouth before rejoining the caravan.

The PCs were curious about these dragons, and moved closer to the one Tyrrentyg had approached. The statue was huge--easily 15-20 feet from snout to tail. The statue still retained enough of its crest of horns that Fatou could identify it as a brass dragon, a desert-dwelling species of metallic dragon (and therefore usually good-aligned). Edel guessed that the sculpture was at least five centuries old--which would predate the emergence of orcs or kobolds from the Underdark, early in the Third Age (and not long after humans first reached the continents of Iath and Hemut). The group could see a tiny pouch in the statue's mouth, but judged it best to not interfere with what they assumed was a religious observance by the dragon-worshiping kobolds.

They then went to look at the other statue. Despite its poor condition, including some deliberate vandalism (especially around the broken neck), the bard and cleric easily identified it as a blue dragon--the more commonly known variety of desert dragon (and being chromatic, almost always evil). Jumari made a clumsy attempt to climb onto the dragon's back and eventually succeeded, and took a moment to look around from this higher point. She saw little of note beyond the kobolds watching as they continued walking, pointing at her and talking amongst themselves.

The heroes soon rejoined the caravan, and began the ascent of The Stairs. The path was steep, especially at first, and followed a series of switchbacks up the cliff face. Some parts of the route showed signs of being worked in the past to make the path easier: it was never too steep or rough that a well-laden pack beast couldn't traverse it, and it was only occasionally narrow enough to require traveling single file. Vartoranax called regular breaks every hour or so, to avoid exhausting his people or animals. Through Tyrrentyg, he asked the larger folk to travel in front of the main group. On past trips, the kobolds had rarely had any trouble come at them from behind once they were on The Stairs, but they sometimes met travelers coming the other way.

After a couple hours, Fatou spotted something small moving among the rocks overlooking the path, pacing the caravan. When the cleric tried to point it out, the creature ducked out of sight. She sent Nochaesh to investigate, but the owl couldn't find whatever Fatou had seen. The other heroes pulled out their ranged weapons, and kept moving. At the next switchback, all but ZhaZha saw it fly across the path ahead of them, moving to the rocks above this next leg of the path. They still could not be sure what it was, but could see that it had wings and a long tail (too long to be a bird).

They spotted the creature again now and then as they continued upward, but it kept its distance. A couple of hours later, Fatou saw it flying away from their route, up and off to the east. This time, she could see that it looked like a tiny dragon in flight, but could not tell its color in the dark. She told her friends, and the caravan's guide, Nylrynn, but decided to wait until later to tell the rest of the kobolds (she saw no reason to get them worked up over nothing). Jumari guessed that it might be a baby blue dragon. ZhaZha expressed a wish to ride it, but Edel pointed out that if it was a dragon, it would not grow large enough for her to ride within her lifetime.

After a couple more hours, the caravan passed a place where another path had split off from the main route up The Stairs, but an old rockfall had buried that fork. Fatou thought the dragon had been headed that way, so the PCs discussed whether to go looking for it. Fatou and Jumari climbed to the top of the near edge of the rockfall, in order to see how far it extended. It looked too difficult for them to cross, as neither of them was skilled at climbing or boulder-hopping. They saw no sign of the dragon, so climbed back down. (To underscore the difficulty of that path, Fatou slipped and fell on the way down, injuring herself.)

The caravan reached the top of The Stairs in the pre-dawn hours. They passed another pair of dragon statues here, but being more exposed to wind and sand, these carvings were even more worn than the two at the bottom. As they approached the kobolds' usual campsite, a rocky overhang a few bowshots from the plateau's edge, the PCs could see a fire and some tents already occupying the space. They decided to go ahead to ask these travelers to share the space, and Nylrynn stayed back to inform the rest of the caravan.

