The Runic Storyhour: An Oriental Adventure in The Dream

Rune

Once A Fool
Welcome to the new boards, everybody! This is to be a continuation of the old storyhour formerly called, "The Runic Storyhour: An Oriental Adventure With a Twist." I will be posting each previous session one at a time (one per day) until we are caught up. All previous feedback should be available for viewing on the old boards. Here's the link to the old story on the old boards:

The Runic Storyhour: An Oriental Adventure With a Twist.

Hope to see ya around the new boards!
 
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Rune

Once A Fool
Following is the first installment of a campaign setting which has been in various stages of development for several years. It's not your usual setting, and to add an exotic flavor, I have decided to run the setting using the Oriental Adventures rules (with the core PC races available, but rare). My intent is not to accurately recreate any part of Asian myth, culture, folklore, or history. I hope that my campaign setting will remind the players (and anyone reading this storyhour) as much of India and Nepal as of China and Japan (for example). Furthermore, this story hour will be written by one of my players and edited by me. I will rarely, if ever, write the story hour, though I will be the one to post them.

The world: Ah yes, the world...

It is flat, but not really.

There is no sun; there are no stars, nor moons. Day and night do exist, however.

There is seasonal change (how could we have haiku without it?), but that change is sporadic.

Reality shifts are not uncommon, and even mortals within the world may trigger them.

And there is only one god(dess), but there are a great many interpretations of who and what (s)he is. This is, in part, because the alignment of the deity changes with some degree of regularity.

And since we speak of that deity, we shall now refer to that god(dess) by the name that all mortals know, The Dreamer; for all of existence is The Dream. And I mean that literally.

The Physics:
There is land, and above land, the sky; above the sky, the ocean. On a clear day, you can see the largest ships sailing for destinations unknown (upside down, of course) far above you. More oddities in the landscape later.

Physics are more or less normal, but certain things can happen to alter the state of reality, namely the...

Reality Shifts:
These are triggered at certain times within the REM cycle of The Dreamer, and, much more commonly, through the use of magicks, and psionic manifestations. Even more commonly, certain events trigger reality shifts, such as birth and death. More on this later in the campaign.

The Role of Society:
Understandably, I have decided to emphasize the importance of Family, Caste, and Honor in this campaign. So how do such lawful societies fit into such a chaotic world? War, how else? Does this mean that the game will be set in wartime? You bet.

Watch this space for additional campaign setting information!
 
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Rune

Once A Fool
First, a word about naming conventions:

The male name is constructed with an Adjective, followed by a Noun, and then a Verb. This puts the emphasis on who the person is.

The female name is a Noun, followed by an Adverb, and then a Verb, which emphasizes what the person does.

The Noun is the family name, passed on through the generations. These names stay within the gender. The daughter will get her family name from the mother and the son from the father. There are no family names that are shared between the genders.

The characters:

Swift Serpent Strikes (Rogue1/Fighter1) is a lower-caste human, who, although he despises nobility and all that it represents, is not such a fool to openly criticize it, or its members. He has so far been content not to attract too much attention. He may have good reasons for this, but, if so, they are his secrets to tell--or not to.

Fighting Man Dances (Monk1/Sorceror1) is one of the little folk, a halfling, whom humans view as miniature humans; children playing at being grown-up. Like all halflings, he is neither lower-caste, nor noble in the human world. In halfling society, however, he is a member of one of the higher social orders, (which are, in turn, modeled after the Societies of the humans; more on the societies later). It is not, however, a halfling's world, and he will always be looked down upon.

Intelligent Chameleon Survives (Rogue1/Sorceror1) is a human of the lower-caste who, unlike Swift, does not despise the noble caste. A bit of a megalomaniac, he, in fact, aspires to be one of the noble caste. Furthermore, he sees himself as an equal or better of most (all?) nobles. Despite such an eccentricity, or perhaps because of it, he is a natural leader on the battlefield and off of it. He is very likeable, and truly a tactical thinker.

Ocean Deeply Sleeps (Rogue1/Fighter1), the only female of the group, is a soft-spoken human (also of the lower-caste) so far content to observe her surroundings and stay in the background. It is not inconceivable, however, that she has grand ambitions and is biding her time, waiting for the time that destiny has chosen for her to act upon them.

Other People (in the order of their appearance):

Grinning Tiger Rules (Session 1) is a noble of one of the most prominent family lines. Not much is yet known about the noble, except that he is considered to be (by the party, at least) a tactical idiot on the battlefield. Too bad he's in charge...

Night Softly Calls (Session 3) is the commander of the guard in Silver City. Not much is known about her, but it is known that she wields a three-section-staff, and a great deal of authority within the city.

Mad Stone Tumbles (Session 3) was the Governor of Silver City until his untimely demise by what may have been assassins, or maybe something else. He was a very crazy man.

Laughing Monkey Rules (Session 3) is the current governor of the Silver City. He was a rival of Mad Stone Tumbles.

Dragon Silently Hunts (Session 3) is the matron of House Dragon. She is easily the most powerful individual in the city, barring, perhaps, the Governor and the head of one of the most powerful families in the Empire.

Exalted Temple Stands (Session 5) is the EMPEROR. He is roughly 10 years old when encountered in Session 5.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
Act I: Art
Year 3145


Tiger in soft snow
hunting the silver forests
that which is worth most.


Session 1, part 1:

Today, it is harvest time; tomorrow, who knows? The seasons change with every new day, here. That is the way things are.

At the Rice Cake Festival, as we did last year, the four of us meet strolling through the grounds, smelling the sweet rice from all sections of the town. First, I come upon Swift and we greet, intoxicated by our own hunger and the smell of food. Further on the halfling joins us, and the Chameleon. The four of us are acquaintances and not more. Some mother gives the halfling a paper lantern, and we laugh; however much halflings hope to prove they are adults, they are always mistaken for children. There are rumors of war surfacing in the conversations around us but nothing really precise or grounded enough to distract us. Today is a festival. We have just begun to walk among the food vendors and select what might appease our appetites, when we notice a nobleman, well mounted, follows us through the crowd as we discuss the possibility of conscription should war be eminent. But we are a long way from war on this day in this joyful street, just in reach of everything we need and why we are followed by the nobleman, I do not know. We will learn, however, that his concern is not of war drums. The nobleman approaches. He wears a wakazashi, but no katana. We bow, but not too deeply. He grits his teeth at our insincere welcome; in truth no one of us relishes bowing to any man. He carries a bundle large enough that it could conceal a katana, although we have few ideas why he would conceal one.

