Friday, May 26, 2017

New Dawn Session 14 - 16: The Secrets of Stinecrice

Precis: The Resistance visits a mysterious stone circle. There they fight their way through several strangle battles and muddle their way through confusing puzzles. In the end, mysteries are revealed.

I've been running New Dawn on a more or less weekly basis for the past several months, and not writing up the sessions because I'm been lazy. However, the last month has been really good, interesting, and weird, and several subtle clues that have been in the game since the beginning finally paid off and I'm excited about that. I'm also ambivalent about some things.

Cast of Characters

New Dawn is a troupe style game, with each player having two characters. One team primarily does military stuff; the other team has been doing delving and diplomacy.
Eilmyn had to leave the game after the fifteen session. Her former characters got renamed and will become NPCs or temporary characters for players who want to try the game out for a session or two.

The Secrets of Stinecrice

The sessions started a little after the previous session. With all the local orcs defeated and the Flying Boat repaired, it was time to deal with some prophetic visions that Ariana had been experiencing: she felt the need to go to Stinecrice, a mysterious stone circle (like Stonehenge) nearly 100 miles deep into orc controlled territory. She'd also been having visions of extreme danger, death by a dozen different elemental hazards, so everyone stocked up on elemental resistance potions. Then they piled into the Flying Boat and headed upriver.

The magic of the boat only works for four hours a day. To maximize visibility and simplify navigation, they flew about the boat's maximum altitude of 100 yards, but that also made it easy for orc garrisons to spot them and they saw goblin wolfrider couriers being dispatched from hostile strongholds as they passed. As long as the boat was working, it was trivial for the PCs to outrun the couriers and the patrols they spawned, but they realized that those patrols might become a problem when they stopped for the night. In the end, they had just enough range to reach Stinecrice before the boat stopped flying, and that's what they did. I just laughed silently and wondered what they were going to do to leave the area.

Stinecrice itself was protected by some lightning throwers and a company of elite orcs: these orcs were both skilled in battle and not insane. Around ten orcs were in the immediate vicinity, with another ten close at hand as reinforcements, and both groups attacked the PCs as soon as they emerged from the nearby swamp.

The resulting battle was marked by some pretty poor tactics by the PCs but eventual victory anyway. Nayla and Mikael each attacked a different orc knight that was galloping toward them, but the combination of range and solid defenses meant they mostly shot up the knights' shields. Nayla did spend a couple of seconds laying waste to any orc priest or crossbowman that she saw, and those guys and the orc infantry were pretty ineffectual. The knights finally closed to lance range, but Ariana and Hloomawl defended against their lances and then the archers finished them off. The remaining orc infantry were quickly defeated.

At the magical stone circle itself, the team carefully worked their way past the defenses. When they got close, they were sucked into the weird glowing colors in the center of the circle and things got weird.

The Test of Faith

The PCs found themselves in a 30' wide, 30' corridor, made from an unknown smooth gray stone and uniformly lit by unknown light sources. Ahead of them, they saw a 30' wide pit with a 30' wide chimney above it and some glowing letters.

When they got closer, they could read the letters which said "The Divine are real yet ineffable. To accept the Divine wisdom requires a leap of faith." While they were puzzling that out, I privately told Kiara that Nayla could see a solid stone bridge across the pit, which she immediately walked across. Ariana and Nesta tried to follow her, but they could neither see or nor touch the bridge, and backed off. After some discussion, Ariana volunteered to jump across the pit and everyone else waited to see what would happen. Unfortunately for that plan, I told them that the nature of the place required each of them to choose before any of them saw the results. Mikael and Nesta, unsure of their ability to make the leap, each took a narrow ledge that allowed a safe crossing of the pit, while Hloomawl elected to jump. Ariana and Hloomawl easily crossed the pit and then everyone saw a flash of white.

The Trial of Metal and Wood

When I actually ran the game, I missed a step in my notes. I did run this next little bit later, and it works okay where I ran it, but I'd rather record it how it was supposed to happen.

The PCs found themselves in a 30' wide, 30' corridor, made from an unknown smooth gray stone and uniformly lit by unknown light sources. Ahead of them, they saw a 30' wide pit with a 30' wide chimney above it.

