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[ZEITGEIST] The Continuing Adventures of Korrigan & Co.

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 231, Part Two - Kinava Monastery

Kinava Monastery

A few hours' flight – the discs were manoeuvrable but not swift – took them through the asteroid fields of Urim (where they saw the giant native worms moving gracefully from crater to crater) and to the edge of the plane of Caeloon. Calily’s home was a land of rolling hills covered with pines, where a continual light breeze blew between the silent tree trunks. No animals lived here, and only a few bushes and weeds grew on the forest floor. A handful of great pines survived the fires that burnt the world to death seventy years ago, and they rose high above their neighbouring children.

The plane appeared abandoned at first glance, but a small monastery, consisting of just a handful of rooms, lay in a clearing upon the highest hill. The clearing was far larger than the tiny weather-beaten building. Wind whistled through cracks in the wall and fluttered paper shutters scribed with calligraphic meditations. The walls were nothing more than stiff paper as well, and what at first appeared to be an irregular texture of vertical stripes were actually, on closer examination, thousands of lines of text, written directly onto the building. Outside, the breeze span a brass wheel cylinder attached to a small windmill, clattering as the prayer embossed in the metal endlessly repeated.

Calily paused to meditate on the threshold and then led them inside. Inviting them to sit, she retrieved the map and brewed pine needle tea. Then she asked them to tell her how they came here, and whether they were powerful enough to defeat the Golden Legion. The answers to both questions took a long time. First they told her all about their quest to save their own world from the machinations of the Obscurati, and from the Voice of Rot. All the while, Gupta studied the map, and asked Calily occasional questions about it. They also talked about the golden legion – their strength and numbers, and the fact Egalitrix lay across the wide gap between the northern and southern tracts of the Gyre. Until they fixed their ship they would not be able to cross it. (Calily had been able to cross on Bhoior, a plane that was a giant undead turtle, but only after meditating there for many months. The journey on Bhoior had been slow!)

Gupta pointed at the map, intrigued by the mention of a lighthouse on Ascetia. Now she thought about it, she realised she had seen its pulsing light as they flew to Caeloon. She said she would very much like to investigate it. Rumdoom pointed out that lighthouses were usually a warning, not an invitation.

The Coaltongue was by now on its way to join them. While they waited, Kai tried to bond with Caeloon. In his little boy way, he told them that it would take a very long time, but that it would be quicker if they could ‘make friends’ with Caeloon. How? “By doing something nice for it,” said Kai. “For the people who live here.”

At once, Calily said that some of her people had been kidnapped many, many years ago by the pirates of Hunlow. It would be a huge boon to free them and any of their descendants from that world. It was agreed that they would try, but first they would explore nearby and see if they could bond with a fire plane. Though they had been warned of its dangers, they would risk a visit to Padyer.

But first, they would take much-needed rest.

Korrigan talked philosophy with Calily for a while and gave her a copy of his Critique of Millerism, the better to explain his own worldview.

Uru did his best to gain support for his ‘nostalgia’ faction (taking his cue from the adversarial style of the Convocation). Rumdoom listened intently and it seemed for a moment that Uru might have a convert, until the dwarf said, “Putting things back the way there were pretty much runs counter to my whole philosophy. I’m all about taking control of the end.” Korrigan, who had been listening, dismissed the status quo as ‘boring’. Uru gave up and turned his attention to fixing up Quratulain. (Being fey, he didn’t need much rest.)

The ship arrived and came to rest close to the monastery. It would need to recharge again now. They would set off for Padyer before it had done so. Kieran Sentacore was keen to note down all the details of their travels and together he and Uriel studied and copied Calilly’s map. Gupta studied the walls of the monastery and quickly picked up the basics of the script and its underlying language. (Calily had been speaking another tongue the whole time, but they had been able to understand her and she them.) Leon asked Calily about her fighting technique and they sparred together. He realised there might be something he could learn from her, given time. Korrigan tried to contact Rock Rackus again, but gain there was no word.

Rumdoom sat with his retinue and ruminated on the end of the world. He wanted to see if there was anything he could work out or learn just by concentrating on it. He was, after all, Logos, Avatar of the End and Wielder of the Kum-Ruk Nazar. To his own surprise, he had a sudden revelation…

While Rumdoom meditated, Leon tried various methods to see if it would be possible for them to travel back from the Gyre by teleportation. The answer was, no. He could open the Dream Palace, but none of the doors that gave on to homeworld locations would work.

When he came back to the group and reported his findings, Rumdoom nodded, stood and announced, portentously, “No one can leave the Gyre. We are stuck here. There is no way out.”
 
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gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 231, Part Three - Deadly Seas

Deadly Seas

There was nothing for it but to press on. They all took some solace from their shared vision of the future, which showed them returning to Lanjyr somehow (albeit with an abject sense of failure).

Leaving the ship to continue recharging, they flew on their stone discs to Padyer, leaving Leon and Uriel behind once again. Calily also stayed on as host.

After a few hours flight they left the rolling, forested hills of Caeloon behind and now they flew across a bright, white expanse: Padyer was a beautiful but eerily smooth tableau that resembled porcelain. Sending his roving eye to the highest vantage, Korrigan found he could perceive a slow tilt, or wobble like a top about to stop spinning. A lapping sea drifted in the far distance and would eventually be upon them, wherever they chose to stop. Calily had warned them that this water was impossibly hot; hot enough to slag metal.

The only other feature was a lonely, cracked ceramic tower. Above the door was inscribed the legend, ‘Padyer’. It had been warded against intrusion and, with the seas fast approaching, they did not have the time (nor the right personnel) to investigate further. Kai said that he felt the tower was ‘sad’ and wondered if it might help to bond to a world if you knew what had happened to it. Again, they didn’t have the right person for the job – Uriel might have the means to unlock the secrets of the tower, but it was not worth summoning him here, given the increasing proximity of the searing sea.

