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IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 10A: The Labyrinths of Ghul

Tee and Elestra both recognized the statues as depicting the legendary figure of Ghul the Skull-King…

Towards the beginning of the campaign journal for Session 10, there are a couple large blocks of text – one for Ghul the Skull-King and another for shadowveined rock — which were originally written up as handouts for the players: If/when their characters succeeded on the requisite Knowledge checks, I’d be able to hand them these one page summaries.

The alternative to this, obviously, would be for the GM to simply read or summarize this information out loud. So why go to the extra effort to write up a handout?

First, you’ll note that there’s a lot of information being conveyed in these handouts. I’ve tried to keep the presentation of that information efficient, but that’s just resulted in the information being quite dense. Presenting this amount of information in written form (particularly if accompanied by visual references or enhancements) can aid comprehension.

Second, it highlights the information as being of particular importance, helping to make sure that the players pay attention to it. Of course, this only works if you don’t overuse the technique. (These two handouts weren’t explicitly designed to be delivered in such rapid succession, but the group had failed their earlier Knowledge checks to recognize Ghul’s Labyrinth by ways of its unique architectural features, and it was only the more explicit examination of the statues of Ghul himself which provoked their memory.)

Third, such handouts can serve as rewards. This is particularly effective with certain groups (the ones who light up and start clapping their hands with glee when the GM dips his hand into the Big Box of Handouts), but even with players are less inherently excited by this sort of thing

For example, the original version of the Shadowveined Rock handout included a number of mechanics, as you can see in this PDF version of the same:

I didn’t include these mechanical details in the campaign journal, eschewing them for a purely narrative approach, but he original handout included all kinds of information that would allow the PCs to leverage their discovery of the shadowveined rock to maximum effect (including unique items that they could either commission or have Ranthir create, for example).

Fourth, on a similar note, such handouts serve as reference material, allowing the players to easily review what they know about a particular topic (without having to freshly quiz the GM about it). This is particularly important because these handouts — like any exposition dump — should only exist for a purpose. The GM shouldn’t just start waxing rhapsodic about obscure details of their campaign world in the middle of the session without any rhyme or reason.

In the case of the shadowveined rock handout, the primary purpose was to serve as a rules reference when the players needed it later. (I do this a lot, actually: Packaging up snippets of non-core mechanical material into handouts and effectively drip-feeding the content into the campaign. In the case of shadowveined rock, it was something I had created. But this is also a really effective technique for incorporating material from supplements.)

In the case of the Ghulwar handout, the knowledge of Ghul provided context that helped them to navigate the dungeon they were standing in. So being able to refer back to these key facts regarding his life and exploits was continually useful for them (particularly as their expeditions extended between sessions and, later, years of out-of-game time).

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

SESSION 10A: THE LABYRINTHS OF GHUL

November 3rd, 2007
The 28th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

The group briefly considered the possibility of returning to the city above to obtain healing services for the poison that was weakening Agnarr’s body. But Dominic testified that the poison would not prove mortal – that it had, in fact, already run the worst of its course – and the tempting enigma of whatever lay beyond the door of blue steel was too tantalizing to resist.

Tee pushed the door open, revealing a long hallway made from the same cream-colored stone. About sixty feet away her elven eyes could dimly make out that the hallway opened out into a larger chamber of some sort.

The sunrod in Agnarr’s hand was sputtering, so he threw it aside and cracked a new one. With his light behind her, Tee headed down the corridor. The shadows flicked and leaped around her as she made her way towards the larger chamber.

Emerging into it, she found the ceiling vaulting more than forty feet above her. In each corner of the room, upon ten-foot high daises, stood immense statues more than twenty-feet high. Each statue was identical, carved from a dark gray rock that stood in sharp contrast to the pale stone and depicting a broad-shouldered figure wearing a skull-faced mask who looked down upon the center of the chamber with his arms crossed proudly upon his chest.

Tee and Elestra both recognized the statues as depicting the legendary figure of Ghul the Skull-King.

