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Iron Sky

Procedurally Generated
The Tannhauser Effect

The Tannhauser Effect is a modern adventure for D20 Modern, Scion, Shadowrun, or other modern or near-future systems that might feature groups of players caught up in the feuds of ancient, supernatural beings. It assumes that the party are aware that the supernatural is real and laces the edges of what mortals call reality and that the group is capable of surviving and interested in such supernatural events.

Background

The ancient beings that primitive cultures referred to as gods still walk the periphery of the Earth, still squabbling over ancient feuds alluded to myth and legend. The feud involved in this adventure is between the entities Venus, her father Zeus, and her husband Vulcan.

Venus is a powerful seductress, so beautiful that she can capture the hearts and souls of mortal men with a glance. Fearing that her growing power would disrupt his plans and machinations in the mortal world, Zeus, the so called “King of Gods” married her off to his son Vulcan, a hideous being of fire and steel, has since sought – unsuccessfully – to have Venus all to himself. Venus has never forgiven her father and has fought Vulcan's attempts to control her for millennium.

Though her husband and father are too powerful for Venus to confront directly, she uses agents that she has charmed or seduced, both mortal and supernatural, to disrupt the plans and playthings of Zeus and Vulcan. One such agent is Tannhauser.

Tannhauser

Somewhere near the date 1200 AD in Neumarkt, Germany, the being Tannhauser was “born” of Proteous, an ancient entity of chaos and change. As the offspring of such a mutable being, Tannhauser was capable of assuming nearly any form he chose, though in his natural state appeared as a man of nearly supernatural physical beauty. Proteous cared not for his offspring – perhaps never even noticed that they existed – and so Tannhauser was left alone in the world to find his own way.

He discovered he had a love of poetry and music, and used his not-insignificant personal powers to become a Minnesanger, a German noble poet-entertainer similar to a troubadour. While in the court of Leopold VI of Austria, he came to the attention of agents of Venus and Venus herself became infatuated with him, not only for his stunning physical beauty, but also for the potential she saw in him as a tool to use against her father and husband.

Via her agents, Venus lured Tannhauser to her hidden home in the mountains and there ensnared him in a web of seduction, lust, and the subtle weavings of eldritch magics. He remained there for years as her plaything, all-but broken to her will. Vulcan eventually came looking for Venus and she was forced to leave Tannhauser behind as she placated her enraged husband. While she was gone, Tannhauser managed to break free from the mountain and set out to find some way to purge himself of the chains of power she had bound to his soul.

Hearing of the power of the mysterious being known as the Christian God – supposedly powerful beyond the ken of even mighty Zeus – Tannhauser joined one of the Crusades to the Holy Land, believing that the Pope's proclamation that any who slayed an 'Islamic infidel' would be granted 'remission of all their sins'. He assumed that this must include the dispelling of the carnal sorceries of Venus. It was not so.

Venus found him again, now a Knight Templar, up to his waist in the blood of 'infidels', and in an instant he was ensnared again, enslaved to Venus' will. It was decades before he escaped again. This time he decided to go straight to the highest priest of the Christian God, known as Pope Urban IV.

Tannhauser and the Pope

Tannhauser achieved an audience with the Pope, through the innate power and charisma of his bloodline and the truthful claims his deeds as a Templar; of all the wealth he had brought back to Rome from the Crusades, and the dozens of infidels he had dispatched. There he told the Pope everything, from his birth, to his ensnarement by Venus, to his first escape and battles in the Crusades, to his present willingness to serve the Pope's God in exchange for protection from Venus.

Pope Urban IV, perhaps fearing Tannhauser's power, jealous of his unnatural beauty, or for some other reason unknown, turned Tannhauser away, saying that only when the maple staff that Urban held bloomed again would the Christian God 'absolve Tannhauser's sins'. Shocked, broken, and distraught, Tannhauser departed. Not hours after he left, Urban's staff sprouted branch and stem, again abloom. Urban IV immediately dispatched riders to all ends of Europe to find Tannhauser, but the changeling was gone, slaved again to Venus' will and secreted away from mortal perceptions.

The Staff of Urban, too, was spirited away away, hidden the secret Helix Tomb of Urban II deep beneath the city of Rome, amidst the myriad plunder of the Crusades. The Staff never stopped blooming.

An Agent to Her Will

With Tannhauser back in her control, Venus used him as an assassin to murder the mortal favorites of Zeus or Vulcan or of other powerful beings with whom she bickered and feuded. Though most of those Tannhauser killed simply faded into the pages of history, some notables – Elizabeth I of England and Abraham Lincoln to name two – were prominent. But it was when Venus heard of the Norse 'god' Bragi's attempts to learn and use the powers bound to music that she found the her most terrible use for Tannhauser.

Bragi's Cello

Bragi's gift was with words, his kenning poems capable of swaying the minds of the most strong-minded mortal. However, seeking more independence from his own father, Odin, Bragi sought the currents of power tied to music. He first tried to build a harp that could capture them, but then heard of a new, superior mortal instrument developed in Italy, the cello. Excited, he traveled to the remote village of Tune in southern Denmark. There he carved a cello of maple, spruce, and steel, imbued with all the arcane potential he could bind into an instrument of the mortal realm.

He discovered that his new cello did, in fact, have tremendous power. When tuned and played correctly and its spike planted in the earth, its music created a powerful binding to the roots of the materials from which it was made – trees of maple and spruce, forged steel and raw ore. Through them the Cello's energies radiated, bringing new life in things long dead, calling rain and storm with a chord and dispelling it as easily, and calling machinations and wonders of wood and metal into being from the rawest of materials. Bragi, however, got little opportunity to utilize his new-made artifact.

Venus, using all her faculty for glamor and charm, seduced Bragi, Tannhauser stealing the instrument away in the tumult as the furious Vulcan arrived on the scene to find Venus involved in yet-another illicit affair.

While the capricious and vengeful Venus cared little for the Cello's creative capabilities, she quickly discovered that, when the cello was played out of tune, the energy that stirred in the branches of the trees and the heart of the rock brought destruction in place of creation; the rot of wood and the sundering of stone, wood splintering and rock breaking. This suited Venus well and many were the cities, beloved of her father or husband, that she sent Tannhauser to destroy with a cacophonous tune.

Over the centuries of Venus' dominion over him, Tannhauser has managed to escape from her again and again, but each time he finds himself lost, with no allies and no place to hide. And each time she recaptures him, Venus forces him to commit some greater atrocity or act of destruction out of spite. Once a strong, vital being, he is now a little more than a listless husk, drifting on the vicious tides of Venus' whim, lost and alone.

And now Venus has her eyes set on Rome...

Hooks

1) The party are agents of, or hired by the Ordo Veneficus of Rome, the Order aware from vague and unpredictable auguries of the future that a threat to the Vatican looms but unaware of the source. The party are ordered/hired to find the threat and somehow neutralize it.
2) Zeus, Vulcan, or another powerful being at odds with Venus has caught wind that Venus is up to something and have dispatched the party – directly or indirectly – to stop it.
3) Whatever organization the group are a part of has been hired or ordered to put a stop to Venus' rampant destruction after the destruction in Haiti is linked to her.

Bullet Point Adventure Summary

0) Hooks
1) Tannhauser's Past
2) The Staff of Urban
3) Tracking Tannhauser
4) The Maple Grove

1. Tannhauser's Past

Regardless of who sent them, the party will be told that Venus is behind the threat. This first part of the adventure is open ended and may be several sessions in itself as the party investigates Venus' and her machinations.

A) First, they must figure out which of Venus' agents is likely to be able to take out a city (a small list). This will involve being sent all over the country (or world) tracking down Venus' agents (to capture and interrogate them) or finding other people (or beings) that are 'in-the-know' to procure information.

Examples:
* The group is sent to find a “pawn broker” in Peru that is a known information dealer. The group must somehow get information about Venus from him; either by buying it, talking it out of him, trading for it, or doing something(s) else for him (torturing “pawn broker” might is always an option if its that type of group).
* The group infiltrates a Venus-worshiping cult, working their way to the top to get at the high priests (which may or may not be human) and interrogate them.
* The group tracks down leads one at a time that eventually lead them information – an Irish cobbler that knows this Egyptian art dealer in London who knows this antiquities dealer in Palestine that heard of a woman who... getting scraps and fragments at a time.

These examples could also be mixed-and-matched and interspersed with attacks from mercenaries, secret Venus cult members, 'bewitched' bystanders, other powerful agents of Venus, and/or bribed, controlled, or influenced 'mundane' authorities such as police, banks, corporations, 3rd world governments, etc.

Eventually, the group will end up with the name “Tannhauser” as the only agent of Venus capable of destroying a city.

B) Once the party has Tannhauser's name, they can then research his past. This can involve direct and/or indirect research and will slowly reveal most of the information give in the backstory(above) and other information given below – though in bits and fragments and not necessarily in any kind of order.

Some of the information might be gleaned from arcane libraries, databases, and contacts, some might need to be verified “on location” to find traces of Tannhauser's/the Bragi Cello's magic, or any combination of the examples given above. They will also likely face opposition, harassment, and/or attack during this part of the investigation(such as catching an agent in the act of murdering the person they were just about to meet with, finding explosives rigged in their hotel room, finding the library burned down, etc...)

Tannhauser's assassinations:
* Queen Elizabeth I – Supposedly saw herself lying on her bed not long before she died of “sickness” in London, 1603.
* Percy Bysshe Shelly(Poet) – Supposedly saw himself pointing out to sea. A short while later “drowned” in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Italy, 1822.
* Abraham Lincoln – Supposedly saw two versions of himself when he glanced in a mirror in 1860 and his “wife” predicted his death, was shot by “John Wilkes Booth” in 1865.
* Vice-Admiral Georgy Tryon – Supposedly walked through a room in his house in London not long before his ship, the HMS Victoria, “accidentally” collided with the HMS Camperdown and sank off the coast of Syria in 1893.

Tannhauser's uses of Bragi's Cello, “earthquakes”:
* Lisbon 1755: 60,000 dead
* San Fransico 1906: 3,000 dead
* Alaska 1964: 115 dead
* China 1976: 655,000 dead
* Japan 1995: 5,500 dead
* Iran 2003: 30,000 dead
* Haiti 2010: 255,000 dead

The information also ties the assassinations and “earthquakes” to persons or cities favored at the time by Zeus, Vulcan, or other enemies of Venus(discarded lovers, jealous female 'gods', etc).

At some point the group also learns the four most vital bits of information:
* Zeus' current favored city is Rome.
* The Staff of Urban is still said to exist somewhere in Rome and, if presented to Tannhauser, would free him from Venus' bondage.
* Tannhauser is hundreds of years old, is the son of one 'god', has the patronage of second 'god' and an artifact of a third, and has assassinated Queens and Presidents. It's unlikely that the group could take him on directly.
* The Bragi Cello is most powerful if used near the element that most of it is composed of – maple wood.

2) The Staff of Urban

At this point the group will likely head to Rome (with external prompting if necessary). They now face a difficult task:

A) Discover the existence and location of the secret Helix Tomb beneath Rome. This is difficult not only because it is almost entirely unknown to any outside the top echelons of the Vatican, but because even mentioning its name in Italy brings the attention of the Swiss Guard. As they learn more and more of the Tombs, the group will again be chasing rumors, “people who know people who know...”, avoiding Venusian interference and not-so-polite run-ins with Swiss Guard suggesting they stop asking questions and/or leave Rome.

B) Find some way to access the Helix Tomb and, once there, find the Staff of Urban. This could be through making a deal with the Vatican to let them use it (difficult even if they were sent by the Ordo Veneficus), breaking into the Tombs, infiltrating the Helix Guard that protect them to gain access, fighting their way in, or some combination of the above.

While they are in the Tombs, they also discover that it is mostly original, unreinforced construction from nearly a thousand years ago, built at the start of the crusades and expanded until it spirals down under most of the city. With a little deduction, the group can figure out that an even moderate earthquake epicentered on Rome would probably cause the Helix Tombs to collapse in on themselves and take most of the city with them.

