Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Shepherds

Eons ago the Ague Empire thrived among the stars. Its ultimate weapon was an enslavement bomb, capable of transforming Empire's enemies into unquestioningly loyal soldiers in the blink of an eye. Soon a coalition of various Great Powers came together and fought to oppose this cruelty. Amidst the chaos of the Final Battle, one of the bombs got lost and traveled for many years before crashing into this world. It lied entombed in the ocean floor for many years more before the adamantine shell of the bomb finally cracked, releasing the enslavement weapon. The weapon itself – now aimless, unfocused and partially damaged – reset itself to the most basic, emergency setting: DOMINATE. After analyzing and absorbing local marine life it emerged from the ocean on the shores of what is now known as Shrimp Bay where it came upon a feline, semi-nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers. They were the weapon's first victims, but as the weapon transformed them, they transformed the weapon. What came from this union is now known as the rākshasa.

The rākshasa are slavery demons, spirits of domination. They take pleasure from breaking the will of mortals. The more hopeful the victim, the more pleasure they take from breaking its will. They gather armies and surround themselves with loyal servants. For what purpose? They forgot. Within a few hundred years they turned the baxian city-states into their puppets. Then they convinced most of the tribal kings of the astian puszcza to stop sacrificing their condemned to the forest gods and instead to sell them into slavery. They achieved that by creating a shadowy organization known as The Shepherds (Moses McDermott came up with that name during a G+ conversation – check out his awesome d100 tables for different geographical locations). Their sigil is a stylized shepherd's crook:

Most people just call them Slaver's Guild or simply slavers, but rarely to their face. Shepherds themselves aren't aware of the rākshasa influence. They are in it for the money, slave trade being very profitable. The exception are the High Shepherds, who are rākshasa priests given special boons and blessings. Currently, there are four of them:

High Shepherd Hragandr Hvyrdder, Master of Breeds, white elf wizard

His predecessors were responsible for the enslavement of nomadic orc tribes and breeding of the half-orc "ideal slave". After the Slave Rebellion led by half-orc Bor'rok (played by my friend Patric in a campaign that finished years ago but changed my campaign world forever), the current Master of Breeds oversees the project of breeding another kind of "ideal slave", this time a half dwarven, half human mule (mul).

High Shepherd Qarias Xinthero, Mistress of Fists, human (vampire) fighter

Once a carefree pellian horselord princess, now an ancient and embittered vampire. De facto general of the Shepherds' armies.

High Shepherd Karbarches of Zyz, Master of Razors, human thief

Masters of Razors are the torturer-diplomats of the Shepherds. They are responsible for swaying astian tribal kings from their forest god worship and for controlling the tumultuous political landscape of the baxian city-states. Karbarches himself is a powerful baxian potentate and a sovereign ruler of the City of Zyz. Currently focused his attention on the Drownlands where there are rumors of Smuggler's Guild's involvement into sneaking slaves out of astian puszcza.

High Shepherd Arica Vermis, Mistress of Minds, human (tiefling) cleric

Masters of Minds are tasked with breaking the most resistant souls, sapping willpower and stealing hope. Previously this was achieved by alchemical means, by producing addicting drugs, but Arica explores another avenue of mind control – demonic possession, infernal deals and twisting of fate itself.

baxian potentates
most astian tribal kings


Drownlands Smuggler's Guild
astian forest gods
Orc Freehold
Cat Lord

Monday, July 3, 2017

Drownlands Campaign Play Report – Sessions #5 & #6

So the session #5 started in the middle of a dungeon. The first level was mostly cleared, the party got the special maggots they needed for their quest, but discovered an entrance to a lower level place. I fully expected them to explore further, but the players realized that they ran out of healing potions, are low on HP, have no safe place to rest (no doors in caves) and the video game savvy players immediately understood the basic concept of lower the level = deadlier the monsters. So they just straight up fucked off right back to Frogport where they turned in their quests, did some skulduggery at various inns, intimidated some thugs in an alley and decided to take a boat back to their home base – Lone Tree trading post.