So they left Padyer and rejoined the Coaltongue, setting off northwards from Caeloon to deal with the pirates of Hunlow. Their journey took them through one of the clusters of empty motes. Here the isolation and emptiness caused them to be more aware of the ‘background hum’ of the Gyre: the occasional blink of the lighthouse on Ascetia – which Gupta found herself increasingly compelled to visit – and another light, much more steady, which seemed to mark out the days here, like a nostalgic reminder of their lost sun. Calily said it was a sun – one of the planes, called Obliatas. Uru also spotted clusters of drifting spirits – souls that had been gathered in the Bleak Gate, now drawn helplessly towards the teeth of the Gyre. It was from this fate they had rescued El Perro, Helandra, Lavanya and Korrigan’s wife.

As they drew closer to Hunlow, Uriel announced that he had sensed a divine presence in the Gyre ever since they first arrived. Now he was certain that a god was to be found on Hunlow. Uru nudged Korrigan, “Can’t you have a chat with him and get him to disbelieve in himself?”

The vortex array was trained on Hunlow. The result was death and water.

Up close, the plane was a vast ocean of waves that turned blood-red as they crested. At its centre was a chain of islands in the form of a skull and crossbones.

“This ocean is the god,” said Uriel. “A bloodthirsty and wicked one. Gleefully so!” Though he did not feel that the god could rise up and harm them directly, its servants would be very powerful here.

Korrigan scoured the plan with his roving eye, focusing his search on the island chain. Sure enough, on the largest, central landmass, he spied rising plumes of smoke. The skull shape was formed from inlets – craters that let the sea in to form the eyes and nasal sockets. Inside the left eye, a whole flotilla of ships lay, protected from the seas. The pirates had gathered together and were engaged in some sort of ritual: dozens of victims were lashed to an enormous pyre on the vertiginous shore. They needed to move fast.

Soon the Coaltongue would lose power. They took it down a few miles away and used the stone discs to take them closer. When they had reached a safe distance they came to rest, and only Uru ranged ahead on Little Jack. He followed the sea channel into the eye-socket inlet, and soon could hear the sound of dream beats and ululations over the waves. There were more than a dozen ships gathered here, and many hundreds of pirates.

Uru picked his way to the centre of the throng, hopping, unseen from ship to ship. Just in case, he adopted a suitably piratical costume and prepared to brazen out any encounter. When he came to what appeared to be the flagship, he looked around for any impressive leader-like types. Sure enough, he found two of them side by side – one loudly enjoying the proceedings and joining in with the shouts and chants; the other, larger figure all the more impressive for its silence: The loud one was dressed as an archetypal pirate captain, complete with voluminous tricorn hat and eye-patch. He was short, corpulent and scaly. The thing beside him was draped in long cloaks, drenched in what must have been seawater. It looked vaguely humanoid, but Uru thought he saw tentacles twitching and the end of its sleeves.

There were pirate-priests dotted throughout the fleet, leading the chants and calling upon Hunlow, their god, to arise. Torches had already been lit, and were brandished all around the pyre. Who knew how long they would wait before they lit it?

“We can’t allow this to happen,” said Korrigan. “Be ready,” he told Uru. Then he contacted the Coaltongue. Leon and Uriel said they could provide enough power to keep her airborne for now, and set off to provide air support. The unit flew as close as it dared, which was very close indeed, as the pirates were totally distracted. Calily said that the pirates would be very strong, here on Hunlow, and did not appear confident that things would go well. Her reservations notwithstanding, Korrigan took to the air, flew across the flotilla, and came to hover above the pirates leaders.

Thanks to the Humble Hook, he knew them to be Admiral Taracle, the misshapen offspring of Hunlow and a demigod; and Captain Thrusty, a fat half-fiend, formerly of the golden legion, captured by the pirates and now a proud worshipper of their evil god.

“This ritual must end!” Korrigan declared, barely audible over the din.

Captain Thrusty gave a hearty laugh and demanded to know who was addressing them.

“I am the king of Risur. You must stop what you are doing and release these prisoners!”

Thrusty found this most amusing. “Or what?” he asked.

“You will suffer the consequences,” said Korrigan.

A wet, muffled grunt came from Admiral Taracle, but Thrusty was still enjoying himself. “You are very funny,” he said. His voice rose melodramatically as he went on: “We will indeed release the prisoners, but only because we do not intend to burn them, merely relish their fear and prepare them for what is to come: When the distant sun of Obliatas next dips beneath the horizon, the thirteen ships of Admiral Taracle’s fleet will sail a circle round the island chain, slitting arteries of hundreds of slaves and leaving a trail of fresh blood. When the day-long ritual is complete, Hunlow himself will arise, and his ocean-sized he will crawl from world to world in a crashing flood, carrying our fleet before him. In four days he’ll sweep across Thrag, Bhoior, Nem, and then reach the shiny new realm which just struck the Gyre. There we will find slaves and gold in abundance, and defeat the Golden Legion!”

There was a deafening roar of approval from the pirates.

“That is all very well,” said Korrigan. “Nonetheless…”

:):):):) this!” said Rumdoom, tired of skulking in his hiding place. He invoked the Icon of Avilona, grew to giant size, and, wielding the Stone of Not in just one hand, launched himself at the pirates’ flagship.

End of Session
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
DM's Notes

DM's Notes

Hex-crawls are always a challenge to run because there are no limits to the direction a party can go, and it is therefore difficult to fully prepare for every eventuality. The Gyre is even more challenging because some of the hexes can be fairly complex in nature, and the level of detail means that a quick glance at the text is insufficient to jog the memory.

The players took me by surprise by making a beeline for Hunlow. In retrospect that was a perfectly reasonable decision to make - after all they had been given a 'quest', hadn't they? So I quickly scanned the text about the pirates. Warning: the phrase when the party arrives is buried three quarters of a page into the entry on Hunlow, so it took me a few minutes to orient myself. By then there had been a long hiatus had the table and I ended up fudging things a bit so that Taracle's fleet were all gathered in one place for the big ritual which I'm not sure is the intention.