3) Tracking Tannhauser

When the party has the Staff of Urban and has extricated themselves from the Helix Tombs beneath Rome, they then have to track down Tannhauser.

They discover that he is in Rome through one or more of the following:
* The supernatural senses or powers of one or more of the players detects Tannhauser's power or that of Bragi's Cello
* The party 'hears' the faint 'sound' of a cello being tuned emanating from somewhere in the city
* The branch growing from the Staff of Urban sways in an unseen wind, the leaves and seed on the limb waving in Tannhauser's direction.
* As a last resort, a member of a friendly faction can tell them point blank that Tannhauser is somewhere in the city and give them rough directions.

They must then find him, via the above means, through contacts in the city, and/or investigating to find where in the city the most maple trees are located to predict where he's headed, all the while facing more interfering/hostile servants of Venus and possibly hostile Swiss/Helix Guard.

When they do find Tannhauser, he is walking amidst the throngs on the streets of Rome. They group finds themselves pursuing him as he changes from one individual to another at will, the only feature in-common the cello case the figure carries. Tannhauser gets in and out of cabs, on and off buses, steals cars and motorcycles, goes in and out of buildings – with the occasional Red Herring (Tannhauser walking through a busy music shop or symphony hall, past an orchestra loading up onto buses or a street musician setting up to play, etc).

All, of course, while harried by the usual hostiles plus maybe municipal police if the group starts breaking laws in pursuit of Tannhauser. He always manages to stay far enough away that the group is always just catching a glimpse of him – his cello case at least. Regardless, Tannhauser gets to a maple grove in Villa Ada, Rome's largest park, not long before they do. If they lose sight of him entirely, they can follow the sound of his cello being tuned.

4) The Maple Grove

When they find the park that Tannhauser is in, read the following:

The most beautiful man you have ever seen sits on a park bench, the stately maple trees all around him swaying gently in the breeze that stirs the man's short black hair. He glances up in your direction across the flowers and tall green grass of the park as he makes the final adjustments to the pegs of a cello that visibly resonates with power. There is something terribly sad about the man's eyes – they are the eyes of one without hope or home, drifting at the whim of others, ever more enmeshed in a cycle of destruction that he knows not how to escape.

He closes his eyes and smiles as he begins to play, a haunting, sorrowful tune that brings tears to the most jaded eye. Then he pauses for a moment, the smile slowly fading. When he plays again, he adjusts the pegs with one hand, the ancient melody rapidly dissolving into an echoing dissonance that pierces your ears, sends shivers up your back, and grates on your teeth. The air seems to darken and the maple trees react to the sound immediately, first visibly leaning away with cracks and groans, then drawn in, pressing close around him.

He begins to pluck the strings and, with each pluck, a single seed spirals down from the nearest maple tree. When the seed strikes the ground, it flies apart and in an instant the earth shakes and the wind howls, the magnitude of both growing with each successive seed that meets earth.

Depending on the group and the type of game, this final scene could be a battle through heavily armed/arcane Venusian agents and/or Swiss/Helix Guards to get to Tannhauser – all the while trying to catch falling maple seeds to prevent further destruction, i.e. the collapse of the Helix Tombs beneath the city.

It could instead be a struggle to get to Tannhauser as the ground shakes and heaves, trees fall or explode apart, the wind blasts, and/or dangerous arcane currents swirl and bizarre storms rage through the park.

It could be some combination of the above.

Or the party could simply jump to the conclusion:

When you reach Tannhauser, Urban's staff blooms anew. Tannhauser's cacophony fades and he looks up, his eyes settling on the staff with recognition, then anguish, then surprise, then hope, shifting so quickly that you barely have time to process each emotion before it is replaced by the next. He kneels before you as a single seed falls from the end of the staff, lazily spinning through the air until it lands in Tannhauser's cupped hands. He remains there for several long seconds, huddled over the seed, head bowed as if praying. Then the sky seems to lighten, the wind dies down, and the tremors fade.

He stands, erect and proud, a beatific smile on his face. His flawless features make the joy radiating from them even more intense. Without a word, he bows to each of you in turn, turns, lifts Bragi's Cello almost reverently, holds it above his head for a moment as though making an offering to the sky, then hurls it to a nearby cobbled walk where it explodes into a thousand pieces.

You avert your eyes to avoid the flying splinters and, when you look up, Tannhauser is gone. A few words whisper on the wind in his wake.

I am free... home... forever...”


Ingredients

Urban Sinkhole – The Helix Tombs, created by Pope Urban that will turn the city of Rome into an Urban Sinkhole when Tannhauser plays Bragi's Cello
Pulchritudinous Waif – Tannhauser, his physical beauty having caught the attention of Venus, she has broken his will and he now roams lost and alone
Helicopter Seeds – The seeds of the maple trees that fall when Tannhauser plays the Bragi's Cello, enough of them striking the ground potentially causing the city of Rome to collapse into the Helix Tombs. Also the maple seed that falls from the Staff of Urban that breaks Venus' enslavement of Tannhauser
Historical Doppleganger – Tannhauser, the centuries-old changeling reported throughout history as being seen before people die and causing many historical urban disasters
Self-Destructive Spiral – The Helix Tombs, which will collapse in on themselves if Tannhauser plays Bragi's Cello. Also Tannhauser's cycle of enslavement-destruction-escape-enslavement-etc. Also the spiraling fall of the maple seeds during the final confrontation, when they explode and release the destructive energies of Bragi's Cello.
Out-of-tune Cello – Bragi's Cello, which, when played by Tannhauser, could cause the Helix Tombs to collapse and take Rome with them. It was also made in Tune, Denmark, and so is “out of Tune” - in the meanings of being no longer there and having been made there
 

Sanzuo

First Post
*Jiao Xing Li Pu Yi*
(Hanging Plum Garden City)

SUMMARY

Prince Hua of Plum Garden City has been offered a once in a mortal lifetime opportunity to join the ranks of the divine. He must produce an earthly meal worthy of the gods. Yet, forces conspire against the prince in the form of the marilith, Xi-no-mei who seeks to bring the prince down and take his prize for herself. Both Hua and Xi-no-mei will stop at nothing to win, and they both seek the adventuring party's strength to aid them. In order to come out of the conflict with their heads intact, the party must choose a side and aid them in their cause.

Hanging Plum Garden City is a wuxia-style oriental fantasy adventure containing conspiracy, political intrigue, divine influence and - of course - action.


HISTORY

The Yin Jing mountain range is a series of high, round, spire-like peaks of earth that thrust out of the perpetually mist covered Valley of the Demons. The tallest of these peaks lay just close enough to the heavens to nurture the elusive holy plum tree. These trees produce plums so delicious, they are said to extend a person's life and make him or her vigorous and strong. It didn't take long for mortals to discover these trees and desire them.

The gods eventually agreed to allow mortals to harvest the plums. It was, however, a crime against the heavens to move or destroy any of the holy plum trees. Since the trees only grew on the tallest mountain peaks they were extremely difficult and costly to access, and so the plums became a very rare and expensive treat.

Eventually, however, mortals discovered the trees in the Yin Jing Mountain Range that rose out of the Valley of the Demons. A clever architect devised a way to construct a gigantic suspended bridge that traveled over the dangerous valley from the neighboring plateaus and reached the previously inaccessible holy plum trees. Because of the vast distances involved, a small harvesting camp was set up on the mountain. This small camp quickly grew into a large boomtown and eventually a teeming city fed by the profits of the the holy plum trees. The city's exports were not only the plums themselves, but any manner of food products that could be made from them, the most popular of which was their plum wine. This led to the city's nickname Can Liu Li Pu Yi “The Hungover Plum Garden City.”

Because the holy trees completely covered the peaks of these mountains and it was a crime to cut them down, there was no room for people to live. The same clever architect responsible for designing the bridge also found a way for people to live in buildings that hung over the sides of the peaks on the cliffs overlooking the valley thousands of feet below. Initially, people were hesitant to inhabit these structures, but they were quite stable to the pride of the architect, and people became accustomed to them. The result was a spectacular, vine-like, vertical hanging city that dangled off the edges of the tallest peaks.

Meanwhile, the demons in the aptly-named valley grew jealous and spiteful of the mortal's success. The demons desired the plums just as badly but had no clever way of reaching them like the mortals did. So the demons could do nothing except watch in silent rage as the mortals grew wealthy right over the demon's heads.


SET UP

The current leader of Plum Garden City is provincial Prince Hua. Unlike previous rulers who were concerned only with work and profit, the effeminate Prince Hua was already wealthy and spoiled when he took over leadership. Because of his delicacy and decadence, the prince's primary concern was the beautification of the city. He spent an untold fortune renovating the city, making the buildings pleasing to the eye and obstinately decorating every square inch with images of flowers and blossoms. He built his own palace right on the massive bridge leading into the city so that travelers would have to pass through and look upon his estates as they entered. The prince and his servants all wore the finest imported gowns and adornments and the prince made sure that his public appearances were frequent, especially to important visitors. Every spring when the holy plum trees blossomed, the prince would hold a grand festival honoring the gods. The people would drink the plum wine and watch the plum blossom pedals fall from the trees.

This was the final straw for the demons below. Among them the most powerful, beautiful and jealous was the marilith Xi-no-mei. With her powerful serpent-like grace, she was able to ascend the peaks and secretly live within the city. Because she was so beautiful she gained a strong, secret following amongst the mortals and quietly began plotting her usurpation of the throne.

The gods looked upon Prince Hua's accomplishments with delight. The prince had transformed this emerging mortal realm into truly one of the great wonders of the world. As a reward for his hard work, the gods made the prince a grand offer. In their decree they said;
Prince Hua has made this mortal city into a fantastic wonder worthy of the heavens. Yet, he mustn't forget what made this city possible in the first place. If the prince can produce a product from our divine plums that is worthy of the gods, then we shall accept him as one of our own and Prince Hua will become God Hua of the Plum Trees!
When the prince heard the gods' decree he squealed with happiness. He ordered a search for the finest food artisans in the world and offered vast rewards to those who would successfully create a food worthy of the gods. After a considerable amount of time, Prince Hua learned of the Legendary Baker Azuma in the neighboring providence of Kin (See previous adventure; Baker Azuma and the Golden Wheat Fields of Kin). The prince ordered Baker Azuma to be brought to the city at once so that his dream could be realized.

It didn't take long for Xi-no-mei to hear the news regarding the prince. The demoness decided that she needed to act quickly. If the prince were allowed to become a god then the holy plum trees would forever be beyond the reach of her and the rest of her kind. Xi-no-mei used her seductive charm and god-like beauty to attract even more followers while she plotted the prince's downfall.


STORY HOOK

The player characters at this point should already be familiar with Baker Azuma after lending him their assistance in the previous adventure. If not, the party's reputation as strong warriors, priests or sorcerers should be enough to be approached by Azuma. Azuma simply requires an escort to the legendary Plum Garden City after being informed he has been invited to prepare a meal for the prince. (The true details of his mission are left vague at this point.) Because of the importance of this mission, Prince Hua has offered a sizable reward not only for Azuma, but for anyone able to bring him to the city safely.


Part I: Arrival

The adventure begins after Azuma and the rest of the party have made it most of the way to the city without incident and are currently traversing the enormous bridge to their final destination. They are just within sight of Prince Hua's gaudy palace when a group of soldiers dressed as royal guards approach and sternly request to take over guarding Baker Azuma. The party was asked to make sure that Azuma is delivered safely to the prince, so the guards' request should seem suspicious to even the densest party member.

The 'guards' that the party sees before them are actually a large group of Xi-no-mei's minions sent to assassinate Baker Azuma. This will become readily apparent when the guards suddenly attempt to overwhelm the party and attack!