So when planning those sessions I decided to do a slight change of pace. The past sessions were mostly dungeon crawling and overland adventure oriented. A lot of fights with very few short NPC interactions. So that's when I decided that the head honcho of Lone Tree, the Smuggler's Guild underboss One-Eye is gone. MIA, presumed dead. So when the party came back to their home base they didn't find a safe haven, they found an aftermath of a coup d'etat. The kidnapping of One-Eye was of course a political inside job orchestrated by spies from another guild so the game got really political and talky, with stuff like "who can we trust?", "how do we investigate who's behind this?", "how do we prove it?" and stuff like that.

I'm proud of my players because they navigated the landscape like pros, they played the NPCs against each other, managed to go from "nobody trusts us" to "we got an assignment down south so we can investigate the last place One-Eye was seen" and they did that mostly not through rolling dice but by clever lies, half-truths and other machinations. Very cool.

Session #6 and they go down the south road, escorting a cart of dwarven steel ingots. They are accompanied by two sellswords - one is a white elf (our wizard is one-quarter white elf and knows the language so she tried to get some information off him, but he knew nothing, was only interested in flirting) the other an ardver (which is like a dour warhammer dwarf from the Frozen Peaks). Our cleric is an isdver (which is a merry celtic faerie dwarf) but the two talked politely about dwarf things and most importantly about the details of how the cooperation of northern dwarves and Smuggler's Guild works. And then I rolled a random encounter and the party got attacked by three bogwitches.
Bogwitch by Jason Sholtis of They Stalk the Underworld and Dungeon Dozen
Seriously, people. Hubris is amazing. But anyway – bogwitches managed to straight up murder the elven sellsword, almost kill the dwarven one and seriously wound our thief and... some other PC. Can't remember. Anyway. The party killed one bogwitch, seriously wounded the other, witches failed their morale check and ran (swam) away. Cleric decided to use up party's only antidote potion and one of their very few healing potions on the dwarf and save his life. So I decided that the sellsword is now very grateful and loyal to the party. That loyalty was tested later in the game.

Party reached a place where they had to go off the road into the swamp. So Eno the Thief and Norväk the Cleric left the cart under the protection of Sapphire the Fighter and Misty the Wizard (also known among her friends as Misty the Four Hitpoints) and together with the dwarven sellsword went looking for the battleground where One-Eye was last seen. So the next encounter I stole almost verbatim from the Under Illefarn module. Players know that One-Eye vanished during a skirmish with the lizardfolk of the Blue Feather tribe. And when traveling through the swamp they are ambushed by lizardfolk of the Stone God tribe. Players immediately recognized that those particular lizard persons don't have any blue feathers on them whatsoever. See. I have smart players.

In the meantime Misty's alarm spell goes off in the middle of the night. There are noises, footsteps and evil laughter coming from the darkness. Goblins are preparing to attack and loot the cart. There are dozens of them! And they are Zak's backwards-speaking goblins because they are funny and confusing. So after a some confusing taunts ("Don't give up! You outnumber us!") Sapphire and Misty decide to make their last stand and protect the cart to the death. Goblins charge. And the moment they are about to hurl bombs at the cart they are swept by a sudden attack of lizardfolk dinosaur cavalry.

Dinosaur cavalry by Paizo
Misty and Sapphire are shocked, but mostly because among the lizardpeople they see Eno and Norväk riding raptors. Goblins retreat in panic. Eno and Norväk explain to the rest of the party that they will be escorting the cart to the lizardfolk's scout camp and will explain what happened on the way. That happens.