Our story begins with this nobleman and this phrase: "I need fighters."
"I will pay you handsomely."
"How handsomely," we ask? "And for what purpose?"
"I was purging the kingdom of nightmares," he explains, "and alone when I rode upon a concealed encampment of bakemono and lost something that is very dear to me. I need help in recovering it." (The man had and honest face, I'll give him that.)

DM note: the author, playing Ocean Deeply Sleeps, decided aloud that the noble, who had introduced himself as Grinning Tiger Rules (an extraordinarily prominent family name), had an honest face, to which I replied: "He does, in fact, have an honest face." I thought it was funny, anyway...

We have many questions--too many, and we agree that we should think upon it.

DM note: this was my favorite part of the session: one of the characters, Intelligent Chameleon Survives, asked Tiger what the item was that he was trying to recover. Tiger responded (in my best Samurai Jack voice), "You will not address me again in that manner." This was followed by a moment of total silence from the gaming table—-no intimidation check needed, thankyouverymuch.

The money, 50 Rice-Months each, is more than sufficient, and yet we are not starving by any means and have just begun to join the feasting. Is the call of such riches strong enough to pull us away?

DM note: a Rice-Month (RM) is the amount of rice needed to feed an individual for one month (90 days or so). It is a paper currency traded by nobles and never really seen by the lower castes, although they certainly see some of the effects of transactions made with the currency. Needless to say, 50RM each is a lot of money.

How near is the place? How many of them are there? Maybe this is some fiendish plot to spoil our honor. Perhaps they are not nightmares at all, but an army we come to fight.

DM note: there was much discussion at the table of the true nature of the task. The general reaction to the noble was an intense suspicion. The group wondered, naturally, why the noble could not use the help of his followers/servants in the task, but it became pretty clear that he wanted a secret kept. Mercenaries, then, were obviously his best option. Most of the group figured that it was likely (more likely?) to be a rival encampment of humans than bakemono. They determined that they would not proceed with the raid/attack if that was the case.

Of course, to join a nobleman in ridding the landscape of nightmares is no mean cause. It will bring both honor and money. In this way, we end the first part of this tale: After much debate, but not by any means at great depth, we are persuaded to travel north with the noble.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
DM note: the following section of the campaign log has been edited extensively. I have tried to remain consistent with the author’s writing style (which is, as you probably have noticed, pretty much stream of consciousness).

Session 1, part 2:

There is little time (we have lost a day already) and we gather what food we can along the way as we head north across the landscape through rolling hills, groves of trees, and endless rice fields. There is no road and the going is slow. With the drifting of the landscape, we are not even sure if we will find the town again when we are finished with this adventure. Usually, however, a town does not drift so far in such a short amount of time; the landscape is like a (usually) calm body of water, and the towns, like driftwood. Already, I have reservations about this adventure. The nobleman rides ahead of us on his beautiful horse, dropping back to watch us on occasion. We walk.

Our nobleman describes the encampment as having sparse trees so that we must move under the cover of darkness toward the four clay mounds upon which the nightmare enemies crouch, watching over the camp. These guards, the noble tells us, will let out piercing screams if they detect us. Bakemono have the intelligence of clever dogs, but the senses of such animals, as well. Inside their encampment there are several mud huts, one larger and set apart from the rest. Inside the large hut, we presume, is the thing which Grinning Tiger Rules has lost and is most precious to him. He draws a plan of attack in the dirt with his wakazashi.

DM note: "He uses his wakazashi for that!?!" the player of Swift Serpent Strikes asked. "My mouth hangs open!" To which I replied: "He apparently thinks nothing of it." Most mysterious…

How can we get past the mounds to reach the central hut? The bakemono will attack in packs of five, the noble warns us. We try to divert him from entering the hut but he is insistent about retrieving his item himself. We try to develop a less straightforward attack against the camp (there are a score and a half of the nightmare animals in the camp), but Grinning Tiger Rules’ command is iron. We must charge the field with great honor. Our only victory was to convince the noble to let us take out the guard at one corner, before we enter the camp. It is agreed that the halfling will use his magic flaming finger to strike down the creature on the first mound.

DM note: Fighting Man Dances, the halfling, tells the noble, "I will use my Finger of Blazing Flame: I will not miss!" He didn’t either, as it would turn out, since that spell was a magic missile!

It is near dusk and we are two miles distant with light enough to see a great mass of elephants passing southward on the western horizon. A gathering of elephants so large can mean one thing only. War it is then, and yet the nobleman shows no concern for it; we are off to hunt creatures, not men, and he will not be diverted. Again, we are assailed by doubt. Is this nothing but a ruse?

DM note: the players still assumed that the encampment was a human camp, not a camp of bakemono. The author’s character, Ocean Sleeps Deeply, made a successful spot check and saw that the creature on the watch-mound shrouded in the shadow of night was, in fact, a bakemono, but she did not tell the rest of the group for some reason.

I come to know they are, in fact, the creatures we dread. As the halfling creeps forward to strike the sentry, we hear the piercing scream.

DM note: the sentry was well within range of the magic missile spell, but the halfling wanted a better look, he was still not sure what his foe was.