The assassins should be tough, but still no match for the surprising fighting prowess of the adventuring party. The assassins will nevertheless fight to the death to avoid the wrath of their mistress. This encounter serves to be an exciting introduction to the adventure and also add mystery to the situation. The players should wonder why the palace guards are attacking them. The encounter also sets up the party's local reputation as strong warriors which reach the ears of both Prince Hua and Xi-no-mei.

After the battle, the real palace guards will show up in response to the fighting. The actual guards are much more garish than the imposters and don't look nearly as imposing. If the player characters are still confused and attack the real guards, the guards will panic and shirk from combat, desperately explaining that they just ran from the palace to investigate the commotion. In any case the guards will recognize that the party just stopped an assassination attempt and offer to see the party safely to the palace.

The party will then meet the prince at his palace. The following description should be read or paraphrased upon meeting Prince Hua:
Before you in the brightly decorated palace is a sudden shower of pink flower pedals, falling like snow. A figure emerges. It is slender and graceful, dressed in thin, wispy silks decorated with floral patterns and glimmering tassels that hang so low they nearly brush the floor. You realize the figure is a man, his hair is tied up and high in an elaborate style and also falling behind him and his face is powdered and painted, accentuating his perfect features. He greets you with a high, sing-song, twittering voice and hooting laugh as he lightly pats a tiny shivering dog sitting in the arms of a nearby servant-boy. He then extends his arms to you in welcome and lightly pecks each of your cheeks and foreheads with his lips.
The prince will be eager to meet Baker Azuma as well as the player characters after hearing about the attack. He will tell the group that they have arrived just in time for the harvest the next day and the prince will also order a feast that evening in the honor of the party's arrival. Until then, he invites everyone to join him as he explains the offer of dietyhood that has been made to him and Baker Azuma's role to create the perfect dish. It is at this point that the game master should describe in detail the views from the palace of the hanging city as well as the palace itself. Everything including the palace guards and servants are brightly decorated with floral patterns and the game master should also emphasize and role play the prince as being obnoxiously foppish as possible.

Meanwhile, before the feast that evening, Xi-no-mei hears about her minions' failure. She becomes angry, but also intrigued at the player characters' strength. She decides to see if the party would be willing to join her.

At the feast, the player characters (and the players themselves) should be becoming so weary of the prince's behavior that even a scrupulous group of adventurers might be tempted to switch sides. The party will be offered some of the city's famous plum wine, which is said to be as invigorating as it is intoxicating (while this is true, it has other side effects that become apparent the next day). The marilith's offer will come in the form of a note slipped to a random player character at some point during the activity of the evening. The messenger appears to be an unassuming servant and quickly disappears after delivering the note. The note simply states that a mysterious benefactor would like to recruit the player characters with a substantial reward and lists a meeting place within the city and time after the feast.

At this point the plot can split one of two major paths. The party may be intrigued by the offer and even decide to join the demon (Xi-no-mei's offer easily matches the prince's monetary reward and may even throw in unholy power to boot). The party may follow up the note with the intention of tracking down and dealing with whoever sent it or they may ignore the message completely and continue to party all night. If the PCs go into the city, it is an opportunity to meet more of Xi-no-mei's minions, get into fights, and experience a great deal of the fantastic hanging city's environment. Any of the party members that drink the plum wine will also feel invigorated and invincible - they will receive decent combat and social bonuses (the wine basically acts as a mild potion.) It is important, however that the party NOT meet the marilith personally or learn too much about her identity at this point, that is for later.


Part II: Harvest Day

The following day is the day of the harvest. The workers climb up out of the city among the holy plum trees covering the peak of the mountains and begin collecting plums. Of course the prince has made a special priority of picking the best and perfectly ripe plums for his food of the gods. Xi-no-mei, meanwhile, has decided to disrupt the harvest to further delay the prince's apotheosis. The party must fend off attacking waves of the marilith's minions amongst the plum trees and ensure that the workers can complete their task.

If the player characters have decided to ally with Xi-no-mei then this event will still occur, but with the players on the attacking end. In this scenario the players will face royal guards protecting the harvesters. In an ironic twist, the decadent royal guards will falter and panic during battle while the standard laborers will actually put up a decent fight. Either way there will be some fighting.

Also, any party members who drank the plum wine the previous night will today find its effects reversed. They will be nursing strong hangovers that will give them social and combat penalties equal to the bonuses of before. These penalties may be negated by drinking more wine, but then the negative effects will persist the next day and so on until the character can go a whole day without drinking the wine.

That night, if the players succeeded in protecting the harvest, Baker Azuma gets to work on his magnum opus; Azuma's Holy Plum Dumplings! These simple, yet divine treats worthy of the gods will be Prince Hua's ticket into heaven... so to speak. If the party failed to protect the harvest (or succeeded in ruining it) then the prince's plans of godhood are spoiled for the time being. Sub-standard plums will simply not do the job. However, Xi-no-mei's plans are not yet finished (see below).

After the harvest, the party may continue investigating the attacks (or trying to assassinate the prince if they went that route) and may learn more about the situation and even learn the identity of the one behind the conspiracy. They may even discover clues as to the demon's master plan (see part III).


Part III: The Ceremony

Assuming the harvest went well, a ceremony is planned the next day to present Azuma's perfected dumplings to the gods. The player characters are assigned to security and encouraged to act independently of the ceremony. At this point their investigations should lead them to the demon's plan. Even if the harvest was ruined, Xi-no-mei's ultimate goal is still a concern.

Xi-no-mei has concluded that the city's weakness is the massive suspended bridge that connects it with the rest of the land. She plans to sever the bridge in such a way that one end drops into Demon Valley so that her brethren may ascend the broken bridge like a ladder and finally reach the plum trees they so desire. The player character's investigations will eventually lead them to this final confrontation on the bridge.

The players must first battle through the marilith's minions and prevent them from sapping key points on the bridge and causing it to collapse. It is at this point that Xi-no-mei herself will appear to do battle with the party to ensure her plan goes off without a hitch. Ideally, the player characters will get the city guard involved and an epic battle will ensue. Only the player characters have the strength to face the demon head-on.


CONCLUSION


The adventure can conclude a number of different ways depending on the decisions the player characters made and the outcomes of the encounters they had.

If the player characters succeeded in uncovering Xi-no-mei's plot, protecting the plum harvest, and preventing the bridge from collapsing, they will be honored as heroes by the people of the city and by Prince Hua. The ceremony will be a success and the Prince will ascent to godhood. He bestows the full reward he promised plus gives the player characters his divine blessing. Also, Baker Azuma will probably wrap up a few extra of his plum dumplings for the player characters to take with them on their next adventure. Hooray!

If the player characters did not succeed in saving the plum harvest but succeeded in preventing the bridge collapse, the short-sighted prince will become bitter that his chances at godhood were ruined. He will give the party a partial reward and then send them on their way.

If the player characters failed utterly or decided to join with the demon for some reason, the demons from the valley will clamber up the collapsed bridge into the hanging city, interrupting the ceremony, killing every mortal they see and devouring all the plums. If the party sided with Xi-no-mei she will naturally betray them and allow her demonic brethren to overwhelm them and tear them limb from limb (because, what the hell were the players thinking? She's a demon.)


INGREDIENTS


  • Foppish Dandy - Prince Hua; his eye for beauty is what got the god's attention, much to his people's chagrin.
  • Collapsing Bridge - Xi-no-mei's master plan is to collapse the great bridge that connects the hanging city with the rest of the world.
  • Demon, Type V - According to the original D&D rules: a marilith, or THE Marilith depending on what you're reading. Sort of the demonic version of a succubus. Perfect for manipulating mortals.
  • Apotheosis - The prince's ultimate goal, and the kicker for the adventure.
  • Hungover mountain range - The most straightforward explanation is the city itself which hangs over the side of the mountains. To be safe I included as many other references I could, including the nickname for the city and trying to get the player characters drunk on wine.
  • Plum Dumplings - A Hungarian delicacy I believe. This was the prince's way into heaven.
 

InVinoVeritas

Adventurer
Judgment, Round 1: Iron Sky vs. Tremorsense

Well, considering that Tremorsense decided not to post an entry, the decision is rather clear: Iron Sky wins this round. No surprise there.

It’s important to remember, though, for all contestants, that even if you’re late, even if you’re incomplete, post what you have. I am particularly sensitive to this. Last competition, I posted an entry that was incomplete and late—I didn’t have the time. However, I still advanced. If I had just bowed out without submission, I wouldn’t have competed in the final round.

Iron DM is a LOT of effort. The deadlines are tight, and the conditions are rough. You never know when your opponent may stumble, however, so it is vital to keep your spirit up, even in the face of insurmountable pressure. Believe in yourself, and even if you can’t, just get whatever bits of the job done you can. Don’t worry about pulling yourself out of the competition. The judges are there to take care of that for you. You never know.

We still have one entry, though: The Tannhauser Effect. Let’s take a look at how it did.

The Ingredients:

Urban Sinkhole—The collapse of the Helix Tombs as an effect of the earthquake. This is essentially a manmade sinkhole, which is more a threat than an actuality, depending on how the adventure goes. The earthquake, however, still appears more important than the sinkhole. 3/5, with the added bonus of making it Pope Urban II’s sinkhole.

Pulchritudinous Waif—Tannhäuser is the waif of the story. Most might think of a waif as just a skinny person, but the original meaning of the word is that of someone tossed from their home, an orphan, someone lost. This use is terrific. 5/5.

Helicopter Seeds—Used mainly as thematic. They act as a symbol of God’s forgiveness, or alternately as a symbol of the Self-Destructive Spiral through their causing of destruction. In addition, it’s an excellent connection to the Out-of-Tune Cello because, yes, cellos are typically made of maple wood, and maples make helicopter seeds. 5/5.

Historical Doppelgänger—My wife insists I spell it with the umlaut. This is the weakest part of the narrative. Yes, Tannhäuser exists as a historical figure, and is used as a doppelganger. His shapeshifting form is used to evade capture. However, the connection to assassinations of figures throughout history, although intriguing, adds little to the story. This is about Tannhäuser and Bragi’s Cello, not about the assassinations. 1/5.

Self-Destructive Spiral—Good use all around. It’s Tannhäuser’s cycle of abuse by Venus, it’s the gods’ domestic disturbances. It’s why the adventure happens. Perhaps it might be a little clearly the result of self-sabotage of all parties, but it works well and fits with the other elements. 4/5.

Out-of-Tune Cello—Very well done. Not only is it established why it must be a cello, but why it must be out of tune. A cello is made out of maple. It has the spike to ground it to the earth. It must play discordant chords to cause discord. Yet it must be used to carry a tune. The out-of-tune cello fills all these requirements the best out of a lot of possible items or instruments, or whatever. 5/5.

All in all, an excellent use of the ingredients. I still feel that the background of assassinations interferes needlessly with the main narrative, though, so there might be some way to tighten that up.

Background

I just need to take a moment to say that this is an excellent synthesis of existing legends. The domestic problems with Venus, Vulcan, and Zeus are well known. Bragi had legends out of Denmark. The various famous people did meet doppelgangers before their deaths. And, most importantly, the legend of Tannhäuser, poet and knight, his worship of Venus, Pope Urban IV, and the blooming of his staff, is a real legend. This is an incredible way to string them together. I love this sort of thing. This is extremely well done, and that should be recognized.

Playability

Playability, however, is where this adventure lacks. The adventure is essentially pages of background, followed by an adventure where the PCs discover this background, somehow, not sure how, learn about the Helix Tomb somehow, not sure how, then hunt down Tannhäuser and stop him from playing. Why would the PCs suspect the earthquakes might be something other than natural in the first place? Why would the PCs potentially be hired by the Catholic Church, but then be prevented by the Catholic Church to investigate the Helix Tomb and the Staff of Urban, especially when Pope Urban IV asked for people to find Tannhäuser in the first place? I’d probably start them in Haiti as relief workers—it’s the site of a major earthquake and a Roman Catholic country—and build specific encounters assuming that the PCs are at one given place and go from there. The role of the Helix Tomb and the Roman Catholic Church needs to be firmed up, and a specific encounter to reach the Tomb needs to be created. Right now, there is far more a background and the possibility of adventure than an actual adventure here.