Edel recognized the two tents as being of elven design. Two high elves sat near a campfire, a woman in desert garb and a man in obvious mage's robes. Three cloaked figures with bows hid behind tents, rocks, and brush nearby, but Edel, ZhaZha, and Fatou easily spotted them. Edel led his friends closer, holding out his open hands to show they were empty, and called out a greeting in Elven. The two elves by the fire replied in kind, in an accent the bard instantly placed as being from the southern Fendorlis Forest (his own place of origin). He introduced himself and his friends, gave a brief summary of their travels (omitting any mention of the kobolds for now), and asked for news of his homeland. Fatou translated into Orc for Jumari and ZhaZha. The cavalier had her crossbow out, which she pointedly kept aimed in the direction of one of the hidden sentries she had spotted.

The strangers began to reply, but ZhaZha interrupted to complain about the rudeness of using a language some of them couldn't understand. Fatou tried to smooth things over by repeating the request more diplomatically. The elf woman seemed pained at being addressed in such a way, but switched to Common; her accent in that language was much more pronounced than Edel's, because the bard was better traveled. The woman was Kallerin, a merchant from Fendorlis who was traveling south in the hopes of making new business contacts. Her companion was Bellasor.

Jumari asked Edel in Orc if he was telling them about the kobolds. Bellasor looked at her sharply and asked what kobolds she meant. The PCs explained that they had been hired to guard a caravan of kobolds, who paid well. "And if they're up to something, we'll find out," Edel added. The two elves were clearly unhappy hearing that kobolds were nearby; Kallerin explained that they had come south because that race controlled everything to the north. Edel informed them that part of his reason for journeying away from his home was to find allies who could change that. The merchant asked how many kobolds were in the caravan, and was told about two dozen, including a skilled lizard-riding scout, and a "fat cat" (by which Edel meant the rich merchant). ZhaZha finally stated bluntly that the elves' companions didn't need to stay hidden, and with a sigh, the mage gestured to them. These three, also elves, took up guard stances closer to their charges.

Kallerin and Bellosar excused themselves to step away and talk privately. They did not quite move out of earshot of Fatou's keen hearing; she overheard enough to know they were agitated about being near a group of foul draconians (and their hirelings) that outnumbered them by such odds. The elves returned to confess that they had no wish to remain so close to kobolds. Kallerin asked whether, if her group departed, the PCs could guarantee that they wouldn't be pursued. Edel pointed out that his caravan had just spent the night climbing The Stairs, and none of them had much energy to do more than simply make camp. Jumari suggested that some of her friends could escort them past the caravan, while the others told the kobolds about the arrangement.

While the elves packed up their camp with surprising efficiency, Fatou warned them about the dragon she saw, and she wrote down information about how to contact her mullah, her father, and the caravanserai in Zahallan. She and her friends also warned them of the death cult that operated in these lands. In return, Edel received some news of home: The trade route north from here enters the Fendorlis forest at a town named Galdar, which is occupied by kobolds. There is some resistance fighting in the area, but Kallerin and Bellasor either knew or would say no more about it. They also warned that Galdor was near the edge of Changir, a section of southern Fendorlis infested with orcs who the kobolds were having difficulty pacifying; these orcs have caused them as much trouble as the native high elves.

Bellesor also knew of Dorthyra, the town where Edel had studied at the Akassios Academy before the Zolothi invasion. The mage had sent a few years studying there some decades ago. He was not sure if the Academy still operated. He did know that the force that took the town was led by a half-dragon. He assumed this commander was half kobold; the green dragon Zoloth had been known to give her conquering forces many magical gifts, including some dragon-blooded officers.

When the elves were ready to leave, Edel and Fatou accompanied them, and gave a wide berth to the place where the kobolds were waiting. Once they were well past the caravan, Kallerin took her leave and her party continued towards The Stairs; she did not say where they would be stopping to make their new camp. Shortly after parting ways, Edel and Fatou saw a sixth elf appear from hiding and join them.