When they got closer, they saw five figures walk up the far wall of the pit - a big minotaur, a tall tzavarim, a large armored human, and two humans in mail. The figures were standing on the wall as though it was the floor. Then one of the humans walked vertically up the air, crossing the hall on the other side of the pit. The armored human and the minotaur then jumped up the wall while the other two edged up along a lip in the far wall. The PCs quickly realized they were watching themselves perform the Test of Faith, but they were too boggled to do much. When the Test of Faith completed, there was another flash of white light.

This time, the PCs found themselves in a 60' cubic room. They were standing on the floor. On each of the four walls, there was a metallic, demonic figure with a kusari, standing on the wall as though it was a floor. On the ceiling, there were four monsters made of vines, also standing on the ceiling as though it was a floor.

Obviously, this was incredibly confusing to map out. It would have been somewhat easy in a face-to-face game, because I could have used miniatures and flight stands and just put the figures at the right height. Using MapTools, which really only wants to have a single 2D map at a time, was much harder. What I ended up doing was drawing three maps: the floor/ceiling, the east wall/west wall, and the north wall/south wall. Each monster had three tokens representing its position on each of three maps, so the demon standing on the east wall had a token just off the east edge of the floor/ceiling map, in the middle of the east/west wall map, and just off the east edge of the north/south wall map. It took a little explaining, but pretty soon every got what was going on.

The map, midway through the fight. Most of the vinemen are unconscious on the ceiling and most of the demons are on the floor, but Nesta and desmon and dueling on the east wall.

The biggest downside to the maps was that I had use squares, instead of hexes, to get everything to line up consistently. As it turned out, adopting GURPS tactical combat rules to squares on the fly was probably more confusing that the 3D set-up.

The monsters were obviously hostile, and combat started. The vine monsters threw enormous barbed darts that could penetrate Ariana's armor and were near certain death for Nesta, Nayla, or Mikael. The demon's chains were magically agile and fast, and they could attack and defend with them. The demons tried to beat on people, but mostly the PCs dodged or defended and counterattacked. Ariana's magic shield destroyed any inanimate object that she blocked, so several of the demons lost their weapons pretty quick.

At some point, Nayla used an Imbuement. All the demons immediately freaked out and started concentrating fire on her, screaming "Not her! Not yet! The ward holds! Destroy her!" Hloomawl and Ariana did their best to protect her, but at some point Nayla got separated from them and knocked down. The demons didn't let up and she took a couple more hits, though at least one vine man on the ceiling managed to splatter one of the other demons by missing a shot at Nayla and hitting the demon instead.

Eventually, Ariana and Hloomawl managed to force the demons away from Nayla and pour some healing potions on her. Nesta had jumped onto one of the walls and ran up onto the ceiling. Her magic sword was perpetually coated in a dangerous poison, and while it was entirely ineffectual against the demons, it did a number of the vine men. They could regenerate 2 HP/turn, but she was doing 70+ damage per second to them, and they just couldn't keep up. We handwaved the rest of the battle because Demons of Old and Trolls (the DF Monsters 1 entries that I'd based these particular foes on) are not hard to defeat once they're down, they're tedious to defeat once they're down and I had more weirdness to get to.

With the monsters eventually defeated, medium large emerald and pearl appeared floating 4' above the ground in the middle of the room. Nayla tried to grab one but couldn't touch it. Nesta grabbed the pearl and Mikael grabbed the emerald and the whole room disappeared in a flash of light.

The Test of Purpose

The PCs found themselves again in the wide corridor, without the precious stones or any evidence of their hard fight in the previous room. Ahead of them were a pair of wide wooden doors and the glowing words To be a servant of the gods is to be the tool, not the work. Expect to be valued accordingly." The door opened to Ariana's touch. Beyond the door was a huge room filled with stuff: weapons, shields, tools, and various nick-nacks and items including a quill, a set of dice, and some hand mirrors. On the far side of the room, there was a dais and an altar, with a faded fresco behind it. As Nayla entered the room, she teleported onto the dais and didn't feel like leaving it.