Closing Thoughts

There’s an excellent gem of a great story here. It’s like the Da Vinci Code gets rewritten by Neil Gaiman. I’d recommend watching the movie The Red Violin for the story of an instrument tossed around by history. However, some greater PC-specific scripting is needed before this is ready for action. But the background is all there, and it’s stellar work.

Tremorsense, you have my sympathy regarding your basement. I hope you still have the passion to try again next competition. And, importantly, don't fear posting an incomplete entry if that's all you've got; the winning is only part of what Iron DM is all about.
 
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The Terrible Last Day of Chih Xuan

(I am now two for two with fruit-related ingredients in Iron DM competitions. What’s up with that?)

A mid-level D&D adventure, probably best used by a group that routinely refers to mariliths as ‘mariliths’ rather than ‘type V demons’. Some Oriental Adventures-style material is used, though you can probably get away perfectly well with giving Chinese names to perfectly normal PHB characters. I’ve used 3rd edition terminology and rules here and there because that's what I know, but it should be perfectly well adaptable to any edition. In 3e/3.5e, this is an 8th level adventure (because PCs having Dispel Evil could use it in lieu of the final scene, and because transportation magic like Wind Walk removes the travel component too easily)

Summary:

A venerable, renowned plum orchard in a high, secret niche in the mountains, equally legendary for both the quality of its fruit and its beauty, acts as a portal between a small medieval kingdom and a great Oriental empire due to the incredible artwork depicting it created by the ancient painter Chih Xuan. When the produce of the orchard begins to be known as supernaturally high in quality, a the long-running plot of a supposedly vanquished demon approaches fruition.


Background

Beauty and fame have power. A place of particular beauty and fame has power. And a place of power attracts - or to put it more precisely, generates – powerful spirits.

The Orchard of Chih Xuan is one of these places. Isolated far in the mountains on the outskirts of the one-town kingdom of Moravsky, it is the home of painter Chih Xuan, and his main topic of artistic inspiration for 60 years. Chih Xuan hailed originally from the far-off Empire of the Lotus, but spent much of his youth traveling the world. On arriving at the then-unnamed Orchard, he said that he had finally found a place of perfect beauty, and need wander no more.

The Orchard is visually beautiful – a small, high-altitude valley ringed with picturesque mountains down which cascade crystal-clear waterfalls. Lush and brilliant greenery carpets the ground, swallows flit by and pure white cranes stilt through limpid pools, while bright-eyed foxes twine through the reeds. The Orchard is dominated by its plum trees, dozens of them, seemingly growing naturally wild all through the valley. Chih Xuan dwells in a small, simple hut a small way up the mountain track (so as not to despoil the view with the trappings of humanity), and lives on plums, wild honey, ki and fresh air while spending all of this days painting.

Chih Xuan is nearing the end of his days, and the Orchard senses it. It has grown since Chih Xuan moved in – given shape by his serenity, and given power by the renown and admiration devoted to his paintings. It already begins to reflect him. His childhood memories of the plum orchards back home have generated a subtle and powerful linkage between the Orchard and those of the Chih estates back home. Chih Xuan himself has not really noticed this, but visitors from either end have, at various times, discovered that wandering in one orchard for long enough means that you will find yourself in the other. Travellers have passed both ways along the ‘Road of Blossoms’, ambassadors have been exchanged between Moravsky and the Lotus Empire, and while the road from Moravsky to the Orchard is too perilous to allow large-scale trade (and since the beauty of the Orchard is too revered in the Imperial Court for anyone to risk damaging it with high-volume traffic), ideas, knowledge, and culture is beginning to trickle across the gap in both directions.

The other effect of the Orchard’s increasing supernatural aura is that its produce is becoming truly exceptional. The Orchard’s plums, for instance, not only taste truly spectacular (+10 to all profession (cook) attempts), but can, when eaten fresh from the tree or prepared with sufficient skill, cure illnesses and remove other baleful influences. A naturally fallen branch, with blossom still on it, placed on a mantle will stay fresh for a year and a day, and will promote health, harmony, and fertility in one’s home. A young woman who wears a fresh blossom worn behind the ear will meet her true love that day.

With his son’s marriage imminent, the King of Moravsky depatches the three most famous heroes of the kingdom, Czevak, Vadasz, and Varkuda, to personally retrieve a blossoming bough for the newlyweds’ mantel, and plums to make plum dumplings at the wedding feast, the national dish of Moravsky and one which must be served for the wedding to go ahead. These three noble-born swashbucklers won glory two year ago when they stood alone against an orc horde on the Krumlov Bridge, holding off thousands long enough for the bridge to be demolished, marooning the orcs on the wrong side of the river and allowing the Royal Cavalry to be assembled. The orcs were led by the demon Rukxillana, who Czevek slew in hand to hand combat just before the bridge fell. Or so the story goes. Mariliths are impeccable planners and strategists, and Rukxillana’s ‘defeat’ was entirely orchestrated by her. She allowed her body to dissipate, possessed Czevak, and has been living in his body ever since, shielded from detection magic, waiting for this exact time.


Hook:

The PCs can be drawn into the adventure by the murder of the sage Trebova, who they may have wished to consult regarding some other matter.

Or they may be dispatched to Moravsky from their home realms, as the fame of the Orchard’s plums spreads far and wide, and nobles, royalty, and the very rich vie to serve them at weddings and other feasts, and are willing to pay well. On arriving in Moravsky, they find the local plum produce quite tasty but hardly exceptional, and upon asking around will reveal that only Chih Xuan’s plums live up to the more extravagant rumours of excellence.

Or, for if a PC or allied NPC might seek to take advantage of the.magical powers of the Orchard’s produce. The market square and back alleys of Moravsky are lined with shonky stalls selling plums and bits of plum tree as lucky charms and cure-alls for various ailments, 99% of which are perfectly mundane vegetation, so the PCs would be best advised to go to the source.

Or the PCs (as PCs are wont to do) just may be miserably, joylessly paranoid and decide that when supernaturally excellent plums and plum blossoms show up in Moravsky, something bad must be happening and that they’d better sort it out before it gets worse…


Blood on a Book

It is not easy to get to the Orchard. The King of Moravsky is fully aware of the Orchard’s importance to his kingdom, and strongly discourages people from tromping up their willy-nilly.

A limited number of writs of passage are available, assigned by the King’s chamberlain. He takes a rather rustic attitude to his duties, and if the PCs can’t convince him through diplomatic means that they should be granted a writ, then he is amenable to bribery. At this level, PCs should be able to manage that. Once the PCs have a writ, he will refer them to Trebova, the nearest thing that Moravsky has to a sage, who dwells in a silent clocktower in town. Trebova is, among other things, the court geographer, and is the only place that the PCs will be able to obtain an accurate map of the maze of mountain paths that lead to the Orchard.

Trebova’s clocktower is dark and quiet, and nobody answers the door. Nobody in the neighbourhood has seen Trebova for days. The last ones to see him were Czevak, Vadasz, and Varkuda, and they headed up the mountain days ago. Once the PCs force the issue (or get the watch to do so), they will find Trebova dead, face down in a book. His lower jaw and tongue have been brutally ripped off and are nowhere to be found (Rukxillana, in Czevak’s body, ate them while he bled to death in front of her) so he cannot respond to Speak With Dead spells. The books on his table, though largely destroyed by the blood, are mostly tales and histories of Czevak, Vadasz, Varkuda, and the Battle of the Bridge, although the very top volume is a very old black-bound volume on demonology. Scrawled in blood on the unstained portion of the desk, is a large letter ‘V’, underlined with a long smear. This is an attempt on Trebova’s part to warn of the sort of demon that still walks in Moravsky. ‘Marilith’ is the more common term, but Trebova is not particularly an expert in demons (which is why it took him so long to become suspicious of Czevak after the Battle of the Bridge) and only had the terminology in his rather antiquated book to fall back on. Anyone who reads the book will notice that it uses the archaic labeling system, and may make the connection. Rather poignantly, Trebova actually got as far as writing ‘Czevak - Rukxi’ underneath his ‘V’ before he died, but Rukxillana smeared this into illegibility, leaving the ‘V’ intact because it amuses her to have suspicion fall on Czevak’s companions.

The PCs can find maps to the Orchard in Trebova’s study. A ‘mending’ spell will strip enough blood off the open face of the book to reveal that Trebova was reading about possession when he died. A very close examination of the book will find plum dumpling crumbs in the page detailing Type V demons - Trebova spent a lot of time pondering this page, and dropped some of his dinner in here.

A Walk in the Wilderness

The Orchard is several days travel out of Moravsky proper, up a winding and at times treacherous mountain pass. The mountains are known for their fey and nature spirits – oreads, elementals, sylphs, and stranger things. It is customary to offer a libation of plum wine (poured on the ground) to the fey of the mountains each morning while making a journey to the Orchard. If the PCs do not do this at the start of the path, the soldiers on duty at the last watchpost will warn them of the custom, then attempt to sell them very overpriced wine (500gp) while claiming it is the ‘best’ for the purpose. Should they go ahead without making the offering, they will be the subject of increasingly nasty pranks until they do so, or turn back. After the PCs make the offering, they should meet (around the next bend, stepping from behind a tree, etc) a small and relatively inoffensive fey creature, who toasts them with a stone cup and drinks deeply before disappearing.

The PCs will catch up with Czevak and his party the day before arriving at the Orchard – Czevak’s group moves rather slowly, as it is burdened down with Kladno the royal chef (here to make sure only the best plums go to the wedding banquet), bearers to carry the plums and bough down the mountain, and the personal servants, effects, wardrobes, and valets of Vadasz and Varkuda. The royal group (particularly Vadasz and Varkuda) will welcome company (particularly if it comes in the form of people who appear noble or civilized, or attractive females of any variety), will offer plum wine and fine food, and will invite the PCs to travel with them the rest of the way. Kladno tries his best to be welcoming (particularly if the PCs show an interest in cooking), but he is quite overweight and is finding the journey very difficult, so retires early. The servants pretty much do as they are told. Czevak is quiet and focused, very much the disciplined organizer of the expedition. He does not drink, and will generally only speak if spoken to – even then he will confine himself to direct answers to direct questions regarding the trip to the Orchard.

The PCs should see Vadasz and Varkuda good-naturedly teasing Czevak, encouraging him to loosen up and have a drink like the good old days. He will refuse, not overly politely, and the other two will (in loud, joshing voices that he is intended to overhear) will tell the PCs how their old friend is so *serious* these days, how he has no time for fun any more, how he never joins them at the tavern like he used to, and how he is so lost to decent civilized behaviour that Varkuda actually has to accompany him to the tailor or suffer the humiliation of having his great friend walking around in last year’s styles. Vadasz and Varkuda are dim, cheerful twits, who will endlessly gossip, brag, and flirt if given any encouragement whatsoever. In particular they love to talk about the Battle of the Bridge, and how the demon ‘disappeared into nothing!’ when Czevak sunk his blade into her. Should the PCs bring up the death of Trebova, they will be genuinely shocked and grieved for a few moments, and then return to their previous gaiety. Not through callousness, just through an irrepressible urge for fun and laughter, and complete inability to take anything seriously. If the ‘V’ is mentioned, they will speculate wildly as to what it might mean, never considering for a moment that they might be under suspicion.

The Artist’s Apotheosis

On the morning of the last day of the trip, Czevak makes the libation. He says he has some wine made from the plums of the Orchard itself, and to give luck to the endeavor he will use only the best on the final day. What he actually uses is regular plum wine spiked with the juice of noxious abyssal fruits – Rukxillana is aware of the fey of the mountains, and knows that it will be easier to usurp the Orchard if they are unable to oppose her. When the PCs see the fey this morning, he takes a swig of his wine, then his eyes cross and he keels over backward. He doesn’t disappear, he stays where he lies. Vadasz and Varkuda will applaud the ‘strong stuff’ and badger Czevak for a taste, but he will unsmilingly tell them that there’s none left. On the road to the Orchard, the party will encounter dozens of fey, all unconscious with stone goblets fallen from their hands, passed-out drunk on Abyssal wine. Some should be of significant power – sidhe, fey mountain trolls, elder elementals etc.