THE GHULWAR

The Ghulwar was a legendary conflict which took place in the area around Ptolus sometime during the misty aeons of prehistory. It had long been discounted by serious historians and scholars as a mere fancy entertained only by the gullible and credulous. But recent discoveries in the subterranean labyrinths beneath the city would seem to lend credence to at least some of the ancient tales. The tales vary in their character, but the general outlines are such:

Ghul the Skull-KingGhul – the Skull-King, the Half God, the Sorcerer’s Get – built a great fortress called Goth Gugamel upon the Spire of Ptolus. He claimed to be descended from the Banelord (a still older, malevolent figure whose tale has been lost entirely to the modern world). Within his black fortress, Ghul worked dark arts upon the orcs, raising up a mighty army of them. This army poured forth from Goth Gugamel and laid waste to the all the lands from coast to mountain.

This was the First Campaign of the Ghulwar, and it only came to an end when an Army of Sorcerers stood up to Ghul and stopped his rapacious armies. His goals of conquest thwarted, Ghul then called forth the Utterdark – a magical darkness which blanketed all the lands which he had conquered. Thus began the Cold Quiet, during which Ghul labored within the halls of Goth Gugamel.

The Cold Quiet ended as the Second Campaign of the Ghulwar began: Ogres and trolls and creatures of even worse countenance had joined the army of the Skull-King. The tales of this Second Campaign are even wilder than the first: Armies of dragon-mounted elves. A conflagration which burnt all the lands beyond the Mountains of the West to ash. In the end, the Utterdark was banished and Ghul fled from the Forces of Light which had been arrayed against him. It is said that the Avatars themselves hunted down Ghul and slayed him.

After making sure that the chamber was safe, Tee waved the rest of the group forward. As the light drew closer she was able to look down the corridors leading away from the room. Down the far corridor she saw double-doors of gray stone, but looking down the other two corridors she found halls lined with niches in which stood life-size statues of orcish warriors.

The group ultimately decided to follow one of the statue-lined halls. Tee again took the lead, drifting on the edge of shadow with her keen elven eyes plumbing the shadowy course ahead of her.

She came to another large room – nearly the same size as the last. As she drew near to it, however, she found the air growing suddenly cold. Her breath steamed. She came to a stop and waited for the others to catch up to her.

Looking into the room, she could see that nearly the entire floor was covered with a raised bas relief of black stone that depicted a skull-like sigil:

Sigil of Ghul the Skull-King

(more…)

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 9C: Jade

Session 9 was a momentous and very busy session. There’s a lot of stuff I should really comment on, but I’m running out of space to do so, so we’re going to tackle a number of micro-topics here.

TALES FROM THE TABLE

You may recognize the story of “Athvor Krassek”. It’s been told on the Alexandrian before, in Tales from the Table: Unexpected Successes.

Legends & Labyrinths - Justin AlexanderThis is also the session from which the introductory transcript of Legends & Labyrinths is drawn. If you compare the campaign journal to that transcript, you’ll notice that the transcript has been altered from the original version of events in a number of ways to tighten the sequence of events and create clarity.

I also made alterations in order to highlight specific mechanics, since I was using the transcript in combination with the sidebar reference system to create a seamless tutorial of how narrative, mechanic, and table conversation weaves together to form a typical RPG session. (I tried to do something similar with the Infinity RPG, but it didn’t quite work out for a variety of reasons. Which is a pity, because I think the approach is really effective at introducing new players to RPGs through the medium of text.)

THE UNEXPECTED HAMMERSONG

Ranthir, however, had been struck by a thought: Since the Hammersong Vaults was essentially the only bank in town, it seemed there was a good chance that they might have stored something here between the time they came to Ptolus and the morning they woke up with amnesia.

Holy crap.

This is literally the type of thing that I live for as a GM, but it nevertheless flabbergasted me completely. Let’s review the three key factors that led to this moment:

First, I used using Monte Cook’s Ptolus, which, as a city supplement, is insanely detailed. Its incredible depth and richness means that when the players say “I want to go to a bathhouse” or “I want to find a bank”, instead of improvising something off the cuff you can instead crack open the 650 page tome and say, “Okay, here are the bathhouses in town.”