Immediately the short one reacts. A blinding stream of light flies from his little halfling finger to the torso of the shadowy shape on the mound. The air is filled with sparks as the Dream reacts to the magic being cast. The halfling's first strike is a good hit, and the sentry falls, but our victory is small, as we have been forced by the nobleman to enter from the front instead of making a clandestine attack, as we discussed. Two packs of bakemono come running to rend us. The halfling casts a spell of protection on himself, and, in the resulting reality shift, flowers fall from the sky around him. Chameleon causes another alarm-scream to erupt behind one of the packs with his own magic, and three of their number are diverted. More flashes in the sky in all directions accompany the casting of his little spell. Grinning Tiger Rules charges ahead on his mount, and we fight the bakemono for our lives as best we can. We take the mound, but there are more of the bestial creatures now and they keep coming. Three more packs are upon us (including the bakemono who were diverted by Chameleon, and the halfling is down, shredded by the claws of a whole pack, and bleeding himself into death. The first of the Bakemono we dropped finally looses his life-spirit, and the Dream reacts so violently that we are almost all thrown from the ground. It is as if the ground has become an ocean in a storm. Only Swift has lost his footing, however. Another bakemono is slaughtered while it stands, and a great wind engulfs the entire camp. When another bakemono bleeds his spirit out, twelve spikes of stone shoot into the sky around the body, forming a circle fifty feet high. Chameleon is pacing across the battlefield, going from one pack of bakemono to another. He has engaged the furthest pack with the noble, and sees what the rest of us do not, though he does not hesitate to yell it out: "By the Dreamer! This big one’s got a KATANA!"

The halfling is down and we can't help him; he is cut off from us by the bakemono. The noble’s horse goes down, its life fading quickly from the field, but the nobleman leaps free. He fights only with the wakazashi, but he is lethal. Lethal or not, he is alone and surrounded by a pack of Bakemono, and one is clearly a warrior of sorts. Intelligent Chameleon Survives engages the pack that brought low the halfling as we rush to revive him. He alters his appearance to do so, making himself look like the big bakemono with the katana with his magic. There is so much dying that one more reality shift is hardly noticed. He screams at the pack and points away; all but one are fooled and run off to attack a nonexistent enemy elsewhere. Although quick-witted, the Chameleon is not lucky, and the remaining bakemono decimates his body with two vicious swipes from its claws. Now Chameleon is dying, too.

Why didn't we see it coming? We are clear on this now: The bakemono will destroy us. We flee the field. The two remaining of our party sweep up our fallen companions and retreat, leaving the noble in the midst of the battle. The bakemono do not follow us when we have left their territory. As we carry the halfling and Chameleon away from the encampment of nightmares, we sense several reality shifts behind us. Whether these are reactions to the deaths of several bakemono left bleeding on the field, or the death of more bakemono fighting the noble, or perhaps (and likely?) the death of that man as well, we do not know. We are no longer in that story.

--Ocean Deeply Sleeps


DM note: notable moments—the halfling charges an enemy (with Mage Armor, he has AC 20) and completely misses. "What do you expect?" we ask the player, "You’re a halfling!" Later, the halfling gets a critical hit on a bakemono, for 4 damage! There’s halflings for ya!

The fall of Chameleon truly was unfortunate. His ruse worked on all but one of the bakemono in a pack that included the three who were fooled with his first ghost sound. That bakemono rolled very high damage on both successful hits with its claws, and instantly, the Chameleon, who had been most conspicuous on the field of battle, was out of the fight.

First Chameleon, and then Ocean, took the mound of the original sentry with the intention of performing a coup de grace on the sentry as well as keeping the high ground. Unfortunately, neither had time to pull off a full attack action, as I kept the bakemono coming.

Ocean was a valiant fighter, as well as a rogue, but chose only a set of throwing knives as weapons--go figure. After this fight, I think she’ll get a naganata, like Swift uses.

Swift knew what Ocean and Chameleon have both discovered: weapons with reach are fun. (Okay, Chameleon had a whip, but, that's hardly a weapon. His spells were really his weapon. Oh, and that crossbow was nice.)

They all found out that my earlier warning was not a joke: I am a rat-bastard DM. Although, it’s not my fault that none of the party could cast divine spells…hehe. It is too bad that they took so long in the first part of the battle that reinforcements came. If they had encountered the bakemono warlord in the middle of the camp, it would have been fun; there were mud-pits concealed in the darkness, and the warlord had improved bull rush…
 
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Rune

Once A Fool
Session 2, part 1

We know less about our purpose than we knew before. Running for one's life will do that to a person. Survival quickly becomes the only course of action with any relevance. Swift and I are the only members of our company who suffered no wounds in the bakemono camp, so it is we who nurse the unconscious forms of the halfling and the Chameleon back to health. Our shelter is barely that. We have found a cluster of trees with a great stone as a wall to put our backs against. It is as if we are captive in a cage with no borders. Tempers are short. Swift, in his great frustration last evening, shook his fist at the sky and declared he could not linger for days in the wilderness, and though he spoke from his own heart, he spoke for all of us.

I should have known, should have guessed, that following our four days of healing where we fled to the south, the Chameleon, of all people, as soon as his wounds were quieted, would turn us back toward the mounds of our defeat at the hands of the bakemono. Chameleon is on his feet, though grunting and complaining at times, and the halfling, with his pestilence of a monkey in tow, which I cannot help but watch with amusement, is miraculously recovered (with the help of Swift and myself, of course) and walking with the thing perched on his shoulder, or scuttling through the trees, when they are thick enough. We noticed the monkey loitering one night at the edge of camp and lured it in with rice grains and fruit gathered from the trees on a summer day (we’ve had only one of those, regretfully, so fruit is short). It developed an immediate attachment to the halfling. The halfling calls it Fighting Monkey Dances, after himself. I think that the Monkey family would be insulted if they knew.

DM note: the player of Fighting Man Dances calls the monkey Mojo Jojo out of character. Also, almost immediately, the halfling started teaching (or trying to teach) the monkey martial arts--nevermind that the monkey is about the size of a cat.

I am hungry for more than rice, and tired not in body, but in spirit. We are aimless it seems, in the face of this world. Where once we had a clearly defined goal, we find ourselves facing a void. We had not expected to flee for our lives. Now, it seems, we are going back to the bakemono camp to attempt to rectify the outcome of our misadventure; either we will rescue a captured noble, or take his ancestral belongings and body, if we can manage it, to his family. As we neared the camp we could not agree on what was to be done with the monkey--such a little detail, but one that could reveal us to the bakemono--and we cautioned the halfling to tie the monkey to the tree (well…I wanted the thing thrown in a sack). This was done, but the halfling untied the monkey when we were not looking. (We never found out until later, for the monkey stayed away from us as we traveled to the camp.) We are to go in by stealth, rescue Grinning Tiger Rules, or honor him and retrieve his belongings, and get out.