Once the group arrives at the Orchard, late that afternoon, they will find Chih Xuan to be very old and frail, almost translucent. Camped a respectful distance from his hut are Jia Mei, an aged holy man of the Lotus Empire, and his husky young assistant Guo. Chih Xuan is distant and uncommunicative, his eyes on the next world. Jia Me will explain in a hushed, respectful whisper that the great Chih Xuan will soon pass on, and that he and his assistant are present to ensure the correct ceremonies take place, and to witness the ascension of a great man into the spirit world, as a part of the famed Orchard that he loved. Jia Me can explain the principles behind the apotheosis that Chih Xuan will undergo, but knows nothing about Rukxillana. Everyone should get the chance to eat a freshly picked plum, and receive whatever benefits the GM feel appropriate. Kladno sets up a small portable stove and starts cooking up some practice plum dumplings, to decide which of the trees would provide the best fruit for the wedding meal. Vadasz and Varkuda find blossoms, and offer them with extravagant grins to any attractive female PCs. Czevak will feign eating, but discard the plum surreptitiously – Rukxillana knows that eating a plum would expel her from his body.

Rukxillana intends to make the Orchard a battleground, to possess Chih Xuan before his death, hijack his apotheosis, and with the power of a place spirit on top of her demonic abilities, turn the Orchard into a bloody battlefield between Moravsky and the Lotus Empire, destroying forever the growing bond between the two nations and watering the plum trees with blood. Jia Me’s knowledge worries her, and the first chance she gets, she kills him and removes his lower jaw in the same way as she did to Trebova.

Once the body is found, suspicions will obviously run high. Rukxillana will work as hard as she can to throw suspicion onto Vadasz or Varkuda. She intends to goad Guo into attacking one of them, in effect ‘sanctifying’ the Orchard for her purposes with blood from a battle between the Lotus Empire and Moravsky regardless of who wins.

The PCs may by now have enough clues (behavior change after the Battle of the Bridge, not eating a plum, Trebova’s books) to suspect Czevak. In particular, the dregs of his wineskin (if tasted) have a rank, foul aftertaste once the initial sweetness has passed, and radiate evil. If they do Rukxillana will most likely know (her Listen check is +31, so if anyone’s talking about her, she’ll hear!), and attempt to hurry matters along. She’ll take a quiet walk, ‘accidentally’ encountering Chih Xuan. Then, in front of him, she will use Czevak’s own sword to hack off his own jaw, abandon Czevak’s body to bleed to death, and jump to Chih Xuan’s body, hoping that the shock of seeing the Orchard so desecrated will kill the old man and begin the apotheosis.

The PCs will hear by Chih Xuan’s brief, shocked scream and the hideous noises that Czevak makes as he thrashes to a horrible death in the lush grass. While Rukxillana is disappointed to find that Chih Xuan’s heart doesn’t give out, there is another method of death at hand – Chih Xuan picks up Czevak’s rapiers and attacks the PCs, hoping to kill as many as she can (because she enjoys it, and because the more blood that desecrates the Orchard, the more it comes under her power), and then let the last one kill her, triggering the apotheosis.

The first thing she does, of course, is use Chih Xuan’s connection to the Orchard to make all the plums fall off the trees, since freshly picked plums could expel her from Chih Xuan’s body. She fights using her own feats, BAB, base saves and special abilities (including spell resistance, but not natural armour), but using the physical stats of an unarmoured elderly painter. She has full access to her spell-like abilities, though she will not use her summoning or blade barrier (she wishes to corrupt the Orchard, not overtly rule or destroy it), and she will not teleport out of the Orchard. All the rest are fair game.

If the PCs kill Chih Xuan while Rukxillana is in control, they lose. Rukxillana gets exactly what she wants, undergoes apotheosis to a place spirit, Moravsky and the Lotus Empire will soon be at each other’s throats, and the Orchard will be a deceptively beautiful sink of betrayal, blood and misery permanently.

The best option the PCs have is to use Kladno’s dumplings. Windfall plums have no special powers, but a well-cooked dish of fresh plums would. They will have to defend the cook while he finishes his work, then pin Chih Xuan and force a dumpling down his throat. This would expel Rukxillana from Chih Xuan, and force her to slowly (a couple of minutes) revert to her corporeal form. This of course leaves them with the problem of an angry marilith. Fleeing is an option (a foiled Rukxillana will spend her time utterly destroying the Orchard and torturing Chih Xuan rather than chasing PCs, in the short term at least), but probably the best choice is for them to take the remaining dumplings, and feed them to the biggest, nastiest unconscious fey creatures they can find. With the consciousness of the mountain returned, and some powerful fey to confront on their home ground, Rukxillana will eventually give up and teleport away.

Chih Xuan will die shortly afterwards, and become what he is destined to become. Kladno will blanch at the prospect of returning to the king with no fresh plums, but as soon as he says the words, heavy and juicy fruit sprouts from the trees once more.
Ingredients:

Plum dumplings: The national dish of Moravsky, to be served at the Prince’s wedding. Also, the dish that the PCs have to protect Kladno long enough to prepare, in order to exorcise Chih Xuan and awaken the fey.
Foppish dandy: Czevak, Vadasz, and Varkuda. Czevak’s decreasing level of ‘foppish dandy-hood’ since the Battle of the Bridge is a clue to the fact he is no longer in control of his body.
Hungover mountain range: the spirits of the mountains, out flat on their backs after Czevak’s offering of tainted plum wine.
Type V demon: Rukxillana, the demon that seeks to pervert Chih Xuan’s apotheosis in order to create chaos and war. The fact that Trebova the scholar uses the antiquated ‘type’ terminology in his dying note is intended as a red herring
Collapsing bridge: The battle at which Czevak defeated Rukxillana, became a great hero, and was possessed by her. Also, more metaphorically, the bridge of communication between Moravsky and the Empire of the Lotus embodied by the Orchard of Chih Xuan, which will crumble into violence and war if Rukxillana’s plan succeeds.
Apotheosis: As death approaches for Chih Xuan, his connection to the Orchard means that he will undergo apotheosis into an eternal fey guardian of the place – unless Rukxillana hijacks the process.
 

Pbartender

First Post
Last Day of Chih Xuan

Foppish dandy: **½

In the Last Day of Chih Xuan (LDCX), the foppish dandy mainly takes form as the three brothers Czevak, Vadasz, and Varkuda. V & V get a lot of exposition on this count during the journey to the orchard, but it has little bearing on adventure itself.

Czevak's current foppishlessness, on the other hand, is the primary clue that he's possessed by a demon, though only through the heresay of his brothers… Having the change in personality happen before the eyes of the PCs would have been a more compelling clue and hook into the adventure.

Collapsing bridge: *

The collapsing bridge never really makes an appearance in LDCX. It's included as a bit of back story as to the location of the battle where the demon possesses Czevak, but isn't an integral location to the adventure itself. Furthermore, the players only ever hear about the bridge second hand.

A metaphorical explanation for the collapsing is included at the end of the adventure, but it is in all honesty rather weak… Especially since the orchard itself could have been considered a supernatural bridge, due to its mysterious ability to act as a transportation portal to the orchards of the distant Chih estates and back.

Demon, Type V: **½

LDCX uses the updated name of the Type V Demon, “marilith”. She’s the antagonist of the adventure, plotting to defile the Orchard of Chih Xuan and usurp it’s power for herself, although it’s never really explained why she wants to do that. She’s a fairly typical villain plotting evil for no other apparent reason other than to be evil and gain power.

Her actions are a little erratic, though. Notably, she’s mercilessly kills and mutilates everyone who stands in her way, except when she’s faced with Chih Xuan himself. She inexplicably resorts to trying to scare him to death, when she could simply wring his neck and be done with it.

The “type V” bit incidentally shows up in an old reference book about demons and as a vague clue about Czevak’s possession.

Apotheosis: ***

The artist, Chih Xuan, has a supernaturally close connection with the extraordinary plum orchard, that will apparently allow him to ascend to some form of godhood when he dies. Rukxillana, the demon, has a plan to kill him prematurely and possess him in order to gain power.

Hungover mountain range: ****

The mountains where the plums grow are home to a host of fey creatures and spirits that represent the mountain range. Rukxilanna slips them a collective mickey to keep them out of the way while she executes her plan. Using the fey spirits as a proxy for intoxicating the mountain range was very clever, but a bit of exposition as to why the needed to be both appeased with an offering by the princes and drugged into a stupor by the demon would have been the icing on the cake.

Plum dumplings: *½

Plum dumplings make a handful of minor appearances in this adventure, none of them especially significant. Mainly, they serve as an excuse for the PCs to travel to the orchard with the princes. The adventure instead focuses on the plum orchard in place of the dumplings.

Playability **

The playability of this adventure suffers form one glaring problem… That the players don’t seem to have a whole lot to do. Most of the important and interesting developments happen before the adventure starts, off-stage or through NPCs. The only time the players truly get to take control of the action is at the end, when they must fight Rukxillana.

Another weakness is the fact that the adventure really has three different plots – Trebova’s murder mystery, the journey to collect plums, and Rukxillana’s plot to destroy the orchard -- that are only loosely connected. Instead of focusing on one of them, PCs have their hands held through two of them to get to the third.

This relates to Radiating Gnome’s previous observation concerning extensive adventure back stories that the players never get to interact with. You risk having the majority of the story happen outside the adventure, and leaving the PCs with little do but watch things happen or hear about them having happened.

Style **½

Two things stand out, here… The spirits of the mountain drugged through subterfuge, and the strange shortcut from Moravsky to the Chih estates through the Plum Orchard. Both are fascinating ideas, and need only a bit of fleshing out to turn them into truly memorable points in the adventure. The ascension of Chih Xuan is a third contender, however few details are provided as to the whats, hows and whys of the apotheosis.

The rest of the adventure seems a bit scattered. Focusing in on those two or three solid points and cutting out much of the extraneous back story (or integrating it into the action of the adventure) would really tighten the adventure up.


Hanging Plum Garden City

Foppish dandy: ****

Hanging Plum Garden City (HPGC) focuses on the dandiness of the princely ruler of the city. A stereotypically beautiful spoiled rich kid, he extends his vainglory to the his palace and the city itself. It is this ostentatious display that attracts both the appreciation of the gods and the jealousy of the demons in the valley. It gives purpose to the villain.

Collapsing bridge: ****

In HPGC the collapsing bridge is not just the ultimate goal of the demoness' plot to claim the orchard, but also the site of the prince's palace. It serves as motivation for the plot, and as a central, evocative location.

Demon, Type V: **½

Again, we have a fairly straight-forward demonic villain. Xi-no-mei, the marilith, is equally as vain as the prince and terribly jealous of him, his city and his plums to boot. She’s looking to foul up his chance at becoming a god and then destroy his bridge, his city and everything else he holds dear.

Now, while technically she is a marilith, I find it rather disappointing that HPGC doesn’t even do lip service to the fact that she’s a “Demon, Type V”, which is, after all, the ingredient and not “marilith”. Be careful about how you try to pull that stunt in the future… Some ingredients are better suited to it than others.

Apotheosis: ***

The prince has to make something fantastic out of the celestial plums, and he gets to be a god. Amongst other things, it gives Xi-no-mei an excuse to be jealous of him, and gives one more motivation for her to plot against him.

I find it odd, however, that the prince doesn’t make the product himself in order to fulfill the challenge. Instead, he’s allowed to bring in a ringer – Baker Azuma – who does all the work, but gets practically nothing out of it.