In this case, when they went to find a bank for storing their newfound wealth, there was really only one option: The dwarven-run Hammersong Vaults.

Ptolus - Monte Cook (Malhavoc Press)Second, when designing the back story of what had happened during their amnesia I had followed the exact same thought process. Where would they go? Not the exclusive banks servicing the Merchant Houses. They’d have rented space in the Hammersong Vaults.

Third, one of the players needed to have the inspired insight to realize that their amnesiac selves might have done the exact same thing they just did.

And, in fact, they had. Which is just so unspeakably cool.

And when people ask, “Why would you want a 650 page tome detailing a city in such lavish detail?” this story is basically the answer to that question. It creates these moments of immense immersion by granting the game world a sense of concrete reality; turning it into an incredibly detailed sandbox for the players (and GM) to manipulate and experience.

So how was this “supposed” to play out? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, the investigation of their lost memories was a multi-stage process that was triggered over time by a number of different revelations that would each lead to meta-investigations. One of these triggered revelations was supposed to lead them to where they had hidden their key to the Hammersong Vaults, which they could have traced back to the vaults and used to access the vault they had rented.

Ironically, when this triggered event came along much later, they never figured it out and, thus, never found the key. Which means that if Ranthir hadn’t made this intuitive leap, they probably never would have found their old vault.

As it was, I was able to use their lack of a key to temporarily delay their access to the vault. (Although there were other options: They could have broken in, for example.) I did this primarily for reasons of balance, but it ended up paying off in the long run: The anticipation of waiting for the day when they would be able to access the vaults massively ramped up the sense of accomplishment because they were constantly being reminded of it, and, commensurately, cranked up the satisfaction of the reward they eventually received.

It was, after all, well earned.

METHUL = HELMUT

Tee had often speculated that Helmut might, in fact, be the mysterious Methul Watcher: “Methul” was an anagram of “Helmut”, and Helmut was an astronomer – a Watcher of the skies.

Here we see one of the unexpected perils of using pre-published material.

In this case, I had heavily modified the original scenario (which is found in the Ptolus corebook) and added additional layers of conspiracy and intrigue around the identity of “Methul Watcher”… all of which became completely irrelevant because, as Tee noted, “Methul” is an anagram of “Helmut”.

Tee’s logic here is, in fact, so unassailable that I have to believe that this was deliberately done by Monte Cook. Unfortunately, Cook neglected to mention this in the published adventure and I, unlike Tee, didn’t notice it.

So here, too, I was caught completely flat-footed by the cunning insights of my players.

I could use more “problems” like this.

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

SESSION 9C: JADE

October 21st, 2007
The 27th Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

RANTHIR REVEALS THE COMPASS

On the way back to the Ghostly Minstrel, Ranthir finally had a chance to discuss the appearance of the Iron Mage and the compass he had given to him. Ranthir had checked the compass at several intervals throughout the day, and found it pointing in different directions depending on when he looked at it. His first inclination had been to suspect that the compass was pointing towards some specific location… but this was quickly dashed when he realized it had been pointing north when he had been given the compass in Oldtown and, later, pointing south when he had been almost directly east in Midtown.

The others had little insight to give on the compass itself, but Elestra and Tee were both aware of the Iron Mage. He was something of a legendary figure in Ptolus. He would appear at random – just as he had for Ranthir – give seemingly nonsensical instructions and then disappear again. The purpose behind some of these random actions would become clear days or weeks or even years later, but others were without any true explanation. What his true goals and aims were no one could say for certain, but those who helped him were usually rewarded.

ELESTRA AND THE DREAMING APOTHECARY, PART 3

That night, Elestra placed the purple token of the Dreaming Apothecary under her pillow.

In the middle of the night she was awakened to discover a woman with long blond hair floating in the middle of her room. She was sitting in the lotus position and surrounded by a softly glowing halo of light.