Meanwhile, Jumari and ZhaZha returned to the kobolds to tell them that the other group (whose identity they did not share) wouldn't be any trouble, and had vacated the campsite. Once the caravan made camp, the PCs told Vartoranax their wish to rest a day here. They had seen something on the trail that they wanted to check out further, as well as making sure the other travelers wouldn't cause any problems. The kobold merchant grudgingly agreed.

The next day was the new moon, so both Fatou and Jumari spent some time in the early evening performing private rites for their respective religions (Fatou in her tent, Jumari at some distance from camp). After this, the four heroes returned to the blocked path below. They could not see the elves on the trail below them, it being a moonless night, and could see no sign of the dragon they had spotted the night before. On the way back up, Edel wondered aloud if they might be able to get some orc help against the kobolds once they reached Fendorlis. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Wild Cats for D&D 5E

My daughter recently became a second-generation Game Master when she ran a session of OneDice Raptors for some friends over Christmas vacation. Since then, she has joined a newly formed role-playing club at her high school, and just this past week started running her first RPG campaign, using Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition.

She was already pretty familiar with many of the 5E rules from playing in my Tales from the Yawning Portal game, and has been avidly studying the rulebooks and online resources to help her plan her game. Her campaign is set in a fantasy rain forest, so she is eager to include many real-world animals native to that environment, as well as fantasy creatures based on them (like the grungs). The Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters have fairly skimpy offerings when it comes to natural animals, so she will need to re-skin* some stat blocks or make up her own from scratch to cover all the beasts she wants.

She was particularly disappointed that there was no stat block for a Small feline to represent her favorite cat, the ocelot, so she asked for my help in creating one. We compared the stats for a cat (Tiny; MM 320) and a panther (Medium; MM 333), and interpolated from there. Some parts of the stat block were easy (Dex, Con, Int, and Cha were identical, and both had Keen Smell) while others required more thought:
  • We took the average of the cat and panther's Hit Dice (2) and applied the dice type for Small (d6). 
  • We also averaged their Str scores, resulting in an 8, which felt about right.
  • All big cats (lion, panther, tiger) have an extra +2 to Stealth beyond their Dex bonus and proficiency bonus, so we gave that to the ocelot as well. 
  • The big cats also have Pounce, which appears to have a Strength-based DC. As a wild cat, the ocelot should get that, too, though we debated adding a limit to the size of creature they could knock prone. However, most Large and larger creatures will have high enough Strength scores to make that save trivial. For claw and bite damage, we dropped the panther's dice by one size.
  • Comparing the ocelot to the jackal (Challenge 0) and mastiff (Challenge 1/8), it seems much more on par with the former.

The finished stat block appears below, and can be used for any kind of wild cats (ocelets, caracals, bobcats, lynxes, etc.) that fall between the size of domestic cats and the "big cat" species.


Wild Cat

Small beast, unaligned
Armor Class 12
Hit Points 7 (2d6)
Speed 40 ft., climb 30 ft.

STR 8 (-1), DEX 15 (+2), CON 10 (+0), INT 3 (-4), WIS 14 (+2), CHA 7 (-2)

Skills Perception +4, Stealth +6
Senses passive Perception 14
Languages --
Challenge 0 (10 XP)

Keen Smell. The wild cat has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on smell.

Pounce. If the wild cat moves at least 20 feet straight towards a creature and then hits it with a claw attack on the same turn, that target must succeed on a DC 11 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone. If the target is prone, the wild cat can make one bite attack against it as a bonus action.

Actions

Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +1 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 1 (1d4-1) piercing damage.

ClawMelee Weapon Attack: +1 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 1 (1d3-1) piercing damage.

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* The first creature she wanted help devising was an intelligent monkey-like race. I explained the concept of "re-skinning" an existing stat block to serve as an entirely different creature, and suggested the goblin stat block as a starting point for creating her monkey people (which she has since dubbed "gremlins"). The only mechanical change needed was adding a climb speed, which is far too minor enough to affect the Challenge rating.