Hungover mountain range: *½

HPGC dances all around this ingredient, but never quite gets to it. There is a city hanging off the side of a mountain, there is a bridge and a palace hanging over a valley, there are the player-characters potentially hungover from drinking too much plum wine, the city’s nickname is “Hungover Plum Garden City”… But nothing really hangs over the mountains, the mountains don’t really hang over anything, and nothing even remotely resembling a mountain range gets intoxicated.

Plum dumplings: **½

Plums dumplings are the prince’s way, through the talents of Azuma, of convincing the gods to make him the patron saint of plum trees. The practical inclusion of them into the adventure is a bit incidental, and like LDCX the tendency is to focus on the plums and the orchard, rather than the dumplings.

Playability: ***

At points, HPGC makes a few assumptions about what the player characters should be thinking or doing. That’s a dangerous thing to do… On one hand, the characters can easily derail the adventure by doing something unexpected. On the other, it becomes tempting for the DM to force the PCs into those expectations and assumptions.

That aside, the adventure does provide a good, serviceable hook, a coherent (if slightly linear) plot line, and one notable decision point for the PCs. While for most parties, the choice to join up with a demon is a non-decision, HPGC does present the option.

Style: ****

The city, the bridge and the palace are fabulous. The image of the buildings clinging to the cliff face, and the palace balancing precariously on the bridge like a tightrope walker is terribly engaging. It’s a wonderful setting for an adventure.

The prince, as well, is portrayed to a stereotypical excess. In this instance, the extreme stereotype plays well, as it can give the player characters a certain amount of sympathy toward the villain.

Decision:

LDCX had strong base ideas with the mountains spirits and Chih Xuan's magical plum orchard. Unfortunately, those elements weren't utilized to their fullest and the rest of the adventure isn't strong enough to step up to the plate. The plot elements are generally disjointed, and rely too heavily on history that the character will likely never learn.

HPGC begins with the foppish prince and the palace on the bridge, setting the stage with a beautiful location and a colorful NPC. The remaining components of the adventure have a hard time following in those footsteps, but adequately fill out the remainder of the adventure.

On average, HPGC edges out LDCX in the use of ingredients, and also gets the lock on style.

In addition, LDCX was late... While that may not seem a big deal, I like to imagine that the deadline represents the start of the gaming session. In that way, a late submission is akin to having an incomplete and unprepared adventure outline at the gaming table.

In that light, I'm awarding this round to Sansuo.
 
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Radiating Gnome

Adventurer
Round 1, Match 4
Monday, June 7, 12:00 p.m. EST
Pour vs. MatthewJHanson
Judge: Radiating Gnome

Ingredients:
mercury dragon
crystal sepulcher
corrupt prophet
abstinence
loaded dice
ebon fly
 

Pour

First Post
The Last Vestige
A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure for Evil Epic Characters

Background:
Decades ago, the archfiend Baalzebul tried to overthrow Asmodeus, God of Hell. He was discovered and mercilessly punished. Asmodeus transmogrified the once-imposing Lord of Flies into a putrid, pale and offal-trailing slug. He has wallowed ever since, lamenting his loss and the cruel japes of his rivals Mephistopheles and Dispater, searching for a way to regain Asmodeus' favor (and thusly his old persona). At long last, he's found a way.

One last vestige of He Who Was, the god whose name has since been erased from history, under whom Asmodeus, Baalzebul and all the other fallen angels served before their ultimate betrayal, escaped destruction. The vestige dwells on the crystal isle of Gloryda, in a vessel known as the Crystal Sepulcher wherein he slowly gathers divine essence from across the Astral Sea in hopes of one day reconstituting himself and enacting revenge on his traitorous former servants.

If Baalzebul can capture this last vestige for Asmodeus, or at the very least destroy him, he'll surely be granted his former glory. There are, of course, a few small snags. For one, the way to Gloryda is not an easy one, and the only portal Baalzebul knows of is tangled in the depths of the Demonweb Pits with Lolth's many other treasured doors. And once Gloryda is reached, one must contend with a dominion of angels and devas, chief among them the Virgin Bride, the vestige's prophet destined to one day bare He Who Is Reborn.

INTRODUCTION

1. Barbatos, one of Baeelzebub's most trusted lieutenants, meets with the group in the form of an old, worm-ridden wretch with a white beard that drags six feet behind him (perhaps after a particularly impressive adventure). He uses no false names, nor attempts any trickery, quite direct with his proposition and quite clear it comes from Baalzebul himself. The PCs' reputations have traveled as far down as Maladomini, and the Lord of the Seventh is willing to offer them 'Get Out of Hell Free' cards for when their inevitable judgements come IF they accept a proposition to seduce a prophet and retrieve the essence inside a sacred crystal container.
>> Alternatively, if there is a bard or a high Charisma character, Baalzebul might also find reason to hire them besides just the generic 'I need qualified, evil professionals'. Infernal warlocks and worshipers of Asmodeus are also quite handy.

> The interested party need only say the word and they're transported onto the Road of Perdition, a vast marble highway lined with massive, grotesque statuary. A white fly annoys the heck out of the prettiest party member, then leads the party into Maladomini with all its miles-wide caverns and sprawling, polluted ruins.

Unnerving enough, the fly eventually brings them to screechy fiddling, high laughter and even higher screams, and smells both perfumed and foul, marking an approach on The Carnival Macabre. History or Arcana checks reveal this is a dangerous baccanal where things illegal even in Hell are trafficked, and pleasure and pain are constantly redefined and taken to new extremes.

ACT I: The Carnival Macabre

2. Barbatos explains a political entanglement the players would be perfect for, and which will advance them closer to their goals. Barbatos had been visiting the carnival often, gathering information on Gloryda from a former rider of the Astral Sea, an elder mercury dragon Silikoras. He'd been dragged to the carnival a prisoner against his will and now, many years later, remains a prisoner of his choosing. Drug, sex and greed-addled, he'd exhausted his hoard centuries ago, and got to selling information and performing odd jobs. Barbatos found the dragon easily plied for information, but was unable to secure the exact location of the Crystal Isles or the doorway in the Demonweb Pits before a corruption devil named Miminix aquired the mercury dragon as a slave. He bleeds the creature now, using its metallic blood to produce an insanity-inducing drug called Crazesilver.

Miminix allows no one audience with the dragon, and Silikoras is much too weak to talk otherwise, truthfully on the verge of death (which Miminix wouldn't mind selling the hide and parts anyway). Given this corruption devil is a powerful member of the carnival and in favor with Asmodeus, Baalzelbul cannot outrightly move against him, nor does he want to spoil his chance at redemption by divulging to the Prince of Evil how important the dragon's information really is.

However a party such as the players, coming into the carnival like many dark souls do, might find themselves pitted against Miminix, and find little choice but to slay him. If done secretly enough, or in self-defense, there's little chance Asmodeus would seek restitution. Alternatively, Miminix is a notorious gambler. He's not above betting anything, including dragons, if the stakes are sweet enough.

Either using his love of gambling as bait to lure him into a trap, or as a legitimate means to win back Silikoras's freedom, Barbatos offers them a gift. Loaded dice, to always roll a win, and an identical set of regular dice, left entirely to chance. If the party is slick enough, they can use the combination to seem convincing, but still win out in a pinch. Alternatively, they could get caught as face a slew of furious betters. This likely depends on a number of rolls involving Thievery, Perception, Stealth and Bluff, as part of a skill challenge in games leading up to and then including Miminix.

Barbatos would have departed long before the games, unable to be within a league of the events or else draw suspicion. So the players are truly off the leash, more or less stuck in Hell, or obligated to remain there. Before he goes, he does offer one last set of gifts, an ebon fly for each party member, and a particularly intricate Lord of Ebon Flies, which, if summoned, is a fly the size of an elephant meant to drain the weakened sepulcher dry of the vestige.

When Silikoras is eventually freed, he'd offer specifics on the location of the portal in the Demonweb, and then the path to Gloryda. Were he not so weak or pathetically addicted to the depravity, he might have even offered to go with them.

ACT II: The Demonweb Pits

3. The players enter the Demonweb Pits, where they descend the seemingly endless, web-vexed fall of the 666th layer of the Abyss. The players either:
a. Fight their way through several strands, a direct and difficult series of encounters.
b. Sneak their way as far as they can, a difficult series of skill challenges pitting the party against some of their most difficult Stealth tests they've ever undertaken (walking the webs without disturbing them, avoiding eight times eight thousand spider's eyes, etc).

In either instance, using the ebon flies to bypass many of the webs is preferred, and, for a particularly crafty player, purposefully crashing one of the ebon flies against a portion of the web creates an irresistible vibration that draws all spider creatures, and with a little added commotion drow and demon guardians as well.

4. The final Demonweb encounter is with one of Lolth's lesser exarchs is decided through skill challenge and encounter. The Weaver of Ways, a trapdoor spider of cosmic proportions, draws strands from the various planes and threads them into doors, to spread the agenda and worship of her lady. If the party has any ebon flies left, they can use them to distract and daze the exarch, gain combat advantage, and other various advantages depending on player creativity.

ACT III: Gloryda

5. In the Crystal Isles, various motes of lush, verdant wilderness with mountain-sized shards of vary-colored crystals drift in the Astral Sea. On the largest isle grows a city of crystal, amidst rainbow blooms and dew-kissed tropical flora, Gloryda. The last vestige, in its ages of reconstitution, incidentally drew all manner of beauty and power to it, among them various dragons, angels and devas. They've settled this edenic paradise, instinctively protective of the crystal sepulcher at its heart. One among them, the deva known only as the Virgin Bride, believing herself a reincarnation of one of his slain angels, began a faith around the vestige. This, too, serves to empower the former god, and offers a fair amount of protection.

The players have numerous options for infiltrating the city, more than likely dependent on some amount of Bluff or Stealth. A direct siege would be ill-advised, especially considering the task of appearing in some way friendly, and seducing the Virgin Bride.

6. Once in the city, and keeping up their guises, they must meet with the Virgin Bride. Any number of excused could do, or a stealth infiltration of the Prismatic Temple, wherein the sepulcher rests. Attempts to draw the essence out of the sepulcher will prove impossible, and may draw guards. The floating coffin is glassy and transparent, with a mystical glow in the center. The Virgin Bride looks into it often, talks with it, draws strength and gives strength to it. The relationship it and the vestige have with the prophet and the following are revealed through Religion, Arcana or prolonged observation to be symbiotic.

In order to weaken the sepulcher enough to draw the vestige out or destroy it, the party must corrupt the prophet and the faith. Thus begins another fun and largely free-form task, a collection of skill challenges to seduce the virgin or discredit the upstanding members of the faith, encounters to assassinate or kidnap key opponents or stumbling blocks.

7. Eventually the prophet can be seduced, and she will betray her vows to the vestige to lay with one or more of the players. The faith will be rattled enough, but through further meddling may collapse entirely. It could grow as ugly as riots and the destruction of Gloryda, but what's certain is the Crystal Sepulcher will grow dark and dim, vulnerable, and the vestige withdrawn after being betrayed a second time.

In a final encounter with the embittered He Who Could Have Been, the party overcomes the vestige in a combination encounter/skill challenge. Failure of the skill challenge equates to the inability to capture the vestige in the Lord of Ebon Flies, and there is no choice but to destroy him. Of course, failure of the encounter means the vestige now has the party prisoner, and may brainwash/reprogram them into servants, change their alignment to good, slay them outright, or make a counter offer to help him bring down Asmodeus.

Expanding the Adventure:
What if He Who Was, in his efforts to reconstitute himself via errant divinity of fallen gods scattered across the Astral Sea instead became a many-headed god, a deity of fractured and perhaps maddened personalities, seeking to now swallow the existing gods into his fold? Or what if he absorbed too much Primordial energy and grew into a new Primordial, enemy of the gods good and evil alike?

Recipe:
Mercury Dragon: Silikoras, whose mercurial needs and appetites were all of them sated in the deep depravity of Hell's seventh ring. He was the one with the finer details on the portal and location of Gloryda.