In the brief conversation that followed, the woman explained to Elestra that the Dreaming Apothecary could provide her with any magic item she might desire… for the right price. Elestra discussed the enchantment she wanted placed upon her sword, but it became clear that – at least for the moment – it was beyond Elestra’s ability to afford.

The woman smiled, and assured Elestra that – when she had the money – she had only to place the token beneath her pillow again and the Dreaming Apothecary would fulfill her needs. Then she slowly faded from sight, and Elestra found herself slipping back into a deep slumber…

RETURN TO GREYSON HOUSE

(08/28/790)

The next morning, with no pressing crises to distract them, the group resolved to return to the passageways beneath Greyson House.

It had been nearly a week since they were last at the house. The boards on the door had been replaced, but Agnarr simply ripped them loose again. Reaching the pit of chaos was a walk of nearly twenty minutes, and the subterranean passages seemed as empty and deserted as they had before.

Beyond the pit of chaos they moved carefully back into the complex of rooms in which they had been assaulted by the strange creatures they were now referring to as bloodwights.

Moving through the large entry chamber, they carefully moved into the warren of small rooms that they had been attempting to explore before being overcome. There didn’t appear to be any creatures left in the open, so Tee and Agnarr moved methodically from one door to the next, slamming them open and instantly attacking anything that lay within.

A handful of the desiccated corpses were quickly eradicated in this way, with Agnarr’s flaming greatsword reducing them to dust before they had a chance to shed their cocoons of dead skin.

With the complex of small rooms secured, the rest of the party kept watch in the outer chamber while Tee spent more than an hour scouring the area for anything of interest. She quickly discovered, mired in the dusty remnants of one of the rooms, a small hexagonal emblem of jade. A strange rune was carved into one side of the emblem, but none of them recognized it (at least, not immediately).

Tee also discovered a small cache hidden under a false flagstone. It contained a diamond ring, a few random coins, and a small portrait of a black-haired girl badly worn with age.

Once Tee was satisfied, the group moved across the outer chamber to the opposite door. After doing a cursory check for traps and other dangers, Tee prudently waited on the opposite side of the room while Agnarr opened the door and revealed a short hallway ending in another door.

Beyond this door lay a room filled with a massive contraption of brass, copper, and worm-eaten wood. Great hoops of metal were suspended about a central sphere, with various lumps, pulleys, cranks, and levers protruding here and there in an apparently chaotic and incomprehensible jumble.

(more…)

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 9B: In the House of Helmut

The key is found. The lost shall be found. The night of dissolution comes when the barbarians arrive.

In this session, the PCs found two different sets of prophecies, both prepared by Helmut Itlestein.

Prophecy is, of course, a mainstay of fantasy fiction (and in mythology before them). They’re great storytelling devices because they can (a) inherently imbue events with a sense of importance and (b) serve as puzzles which foreshadow future events, thus building anticipation for them and a satisfying sense of payoff when they occur (particularly if there’s some unexpected twist to how they’re fulfilled).

NostradamusThe things about these prophecies, though, is that they generally exist either because the author knows what they’re planning to write or, in the case of mythological history, because they’ve been retroactively created to fit events which have already happened. (Really easy to pick winners and losers a couple centuries after the fact.)

The non-linear and unpredictable nature of RPGs obviously makes it more difficult to use prophecies effectively. You could railroad the outcome, of course, but you really shouldn’t, and the act of forcing the outcome onto the players tends to negate the “magic” which makes a prophecy so satisfying in the first place.

I think the core thing to understand is that fiction and mythology should NOT be your primary infelunces when designing RPG prophecies. RPG prophecies should instead model themselves on how successful real world prophets — i.e., bullshit artists — operate. The prophecies of Nostradamus, for example, continue to possess an enormous amount of cult cachet centuries after he wrote them.