The other PCs could approach the dais but when they got close, they felt like there was something else they needed to do and they stepped away. Nayla examined the fresco: much of it was hard to make it out, but it seemed to show an epic battle. Only two figures were clearly visible: a figure in black armor with seven spikes on the helm, and an armored cavalryman (or possibly woman) carrying a white asymmetric bow. As part of Nayla's unpublished backstory is that she briefly owned a mysterious white asymmetric bow named South Wind, and that she started being able to perform her uncanny feats of archery at that tie, this was extremely curious.

Hloomawl declared that he wasn't going to touch anything, and then he felt a gentle compulsion to join Nayla on the dais. Ariana observed that not only were there a lot of things, that there were three copies of each thing: one copy made of precious metals and adorned with gems, one copy made of steel or wood and well used but well maintained, and a third copy that was rusty, decrepit, and abused. After some hesitation, Araina took a set of damaged forge tools up onto the altar. Nesta picked up a set of well-worn surveyor's tools, and Mikael finally selected a well-worn gardening shovel. When they reached the dais, the room disappeared in a flash of light.

The Trial of Fire and Water

The PCs again appeared in a large room. This one was checkerboarded with 20' squares of ice and 20' patches of fire, with the PCs standing in the middle of one of the patches of ice. It was freezing cold where they were. In the adjacent fire tiles, they could see weird portals in the floor that seemed to lead to the diagonally adjacent ice tiles. A strange sluglike monster, armored in ice, stood by each portal in the ice square. In each corner of the room, in the fire tiles, stood a flame lord (as the DF Monsters 1 entry). There were weird distortions in the air by each flamelord, which turned out to be one way portals that opened near the flame lords and exited near the PCs.

While they were evaluating all that, the flame lords started throwing fireballs through the portals, at the PCs. The PCs immediately split up: Mikael charged northwest, Hloomawl charged northwest, Ariana charged southwest, and Nesta tripped on the ice. Nayla tried to fire an arrow through a one-way portal, but it didn't go through and hit the wall instead.

The ice slugs surged to attack, growing 12' long pseudopods. Much to Ariana and Hloomawl's annoyance, their icy armor not only regrew as it was damaged, it also fastened on to anything that touched them. Although the pseudopod's attack was weak, it was obvious that meleeing these ice monsters was a good way to get bound up in ice.

End of the session leaves the PCs in separate duels against ice slugs while the flame lords in the corners toss fiery doom at Nayla in the center. 
Nayla used an imbuement to try to hit one of the ice slugs, and once again, all the demons went nuts and started focusing fire on her. She got hit by a couple of fireballs but they were fortunately at a long enough range that the damage was diminished. Everyone else struggled with the ice slugs, and that's where we stopped play.

Over the break, people strategized and batted around some ideas for a bit. At the start of the sixteenth session, all that paid off. Hloomawl released his flail, pulled out a potion of Alchemical Fire, and set the slug he was fighting on fire. The ice holding him at bay quickly melted and he hurried over to give Nayla his potion of fire resistance. At the same time, Nayla tried to free Ariana by firing an arrow at the slug the priestess was fighting, but missed at hit Ariana instead. Gravely wounded, Ariana dropped her Fireproof prayer for Divine Might, growing huge and strong, which also made her strong enough to ignore the slug's attempts to shift her. Counting on her armor to protect her, Ariana pulled the slug through the portal into a fire square and quickly finished it off.

All the while, the flame lords kept lobbing fire at Nayla. She dodged and jinked and used her allies as cover  - sadly, Ariana got set on fire by a particularly potent fireball and jumped back through the portal to use the ice to put it out but fell unconscious. Mikael helped kill a couple of ice slugs and then launched scores of arrows into the flame lords. The flame lords had super-instant regeneration and were unkillable as long as they were in fire, but that didn't help much when they were taking 50+ damage a turn and they all fell to the ground. One last slug strove valiantly to kill Nayla but died slowly from fire damage from her magic bow.

Nesta had been protected by a Fire Resistance potion from the start. She finally reached a flame lord, picked him up, and dumped him into the ice. With his regeneration nullified, it was trivial to kill him. With the ice slugs dead and the flame lords easily nullified, I handwaved the rest of the fight.

When the monsters died, a ruby and a black opal appeared in the middle of the room. Ariana picked them both up, and the room disappeared in a flash of white light.