DM note: the idea here was that they could have succeeded in daylight where they had failed at night. They never told me where stealth fit into that plan.

We pass through the tall grass (it is summer again, this day) and finally, with great caution, toward the lookout mounds of the bakemono; we cannot believe what we see. Of course, in this world you cannot believe much of anything, yet the area is raw ground, as if it has been trampled by a thousand ghostly elephants that have left no tracks. The earth around and through the camp is obliterated, thrown apart in chunks by some monstrous earthquake with only the circle of stone spikes towering fifty feet above left standing. The huts are all in ruins. There are no bodies, nor graves. We have come to free Grinning Tiger Rules from the bakemono, if we can, but there is no life here. There is now no hope for the payment of fifty Rice-Months apiece, nor of reclaiming honor. I want to look for the festival town again, to get news of war, if there is war, and to feel the comfort of a village again, but we can not decide on our direction. Chameleon would have us go east, and for what, I do not understand. But, as is often the case, his will prevails. Before we finalize our decision, Swift reveals that he has discovered something on the ground. It is a pouch, richly decorated and richly lined: a substantial pouch of the Empire's silver. We ponder its significance, but our course does not change. We go east. Into, we soon discover, an ancient forest.

DM note: Intelligent Chameleon Survives has the highest Charisma in the group, and whether or not that plays a part in the group's discussions, I known not, but I do know that he kept the group moving in unexpected directions this session, trying to outwit me. Too bad I had contingency plans...

East and Into the Forest

There is still daylight when we enter the tree line, but when the forest around us grows too thick to walk side by side, dusk is falling. It is dark--very dark--already, beneath the ancient trees. Chameleon casts a spell upon himself that grants him the ability to walk up trees like a monkey, or a spider, and uses the little light that is left to climb a tall tree and scout out our surroundings. Thunder rolls in the distance, presumably the Dream’s reaction to his spellcasting. When he has climbed above the canopy of the forest, he looks around. Nothing is moving, but he can see several large clearings. One is not too far to the east. We head toward it, Chameleon and the halfling fifty yards ahead of Swift and myself. And then they see it, long before we catch the first whiff of smoke: a glowing line of red advancing toward us from the east, quickly; we must get out of the forest. We are forced to run single file through the dense trees, west, away from the fire, calling to the halfling who has gone back to look for the monkey, and crashing through branches that block our way. We can smell the smoke that is rapidly layering the woods. We feel the scorching heat of an entire forest aflame. We are running in the blackness of dense wood, with thick, white tendrils choking our lungs, the ocean-light above smothered by the dense foliage and smoke overhead. I can hear my companions running and then I realize they have gone back for the halfling. I can not turn back. My legs have control of my mind, and they go west. The wall of fire is faster than we are--much faster. The fire is closing. Chameleon is down, burned and asphyxiated—dead or unconscious, we know not which, but the halfling, Swift, and I break free of the forest. The halfling runs back into the forest and begins to drag the human, who is twice his size, to safety. Surely, the fire will devour them in a few seconds. Swift attempts to leap back into the forest as well, but he is repelled again and again by the intense heat. The fire is almost upon the halfling and the human. Finally, Swift is able to aid the halfling, and Chameleon is brought beyond the boundary of trees into the fresh air of night. They are saved. Their breathing is labored and one of their number is unconscious, yet they are alive. We retreat to the ruins of the bakemono camp, west of us, and it becomes a base of operations, for a time. In the days to come, the Chameleon curses the fire, irrationally blaming it for his loss of honor (if indeed, his collapse was even such a loss). And, although Intelligent Chameleon Survives vehemently denies it, we all wonder if it was his spell casting that ignited the fire that nearly claimed our lives.

DM note: it was actually the halfling who first identified the fire for what it was. While Chameleon was still trying to figure out what my description meant (he envisioned a bunch of glowing red eyes), Fighting Man Dances (whose player had actually seen a forest fire, as had I; we're brothers) immediately recognized the peril. The halfling most certainly saved the lives of the party with his quick thinking. The reason that this does not come out in the story is because, well, he's a halfling.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
Session 2, part 2

Reality Shift

The next day, it is winter in the Black and White Season. The Dreamer does not always dream in color. Snow, knee-high, covers the camp, and everything in the world is faded into different shades of gray, except for the snow, which is the purest white, and the darkest nights, which are the emptiest shade of black. I lose track, but I think it is four days that we have sought warmth and shelter inside an abandoned and ruined hut in the bakemono camp. Following the fourth day we wake, and it is spring--still black and white. The snow is gone. We head east again, but this time, north, as well. We travel until we come to a river, running west and intersecting with our burnt forest. Now that once mighty forest of ancient trees is nothing but a mass of densely-packed stalks of charcoal with layers of ash on the ground. We follow the river upstream, into the forest of ash. At one point a mass of shriveled and burned carcasses of trees bridge the swelling water. We consider a crossing, but it is too unstable. We move single file again, for the dead forest has thickened. We are wary of the possibility of collapsing trees falling upon us, and we turn back to travel downstream through the blackened hell.

DM note: the Black & White season is one I've been wanting to spring on my players since it was first conceived. It came as a total surprise to everyone there, even my brother (Fighting Man Dances), who had helped me create the setting, and actually came up with the premise of the season. He just didn't see it coming. That was most satisfying...

In two days, it is autumn. We have left the forest far behind. We come to a giant swath of cleared ground; the clear path of a huge war party, with both men and elephants, traveling south from the river. On the north side of the river, there are no tracks of any kind. We continue to follow the river downstream, to the west. It is dusk as we top the rise of the hill and see them: hundreds and hundreds of campfires, fires enough for a great army. We decide to make camp and watch, but fear that we may be close enough to be discovered by scouts. We are. We are invited (coerced) into joining the encampment by the scouts that have discovered us. They are friendly and in good spirits, but it is clear that they will not let us stay in our private encampment away from the army.

DM note: the swath of cleared ground is presumably left by the army that the party saw passing southward to their west in Session 1. Another hook the players didn't bite on.

