Monday, January 27, 2014

13th Age After Action Report III - an extended conversation with a mind flayer, a sprite, a god and a drow prisoner

Saturday night's session of 13th Age was a pleasant change: we had a few cancellations, which might have been valiant sacrifices for those realizing the group was bloated (last session had nine players in attendance, about one over my comfort zone for Pathfinder and 3 more than my comfort zone for a new game would permit). With six players at the table the group was now ideal, and the plot moved smoothly and with great pace once more.

Not, however, to suggest that it went quickly. The players, realizing I think that they were playing a game where progression was divorced from violence, proceeded to role play, explore and discuss everything on a level unparalleled. There were only two incidents of violence, the first being when they worked up a ritual to create a "thumper" next to a stack of all the orc bodies they had slain last session near the feeding ground of a purple worm they needed to distract; some poor horsemanship rolls (Dex plus relevant skill plus level) led to the ranger almost being devoured, but a lucky 20 spurred his horse to make a grand escape at the last moment. Much later the group, now in partial command of an airship, stumbled upon a drow rogue trying to sabotage it; quick action and they bagged him in short order.

I had twenty pages of plot notes and encounter stats lined out; we're getting there, I'm sure, but the group is deviously and in Very Old School Fashion coming up with multitudinous ways around actually engaging in battle. They're planning to hose the next batch of enemies down with a greek fire pump they found in the airship. It's very interesting.

The background skills continue to be interesting, but the unique descriptors, while making it hard for me as GM to call out a universal skill to tell everyone "anyone with this skill...." instead prompts me to ask questions like, "anyone here who studied in a cult or a mage's guild...?" instead. And the info I can provide is quickly customized for the receiever...the priest of Karn, god of ancestral dead gets a very different answer than the priest of Set does.

So, the Plot so far: The adventuring groups, having reunited in their quest to find the vile expatriate drow lord Alabask Phenar traveled to the White Station, an ancient relic on which working airships can be found; his ogre buddy from two sessions ago said he was heading there. Only problem: the station is guarded by a monstrous purple worm. Solution: the priest of set concocts a ritual to create a "thumper" to create tremors the worm can sense, and places it next to a stack of dead orcs. They make a quick dash on horseback over the dunes leading to the White Station while the thumper does it's trick; ranger and horse almost get eaten, but everyone makes it to the steps of the station safely in the end.

The station is maintained by four squid-dogs and a white and gold clad "woman" that they soon figure out is something more (a mind flayer). But she's friendly, and speaks of her encounter three days prior with the ashtarth (drow) noble, who proselytized to her and convinced her to join his cult to some mysterious goddess of transition and corruption called Siny'Math. No one's ever heard of this goddess before. They talk with the mind flayer for a long time before offering knowledge and spices in exchange for the use of an airship.

The airship is controlled by a "sprite" called Azema, a small faeries spirit bound into a machine that is programmed to take them to certain locations. A small "key" lets them activate her. Leave the ship with the key and she will return to the White Station 24 hours later unless they get back first. Much interrogation of the sprite ensues; gaining ownership of the vessel apparently requires the Writ of Ownership....and she says the captain keeps it close.

Most of the ship is stripped clean, but heavy iron barrels rest in the cargo hold (along with iron balls) and the captain's chamber is boarded up. The gnome rogue and the ranger elf get curious and break in, nearly being shot by an enchanted blunderbuss trap in the process. In this era guns haven't been (re)invented yet so this is a new magic item to them; they find a skeleton in women's clothes on the bed, scrolls, books, a suicide note indicating the woman was the captain's mistress, angry that he left for the old Imperial Capitol to visit his wife. The clerics and sorcerer work to come up with a preservation ritual to keep the scrolls and books from falling to dust in their hands; everything has been baking undisturbed in the cabin for two thousand years.

Amidst their ritual the silly paladin of the Great Golden Mother Wyrm in the north beseeches her in her dreams to help him with the fine wardrobe...he'd gotten icon dice of 5, 6 and 6 for his friendly relationship....she reaches out to him speaking in draconic, and spells of preservation save the wardrobe. However, the mother wyrm demands he at last learn draconic if he is to continue to serve her! A book falls from a just happens to be "Aulde Draconic for Idiotes." Her final dreamy command in his mind: read it, learn it. Two weeks. Or Else.

The preserved scrolls reveal some collectible gems, three ritual spells to invisibly cloak the ship and more, but no deed to the vessel. The group meanwhile has reached their destination: The Tower of Oblivion. Here, it seems, the dark elf Alabask has gone to the tower of the last living god of the ancient floating city of the gods, destroyed and abandoned in the final hours of the War of the Gods two thousand years prior. After a lot of debate about how to approach, as well as what to do about a brief sighting of the dark elven airship that cloaked in front of them....they enter. The living god Aurumurvox manifested out of dust, a caretaker god who freely offers knowledge to those who seek it, but who radiates such power that all but the dense paladin are trembling at the realization that the true mass of the god exists in entire other dimensions; the human form before them is like a sock puppet to this other dimensional entity. Beyond him is the murky brown and yellow light of the Orb of Oblivion.