On the other hand, a GM does enjoy a lot more control over their campaign world than Nostradamus or Hildegard von Bingen did over the real world, so they don’t need to completely abandon literary principles. I’ve touched on a similar topic in the past when I’ve discussed Foreshadowing in RPGs, and a lot of the same advice applies to prophecies.

FLEXIBLE PROPHECY

The core technique for using prophecies in RPGs is creating flexibility in their outcome: You aren’t sure what direction the campaign is going to go, so you’ll need the prophecy to have a usable pay-off regardless of which direction the campaign goes.

Imperfect Prophecies: Deliver prophecies through questionable translations, multiple translations, or have different versions passed down via different lines of transmission from elder days. Figuring out the “true” version of the prophecy can become a puzzle in itself, or require a quest to find the “original” version of the prophecy (delaying the point at which you, as the GM, need to nail down the prophecy’s specific meaning).

Multiple Intrepretations: The Delphic Oracle was famous for these. “If you make war upon the Persians, you will destroy a great empire.” (Hyuck, hyuck, turns out it was yours! … but it could just as easily been theirs.) To quote Shakespeare, “There’s a double meaning in that.”

Conflicting Prophecies: Instead of having just one prophecy, invoke multiple prophecies. The question isn’t necessarily which one is “right”; it’s which one can you make right. This invokes another useful maxim: Simply seeing a prophecy fulfilled isn’t inherently interesting. It’s what people do with the prophecy that creates interest: Do you try to fight it? Work within it? Hide it? Destroy it? Deny it? Embrace it?

False/Broken Prophecy: Even without a conflicting set of prophecies, it can be okay for a prophecy to just… not be true. Straight up false prophecies can work if they’re set up right, but it can be more effective if you can frame it as, “The prophecy has been broken!” (Which can be the result of either the actions of the PCs or the actions of the bad guys.) This can either heighten the reward of success, or be used as an “oh shit” moment where the PCs realize the comfortable safety net of their prophecy has been stripped away.

In the world there will be made a king who will have little peace and a short life. At this time the ship of the Novarch will be lost, governed to its greatest detriment.

Evocative Imagery: Another angle of approach is to use prophecies which are, for lack of a better word, vague to the point where they could mean anything… or nothing at all. This is a pretty common tack for “prophets” in the real world. St. Hildegard, for example, once predicted, “Before the Comet comes, many nations, the good excepted, will be scoured by want and famine. The great nation in the ocean that is inhabited by people of different tribes and descent by an earthquake, storm, and tidal waves will be devastated.” Or, in other words, a coastal nation with a lot of different immigrants or native clans (i.e., every coastal nation in the history of forever) will have a bad year… or maybe several years, since no specific time frame is defined.

Prophecies That Have Already Happened: These can be particularly effective if the PCs don’t know that they’ve already happened. It can be very useful to couple these to useful divinatory facts. For example:

S shall find the golden statue while it still breathes. But the Idol of Ravvan brings doom. His lair lies beneath a vacant lot of brandywine.

When the prophecy was made (within the context of the game world), these things had not happened. As we’ll see in upcoming campaign journals, when the PCs read it, they already had (but the PCs didn’t know it): Shilukar (S) had already found the golden statue (Lord Abbercombe), already had his lair under a vacant lot in Brandywine Street, and he already possessed the Idol of Ravvan. (Although there’s a double meaning there, since “brings doom” doesn’t specify the doom nor who it will befall.)

Prophecies Beyond the PCs’ Control: Natural disasters are a good example here. Can’t really stop an earthquake, right? But this can also apply to events which are simply outside the PCs’ immediate sphere of influence or interest. Such prophecies can be a nice way of establishing the bonafides of a prophetic document: By presenting a list of things that the PCs can receive news of coming true over time, you’re investing the key prophetic statements that apply to the PCs with extra weight and a sense of inevitability.

A Multitude of Prophecies: On that note, providing a multitude of prophecies (of varying character and specificity), as seen with Helmut Itlestein’s papers, can be a very effective technique in and of itself. When you’re presented with a target-rich environment, the lucky picks will get remembers and the misses get tossed in the dustbin.

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