Uru goes scouting and establishes that the Kinava monks are not here. But good old Korrigan isn't about to let a bunch of slaves get burned alive, and decides to go talk to the pirate leaders. Meanwhile, Rumdoom's player asks me how many pirates there are, I glance down at the text, miscount completely and say "Oh, scores of them!" This number being insufficiently daunting, he decides he is fed up of Korrigan's stilted conversation with a bemused Captain Thrusty and launches himself into the fray, bringing the session to a slightly early close while I go off the prep the encounter for the following week.

On the way home (first leg being on a train) I notice that there are four 'unholy boarding crews' per ship, each consisting of 12 pirates. So the true figure is close to six-hundred-and-fifty bad guys.

Oops!

I told the players about my mistake straight away and offered them the rare opportunity to undo their chosen actions in the light of the new information, since it was my fault entirely.

They declined. ...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ysVoV3x5Zo
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 232, Part One - “Kill This Idiot!”

“Kill This Idiot!” Captain Thrusty sneered, gesturing at Korrigan, as Admiral Taracle turned with a snarl to face Rumdoom, drawing a pair of golden axes from under his sodden robes.

Before any of the pirates could react, Korrigan gave Uru the order to shoot, but Uru’s shuriken was already airborne, and bit deep into Captain Thrusty, laden with necrotic poison. Uru hoped to drop the captain and disappear back into the shadows, but before he could do so, with swashbuckling grace that belied his portly frame, Thrusty disappeared and reappeared in the rigging alongside him. It was all Uru could do to throw himself clear of Thrusty’s fiery golden rapier. Then he hid in the shadows of the grim candle as Korrigan flew in to support him (noting as he did so that there was something disarming and distracting about the fat fiend’s proximity).

As he flew over the flotilla of pirate ships, aiming for the admiral, Rumdoom realised for the first time just how many pirates there were. From his hiding place, it didn’t seem like there were so many. But every ship swarmed with degenerate brigands, and there were many, many ships. So Rumdoom dug deep, flew lower over the decks, and unleashed the frigid power of the end times. Dozens of pirates were killed in an instant.

Calily muttered something under her breath – either a mantra to steady her nerve, or an imprecation at the unit’s audacity – then she launched herself at the deck of the nearest ship, with Quratulain heading for another. Bhalu judged the gap and was like, “No way, man.” So he chucked a couple of inaccurate daggers and began to rethink his decision to tag along. Gupta, meanwhile, gathered dangerous insights into the nature of their foes, telepathically issuing advice as to their weaknesses and fighting styles.

Now the element of surprise was all used up and the pirates responded en masse, launching themselves into the air in a spray of seawater, like a bizarre firework display. Korrigan, Rumdoom, Calily and Quratulain were beset from all sides and did their best to absorb, deflect or parry blows, each after their own fashion. Quratulain took advantage of being swarmed by dropping a grenade at her own feet, excluding herself with the firesight eye, handily clearing some space in an explosion of guts and limbs.

Priests on the shore gave orders for the tiered pyre to be lit. The captives began wailing; although the fires would take some time to reach them, it did not look to them as though the battle would go the newcomers’ way. (Indeed, the newcomers themselves were beginning to wonder if they had bitten off more than they could chew.)

Other priests throughout the fleet invoked Hunlow’s power to banish the unit from their realm. Holding up depraved holy symbols – a severed hand, a shrunken head, mummified testicles; each with a hook driven through where it would hurt the most – they rebuked these heretical interlopers. Divine energy sought to hurl them across the multiverse, but the Gyre would not allow it. It manifested as a dark mist in the form of gear-teeth that sought to chew up each target.

Some of the pirates closest to the ledge where Bhalu and Gupta were now revealed launched skulls which took on a life of their own and flew an impossible distance to explode in the brush. Then priests on these boats proved that, though lacking cannon, the ships were far from defenceless, invoking the power of combined spellcasting. Several dozen pirates roared ‘Yar!’ in unison. Their priestly captains grasped their voices, tied them together into a giant hook and threw them at Gupta and Bhalu, both of whom were already ensnared by the Gyre teeth. “I’m out of my element,” wailed a battered and bruised Bhalu. (Single - preferably oblivious - targets were his speciality. The last time he went up against an army, he ended up crucified. He had a feeling this was about to go the same way.)

Determined to finish off the badly wounded Thrusty, Uru reappeared and fired again. The shot should have killed him; instead, Thrusty vanished and reappeared on the deck of the nearest ship. Inconceivable! Thrusty then responded by invoking the Blessing of the Rum Ration: “Let’s get our enemies drunk!” he proclaimed. Korrigan shrugged off this spell, but Uru suddenly felt nauseous and horribly stumbly.

With too many pirates in the air between him and Rumdoom, Admiral Taracle chose a closer foe: Korrigan. To their surprise, he too was able to fly, thrown into the air by seaspray. He came at the king with sudden ferocity, in a flurry of axes, pincer claws and tentacles, driving Korrigan back before him; Korrigan had the presence of mind to take advantage of this, moving clear of the gear-teeth and Thrusty’s baffling aura, and giving Uru the order to shoot again. Uru did as he was told, and his third shuriken killed the fat fiend. Uru duly vanished.

A great wail went up from the hundreds of pirates and Taracle was enraged, attacking the king again. This onslaught was hard even for Korrigan to withstand, and he was caught by a poisonous pincer. The venom coursed through his veins and fought for dominance with the regenerative power of his royal rites.

So effective had his first blast been, and so beset was the path between himself and Taracle, that Rumdoom changed tactics and landed on a nearby deck instead of closing with the admiral, there to emit another bone-chilling blast of cold. Fewer pirates fell this time: Many were protected by the divine presence of the demi-god they followed.

Elsewhere, Calily and Quratulain tore themselves free of the gear-teeth – Calily to render herself invisible and fly towards the shore; Quratulian to throw another grenade.

For all the damage they had done, they were still faced with hundreds of foes. None of the unit, save perhaps Rumdoom, remained confident of their victory after the first few moments of this engagement. Korrigan glanced aloft and wondered, “When will we see the Coaltongue?”
 