From the camp comes the sound of music and merriment, men and women in camaraderie. Food and drink is abundant, and the sight of it, even though it is a mighty army, tugs at my heart. In my life and in my companions, there were once homes and laughter and welcoming hearths. We feast, yet all stay sober; we are too wary to give in to drink. All of the warriors are amused by the presence of the halfling, "Why, he is but a child!" they exclaim. He is, and he is not. It is hard for them to understand.

The camp, we find, is divided. The conscripts eat and talk at the many campfires in the center and the cavalry and commanders are separate and unapproachable. In addition, the tents are divided by the campfires; there are tents on the north side of the camp, and tents on the south side. Everyone we talk to is very friendly--with each other and with us. The morale in the camp is quite high. The camaraderie around the conscripts’ fires is intoxicating. Intelligent Chameleon Survives and I are even offered naganatas (Swift already has one) by a sergeant. This is the weapon that the sergeants use. The yari footmen use yari spears, and the archers, of course, use bows. We happily accept these gifts and enjoy the evening, although we are still wary of the purpose of this army. No one has been able to tell us why they fight, save for the fact that it is their job to do so.

We are approached by a sergeant as the evening wears on. "Which side will you go to?", the foot soldier asks, "You must choose one, for tomorrow we fight." Then, the terrible truth is revealed to us. We know then that we will be sleeping with two opposing armies for bedfellows. Tonight two armies shared friendship, fire, and feast. Tomorrow, they will kill each other. War makes no sense.

DM note: the player of Fighting Man Dances began to suspect, not necessarily accurately in any way, that the soldiers were caught in a time loop, because one type of reality shift that can happen in this setting is temporal. He figured that if a whole lot of people died at once, it might create such an effect. The party has no evidence that this is the case, however.

Reality?

It is drizzling in the morning, spring again. Still, the season is the Black and White. The south army, with which we slept, prepares for battle, gray flags (that particular shade of gray which would be the brightest of reds at other times of the year) with white arrows fluttering from the backs of the conscripts’ armor. "Where are the generals?" the Chameleon calls out with great urgency. "We will see the generals!" The conscripts are astounded at the presumptuous nature that we display. "You must don your armor, and prepare for battle!" they call to us.

"Where are the officers?" shouts Chameleon. The answer is obvious, however. As the soldiers form their lines, the cavalry do also, and behind the cavalry, is the richly decorated troop of commanders, on the only elephants in the army.

The cool air floods over us while we smoke and make our plans for escape. Swift and the Chameleon are at each others throats. Again, Chameleon sets our course of action. We will approach the officers and offer our services as a special troop, and escape when we get the chance. With each step we take closer to the officer's camp, more and more conscripts around us stop what they are doing and stare at us. "We seek the officers, " we call. We, peasants, are approaching the commanders! The conscripts look at us in awe.

The cavalry are more disciplined than the foot soldiers, and their formations are nearly complete. We humbly, humbly bow. "There is no way out", I hear Swift's voice in my ear. "We cannot fight", the Chameleon snarls back at him with a sharp instruction to follow the plan. The Chameleon addresses himself to the commanding horseman, and diplomatically pursues an audience with the commanders. The cavalry leader assents.

DM note: Intelligent Chameleon Survives rolled a natural 20 on his diplomacy check right here, for a total of 27. Nothing spectacular, but at least it was success.

We are circling west, behind the army, past the sound of horns and the rain of arrows flying until at last we stand before a mounted officer, his elephant towering above us as he moves forward to address us. Chameleon calls out in a loud voice, filled with the delusional authority with which he views himself: "We have some skills that might be useful to you in battle. Hear us out!" The man glares down upon us, but this is enough. This is what we came for. Now we present our offer. But the commander is unimpressed. He does, however, grant us a place in the troop of yari footmen flanking on the east, where we have come from, if we can don our armor and catch up in time. (There is no armor for the halfling, of course—he is only a halfling, after all.) That would put us on the edge of the battlefield--an easy escape! In elation, we hastily put on our conscript armor and run. I do not notice the volley of arrows descending until it is too late for me to react. I feel the burn of the assault bursting through me. Four arrows have pierced me. Through a strange mix of tears and the clarity that a close brush with death brings, I can see that the others have avoided the hail of metal, wood, and fletching. I still stand. Chameleon casts a spell and becomes a commander before our eyes. The resulting reality shift has no comparison to the tremendous shifts that are to follow. Our hearts are in our throats, for the cavalry has divided into two troops, each riding behind the army to flank from either side. One troop rides down upon us. Some of the riders have slumped in their saddles, having taken arrows through their armor. Swift and I both attempt to seize the horses of two such warriors, but both attempts are failures, which leave us lying in the mud and amongst the trampling hooves of the cavalry.

Chameleon, the commander, calls out for the cavalry to stop. They do. Every single horseman in the east flanking assault halts and gathers around him. "I am a general and these are my men." (I little cared at the time to point out my femininity.) "Horse for the four of us at once! You three, I command you to dismount and report to the other officers that we are in need of reinforcements. Things have not gone as planned."

I am aware one of my companions (Swift, I think, or maybe the halfling) taking some arrows in another volley, but I am soon pierced by another four. I am not dead, but I have lost touch with my body, and I fall into the darkest black of this colorless season. I will not be saved this day. But Swift is running to me and drags me up and onto the horse and the last thing I remember is the weightless sensation of being lifted and of movement--violent movement--of the horse and every jolt an arrow of pain.

DM note: this battle was particularly viscous. The PCs never saw the archers that were raining arrows down upon them. In truth, it was more of a prolonged trap--as was the forest fire in the earlier part of the game. I was treating each arrow volley as an area of effect attack, letting each PC make a Ref save to avoid being hit. If a PC was hit, they got 1d4 arrows, and Ocean always got 4. I seem to remember that she actually took another volley before dropping: 12 arrows total.