So the thief and cleric made a pact with Red-Eye, shaman of the Stone God tribe. Stone God lizardfolk will reveal the location of of Blue Feather tribe's war camp where One-Eye is being held (the eye-names are confusing, I know, I know, ok?!) and will also assist with any plan to free him. In exchange the party will assassinate Sharp Tooth, Chief of Blue Feather and if everything goes smoothly they also promise to convince the Smuggler's Guild in Lone Tree to sell iron weapons to Stone God tribe in exchange for rare herbs, mushrooms, feathers and other stuff that lizardfolk can procure. Dwarven sellsword is horrified by all this, but keeps it to himself. Those madmen (and women) recently saved his life, so what can he do? He's honor bound.

So the end of the session was mostly planning on how to approach the mission. Blue Feather's war party outnumbers Stone God's scouts greatly, so open attack is out of the question. What this means for me is that next session I will have a stealth mission on my hands. Stealth mission that if shit hits a fan (and you know it often does) sits atop a possible medium sized battle. With dinosaurs. Now that's gonna be a doozy.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


"The other item [...] is the mirror. Five examples are known from Eastern Yorkshire [...] All five are made of iron. [...] All of the mirrors [...] pre-date the majority of the magnificently decorated bronze examples known from elsewhere in the British Isles, being made some time between the late 4th and late 2nd/early 1st centuries BC. [...] inhumations are exclusively female [...] This association with women has often led to the dismissal of these items as mere accoutrements or 'attractive vanities' of high status females. In both popular accounts and illustrations, they are depicted as a means of beautification or self-admiration. Yet [...] the mirror might have been part of a broader repertoire of objects designed to prepare and present the body during a period of changing concepts of personhood. As 'equivalents' for the weapons which were interred with men in the chariot burials, they may also have had a more powerful role. Ethnographic parallels suggest that in small-scale societies, mirrors are used as implements for divination, contact with ancestors and spirits, as well as insights into the past. Their shine, brilliance or luminescence is often seen as a manifestation of spiritual essence or sacred potency, through which a shimmering vision world is experienced by the diviner. The iron plate may never have accurately reflected the face held up for scrutiny, but it is possible that its shadowy, broad features were seen by the viewer as an indication of some presence 'beyond' the plate.

Mirrors are held in awe, as objects of intrinsic power, but to be wielded effectively, they must be allied with a skilled seer or ritual specialist capable of interpreting what is seen. The implication of such analogies is that Iron Age mirrors were not only symbols of wealth, made of significant quantities of iron, wrought and polished by skilled craftspeople. They may have been seen as awesome, intimidating artefacts – weapons of a kind – which enabled particular women to wield both aesthetic power and perhaps spiritual authority, in life and death.

Iron mirrors certainly made demands upon their users, requiring particular care to avoid tarnish from grease and rust, as well as polishing on a regular basis [...] there were traces of mineralised wood adhering to the Garton Slack mirror plate, which might suggest it had been placed in a casket. [...] In mirror burials and finds from the late Iron Age [...] there is often a parallel treatment of human body and artefact. It is possible that like its human counterpart, these mirrors had been placed in a 'coffin' like box [...] dressed or 'wrapped' with decorative textiles. The Wetwang Village mirror may have been interred with the equivalent of a shroud, brooch and miniature necklace. Mirrors may thus have been of the special objects which were perceived as having an identity and biography of their own."

– "A Forged Glamour: Landscape, Identity and Material Culture in the Iron Age" by Melanie Giles  
Okay, let's do this:

1. If you point this mirror at a dead body its reflection appears alive and is able to communicate. The reflection has all the knowledge the deceased person had right before the moment of death. Its eagerness to answer and cooperate depends on questions asked, relationship to the seer (if any) and seer's power and experience.

2. The mirror reflects everything as it was in the past:
roll d6: 
1. 5d10 minutes ago
2. 2d12 hours ago
3. 1d12 months ago
4. 1d30 years ago
5. 1d100 years ago
6. 1d1000 years ago 
 3. As above, but reflects the future.
roll d8: 
1-3. as the seer hopes it will be
4-7. as the seer fears it will be
8. as it will be if no major changes to the timeline occur
4. If you point a mirror at a person its reflection must answer any questions of the seer, and answer truthfully. It may however use half-truths, omissions and manipulations if the seer isn't experienced enough.