The Ultimate Test

The PCs appeared, unwounded, in a 30' hallway, without any of gems they'd retrieved. Ahead of them were four mudmen armed with great axes. Above the mudmen where the words "Blessed is he who lays down his life in the service of Divinity." The mudmen charged forward, all-out attacking with intent to decapitate with their axes for 6d+18 (2) damage. Only Nayla was spared.

Ariana, Nesta, and Mikael ably defended themselves, and the mudmen exploded into nothingness after attacking. Hloomawl alone gritted his teeth and took the hits. Surprisingly, and somewhat annoyingly, he was only dropped to -3xHP and change, and made every HT roll to avoid death, knockdown, or stunning despite taking over 100 HP in damage. His attacker, too, disappeared, and the hallway disappeared in a flash of white light.

The Trial of Air

The PCs found themselves - alive and unwounded - in a square chamber, devoid of air, but filled with a yellow poisonous gas. A 20' tall spire stood in the center of room, topped by a glowing yellow gem. Just below the gem was a sign reading "Fight your way through this, you meddling round-eared vermin. -K" Uhuk acidly pointed out that Hloomawl doesn't actually have round ears.

All of the PCs immediately began holding their breaths. As Mikael is a tall but very skinny guy and Hloomawl is a tall but very strong guy, it was trivial for Hloomawl to boost Mikael over his head, enough that Mikael could easily grab the gem. As soon as the touched it, the room disappeared in a flash of white light.

Judgment, Revelation, and New Mysteries

The PCs found themselves in a huge doomed chamber of white marble, laced with veins of gold and decorated in precious gemstones. An uncountable, unknownable, and shifting number of alcoves lines the walls, each filled with a divine power. The Gods spoke as one, and the power of the voices drove the PCs to their knees.

Each of Hloomawl, Nesta, Mikael, and Ariana were judged and found wanting: Nesta and Mikael lacked faith and were unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice; Ariana had faith but misunderstood her role and was unwilling make the ultimate sacrifice; and Hloomawl, though possessing faith and willing to sacrifice, had refused to make himself a servant. There was some scowls and sniffing, but no one really disputed the judgment.

The PCs were then told, "The Usurper can not be truly defeated without the Hope. The Usurper has locked the Gods and the Hope away behind these five wards.You have destroyed one of the wards, but to to truly liberate your lands, you must liberate the gods and liberate the Hope. You must destroy the other wards." As they heard those words, they knew the location of the other wards.

Finally, Nayla was addressed individually. "Harbinger, Battle Maiden, Mistress of South Wind: You have failed before, and darkness has benighted the land. You have been given another chance. Free the Hope, defeat the Usurper, and bring a new dawn of freedom to the lands."

With that, there was a final flash of white light and they appeared, whole and unharmed, without the gems but with all the items they had used in Stinecrice, back on the surface inside the stone circle.

"I don't understand what just happened!"

As Ariana has Guilt Complex, Kevin decided that she went into despondency on learning that she'd failed her god. She dropped her magic hammer and started trudging off into the swamp. Hloomawl, a bit more sanguine, picked up the hammer and trotted after her. Nayla followed, complaining that she had no idea about what had just happened, why she'd been singled out, or how or when she had failed before.

The rest of the Stinecrice garrison was soon on the PCs' heels. The flying boat was no longer capable of flying, but it still floated, so Hloomawl improvised a pole and took it deeper into the marshes. The PCs spent the rest of the day dodging the orcs, occasionally battling groups of orcs, and restraining Ariana's suicidal urges to charge the orcs and end it all. The next day, they flew back to the army at the fortress of Hortskink and had a council of war.

They quickly realized that although they had a mission from the gods to destroy the other wards, there were severe difficulties in doing so. The closest ward was in the dwarf lands, which is an active war zone between the Empire and the last of the dwarves. Two of the other wards were on the far side of the continent. The fifth ward was possibly the closest, but it was in the middle of the Dodenrike, the lands of the dead where nothing lives. In the end, they elected to continue their plan to liberate the country of Hanist and move north to aid the dwarves.

After some prodding, Hloomawl recalled the legends of the Incarnate Hope: a group of demi-gods made flesh that had fought against Dread Emperor Karsen at the founding of the Empire and lost. As Karsen is generally depicted as a man in black armor with a crown of seven black spikes, and because of various other clues, Kevin and Eric figured it out: Nayla was the first of the Incarnate Hope to have been reincarnated, and she was charged to gather the others and strike down Karsen. It seems likely that all the PCs are potential demigods.