Obviously high level combat in D&D and PF takes forever, especially with a ton of foes. How's it go with your group, which is using . . . Savage Worlds? Fate? I lose track of which GM is doing what.
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Obviously high level combat in D&D and PF takes forever, especially with a ton of foes. How's it go with your group, which is using . . . Savage Worlds? Fate? I lose track of which GM is doing what.
We're using Cypher System. Combats can be pretty quick, but this one certainly wasn't. It took up the whole session (so about three hours). But in 4e I think it would have taken more than one. It was exhausting but a lot of fun. I'll write up my DM Notes after I've posted the session reports.

I really enjoyed the balanced, tactical combat of 4e and so did a lot of my players, but I have to say that I'm glad we switched at this high level. We got our Ptolus campaign to level 25 and the combats were insane. The nice thing about Cypher is you don't need a grid, so the combats can be more epic. Using a grid can make things seem a bit too rigid and mundane, somehow. (Although for this we did use a grid, only at 10 feet per square to fit in all the ships in the flotilla.)
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 232, Part Two - Retreats and Reversals

Retreats and Reversals

“We’re close!” responded Uriel: when Korrigan wondered, they all could hear him. Uriel was already working up a storm, to blast the pirates with lightning and douse the pyres before the flames took hold. This turned out to be a bad idea – though Hunlow remained dormant (Gods were slow to react to mortals) storms were nonetheless his to command here on… Hunlow. Uriel was punished with a lightning bolt for his temerity, and swiftly dismissed the brooding stormclouds before Hunlow could wreak any more harm.

Quratulain switched to her lantern blaster and began to pick off priests; Uru hid and tried to catch his breath; though snared in gears, Gupta managed to get off a shot with Reason, killing one of the priests before he could launch another attack on the outcrop. But there were many more priests, any many more ‘banishments’ followed. This was clearly their preferred tactic, knowing all too well that the Gyre would grind their victims up if they were too weak to pull away. Bhalu, for example, could not free himself from the grinding gears, and no one else was close enough or able to help: all were facing deadly threats of their own.

The welfare of a comrade would ordinarily be at the forefront of Korrigan’s mind. But now, the forefront of his mind was in serious danger of being torn out by Admiral Taracle. The Admiral had abandoned all pretense at humanity, flung himself on Korrigan and attempted to chew his face off; his hood fell back to reveal a disgusting mouth - three assymentrical mandible around an all-too-human tongue. Caught in his clutches, Korrigan was unable to remain aloft and fell towards the deck below. At the last minute, he transformed into a bolt of Avilona and shot the only way he could – straight up, as far above the battlefield as possible, there to hover, prone, for a moment while he contemplated this situation and realised that it was the worst he had found himself in since the Great Eclipse (and very possibly since Yerasol IV).

Uru was in serious danger too. Too fearful of reprisal to reveal himself again, he took to the skies on Little Jack and won clear of the thick of the battle.

Quratulain threw a grenade to clear some space on the decks between her and Admiral Taracle, then shot at him as he stood up. Rumdoom, who in giant form could wield the Stone of Not far more easily, struck one of the priests, who was instantly obliterated, then ran the length of the ship he was on to strike another.

Gupta used her Icon of Apet to escape the gear-teeth and shot at another priest; Uru shadow-walked to escape the gears, then summoned the genius loci – spirits associated with all things man-made - to cause the vengeful ghosts of those murdered by the pirates to rise up and surround Admiral Taracle, causing the very deck itself to encase him. Taracle smashed his way out with his axes, but at least he didn't attack anyone else.

The pirates renewed their attacks on the unit, and the priests uttered further banishements. Korrigan was still within range and was caught by more misty teeth! Quratulain dodged and parried, her amour and forcefield soaking up cutlass blows and turning dealing aelectrical damage to her attackers; meanwhile she continued to harry the priests with shot after shot, dropping two more, before the Gyre teeth caught her. She wrested herself out of the gear-teeth, jumped ships again, and attacked Admiral Taracle at close range. These were accurate shots, but the vile demi-god was yet to show signs of fatigue.

Having meditated for a moment to restore herself, Calily Buen proved her worth by attacking the priests on the beach, emerging from invisibilty with a flurry of blows, and entering the Stance of the Paper Wind to fend off further blows. This was the esoteric technique she and her fellows sought for a lifetime to master.

Korrigan escaped the gears again, using bolt of Avilona to hurtle even further into the air, hoping to find himself out of range at last. He was close to passing out, at which point the Rites would kick in and stun all of his subjects – not ideal under any circumstances, but deadly under these.

In desperation, poor Bhalu tried to Fourmyle Jaunt, though the attempt might easily have failed, so far from Fourmyle. To his surprise, it worked and he fell down on his back to stare up at the sky and the distant gear-like nebula above him. Alive, for now, but very badly injured. How long before the others fell, and the pirates came looking for him?

Then, just in the nick of time, the Coaltongue appeared over the clifftops!
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 232, Part Three - “Yar!”

“Yar!”

Four dragon fliers ranged ahead. Directed by Uriel, they strafed the decks of outlying ships, killing many, scattering the rest. Still, there were enough full crews for the priests to combine into magical artillery. “Yar!” they all shouted, and four hooks fired into the air: one missed; one clipped a dragon flier causing it to veer away, badly damaged; another snagged a second flier and began to drag it back down; the fourth struck, damaged and hooked the Coaltongue, but the Coaltongue was heading in anyway.

Admiral Taracle focused on his most dangerous opponent, hacking at Quratulain, afflicting her with deadly poison and driving her back into the water. There, she found the waters closed over her with preternatural speed, as Hunlow, dimly aware of her inimical presence, sought to drown her.

Calily fought on, fending off pirates and priests, felling a few. Their blows were now too weak to harm her such was the nature of her mystical stance.

Inspired by Bhalu, Rumdoom tried to Fourmyle Jaunt too. Again, it worked and he loomed over Admiral Taracle, Kum Ruk-Nazar poised to strike.