5. Any person reflected in the mirror disappears and is trapped in the mirror itself. Can only be freed by trapping another person.

6. This one works similarly to the one above but with one major difference – the trapped person doesn't disappear but is replaced by its reverse-twin. The reverse-twin is a polar opposite of the original both in terms of personality and abilities. The original gets trapped in the mirror. Can only be freed by killing the reverse-twin.

7. Any text reflected by the mirror can be read by the seer as if a comprehend languages/read magic spell was cast.

8. Freezes reflected victim(s) in time. As long as the mirror is able to reflect someone, that someone is frozen in time. That one's pretty powerful so I would give the victim(s) the chance to avert eyes and other such tactics like if they were subject to petrifying gaze. Also – obstructing the view, causing darkness, destroying the mirror etc. frees the victim(s).

9. If you look into the mirror you see your ancestor's spirit. The spirit can communicate and will do so according to their character and most of the time will try to help the you "continue their legacy". So if your great-grandfather was a necromancer his mirror-spirit will try to sell you on how awesome necromancy is. And if your great-great-grandfather was a cobbler he will explain to you the best techniques of shoe repair. The ancestor is:
roll d6
1-3. male
4-6. female
roll d20
1-9. most recently expired ancestor
10-14. +1 generation
15-16. +2 generations
17. +3 generations
18. +5 generations
19. old ancestor from hundreds of years ago
20. ancient ancestor from thousands of years ago
And if you're out of ideas or can't decide you can roll what his profession was here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Drownlands Campaign Play Report – Sessions #3 & #4

I tried two new things this weekend. The party came across a giant alligator and decided to ambush it. Because there was talk of trap placement and such things I dug out some old battle mat that I used many years ago and set it up:

That was a fucking game changer because henceforth we played pretty much any non-trivial battle encounter with it. I was really surprised, I thought that such props were slowing down the game and making it boring. But it made the opposite effect on my players. They really got invested in the fights, they started to conceive elaborate strategies. That giant alligator was 6HD monster, 2d8 damage with a single bite and they destroyed it without taking any damage. Suddenly traps, flanking maneuvers, tactical advantage and stuff like that started happening. It was awesome!

Second new thing I tried was Hex Kit. I created some maps beforehand and revealed them to the party when they started exploring them, using fog of war:

That idea was a success as well. Players liked it, found it immersive and useful. The downside is – now if they explore a dungeon without the Hex Kit map I guess they will be disappointed. So I added to my session prep time. But seriously Hex Kit is so easy and enjoyable to use that I don't mind it that much.

Other news:
* cleric leveled up
* the party mows down even the difficult monsters easily when using tactics with battle mat, so I can crank the difficulty up next session
* I made Frogport into a large, cosmopolitan city because players wanted to shop, carouse and gamble

Thursday, May 18, 2017


The merchant's cart lies on the side of the road, damaged and surrounded by dead bodies. Those bandits must have left in a hurry though, because they left some of the cargo behind.

Roll a d30 once or twice for robbed merchants and more times for those that were for some reason left unlooted.