I felt this realization was a good place to stop the session, so even though it was a little early, that's when we stopped.

Review of Play

There's so much to say that I'm not even sure where to start. At the end, I think and then I'll work backwards.

Last things first: I'm very excited, but also a little ambivalent, about the fact that the game is embracing its epicness, and the scale of the epicness is revealed. It was always my intent that the PCs would become demi-gods, and though they aren't even there yet, that outcome is now openly on the table. I put clues about that into the backstory from the start, but I didn't play them up very much. The events at Stinecrice where the first time when those clues were really pointed out to the players, and they picked them up and figured them out pretty quickly. So that was a big pay-off and I feel really proud of them, for figuring it out, and myself, for threading that fine needle between "so obscure that you have to tell them outright" and "so obvious that there's no moment of frission when they put everything together."

The reason I'm a little ambivalent is because I feel like there might have been a bit of bait and switch involved. I'm not sure how true that is - it it really bait and switch to go from a very loose pastiche of Tolkien to an even looser pastiche of an obscure alternate setting for Legends of the Five Rings? That's what I'm doing, basically. I've been hinting for a while that I've been okay with the PCs becoming fantasy super-heroes. I don't think that fantasy super heroes was really in the original campaign precis, since originally the game was "justify Mark's purchase of GURPS Mass Combat" but I don't think that anyone feels betrayed by the change in emphasis.

Next I'm going to work backwards through the trials and testings, and doing the testings first. My concept for what was going to happen in Stinecrice evolved as I thought about it, but one thing settled out pretty early on: Stinecrice was both a challenge to defeat Karsen's defenses and a mechanism for the God's to find new priests. The challenge part settled out pretty quickly, but the search mechanism wandered around for a bit. I was on the GURPS Discord channel and saw a chance remark about tests that didn't test the PCs' ability, but instead testing their intentions. That really crystallized what I needed to do: come up with a bunch of tests that weren't so much about the numbers on the sheet or even the cleverness of the players, but on their willingness to do things. I didn't want to make them too easy and I really didn't want to make them too hard: I knew that at lot of them would possibly come off as pixel-bitching. The end result were fairly simple tests, with somewhat cryptic instructions written in glowing letters.

The last test was the ultimate sacrifice. I deliberately set it up as a combat situation, with an initiative count and a hex map, to lure the PCs into familiar thinking. Uhuk commented afterwards that she knew something was up, because the straightforward combat encounters didn't have glowing instructions and the weird tests did. I was a little surprised that Kevn didn't make the same leap. Overall, I thought this was a pretty straightforward and fair test: the instructions were fairly straightforward, and it only required the a player to be willing to let his character die to pass.

The middle test was probably the most obscure, but I love the Bujold quote that was the basis for the instructions so much that I couldn't pass it by. It also had elements of the chalice choosing scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so I felt I was on pretty good territory, difficulty wise. Uhuk missed that session, so I'd asked her ahead of time what Hloomawl would do in that situation, and it turned out fairly well.

The first test was the easiest and most obvious. I wouldn't say it was directly lifted from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but the basic concept was from that. My biggest problem was handling Nayla: I loved the idea of the personal bridge that only she could see and interact with, but since no one knew that Nayla was a demi-god at that point, it got confusing and a couple of people almost stepped off to their deaths. I probably should have just teleported her across the room.

I was sad that none of the PCs passed all the trials. That might be a sign that the puzzles were too obscure, but I talked it over with the players afterwards. They all mostly agreed that I'd given adequate clues, but they'd just overthought the puzzles. They couldn't believe that the answers were as obvious as as they seemed to be, and then after they completed each one, they said "no, that's exactly what it was." So for those puzzles, I didn't do as good as job on threading the needle between obscure and obvious.

The trials were meant to be hard, and weird. Peter Dell'Orto has said that a good rule for stocking a dungeon is use the cool things as early as possible, because you can't guarantee the players will make it to the secret lair in the eleventh floor on the dungoen but you can expet they'll make it to the third or fourth room. This was something of the same principle: I thought it would be cool to have fights with weird gravity like the ones in Dr. Strange or with portals like in Portal. Stinecrice was a good opportunity to have weird stuff happen and reinforce the idea that they were in another plane of existence. So that worked out well together.