Aloft, Korrigan used the last of his reserves to invoke the power of Reida and summon himself from the future. His future self radiated pure positive energy to heal both himself and his past self, then ceased to fly and began a deliberate free-fall dive back into the fight. As anticipated, both version of Korrigan then vanished.

Now the Coaltongue flew over the flotilla, taking out one ship with a cannon barrage. The vessel began to slowly sink. Rumdoom’s retinue, manning the Sunfish, took out a priest with the Tyrant’s Eye.

With that barrage out of the way, and the Coaltongue sweeping on, to test the strength of the pirates’ divine hook, Leon and Uriel teleported down onto the Adversary’s Favour. Leon cursed the Admiral; Uriel invoked a deathly gaze which stunned every foe that he could see, which was a lot.

Uru had manoeuvred himself closer to the pyres and, now far enough from the fight not to have to worry, and in the eerie lull caused by Uriel, invoked his noisy ghostly entourage to free the pirates’ prisoners from the three-tiered pyre.

Gupta now took on tiger form, and for the last time, won free of the gears that had ensnared her, leaping onto another ship, where the deck had been clear by Quratulain. The crew and priests she was fighting gave pursuit.

Down on the beach, the surviving priests engaged Calily in melee. One struck her with his cutlass, and lightning arced out to hit Leon and Rumdoom. This did not turn out well for the priest, as the lightning triggered Leon’s tiefling curse, and he was immolated.

Leon teleported to a point where he could see into the water and struggled to free Quratulain from Hunlow’s grasp. Even teleportation would not work against the grip of a god. Quratulain invoked the Icon of Nem, and passed through the hull of the closest ship, freeing herself.

Inside, she daw dozens of prisoners huddled. Victims for the full ritual the pirates had been about to undertake. Perhaps there were more on other ships? If so, they ought be more careful! She told the others what she had seen and said to the prisoners, “We are winning! I’ll come back for you,” before running upstairs.

They really were winning! Rumdoom lamped the admiral while he was stunned by Uriel and cursed by Leon, knocking the demi-god prone. Even though the Stone of Not was powerful enough to disintegrate him, it still must have hurt! (As Rumdoom stood over Taracle, readying another blow, he noted the intricate dwarven craftsmanship of the admiral’s dwarven axes.)

Calily was busy dealing with the last priest on the beach. Looking around, she could now see that things were turning out very differently that she had thought they would, and the old monk began to laugh with excitement with the thought that these strangers might be able to deal with the Legion after all. This incongruous sound lifted everyone’s spirits.

Uru released more and more slaves; Gupta kept on jumping ships, kiting one crew and their priests across the flotilla; Taracle, beset by curses, struggled to his feet only to be stunned again by Uriel, whose deathly gaze caught scores of pirates (but left him almost dizzy with the amount of power he had expended to cast this twice).

Leon teleported onto the sinking ship and leapt down into the largest hole caused by the Coaltongue (dodging the blows of surviving pirates as he went). Below, he found more prisoners who had not be harmed by the cannonade and teleported them out onto the now empty beach.

Gupta made a final leap onto the beach, as the two remaining dragon-fliers swept back in and gunned down the pirates that were pursuing her.

Taracle attacked Rumdoom; Rumdoom withstood his blows. Then Korrigan reappeared and led the attack on Taracle. Inspired, Rumdoom struck once, twice and – urged on by Uriel – three times. There was a loud crack as Taracle’s carapace split, but he still hadn’t fallen.

Gupta turned back to human form, took aim with Reason and – pouring every ounce of concentration and training into that single shot – missed! Then the bullet ricocheted off Rumdoom’s ice armour and Admiral Taracle, son of Hunlow, dropped dead!

The divine aura that had shielded the demi-god’s minions was inverted and swept out in a punishing wave slaying many of those who had failed to defend him, and badly wounding the rest. What remained was a tiring, gruesome, violent slog, as the remaining pirates – particularly the priests – were fanatical in their devotion to Hunlow, and fought to the last man.

End of Session
 
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gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
DM's Notes - Another 'best ever'?!?

Soundtrack for Hunlow

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVIev94s7Mo

Another 'best ever'?!?


Zeitgeist does have a tendency to throw them up - a session which ends with one or more players saying, breathlessly, 'that was the best session ever'. I think that has a lot to do with it just being the most recent - these declarations are more subjective than empirical, but what the hell - I'll take it. And I wouldn't have run the AP for as long as I have if I didn't think that it outdid itself consistently from one adventure to the next.

In this case, to my pleasant surprise, the combat with the pirates of Hunlow was declared to be the 'best combat we've run in Cypher System'.

A say 'surprise' because - as my last DM's Note indicated - I had fluffed the tail end of the previous session and thrown the players into a very difficult situation which I thought might turn into an overwhelming and un-fun grind. To raise the stakes I meta-gamed a bit and quoted the text from the adventure which said that going up against the pirates en masse could be even harder than dealing with the Golden Legion. So they knew they were up against it.

The interesting thing about Cypher is that players can spend resources to avoid being hit. They can also spend resources to hit and deal extra damage. As a DM it leaves you slightly in the dark as to how they're doing because you often don't land a serious blow from one round to the next (sadly squandering some of the bad guys' key powers). What you can't see is just how exhausted they are just from dodging.

Part of the thrill of this combat was just how close to death some of the players came, including Korrigan, who has gone pretty much unscathed since somewhere back in heroic tier. (His defences are OTT. Unlike Rumdoom, who is basically a bag of holding of hit points. Also unlike Rumdoom, he doesn't throw himself into combat ass-backwards because he isn't trying to prove that he's immortal.)

This session was exhausting though. So much to keep track of. So many actions each round. Crazy numbers of priests. Even crazier numbers of pirates.

Throughout it all I was wondering if I couldn't have handled this episode in a better way. Reading the adventure, I imagined tense negotiations and careful diplomacy which may in the end have led to combat. This full-on massacre was not how I thought it would be.

In fact, the adventure in the Gyre is a lot more bloody than I realised. Like a nightmarish version of Star Trek directed by Sam Peckinpah.