The Dying Begins

I am unconscious, but conscious of all that matters. When the dying truly begins on the field of battle, all elements cut loose, and earthquake, fire and flood play at the heels of our horses. Debris and explosions are spurring the horses on to incredible speed. The Dreamer is crazy. But we are out. We are headed south, away from the battle, but I still cling precariously to life. Maybe if I die, everything will become clear…

--Ocean Deeply Sleeps


DM note: notable moments--the fire and the battle were both potentially very lethal situations and it is certainly a testament to the ability of my players that they all survived. They work well as a team. The fire, in particular, was a frantic encounter for the PCs. It took them hours to get that deep into the forest. It took them less than ten rounds to get out. When Intelligent Chameleon Survives fell unconscious, I was sure that he would be burned alive, especially when Swift Serpent Strikes failed to re-enter the forest 2 rounds in a row. That halfling was not going to get the human out without help. Of course, I thought the halfling would perish, as well, for his selfless act. I'm thinking of giving him a point of good karma.

Swift Serpent Strikes' player was also playing the halfling's monkey friend. The comic effect that the monkey provided relieved a great deal of tension throughout the game, particularly after the monkey had been tied to the tree, and wasn't "speaking" with the halfling.

Intelligent Chameleon Survives...well, what can I say? His tactics weren't too different from the last session, but this time, his illusion worked better than he could have imagined. I couldn't decide if he deserved good karma or bad karma for it, though, so in the end I gave him none. (Karma is a game mechanic unique to this setting.)

Ocean Deeply Sleeps now has a naganata, but hasn't yet had the opportunity to use it. I was a little surprised to see her try to dismount a wounded cavalryman on her own side, given her honor, but only mildly. Perhaps we have the kernel of a personality conflict?

Fighting Man Dances is a trip. He is going to give his butterfly sword to the monkey when (if) he has taught it martial arts. The monkey is the size of a cat!
 
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Rune

Once A Fool
The Characters at the end of the session:

Swift Serpent Strikes (Rogue2/Fighter1)

Intelligent Chameleon Survives (Rogue1/Sorceror2)

Ocean Deeply Sleeps (Rogue1/Fighter2)

Fighting Man Dances (Monk2/Sorceror1)
 

Rune

Once A Fool
Session 3, part 1

I am conscious again, but I cannot move.

We are certain that our luck has changed. We have fled from the fury of the elements in full armor and on the backs of war-horses. We have narrowly escaped an unexplained battle and we are riding hard toward the south. When at last the landscape becomes solid beneath us, when the wind subsides and the earth ceases to shake, we turn to look for shelter and to make encampment where Swift’s wounds, and mine, can be nursed and where my body can be revived.

We come upon the kind of expansive rock overhang that I have slept near many times. A giant hemlock tree stretches its Anaconda root nearly thirty feet across the edge of a rock overhang and dips into the soil below. The ledge is narrow. A human might be able to crawl between the upper and the lower level, or perhaps the halfling could crouch. It forms a sort of a shallow cave, but a hole in the back of the crevice, no more than a foot in diameter, leads deep into the earth. Curiously, we discover a tiny tiger cub outside of the shallow cave, its eyes still closed, and so small that it could fit in the palm of a hand, just sitting there in a kind of stupor, in the company of a clutch of innocuous little cave spiders. The spiders dare not close in on the cub that they surround, and the cub dares not move. I can see very little of this from where I lay, but I can feel the draft from the mouth of the cave. The men ready their weapons, sensing that if the cub is there, the tigress might be returning. Immediately, they build a fire.

A rush of cool air thrusts out of the mouth of the rock shelter. The halfling monk sets out to explore the back of the cave, and Swift follows soon after him. Dragging Chameleon from the burning forest has won the halfling a new respect from the group. We hear the raised voices of the men and Chameleon, who had been assigned to watch over me, for any small movement could send me back toward my death, sets forth to investigate the matter. I am later told that they have come across a human body, long dead, wearing the standard traveler's garb, lacerated and in full decomposition. There is a mark on the back of the neck—-a brand—-that they have drawn upon paper for me. I do not recognize it and neither do the others, I presume.

Swift has searched the body, (soul-tainting work that it is, sometimes these things are necessary) and has found a map outlining an assassination plot against the Governor in a large town, called the Silver City, not far from west from here. He has also recovered three ceramic vials of some liquid, which is putrid to smell. I can see in Swift's eyes that he would have us go to the city, but I cannot bring myself to think of it for I am so tired. I long, as he does, for the sight of a city. Chameleon strokes the kitten carefully with his large hand. Perhaps we could send the monkey into small opening in the back of the cave to explore. They toss in a piece of fruit, but the monkey will not go inside. Chameleon casts a spell of lighting on a crossbow bolt (he has a tiny crossbow, which he can use with a single hand) and fires it into the hole, but it hits a wall and then drops. Whatever reality shift that is triggered in the casting is too subtle for our notice. The cave is narrow for as far as can be seen. Searching for rocks to block the entrance, they seal it tight. Finally, we feel somewhat secure.

DM note: the player of Swift was playing the monkey again. Monkeys are funny.

For a week we rest and heal. I can hear Chameleon working on constructing a composite bow late into the night. He is not finished when we decide to move on, but continues to work on it, when he can; he even twists the bowstring with hair liberated from the war-horses while we ride. The city beckons!

The Adventure Begins

As we near the city, we stop to study the map and consider where we will leave our horses. There is some argument regarding the wisdom of Swift carrying a map with plans for the assassination of the governor on his body, particularly if the map is of the city we enter, and the governor in the plans is the governor of that city. We urge him to destroy the map, as we have made a copy of the neighborhoods, but he intends to keep it and says he will take full responsibility for it if it is found on his body. We stow the armor on the horses and we enter with our weapons at ease, going east toward the market place. We are carrying remnants of conscripts’ armor, the Empire’s silver found in the bakemono camp, and the war-horses, Chameleon reminds us. We are conspicuous.

DM note: it took the players a long time just to figure out which entrance into the city to use. In the end, they probably chose wisely.

It is decided, then, that we enter on foot, into the East Gate neighborhood, described on the map as a rough and tumble neighborhood, over-run with mercenaries and adventurers: transients. All weapons must be peace bonded, the guards insist, and reluctantly, we comply. Rumors abound in the Silver City. Our old encounter, Grinning Tiger Rules, is said to have lost his ancestral katana and lost great honor for himself and for his family. This rumor is obviously old and stale. It is soon drowned out with a new, omnipresent one: the Governor has been assassinated. Guards are everywhere moving among the denizens of the city. One, we see is clearly in charge of the others; she is an impressive woman soldier with strands of gray in her braids, carrying a three section staff, and barking orders at the rest of the guards. She passes by quickly.