1. Bag of duck or goose feathers.
2. Brand-new anvil, never used. Weight: 250 kg.
3. Bag of pipeweed.
4. Sack of flour.
5. Barrel of varnish.
6. Basket of hop cones.
7. Sack of beaver tails.
8. Barrel of salted herring.
9. Huge cheese wheel. Weight: 80 kg. Delicious.
10. Old treatise giving detailed instructions on how to train horses over a period of 214 days. Carefully wrapped in a patterned plaid. Few pages missing.
11. Bag of salt.
12. Jar of honey.
13. Unusual hat. Very large. Hideous. Powerful aristocrat who paid in advance furiously looking for it.
14. Coin pouch containing 6d20 gold pieces (counterfeit). 
15. Jug of plum brandy.
16. Amphora of hippocras.
17. Spool of thin, copper thread.
18. Small chest half-full of silver ore.
19. Beautifully decorated amphora full of olive oil. The container is far more valuable than the contents.
20. Bag of glass beads.
21. d12 bottles of black spiced rum.
22. 6d6 flacons of snake oil.
23. Small, velvet lined casket. Piece of meteorite inside.
24. Sack of potatoes. Random key from the nearest dungeon hidden at the bottom.
25. Small random language to random language phrasebook. 
26. Small bag full of amber. One chunk has a little sprite frozen in it.
27. d8 wanted posters. One of them is of a random PC. d12x100 gp reward. Dead or alive.
28. Silver dagger. Hollow handle. Map of the nearest dungeon hidden inside.
29. Small lockbox. Contains a secret message.
30. A large, locked chest. Traveling merchant inside, locked himself to hide from the bandits in a moment of desperation. Scared shitless. Will try to convince the PCs to escort him and what's left of his cargo to the nearest, civilized safe place. Promises handsome reward.
Image result for d30 dice

Friday, May 12, 2017


Grippli word for the place is unpronounceable for humans, so most of drownlanders simply call it Frogport. If you don't know the right people you'll never find it, my friend, since it's always moving, unerringly navigating the labyrinth of Drownlands' numerous rivers, never stopping. Its location a secret, its presence an opportunity or a threat. How is it moving, you ask? Some say it's built on a shell of a giant turtle. Others whisper about blood sacrifice, human visitors going missing and dark and terrible magics. But no one really knows, my friend. No one, but the grippli.

Frogport sentry

So in Scotland and Ireland some ancient peoples lived in crannogs, fortified dwellings on artificial islands. They looked like this:

Image result for crannog

Grippli's fortress looks like that, but it's much bigger, storied and partially hidden in a dense thicket. It is also always visibly moving, sometimes even upstream. Grippli divulge the current location of the fortress only to those considered friends or at least trusted associates. Outsiders are admitted only if an adult grippli will vouch for them. To get in you have to pay a grippli ferryman to take you there in a small reed boat or (more costly) a raft. Grippli themselves mostly just swim there, unless they have some sort of delicate cargo that they don't want to drench.

Why visit Frogport? Grippli are the masters of alchemy. They brew the most unusual and powerful potions, but are especially famous for their poisons – said to be deadliest in the world. Most of the time the grippli alchemists need to ingest some kind of rare ingredient to synthesize the needed chemical compound through their own bodies like some tree frogs. In exchange for their their services they accept metalwork (especially iron or – even better – steel weapons), textiles, glass, rare minerals and gems, ice blocks from the north and exotic plants and fruit from the south. Coins have little value to them (prices are 500% normal if paid in coin).

The biggest secret of the Fortress, one which the grippli guard with their lives, is how is it really moving? It's built on top of Frog Goddess the Beloved All-Mother Always Egg-Laying. She's gargantuan and older than dragons. She leaves behind her an endless trail of eggs. Only some of them hatch and only some of the tadpoles survive to adulthood, but those who do become Her Saints, her miracle doers, her secret priests and prophets. To outsiders they camouflage as druids. Other grippli treat them with utmost respect and discreet reverence. The highest mysterium of their religion, known only to the select few of the highest priesthood, is the identity of the Saints' father.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Drownlands Campaign Play Report – Sessions #1 & #2

I had a lot of self-doubt about this game. I haven't DMed a campaign since about two years. I haven't DMed a one-shot since about a year. I was feeling rusty and unprepared. I didn't have a hexmap ready, I didn't finish stocking a dungeon I had in mind... Well, I was anxious. And of course it went swimmingly. It actually went so well that after session #1 on Saturday, we had session #2 on Sunday, because the players insisted. It was great. I think there are two things that I have to remember and take away from this. They seem super-obvious now, but they were not when I was sweating during prep. The most important thing is: play with your friends, those people that you like to hang out with outside of the gaming thing. Those people that you talk about books, tv shows and politics with, those people that help you when you need to move, or find a job or feed your cats when you're on vacation or whatever. Those people are the best players, even if they never played before. And thing number two: D&D game is a party. People drink, snack, tell jokes and have fun. And that's the way it should be. You want that. I think that those two things are crucial to having a good game. 