Still, it's fun. And it might go on for a while, as it's become apparent that my players intend to fully explore, not make a beeline for the exit. I have to say that I'm glad about that. I'm still enjoying running this AP more than any other I've DMed and now that the end is in sight, the opportunity to stop and desecrate the roses is very welcome.

What a cleverly designed penultimate episode!

PS. I asked my players to elucidate their opinions on the session and received the following responses:

"I liked that there were different levels of puzzle to solve, both in terms of movement and prioritisation — plus it felt that we weren't defaulting to a standard "daily, enc., enc." chain. Also I think it further shone because we were all there? " (That's the thing with having 7 players. There's usually someone missing!)

"There was something for everyone to contribute; strategy, burst damage, single target damage, mobility. In such a tight battle buffs and debuffs made all the difference as well. Also no one was dominating the battle." (Ironically, this came from Q's player, who is usually doing just that. I think he feels self-conscious about it, but the other players are more-often-than-not grateful for her contribution.)

"Maybe it just comes down to having 600 pirates to kill? :) When have we had so many enemies swarming us? Also this was the closest Korrigan has come to dying since switching to Cypher system. Having a tactical map is also nice." (Korrigan's player. Another 4E fan.)


So there you go.
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 233, Part One - They Didn’t Think it Too Many

The unit killed almost seven hundred foes that day. The final hundred were mopped up to the last man, so ferocious were they in their devotion to their god. Hunlow’s storm rose in vengeful fury, but when his priests were all dead, it abated.

After freeing all the slaves kept in the hold of every ship, they found a place to lower the Coaltongue where it did not touch water and began healing the injured and fixing damaged vessels. Leon went to go get Bhalu and helped him to his feet. Uru organised prefab shelter. Uriel examined Thrusy’s golden rapier and found that it was carved from a gold dragon tooth! Rumdoom strapped Taracle’s dwarven axes in a cross formation on his back.

While this went on, Calily and others asked the slaves if there were any Kinava monks here. They said there was indeed a strange sect among the many hundreds of slaves the pirates kept on an adjacent plane: Drozani. The slaves shuddered at the thought of returning.

The unit scoured the flotilla and found plenty of food to feed the slave for now. No food grew on Drozani. The slaves there were kept alive by shipments of fish from Hunlow, and fresh water and other supplies from the goblins of Etheax, also close by. They were totally reliant on the pirates. (All of this was organised by the fiendish Captain Thrusty who had turned out to be a dab hand at administration.) How were these other slaves guarded? “Fallen angels,” came the reply.

While they waited for the Coaltongue to recharge, Kai announced that the plane was ‘talking to him’. He said it was a horrible place that loved baddies, and that if they linked their world to Hunlow, the seas of Lanjyr would reward blood sacrifice as this one did (only he put this in a more childish way). Then he said that Caeloon had also talked to him when they rested there, but he hadn’t known what to make of it and thought he was imagining things. Now he knew that he could understand things about each plane if he waited long enough. Korrigan asked his son what Caeloon had told him and Kai said, “That I shouldn’t be so sad when sad things happen.” Calily nodded. “On Caeloon we greet adversity with resilience.”

When the Coaltongue had powered up, they set off for Drozani, herding the slaves onto the main deck. Admiral Smith bridled slightly had said that it would be difficult to keep order if this solution were not very short-term. Quratulain put them to work swabbing the deck and filling empty crew positions. “It will keep them occupied. They should be used to it by now.”

Using spyglasses, and Korrigan’s clairvoyant eye, they saw that the space beyond Hunlow was mostly void, save for a small rocky island that formed a shore with the sea of Hunlow, where the sea terminated, abruptly and unnaturally. From there, a majestic pink marble staircase rose two hundred feet over the void, up to a pillow of clouds upon which sat a desolate city of rose wood and marble. Two fallen angels of Hunlow guarded the staircase and would no doubt allow access only to those whom their god approved.

“I will go and talk to them,” said Korrigan. Uriel insisted that he should not go alone, and one by one the whole unit insisted they accompany him – all save Rumdoom who would stay and guard the ship. They flew down to the foot of the staircase on Matunaaga’s stone discs – except for Uru, who ranged ahead on Little Jack, and then snuck past the angels.

These ten-foot tall creatures were naked women from the waist up, with tenacles for their lower regions, and sea-foam green wings. They wore eyepatches over both eyes. One bore an oversized cutlass over its shoulder, the other an enormous trident. Uriel studied them closely and realised with some amusement that, while these beings would have been almost impossible for ordinary mortals to defeat, they would pose no threat to the unit whatsoever.

When Korrigan greeted the angels and demanded passage, they attacked immediately. Uru killed one of them in an instant. Quratulain had made a similar assessment to Uriel and kept her weapons stowed, allowing the others to have their fun. While Uriel and Korrigan dispatched the second angel, Quratulain took the opportunity to thank Korrigan for freeing her from the Vault of Heresies. “It has been a fun ride,” she said. “I just realised I never said thank you before.” Somewhat bemused, Korrigan gave her a sideways glance before acknowledging her thanks.

With the angels slain, they rode up to the dead city in the clouds.
 
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gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 233, Part Two - The Dead City in the Clouds

Within the city, the pirates kept thousands of slaves, entirely dependent on their captors because nothing grew here. Drozani was beyond desolate – whatever civilisation had once built this city must have transgressed in some terrible way, as their home was now devoid of life, of the capacity to create life. The pirates imported food from Etheax and fish from Hunlow.

When the unit arrived, the wretched slaves mobbed them, and at the news that the pirates were gone, their jubilation soon turned to violence as they took revenge on those who had kept order in the pirates’ stead and won favour by disciplining their fellow slaves. The unit chose not to intervene in this.

Calily found the monks they were seeking, or rather she found their descendants: Their asceticism made them pariahs, but the slaves and pirates let them pass along their martial arts traditions as long as they were willing to submit to whatever debased demands the pirates made. They did not make good playthings, however, since they suffered torments with stoicism. Calily was sad that her old friends were dead – life on Drozani was hard – but soon recovered, smiled and said that she was very proud of their children. “You must come home to the monastery at once.”