DM note: the rest of the guards carry naganata and swords. The PCs figured that the commander was a monk, because of the three-section staff, but have no other evidence that this is the case.

We decide to split up and keep a low profile. Swift is going to find an alchemist’s shop to inquire about the vials of liquid. Chameleon and the halfling go off somewhere to explore the market, I suppose. I attempt to codify the rumors about the Governor’s death, but with no success. When we meet again, Swift shows us a note signed and sealed by the Commander of the Guards, Night Softly Calls. He has (foolishly?) given the map to the Commander, and claims that she is entirely trustworthy. Perhaps she is. We have been granted permission to enter the Governor’s Palace on the condition that we will attempt to solve the mystery of his death. The Guards will, of course, escort us. It is quickly decided that we will accept the challenge offered by the Commander.

My companions are, for the most part, still a puzzle to me. As we walk I ask Chameleon what, just at this moment, his philosophy is. "I don't care about Grinning Tiger or the governor. Honor is a personal thing. My honor is my business. Right now, however, all I want is to find some new daggers." I wish that I could find such sense or simplicity in the Dream. More than any of us, he lives in the moment, he dreams with his weapons, he is ready to react or to accept a challenge.

Our knives are all that remain ready as we move toward the palace.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
Session 3, part 2

The dead Governor’s name is Mad Stone Tumbles. It was, we shall soon see, an apt name for the man.

As we walk through the expensive neighborhood of Silver Hill, we are astounded at what we see. Even in this Black and White Season, the silver trees are astounding in the spring. The leaves are silver. Real silver! More extravagantly, so are the bulb-shaped domes on the spires of the beautiful buildings in the neighborhood. It is simply amazing.

DM note: I kind of thought that the players might try to take some leaves with them, but to their credit (or discredit?), they did not.

It is no surprise to me, when we enter the Governor's bedchamber, that Chameleon is the first to step near to the expansive window and study the strand like substance remaining in the open frame. The rest of us have found a more interesting puzzle: the Governor’s diary. As we read the tome aloud, Swift examines the body of the late Governor in great detail. The body is bloated, lacerated. Quite clearly there was some struggle, here. The wounds are more swollen than the remainder of the body, so we conclude that the assassin was using poisoned blades. The halfling is pacing the room back and forth in front of the body, his pacing dizzyingly quick. Swift opens a vial to see if there may be some connection between its contents and the overpoweringly evil smell in the room. The diary exhibits his incredible paranoia. It is filled with grandiose schemes of power-mad conspirators. It is filled with imagined plots of every kind against the Governor. He fears for his life. And has for years. Is it the wench occupying his bed who will snuff out his existence? Is it the matron of House Dragon ("that manipulative wench" is the actual reference)? Is it the rival for his position as Governor, Laughing Monkey Rules (the new Governor, as it turns out)? His mind is a room full of doors opening out upon a landscape of fear and delusion that only restless sleep could wrestle with.

The servant who discovered the body, is questioned. She heard sounds of struggle in the Governor’s room, and screams. When she entered (immediately, she claims), she discovered the awful truth. Oddly, there was no noticeable reality shift when the Governor passed from the mortal world.

DM note: I was hoping that the PCs would bite on some of these hooks, but, unfortunately, they got right to the point.

Chameleon is bothered by the window. He asks the guards for permission to cast a minor spell, which will allow him to climb the wall outside the window as if he was a spider. The guards assent. When we hear the palace echo with trumpets, the Dream’s response to the magic spell, we look up, aware that Chameleon has cast his spell and is crawling outside of the window. He is brave to do so at such a height, even with the magic. He sees more strands above the window, and goes up. As he nears the top of the building, Chameleon sees an opening in the wall. A very large opening, that is clearly not part of the architecture. He casts his light spell upon a dagger and throws it into the large crevice between the dome and the marble wall. When the Dream reacts, the air wavers as it does when heat bears down upon a stone street. I glance around the room and I see that the monkey and his constant companion, the little tiger have fled. I know not how they had the sense to do so, but I can only admire their wisdom. The halfling is deliberating pursuit of the animals. Swift and I are looking up, out the window, at the exact moment the heel of Chameleon's boot rushes toward us, as he leaps through the window in the shadow of a creature that I will be able to describe on my deathbed, moving with such speed and superhuman agility that his many legs and furry abdomen are but a blur below the hideous head with its scissoring mouth now closing and multiple eyes devoid of soul; the black, hairy legs have drawn in the Chameleon. And there is no sound in the room but the rending of flesh and the slight whish of the venom entering his exposed neck. The guards have run.

DM note: man, did this come as a surprise to the players. I had been telling them for a week that the next session would be primarily political intrigue. They didn't see this coming. (Well, to be honest, Chameleon's player had his suspicions, which is why he climbed the wall. When he saw the 15 FOOT HOLE I would have thought he would back off. But noooo, he had toss a dagger in...

The Beast

Incredibly, Chameleon still stands, but not for long. He makes a feeble attempt to defend himself, but the huge spider strikes again. Chameleon is dead before his body has crumpled to the ground. In response to the death, the ceiling begins to rain down small chunks of marble. Swift is struck a glancing blow. I am struck more critically, but it is a mere annoyance, compared to the monster that faces us.

DM note: this is the first time that the PCs received damage from a reality shift, albeit indirectly.

I think for just a second; I do not feel fear yet, but my surprise is strong, as if a great wall of water or rain of stone has come from out of nowhere and is sweeping us all away toward death. I will not leave the body of our fallen companion. The others obviously come to the same conclusion.

The spider is near enough that I feel his breath upon me. I am bitten and, along with the terrible pain, I feel...weakened. My weapons are bound, all but the knives in my sash and I ready the knife, which will only be like a stone dropped in a vast raging river, and make my strike. A great leg throttles me and I fall, fangs scraping across my leather armor. Swift unties his naganata (how, I forget) and strikes, but he has failed, and is swept under by the grinding maw. Somehow, he shrugs off the poison, for a moment, but it soon catches up to him. The halfling casts a magical spell on himself, and later, on me. It provides me with a magical defense against the bite of the spider, and I am grateful. In the thick of battle, the reality shifts go unnoticed.