Okay, so let's dive into details. My players arrived and after a brief chat about cats, Polish politics and the new A Tribe Called Quest album we rolled characters. After about 45 minutes we had an adventuring party consisting of:

* Sapphire, a human fighter played by Marta
* Misty, a human wizard played by Paulina
* Enorindum of Astia or simply Eno, a 42 years old human thief played by Romain
* Norväk Bloodbeard, a dwarven cleric of Madarak, God of Redemption, played by Pierre

So I always used this trick when starting a new game: start with exciting action scene. For example the ship that PCs are travelling on is attacked by pirates, or there's a riot in the prison where PCs are held, stuff like that. But this time I couldn't think of anything appropriate and I started with something boring – PCs waking up in the barracks of Lone Tree Watch. Lone Tree is one of Smugglers Guild's trading posts in Drownlands and PCs are members of the Watch, which is fashioned like a militia, but in reality it's basically a muscle of an organized crime syndicate. Surprisingly my players reacted very enthusiastically and made many references to "thug life" through the game. 

Lone Tree trading post

As I wrote in a previous blog post I planned to repurpose parts of N5 Under Illefarn for this game. This module also has PCs as members of small town militia and gives them three starting quests: fighting lizardmen raiders, rescuing a kidnapped noblewoman and guarding a caravan. So after breakfast in the Watch's canteen they went and interacted with NPCs and found bits and pieces of information about these quests. They spent a lot of time talking to their nameless corporal, arranging meetings with Vana, the watch captain and One Eye, Smugglers Guild underboss and de facto Lone Tree leader, then they spent some time in Lone Tree Inn, where the innkeeper got half of the party really drunk on "Harpy Cream" (which came from a hilarious random roll on Hubris tavern generator) and it was all going in the direction I planned until they found a dot on their map. 

"What's that?"

"Oh, it's where Kaddbad the Druid lives."

"The druid?"

"Yes, he sometimes heals people that need it and because he's useful the Watch doesn't bother him."

"Is he human?"

"No he's half-wild elf."


So when the party was traveling to the druid's grove by boat and talking amongst themselves I made my best poker face and started looking through one page dungeons that I keep at the very end of my D&D binder. By the time they were saying hello to Kaddbad I found an appropriate dungeon ("Dire Briars" by Joshua Jones) and tweaked it to fit the situation. High Priestess became Ursula, another druid and Kaddbad's friend and Bramble Beast became a plant demon that possessed her. The party went on their way. It took them 3 days travel and 2 random encounters from Hubris' Bogwood Swamp before they reached the grove. The party quickly learned that they have to search for traps, disarm them, look for hidden doors, etc. They made quick work of various monsters in the dungeon, but the encounter with Ursula, who turned into a bear, nearly ended with a TPK. But they managed to take her down without killing her, then they figured out that Bramble Beast's vulnerable to fire and defeated it just as it mind controlled the thief. It was close and exciting and I didn't even fudge the die rolls. Then they found some cool random loot and decided to take wounded Ursula to Kaddbad, so he can heal her. And that was the end of second session. 

It was good. Everything went smoothly and DMing felt natural and easy, even though I was improvising on the spot like 70% of the time. Really happy how it turned out, I only hope I can keep it up on session #3. 

Oh, and when my players asked Ursula why she would make a pact with the Beast and get mind controlled in the process I told them that she did it because the Beast promised to help her save Drownlands' dire otter population which is being hunted to extinction. I meant it as a joke but girls at the table took it seriously, because otters are cute and wrote on their charsheets that dire otters need saving. I love my players!