The trial of air was a nothing-burger. I figured that the combination of poison air, a climbing challenge, and the lack of visible enemies would make it a good change of pace from the previous trials and also challenging. I forgot/did not plan for the fact that Uhuk's characters tend to be big and very strong and that Mikael was tall, so it was pretty trivial for Hloomawl to boost Mikael and for him to grab the stone. Not every challenge can be challenging and at least it moved quickly.

The trial of ice and fire was interesting. We started it at the end of session 15 and finished it in the next session, and as designed it was possibly a little too tough. Kevin was convinced it was a nigh-unwinnable total party kill, whereas I always thought it was a breeze if the PCs just had 5 potions of Fire Resistance: drink potions, ignore the attacks of the flame lords, wrestle the slugs into the fire areas, beat them to death, then go chase down the flame lords. As it turned out, the PCs mostly used alchemical fire to defeat the ice slugs, but I maintain that they weren't necessary. The flame lords, despite their superfast regeneration, turned out to be very vulnerable to arrows. I had planned for an exciting chase and wrestle as the PCs had to drag each fire lord into the ice to kill him, but as it turned out, even regenerating their full HP every turn wasn't sufficient. The actual portals didn't have much effect in the game, but Kevin used one a couple of times to tactically transition between ice and fire in a hurry, so they did have some effect.

The trial of metal and wood was just strange. That was the plan, so good, but I still feel I may have bit off more than I could chew on that one. I had thought that the 3-D projection of the walls was fairly clear, and I guess it was no less clear than any other way I could have done it, but it was still confusing. The trolls that I used for the vinemen were terrible: regenerating 1-2 HP/turn, in a GURPS combat, is just not a useful ability. I had to retroactively give them Homogeneous and recalculate the damage they'd take to prevent them from just dying to arrow storms, and even then, they were clearly a secondary threat. As soon as Nesta got up among them with her sword of massive poisoning, they just dropped so far into the negatives that they weren't a threat. Nayla was almost killed, but mostly because of poor PC tactics: she moved out of the reach of the two guys with Shield Wall Parry and got knocked prone and subjected to a couple of rounds of fire from the vinemen. The melee guys then beat on the demons ineffectually instead of standing over her, providing cover and shield blocks against incoming attacks, which would have done a lot more to reduce the risk.

Like I said, I had always intended for the PCs to become demi-gods, though the exact details of how that will work are still unknown to the PCs. The process and meaning is complicated, for a variety of reasons, including my hatred of inheritance as a source of power and the need to be able to swap PCs in and out of the game as players leave or characters die. Nayla as the first demi-god to emerge was mostly a matter of happenstance: Kiara had chosen the default Imbuement package for her, and that meant she had Imbuement without the Magic or Divine modifiers. Since she was clearly doing supernatural things with her arrows, in my mind that meant her cosmic nature was leaking through. But obviously it had to be a secret to the player and the character until things were revealed. Kiara was charmingly flustered every time Nayla got a pass on a testing or got confusing information from the gods, so that worked very well and was entertaining.

The battle at the surface of Stinecrice was another mixed bag. Kevin and Uhuk correctly figured out that they needed to block for Mikael and Nayla, but the archers couldn't figure out that they correct way to handle charging horses is to shoot out the horses' legs, not bounce arrows of armor. They also each kept shooting at a different orc knight, lettting them use their blocks effectively. If they'd concentrated fire, so that the same orc had to block two different attacks, they would have done much better.

Anyway, all in all, these were an excellent trio of sessions. Mysteries were revealed and clues put into context, but there are new mysteries and clues in their place. The weird battles were weird, but (mostly) enjoyable, and reminded everyone that the game involves a lot of magic.

What Next?

I need to do a lot of maps and stuff that I've been neglected. The PCs have pretty much conquered the entirety of southern Hanist, the starting campaign area, and I need campaign maps for the rest of Hanist and the surrounding countries. There's still some debate as to whether they're going to west and clear out a border, east and try to make contact with the minotaurs, lizardmen, and fae, or north to get to the dwarves and the second God Ward quicker. No matter what, I'll need to prepare and make maps.