The spider-creature is quickly moving to block our escape.

DM note: the player of Fighting Man Dances immediately picked up on the fact that the spider was using intelligent tactics. Very interesting...

We try to fend off the creature with our blades, but it is much quicker than we are and is so much larger than we, that any advantage of reach gained from our weapons is lost. There is something primeval, something that comes from the cave and creeps into our eyes as we hear the ghostly shout, "Fire" and the halfling, in the only second we have, summons forth some force to retrieve a lamp from beside the bed or on a wall. Unfortunately, the Dream’s reaction is very noticeable, this time. A gust of wind blows out the flames of every single lamp in the room. We are in total darkness. And the spider can see us.

DM note: this is the point that the players really hated me. Hey, they handed it to me...

This is the darkness of the known enemy breathing away our lives. This is the darkness of the enemy now not on one side, but on many. Swift makes a lucky blow with his naganata and slices deep into the furry creature. He is rewarded with only anger. The halfling reaches for the flint in his pocket and brings into existence a glimmer of a fire that takes its breath upon the pages of the madman's diary.

DM note: and here, the tide begins to turn.

He has thrown fuel upon the fire, and Swift has pulled a curtain from the casement and washed it in fire and we are running forward. We throw the flaming curtain on the nightmare, and it is burned badly. It retreats.

We grab another curtain and attempt the same attack, but the spider has run to the far corner of the enormous room, and the sheet has been burned away by the time we get to the spider. It does cower from the flame, however.

The halfling is throwing small, burning objects at the spider. In an act of self-preservation, the spider rushes past us, attacking Swift as it passes. Swift swings out feebly, but can not manage a successful blow. He is brought to the brink of death by the spider's attack. I attempt desperately to stop his bleeding, to heal him, while the halfling continues his assault on the monster.

Chameleon dead, Swift dying. I am injured and weakened and, it seems, no weapon made by humanity can offer protection from this unworldly thing. Do I see the image in my mind, do I hear Chameleon's voice calling out to us from the dead?

Swift joins Chameleon in death. My healing has proven futile. The Dream reacts; a column of fire rises from inches above him into the ceiling, burning me.

The spider is heading for the window, but stops at the body of Chameleon, clearly intending to take it with him in retreat. In desperation, Fighting Man Dances throws one last bundle of burning cloth at it, and the flame flickers as if it will burn out. But the bundle explodes into flame a second later, and the spider’s life is spent.

DM note: that is karma in action. The halfling rolled (on 1d6) a 1 for damage against the spider, which (although he didn't know it) had 2 hp left. I marked off the karma point he had received in the burning forest, and he rerolled...a 6! There was much rejoicing.

The air is choking with the smell of its putrid, smoking fur. With the death of the spider, night turns to day, and again, to night, and a great wind sweeps through the city. The beast is dead. The guard returns and take the bodies of Swift and Chameleon to the Shugenja temple in the North Crossing neighborhood. The halfling and I are escorted out of the palace and soon have received an invitation to the House Dragon. We accept an escort and go.

DM note: the House Dragon is possibly the most influential force in the city, politically. The Dragon family is a very powerful family within the empire, and the Silver City is its home, so in a sense, the Silver City is House Dragon's.

House Dragon

Our two dead companions, having been taken to the temple, weigh upon our minds as we enter the opulent palace of Dragon Silently Hunts. We should, she is certain, be rewarded for our valor in battle. We are, after all, heroes. Would 100 Rice Months for each of us be sufficient?

"While it would be a great wealth," the halfling replies, "what we seek is something for our companions who can have no reward in death. Can the Shugenja bring them back?"

"We shall see."

Dragon sweeps from the room to send a message. Our eyes cast upward toward the heroic paintings which line the wall. In this season of black and white, the colors of the paintings stand out like flames along the polished alabaster walls, for, indeed, they do not lack color. One painting, in particular, captures our interest: a deep forest scene with a figure at the center, abstractly like a hooded monk with eyes of fire and body of ghostly white surrounded by what may be flames of blue, bears a staff, or rod, or sword down upon the black figure of some person kneeling at his feet. The forest is vast, awash with towering shafts of hemlock. The author's name is not known, but the title rests below, embossed in gold. "Undeath in the Silver Forest."

DM note: this was a cool moment, I painted the picture, myself. It was very abstract and the players could make little of it.

I remember the Chameleon's final words, "What do we see in death? Do we meet the dreamer?"

I fear that what we have not understood in life will escape us, also, in the hour of our death.

All our hopes now lie with our companions where they lie without breath on the marble slabs in the temple. Will our request be honored?

Dragon returns, but before she can speak, a young nobleman strides into the chamber, wakazashi and katana at his side.

"Mother, the preparations are..." But his voice trails off as he takes us in. He glares balefully at us, and at his mother, before storming from the room. The halfling and I exchange a glance.

It is Grinning Tiger Rules.

--Ocean Deeply Sleeps


DM note: notable moments--right after the Spider attacked Chameleon the first time, and dealt some horrendous amount of damage on 2d6+6, I said, "Hmmm. Maybe I underestimated the difficulty on this one." That really set the mood for the entire battle. I do not, by the way, pull punches, and I did not fudge the stats of the creature. It was an advanced huge monstrous spider going into the battle, and it remained one until its death. I figured that it was around CR 5, and I ended up giving the PCs xp for a CR 6 creature. Half of them survived, though. I don't know what they are complaining about.

Intelligent Chameleon Survives was a charismatic and insightful man and he died a hero's death. He will be missed.

Swift Serpent Strikes was a devout companion and an honorable man. He died a hero's death and he will be missed.

Ocean Deeply Sleeps is often quiet during the game, because her player is busy writing copious notes. 10 letter-sized pages is not uncommon for her. Nevertheless, the player brings an element of the emotional to the game, where the other players might otherwise wax analytical. Not that any of the players lacks in either area, however.

Fighting Man Dances is once again the hero of the hour. Just goes to show that the little people can do big things. They still won't be noticed, however...
 
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