Crystal Sepulcher
: The vessel in which the last vestige dwelt, crystal clear and having spawned the entire Crystal Isles, and which drew errant divinity from across the plane to help him reconstitute. The prophet and her purity were intimately tied to it, and it granted her her power and eventual destiny as the mother of a god. Her betrayal darkened the crystal, as the faith wavered, and eventually led to a diminished and betrayed vestige.

Corrupt Prophet: In this sense, the major task of the party in Gloryda was to corrupt the Virgin Bride and in doing so weaken the sepulcher and the vestige to a point they could be dealt with.

Abstinence: The Virgin Bride's abstinence from sex is what kept her pure and worthy to eventually receive the vestige's essence. Abstinence is also what Silikoras lacked and which caused all his troubles to begin with. And when it comes to devils or demons, abstinence from their desires is largely impossible, from Asmodeus and Baalzelbul on down.

Loaded Dice
: The trick dice Barbatos gives the group, along with an identical pair of real dice, in order to win their way through small-time games towards a match, or matches, with Miminix. They could help with back Silikoras, or at least gain them an audience with the corruption devil.

Ebon Fly: The group are given ebon flies as a final boon by Barbatos, one of the most potent symbols of Baazelbul. They can be used throughout the adventure, as distractions through the Demonweb, as well as mounts. The Lord of Ebon Flies is the magic container which is meant to house the last vestige.
 

MatthewJHanson

Registered Ninja
Publisher
Trapped in a Dead God’s Hand
A 4e D&D adventure for 20th level characters.

Background
Millennia ago, a man named Adahn served an ancient god of knowledge. At first he was a faithful servant and his god rewarded Adahn well, but as Adahn grew in power he craved more. Adahn sought true prophecy, to see the future clearly, not thought a haze of dreams and cryptic visions. In his arrogance Adahn stole the power of foresight from his god, and in so doing he was cursed. Adahn gained the vision to see the future, but not the ability to change it. He knows what is coming, but can do nothing about it. As one final insult, his god cursed Adahn with eternal life, so Adahn could not find a release from his punishment, even in death.

Throughout the ages Adahn tried to use his gift of prophecy many time to help others, but the others never listened. Now he uses his reputation as a prophet to help himself. Adahn has joined an astral ship called the Quicksilver Dragon. The vessel is as big as a small village. It is best known for its gambling hall, but offers a range of other amenities for wealthy pleasure seekers. The ship is silver colored and constantly travels though the astral sea high speeds. It never stops, even while resupplying or taking on passengers. Most think that the Quicksilver Dragon takes its name from the way it looks zooming across the Astral Sea, though the owner, Hermes Hyperion Glorioso Alexander d’Carceri von Dusseldwarf, knows otherwise.

Adahn is something of a sideshow attraction on the Quicksilver Dragon, using his reputation as a prophet first to draw in wealthy gamblers who seek a glimpse of the future, and then to explain why he always wins.

A Promising Note
The player characters begin the adventure anywhere, though it is easier if they have access to planar travel. They wake up one morning to find that a note has mysteriously appeared with no indication of how it arrived. The note claims that one “Hermes Hyperion Glorioso Alexander d’Carceri von Dusseldwarf” needs their assistance and will pay the richly for their services. An astral diamond for each character is included with the note as a down payment. In case the characters need further convincing, the letter also promises the characters knowledge that they dearly seek. This knowledge should be tailored to your campaign. It should tie into the character’s long-term goals and personal back stories, and your plans for future adventures. Finally, the letter describes the Quicksilver Dragon, and how the PCs can find the astral vessel in the near future.

If the characters ask around in an area where planer travel is common, the can easily hear stories of the Quicksilver Dragon, the astral pleasure ship that never stops. The character can also find somebody willing to shuttle them to the Quicksilver Dragon or find an astral skiff for sale at a reasonable price.

Arrival at the Quicksilver Dragon
Docking with the Quicksilver Dragon is no easy task. Hermes never stops his ship, not even to take on wealthy customers. As the Quicksilver Dragon darts through the Astral Sea at break neck speeds, the player characters must bring their own vessel along side and secure it long enough to disembark. This is a skill challenge, and failure reflects that the heroes smash their own ship to pieces and barely manage to cling on to the Quicksilver Dragon while the crew of the ship helps them aboard.

Once the heroes arrive on the ship, a man who appears to be an eladrin with silver eyes and hair greats the characters saying:

Greetings and salutations. You have the esteemed honor of meeting Hermes Hyperion Glorioso Alexander d’Carceri von Dusseldwarf. Welcome to the Quicksilver Dragon, the finest ship in all the planes, and home to drink, debauchery, pleasure carnal and cerebral, a little gambling, and if you are lucky, a glimpse into your future. Who might you be?

Hermes expects the characters to be another group of wealthy patrons eager to spend their coin, and when they explain the mysterious messages they received, he is utterly perplexed. He has no need to hire adventurers such as the PCs, but since they took all that trouble to get here, Hermes offers them free drinks and lodging for the night, as well as some complimentary chips to spend at the Dragon’s casino. He is happy to answer any questions the PCs have about the Quicksilver Dragon. If they inquire about “a glimpse into your future,” Hermes says, “Why, I mean the Prophet of course,” and he explains the nature of Adahn and his wager.

Assuming the PCs take Hermes up on his offer to stay, they should have some time to explore the Quicksilver Dragon. They might meet some of the Dragon’s more colorful clientele, such as the inebriated drow named Tarzz who has not left the Dragon’s bar since its maiden voyage, or Lili, the dwarven academic who is writing a book on the Quicksilver Dragon, but does not participate in any of its activities for fear of “biasing her work.”

Most importantly the characters should have a chance to meet Adahn. The PCs likely hear about him from other residents aboard the Quicksilver Dragon, and when they enter the gambling hall, the see him sitting alone at a table in the far rear of the hall. He catches the eye of the heroes and smiles at them each in turn.

If they approach Adahn explains his wager. For ten thousand pieces of gold, they may have one chance at a dice game against him. If the PCs win, then he will answer a single question. If they lose, then they walk away empty handed. Either way Adahn keeps the coin.

If the character take Adahn up on his offer the can make a series of skill checks, but no matter what they cannot beat Adahn, the game is rigged. Instead they can try to realize how the game is rigged. Adahn is a prophet, but because of his curse his knowledge of the future cannot help him win. Instead Adahn uses a set of magical dice that always roll the value the Adahn want them to roll. If they figure this out Adahn admits the truth and asks, “What does this tell you about prophecy?” Regardless of how the PCs answers, Adahn responds by telling the characters a little something about them that he has no reason to know, and the adds, “And Hermes Hyperion Glorioso Alexander d’Carceri von Dusseldwarf seeks your employment.”

As soon as Adahn says this (or when the heroes give up trying to figure out his game) ask the PCs to make an Acrobatics check to avoid falling prone.

Flies Swarm the Dragon
The Quicksilver Dragon lurches, knocking passengers from their feet. A hail of cards, coin, and dice flies through the air. Everything becomes quite except the hum of the Dragon’s drive system straining to move, and a low groan of something pressing against the hull. But despite the effort, a glance out the windows reveals that the Quicksilver Dragon, the ship that never stops, has stopped.

As the passengers and crew of the Quicksilver Dragon struggle to come to grips with their predicament, heroes see something through the window a black cloud moves swiftly in their direction. As it draws near the heroes make out greater detail. The cloud is made of hundreds of flies, ranging from the size of your fist to that of a large horse. They are so black they look like a hole in space. These are astral flies, born of maggots that feast of the flesh of dead gods. The first of the flies thud harmlessly against the window, but then one of the largest smashes through and the PCs are the only one who can save the residents of the gambling hall from the tearing mandibles of hungry insects.

The casino is not the only breach. Should the heroes investigate cries from another part of the ship, the find more flies battling a shimmering, slender, agile, silver-colored dragon. The dragon is Hermes in his true form. While he finds it more customer friendly to look like an eladrin, he is actually a mercury dragon and when lives are at stake is not afraid of using tooth and claws.

After the battle everybody has time to take stock the situation. The Quicksilver Dragon, as it turns out, flew close to one of the many dead gods that litter the Astral Sea, just as it has done a hundred times before. But this time the god was not quite as dead as they thought dead. It somehow reached out its massive stony hand and clenched the Quicksilver Dragon in its fist. No matter how hard they try, the crew cannot dislodge the ship.

Hermes believes there is only one choice. Somebody must leave the Quicksilver Dragon and see if they can find a solution on god-island. Naturally the player characters are the only reasonable choice.

The God Island
The god-island trapping the Quicksilver Dragon is teeming with life and unlife. Astral flies and other monsters inhabit the lower region of the god, but there heroes have no need to travel there. They are much more likely to encounter the Hungriest Ghouls and the third eye.

The Hungriest Ghouls
The most informative area on the dead god, and also the strangest, is the encampment of the Hungriest Ghouls, found on the chest of the dead god. The heroes may be quick to attack the ghouls, but the ghouls are hesitant. They fight back reluctantly and try only to subdue the heroes.

These ghouls all worship the dead god, who the reveal to be a god of knowledge. While they crave the flesh of the living, and in particular “the b-word,” they refuse to eat it because “the b-word,” houses more knowledge than can ever be written down, and once it is gone it is lost forever. Should any PC say the “brains” aloud, the ghoul fly into a fit of hunger and the character must make a quick Diplomacy or Intimidate check to keep the ghouls from gnawing on their skulls.

The ghouls also can give the characters some advice. That the dead god saw the truth through the third eye in the center of his forehead, so that eye too might hold the answers that the heroes seek.

The Third Eye
The dead god’s third eye is in the center of his forehead and is the size of a town square. Clues suggest the characters must see the eye, but when the heroes arrive it is closed. If they examine the head directly above the eye, they find an incitation saying “I open for seekers of knowledge.” The characters have two primaries ways to open the eye. First a character may perform any divination ritual while standing on the eye. Alternatively the party as a whole can recall sufficient knowledge by scoring at least one success each for Arcana, Dungeoneering, History, Nature, and Religion.

If the heroes manage either of these, the eyelid opens, but underneath there is only a black chasm. Any character standing on the eye falls, while those standing near it are pulled in by an irresistible force.

The Dream of a Dead God
The characters cannot tell how long they are falling, but instead of landing, a temple forms around them, its floor appearing beneath their feat. Before them is an alter made of crystal, and built into it, a open and empty sepulcher. The only inhabitant besides them is a faceless man whose form shifts and bends before the PCs. This is the last memory of the dead god. It does not have a true mind, but is more like an impression left upon the sand. It responds to the heroes questions with cryptic phrases.

Just as the heroes seem to tire of the vestige, Adahn appears in the temple, and in an instant the faceless man changes. Three circles of fire appear in its featureless faces, and it screams with rage. It remembers Adahn and hates that memory. It accuses the PCs of bringing him here and attacks.

The temple and the figure are both made of thoughts and can shift just a fluidly. The heroes find the terrain warping around them, but if they are of strong will they can also shape the terrain to their liking. The only thing that cannot change is the crystal altar. The faceless man strikes at their minds and creates minions out of thoughts to rip the characters apart.

As the heroes strike the final blow, the man and the temple dissolve, leaving only a bare stone room and the crystal altar in its center. Adahn explains his history as described in the adventure background. The corpse the heroes occupy is same god Adahn once worshipped, and the same one he stole the gift of prophecy from. He has come to return it.

Adahn takes out a dagger and cuts a slit across his forehead. Instead of blood pouring from the wound, a misty silver liquid flows from the cut. As if the liquid had thoughts of its own, it winds its way through the air and pours into the crystal sepulcher. Just when it is full the flow stops. The lid to the case slams shut, and in the same instant the earth reverberates. Then another quake comes, and another, each more powerful. A large crack opens in the wall and dim light pours through.