They brought the Coaltongue in and reunited the slaves with those they had rescued from the sacrificial ritual. Then they began to organise the slaves and consider what to do with them and how to feed them now the pirates were gone. There were somewhere between two-and-half and three thousand of them, and now half of their food supply had vanished.

Uru tried to commune with the spirits of Drozani. The emptiness was even more disturbing than Padyer. Uriel meditated and used location loresight.While he did so, Kai announced, “No babies can be born here.” Uriel opened his eyes and said, “Utterly dead. The worst kind of hell. We need to get these people off here.”

Korrigan gathered them all together and bolstered them with his oratory. He promised that they would sort out the food situation and find them a new home. (Calily said softly that this would be difficult indeed. One of the first things she had warned them about when they met was the lack of food here.) They organised the slaves under a new regime to tide them over until they returned and then rested while the Coaltongue recharged again.

Gupta and Uru went exploring. They found nothing. This place was very beautiful but utterly devoid of life – even the frisson of excitement that might accompany a strange discovery.

Alexander Grappa had been living inside Uriel’s head for a few days now, but had stayed silent for the most part.Here on Drozani, he chose to speak up for the first time:

“I have been talking with this poor young woman whom I share your head with. We have reached and understanding, she and I, and now I think she has something to say to you.”

Silence. “Xambria?” asked Uriel, encouraging.

“I am sorry for what I did,” said Xambria, “for betraying you. I think I understand what made Nicodemus the way he is. Being without a body, it… disconnects you from reality. All you have left are intellectual pursuits. Emotions start to fade. At the Convocation I was so overwhelmed, that I… And Nicodemus seemed so inspiring!”

Grappa commiserated with her and spoke of his own infatuation with the Ob leader, and how strange it was to live as nothing more than a psyche – “not a spirit, even”. Uriel said that he too had been inspired by Nicodemus – once, when he was a man, and again, through several incarnations.“ He inspired me to turn against the Church and try to free him.” Then he gave a laugh and joked, “We are all very much in the same boat, it seems.” As he said this, he guessed that there was even more to it than he cared to admit. Fortunately, he was distracted by Grappa, who wanted to talk to Lavanya before it was too late.“ I get the feeling she might not be with us for long. At least that’s what she keeps saying. I’m hoping she might be able to tell me more now that you’re here.”

Lavanya was spending time with Leon, who had taken a break from trying to pick up Calily’s Stance of the Paper Wind. They were engaged in an intense conversation about Lavanya’s purpose, which segued neatly into her reasons for rescuing Grappa and for being here right now.

Lavanya said that she was Kasvarina’s avatar.“ She saw everything, on the Lance of Triegenes, through her connection to Reida. She knew she had to reach the plane, and tried to get there before the titan. Fighting the Voice of Rot wasn’t in her plan, although I suppose she knew it was going to happen, and did it anyway, for all of us. Because her body was dying, after she was bitten, she created me to finish what she started. I am all of her best parts – her love, and her desire to do good. Her anger and spite, which got the better of her in her later years, she took out, and trapped in spirit form. As you know, they became Jenny Greenteeth, which I suppose she must have known would happen too.

“My task was to use the power she gave me to travel to places you and I had been and try to fix things in a certain, safe way. It’s very difficult, though. If I make too many changes at once, the outcome may be so far removed from the future I was once part of that it creates another reality entirely. That is why I have to be careful not to tell you too much each time, in case by doing so I cause you to act differently and inadvertently alter things yourself.

“I think this is my last task, though. At least, I don’t know what to do next, which hasn’t happened before.I do have a vague awareness of being drawn back to Lanjyr when he Ob find my body. Then… who knows? Rescuing Alexander Grappa was important. He has a role in all this which should become clear. You need to get him to Reida, even if I don’t make it that far.”

She mentioned Conquo again, of how important he was, and reminded Uriel of his earlier suggestion that he might be able to help with that problem.She asked what had happened to Conquo and was told that he was destroyed falling into lava in Pemberton’s island lair.

“His heart won’t have been destroyed by that,” she said.“That’s all that matters. The body was only so he could practice moving around. It will be difficult to retrieve, no?”

Uriel shook his head. "When we get back to Lanjyr I will see what I can do."(There was a certain hollowness in his tone when he said this.)

Leon asked if they could know what Conquo was needed for, and Lavanya shrugged, tired of keeping secrets, “The hope is to place him into the colossus and displace Borne.”

Grappa was sceptical that this could be done, but Lavanya insisted that the golem heart just needed to be placed in the recess where the lantern was.“ Conquo was raised well and will do as he is told. He wasn’t brainwashed by Nicodmus.” Now Grappa became defensive and insisted that Borne could be saved – persuaded that what Nicodemus was doing was wrong.

“Don’t forget, I have already tried,” said Lavanya, “when you first awoke him.”

“And Kasvarina tried as well,” said Leon."Back on the Lance." A sad memory that bought the conversation to a close.

It was during this hiatus that Admiral Smith suddenly noticed that the ship’s strange mascot ‘Sparklehorse’ was missing. With the help of the crew he established that no one had seen the creature since they reached the Gyre, and that he most likely disappeared during the storm between Cauldron Hill and Av. Smith tutted ominously and said, “It is very bad luck for a ship lose its mascot.”
 
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gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Personally I try to avoid time travel. How has the group taken to it?
Time travel out of nowhere might not have gone down too well, but I think that Kasvarina’s connection to Reida through the Arc grants a tissue-thin rationale that everyone is polite enough to pretend not to see through. We’d also established the multiple timelines idea during Leon’s side-quest in the Dreaming, and his various attempts to save Kai Korrigan from being kidnapped.