Long story short, they talk with him for a very long time. They determine that he despises the goddess Siny'Math, saying she was a goddess of order and change who became corrupted by daliances with Chaos, seduced by the mad god Slithotep, and that she was one of the key betrayer gods who allowed the Abyssal Rift to open in the Old Empire, engulfing the capitol and allowing an endless hoard of demons to pour forth, sieging the city of Corti'Zahn for a year and a day before they were cast out of the mortal plane. He explains the Alabask wants to revive her, having found her dead remains and lingering vestige....he has learned from touching the Orb of Oblivion, an action any mortal may take, that ancient artifacts called the Flasks of the Nephilim from an ancient war between giants and seraphs are potent alchemical elixirs of change, and that any three of the six original elixirs could combine in a ritual to give Siny'Math a new form into which her vestige could be restored to life.

Aurumurvox wants this stopped, but he is forbidden to act directly in the mortal plane. The adventurers conspire to see how he can help. They show him the "key" they plug into the glassy table where the sprite manifests in the ship, and he says he can impart knowledge to the key which will convey to the sprite and "waker her up," freeing her from servitude. The paladin also asks if Aurmurvox can teach him to read the god touches him and imparts into him the ability to read. period. The paladin hasn't figured out what this means, yet. Gotta look at a book first!

Amidst all this, the gnome rogue walks over and touches the orb. In what passes as a monent of shock as he is cast across the room the gnome experiences the lifetimes of all prior incarnations in life, back to a time when the gnomes were simple evolutionary boggan-like beings in a murky swamp. And beyond. The gnome's mind is too simple to accomodate or comprehend all he sees; this saves him, for it is known that those who have the fortitude to absorb the knowledge of the orb and understand it, usually perish, or lose all hope, or become truly mad. The gnome....keeps remembering his life as a boggan tadpole.

The group reconvenes on the ship in time to discover a dark elf spy trying to sabotage the sprite. They get the jump on him by blind luck and are able to subdue him. He is later interrogated with drugs and fear magic by the priest of Set and when the drow realizes how much he has spilled on his allies he suddenly knows he has no choice but to help this crew....for if his old mates find out how much he talked they will kill him for sure.

The group now knows from talking to Aurumurvox that the six Flasks of the Nephilim, each one embodying an elemental force that forges the elemental giants, are kept in one of the six sacred towers of the Gods of War. They now go to the temple-towers of the gods of war, including Hargameth, Vishannu, Hanahook and Morrigante as well as two others who are truly dead, both physically and in spirit. There is a station/hub six hundred feet up in the maze of floating towers that is the necropolis of Corti'Zahn....they have to approach from there, for Aurumurvox explained that each of the towers have defenses against aerial approaches.

Before they go to the Towers of the War Gods the priest of Karn convinces them to let her go there first to commune with her god. They find a solemn temple, with moving murals of shrouded dead figures carrying coffins to a very real hole in the back of the temple, which the priestess assures them is a very real planar gate to the Realm of the Dead. A well in the center of the temple with rivets for bloodletting is where she goes; a quick ritual sacrifice and she is grabbed by possessing spirits and suspended in the air....the spirit will speak through her, answering three questions.

The group mulls over their to remove the flasks? They can be taken far away, or given to the icons of power that look with interest upon their actions for safekeeping, or they can find the sacred World Forge and drop them in. Always a fun trip, that. What do the flasks do? They can imbue elemental might in giants and humanoids, changing them forever...or they can fail the test and become one with the elemental planes. Rituals can make them do so much more. They are primal, ancient power from a time before humans existed. And finally, they ask the spirit to get a message to Karn: her priestess needs his help. But the spirit says it can only relay the message; Karn has slept deep in the farthest reaches of the Land of the Dead for centuries, his interests in mortals long since having waned. But he will try.

The group gets back to the airship, and tries one of the invisibility spell rituals before's an old spell and doesn't work right; the entire ship and crew cannot see themselves or the ship, and much air sickness and fear of heights ensue again. The spell has a safe word (the paladin suggested "papaya") and they use it...ship visible again.

They move on to discover the hub where they can dock and proceed to investigate the six Towers of the War Gods, and look for signs of dark elves...the fifth tower is missing, and the sixth tower, of a dead god, shows drow combing the area. Their prisoner drow says there were more than one hundred drow, scorpion men, a drider and a couple other odd mercenaries; they all decided to split up into groups to attack each tower in turn. There is evidence of mixed success visible at each tower.

The group found one tower missing: the fifth tower, of another dead god, had plunged to the earth when its magics failed long ago, leaving a craterous mess; they see scorpion men commanded by drow hammering at a vault-like obelisk amidst the ruins far below. The group figures out an ancient greek fire cannon is nozzled in the front of the ship....they fire it up, and prepare to go to war...

So next session's probably going to have a bit of battle, by the looks of it...

I'm starting to really like 13th Age. A lot. As GM it's got that same thing that 4E had in terms of ease of use, but it's missing all the mechanized parts that killed creativity (or turned it into an afterthought, anyway). And it's very easy to make quick judgement calls on unexpected situations. We're using the incremental increase system now (the one player who really wanted a ten games, ten levels approach is moving away so is no longer in this group) and everyone likes it. Experience no longer being tethered to killing things has liberated the players to experiment with solutions that do not involve violence.

Once the ongoing plot is resolved and my group migrates on to new adventures I'll publish this scenario on the blog. For a game built by the two guys behind 3E and 4E respectively, 13th Age plays a lot more old school than I expected...and is dramatically encouraging my players to be very creative in finding unusual solutions to tough problems.

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