The god-island is breaking apart. The heroes must rush out of the god’s head and back to the ship, while ghouls and monster panic around them. Adahn refuses to leave, saying he from the moment he stole the gift, he knew how this would end.

The heroes reach the Quicksilver Dragon just as it is the god’s arm crumbles beneath them and the entire god-island scatter into the Astral Sea.

Conclusion
Back aboard the Quicksilver Dragon Hermes grants the heroes a lavish reward and offers to take them anywhere in the planes they desire. They are likely to take him up on the offer too, because the characters realize that somehow either Adahn or the dead god touched their mind. It left them the answers they were promised in note that brought them to Quicksilver Dragon. And the answers to their questions are just the beginning of your next adventure.

Ingredients
Mercury dragon: Hermes is a verbose and extravagant dragon who has named his astral vessel for himself.

Crystal sepulcher: The crystal sepulcher housed the gift of prophecy before Adahn stole it, and again after he returned it.

Corrupt prophet: Adahn is a prophet twice corrupted. First when he stole the gift of true sight from his god, and then when he traded his reputation as a prophet for profit on the Quicksilver Dragon

Abstinence: Despite craving “the b-word” above all else, the Hungriest Ghouls refrain from eating flesh to protect knowledge. Also, the passenger Lili abstains from the joys of the Quicksilver Dragon.

Loaded dice: Because Adahn cannot use prophecy to win, he cheats by gambling with a set of loaded dice. It could also be a metaphor for how Adhan cannot change the future he sees.

Ebon fly: Massive black flies that were nursed on the flesh of the dead god attack the party and their allies. Also, the passenger Tarzz is a drow barfly.
 

Radiating Gnome

Adventurer
This is the report on The Last Vestige (LV), by Pour, and Trapped in a Dead God's Hand (DGH) by MatthewJHanson

I'm intrigued that the set of ingredients provided sent both contestants off to epic level -- I'm not sure which ingredient(s) made that the "natural" place to land for this match -- and maybe it's just a coincidence. It's another close match, so lets get down to brass tacks.

Ingredients.

Mercury Dragon.

In LV, we have Silikoras, an information source the PCs need to consult to find the final location of their target. I find that the presence of Silikoras is interesting -- the addiction-paupered dragon being bled for information and whose blood is used to create drugs for others.

In DGH, the mercury dragon appears in a couple of different ways -- the non-stop pleasure ship, the actual captain of the ship. The idea of a sort of astral cruise ship that never even slows down for the embarkation and debarkation of passengers -- a ship that rockets around at breakneck speeds, presumably faster than most other craft out there in the planes . . . it feels to me very much like a Terry Pratchet idea -- amusing and fun on the surface, and hard to imagine really working out in practice. There ought to be plenty of other ways to board a speeding ship (teleportation circle, perhaps), especially at this level, so that this bit of tomfoolery is just an exercise in the absurd. And, there's nothing wrong with the absurd, or the comic absurd in an adventure, but once you've set that tone, it creates an expectation for the rest of the adventure to support that tone.

I'm pretty much on the fence about which version of the dragon I like better . . . I think that the usage in DGH is riskier, but neither seems to be stronger than the other taken as an isolated element, so we'll call this one a draw.

Crystal Sepulcher

In LV, the Crystal Sepulcher the CS holds the last vestige of a dead god who has been expunged from creation -- at least nearly so. The sepulcher is the final setting of the adventure, a sort of crystal island that has grown out of the vessel containing the shred of divinity.

In DG, the sepulcher is the vessel which contained the gift of prophecy stolen by Adahn, and then returned at the end of the adventure. In the actual play of the adventure, the PCs will really only encounter it at the very end, and don't directly interact with it -- they find themselves in the bare stone room with the CS, Adahn tells them the story, then releases the gift from his own forehead and it goes back into the CS. So, the PCs get to see it, and that's about it. I think the more extensive, involved use in LV wins this point.

Corrupt Prophet

DGH gives us Adahn, the corrupt prophet the PCs discover on the Quicksilver Dragon. He's an interesting NPC, but his role as "prophet" is a bit thin in the adventure. In a more general sense he's making his living as a sort of side-show mentalist, but prophets see the future, and most of what Adahn does is read the past or present ("Hermes . . . . seeks your employment", etc.)

In LV, the "corrupt prophet" is more of a command than a person -- the PCs find it necessary to corrupt the virgin bride. The virgin bride, however, never seems to play a role as prophet -- she's a religious leader, but again, there's no vision of the future there for her. It's an interesting challenge to make her the focus of two such nearly-polar ingredients (abstinence and corrupt prophet), but I feel like we fall short of seeing her as an actual prophet. So, point for DGH.

Abstinence.

As I've already noted, the Virgin Bride is the embodiment of abstinence in LV. I find her very confusing. I mean, I totally get the role she plays in the adventure -- priestess of the dead god trying to revive it. But I don't think the writeup of the adventure quite explains how her virginity serves the dead god. I mean . . . reading it over, I think there are a few dots that were not connected. Here's what we know about the virgin bride:
1. The vestige's prophet destined to one day bare He Who Is Reborn.
2. The deva known only as the Virgin Bride, believing herself a reincarnation of one of his slain angels, began a faith around the vestige.
3. The Virgin Bride looks into [the vestige] often, talks with it, draws strength and gives strength to it.
4. The prophet can be seduced....The faith will be rattled enough, but through further meddling may collapse entirely.

I mean . . . if you replace the name of the NPC "Virgin Bride" with something else -- say "Pirate Cat", nothing changes. While the recap declares that her virginity is important, I'm not seeing that written into the actual adventure -- I don't see where it becomes important for her role as vessel for the reborn god or anything like that. The rest of the role of abstinence in the adventure, as detailed in the recap, is actually the absence of abstinence -- and I don't think you get credit on iron chef for using cinnamon by pointing out all of the dishes where you didn't use cinnamon.

I might be dense, or missing something, but my guess is that this detail was either something that didn't get fleshed out, or it's something that I'm supposed to have inferred from the name "Virgin Bride" and the way it echoes Mary & the Virgin Birth, etc.

In DGH, abstinence shows up in, according to the recap, two places -- the Ghouls, and Lili. Lili plays no role in the adventure, she's just color, and that's about as thin as thin can get. The Ghoul's abstinence isn't much better -- it's a fun detail, though, and what it does do is sustain the absurd, Terry Pratchett tone of the adventure -- I mean, come on, Ghouls that crave brains they mussn't eat, and that can't say the word lest they lose control? In the overall plot of the adventure, it's not an important detail, but it certainly sustains the mood. Point to DGH.

Loaded Dice

In DGH, Adahn uses loaded dice to make sure he wins at his parlor game. In LV, loaded dice are given to the party by the devil Barbatos to win an audience with Miminix. I'm fascinated by this ingredient in these two entries, because if there were any ingredient that I would have expected to tie this adventure into a heroic tier, low-level setting, it would be something as mundane and pedestrian as loaded dice. It's not surprising, then, that in these two epic level adventures the use is minimal, just a nod to get the ingredient into the adventure. Of the two uses, I prefer the one in DGH, because the use of loaded dice to simulate the divine gift of prophecy, but it's a pretty thin margin. Slight advantage to DGH on this one.

Ebon Fly.

I'm really drawn to the use of the Ebon flies in Last Vestige -- it's a relatively small detail, using the flies in the demoweb pits to create a distraction to draw the spiders and other web-tending creatures away . . . it's a cool idea, but I wonder about it in actual play. I mean . . . . you would want the players to come up with this idea -- it would be far less satisfying to hand it to them. But if you take a magic item like the ebon fly -- even if it's not one of CNN's favorite magic items -- and give it to the PCs, I think it's pretty rare that they're going to come up with a plan that involves tossing it away as a decoy if they can avoid it.

In DGH, the Ebon flies are feeding on the dead god, and they herald the arrival of the ship in the clutches of the dead god's hand. They're an opponent the PCs face. I found this application of the ingredient a bit flat -- yeah, it makes sense; but it's not all that inventive. The "secondary" application of the ingredient, the drow barfly, isn't just thin, it's anorexic. It's one advantage, if it has one, is that it also feeds the absurd tone of the adventure, but it's still pretty weak, and plays no real role. Garnish.

In the end, I'm going to give this ingredient to LV, but I think I'm already on the trail of some problems I'm going to have when I get to playability.

Playability.

In DGH, the players are invited to board the ship, go through the skill challenge to board, goof off on the ship for a while, then take on the "real" adventure when the ship is caught by the dead god and they need to help free it. I'm not totally excited that the final act -- releasing the stolen gift of prophecy -- is something the PCs just get to watch, they're not doing it, but otherwise it's a nice, fairly compact adventure in an epic setting.

In LV, the scope of the adventure is much grander, involving extended travel through the planes of hell, etc. The players need to visit the infernal carnival, travel the demonweb pits, and then finally infiltrate Gloryda, seduce the prophet, and overcome the vestige. This is an interesting adventure, it seems, in that most of the truly important encounters in the adventure are skill challenges rather than combat encounters. The PCs fight incidental battles on the way down into hell towards Gloryda, but this has the potential to be a very different sort of adventure. The final act, for example has the PCs seduce the Virgin Bride, use that seduction to break down the faith that has grown up around the vestige, and then face the vestige itself in a final skill challenge. The writeup says "encounter/skill challenge" -- did that mean combat encounter/skill challenge?" If so, the writeup doesn't let us know what the vestige is in concrete terms -- as far as I can tell it's a fragment of divine energy -- is that something the party can fight? In other areas, like the demonweb pits, we get some information about the foes (exarch of Lolth, etc), but in this case, the vestige isn't clear to me.

I really like encounters that combine combat and skill challenges, and I'm a huge fan of skill challenges, so I feel like I *should* like LV's ideas better. But over and over again the adventure creates situations where the PCs need to come up with a solution to a problem that is fairly well scripted, but it pretends that it isn't. Take, for example, the problem with the Virgin Bride. The PCs need to seduce her -- but is that something they're going to come up with on their own? And how many PCs are going to be involved in the effort to seduce the prophet? Is that a skill challenge that 5 PCs are really going to be engaged with? How many parties are going to come up with that solution? The adventure suggests other ideas, sure . . . but in the artifical environment of this contest the adventure NEEDS the PCs to seduce her so that she can be corrupted. None of this makes the adventure unplayable, but it's . . . wobbly.

Anyway, I find the more concise, straightforward DGH much more playable.

Creativity.

I'll be honest, I'm not a huge Pratchett fan. Douglas Adams is fun to a point, but he wears on me. The sort of Absurd humor thing plays itself out pretty quickly if it doesn't walk a pretty thin line. So, when I read things like "Hermes Hyperion...." I roll my eyes a little. On the inside. At the same time, I can respect the effort it takes to settle on that sort of tone in an adventure like this and try to carry it off all the way through. And I think DGH *almost* gets there. The biggest problem? Adahn and the dead god. They don't feel like they belong in the same universe as an elf named Dusseldwarf, a Drow Barfly, and Ghouls-That-May-Not-Say-Brains. Sure, there's an element of the absurd to Adahn. He is a prophet who tells the past, not the future . . . but those elements never really seem to play to the same audience that the other flavorful elements of the adventure play to.

Meanwhile, there's Last Vestige. I'm not seeing anything "wrong" here . . . the PCs get hired by a devil, visit the circus, travel through hell, go to the crystal island, seduce an angel and defeat a fragment of a god . . . . all good pieces. And while there's a sequence, the final package doesn't seem to have the same feeling of being a single unified package that DGH does. So, even with it's flaws, I think I prefer DGH for creativity, too.

Final Verdict:

When all is said and done, while I wasn't totally bullish on either entry -- and while both were totally credible offerings -- I think that it's clear that Trapped in a Dead God's Hand is the stronger of the two entries on all three counts -- a slight edge on ingredients, an advantage on playability, and another slight edge on creativity. So, MatthewJHanson Advances.
 
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