Personally, when I came up with this answer to ‘who is Lavanya?’ I was pretty chuffed, and to have dealt with Jenny Greenteeth into the bargain was a bonus. It’s all a bit ‘a wizard did it’ but I take some consolation from the fact that the highest grossing film of all time dealt in the very same trope. (Perhaps Markus and McFeely read this thread, I dunno.)
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 233, Part Three - Malthusian Logic

Malthusian Logic

After some debate, it was decided to head for Etheax before returning to Caeloon, leaving the slaves on Drozani for now, with a solemn promise to return. Uru counselled against straying from their initial goal, fearing that they would only get tangled up in something else. Korrigan decided to risk it: the goblins of Etheax were friendly, according to Calily, and the plane offered fire energy – also needed to fix the Coaltongue. (He couldn’t help but notice that his deep faen friend had become increasingly conservative of late; perhaps a side-effect of fey titanhood?)

The vast void from Drozani to Etheax was daunting, so they doubled back through Hunlow, hoping the god was still dormant. An ulterior motive was that it gave Leon the opportunity to test out interplanar teleportation: could he travel to and from planes he had already seen or visited, as he had learned to do recently while exploring the new planes around Lanjyr? The answer proved to be ‘yes’. He ported back to the closest island to Drozani and then back again, just as the Coaltongue crossed the boundary between the planes.

On to Etheax, where the cave-riddled mountains were sharp and steep, with flat grassy valleys between looming granite mesas. A handful of goblin tribes lived in these valleys, tending to the plants and animals. They also tended to fires at the mouths of all their caves, and could communicate across the plane in a hurry by means of shadow puppets in front of the fires.

So it was that a gathering of tribal elders came to greet the new arrivals enthusiastically. Korrigan told them that the Pirates of Hunlow were no more and the goblins were pleased. Then he told them that they would need to continue their arrangement to supply the slaves of Drozani, and the goblins were pleased about that too. They only asked if there would be any changes to the arrangement – specifically, who would be responsible for the back-payments they were owed? (Captain Thrusty, it emerged, had promised to pay them handsomely at some point and they had been too polite to press him on it.) Korrigan told them that payment was unlikely to be forthcoming, and they shrugged and acquiesced without objection. The only problem now was that they couldn’t get the food to Drozani, as the pirates used to ship it for them. In which case, said Korrigan, the slaves would have to come to live here. “It will be nice to have new neighbours,” said the incredibly friendly goblins.

While the Coaltongue recharged, they enjoyed the hospitality of the goblins, who cooked food instantly with group cantrips. Kai said that this plane made both fire magic and waiting for things very easy. Could they make their first planar icon here? Korrigan wondered. He asked the goblins if they needed anything, and they said no, but when they learned the reason, they simply granted permission and that was enough. Uriel handed one of the blank icons he had crafted to Kai, and an hour later, Golden Icon of Etheax was complete.

There was plentiful game here. Gupta took the opportunity to revert to tiger form and hunt. Meanwhile, the others wrestled with the problem of whether all two-and-a-half-thousand slaves could settle here, practically speaking. Kieran Sentacore wondered if it was necessary to leave them all in one place, but the unit really wanted to be done with the problem in one go if possible. (The worlds of the Gyre would soon be ground to dust anyway, but at least the slaves could enjoy what little life they had left without suffering and starvation. Perhaps even a couple generations would come and go before the end, who knew?)

Uru found the puzzle intriguing and plugged Uriel for all he and his incarnations knew about population density. As he happens, good old Malthusius had made a name for himself with a treatise on this very subject and was able to supply Uru with all the information he needed. Then he made a presentation to the others, with his Hat of Hats transformed into a mortar board, and his goggles serving as thick spectacles:

“I am going to use aboriginal Risuri agricultural practices for the calculations and assume a carrying capacity of 20 per acre. They grow carp in the ditches under fruit and nut trees with crops and herbs between trees and chickens running around. An ancient polyculture of carp, rice, and ducks is practiced in some areas.

“Assuming 56 square miles of terrain that works out to around 35,840 acres. Assuming every square inch of the terrain is used for food than the maximum population carrying capacity would be 716,800. A rough total of the population being below 3,000 and assuming that forest cover and rocky outcroppings reduce the above total I think it's safe to say the island will be ground into the Gyre before food shortages become an issue.

“I'll assume 2500 of the population are of viable reproduction age. Assuming a growth rate of .12 a year when the gears tear into the island they will have reached a population of 4,539. Meaning total acres needed (excluding Goblins) would be 226.”

After a brief pause to take this all in, Leon said, “Most of them are going to starve before they get their first crop (assuming the realm doesn't get destroyed first). Also farming is hard work with a steep unforgiving learning curve. They don't have the skills, tools or seeds required.”

“Such is the price of freedom,” said Quratulain.
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 233, Part Four - Up & Running

Before they left Etheax, Uru suggested that Korrigan leave the slaves with a copy of his manifesto, which Korrigan thought was a jolly good idea. That should see them through the tough times ahead.

The next step was to return the enslaved monks to Caeloon, but Calily intervened and said that wasn’t necessary. She knew that Leon could take her back their alone and was certain that would suffice. When they asked why she would not be drawn, but gave a wry smile and said, “You’ll see.” It was decided to let her have her fun, so Leon teleported back to Caeloon with the unit even while the Coaltongue was still recharging. Calily asked him to return to the edge of the clearing around her monastery, not to the monastery itself.

When they arrived, she whispered a phrase in the language Gupta knew had been written all over the building. With a crackle of paper, the small, humble, shabby place grew into a majestic, well-tended full monastery. Three dozen monks came out, bowed, and then follow Calily’s lead in a brief martial kata to showcase their fighting technique. When they were done, Calily said that they would all fight alongside the unit against the Golden Legion. Uru muttered sceptically, but Leon discreetly reassured him that Calily had held her own in the fight against the pirates. Meanwhile, Korrigan had already accepted with gracious thanks. The other monks showed serene approval, then return to the monastery, with an injunction from Calily to return to their meditations in preparation for the fight ahead. Then she folded the monastery down to the size of an origami bird, which she slipped into a pocket in her robes. “Now we must go and find more allies!” she said optimistically.

This done, Kai was easily able to create a Golden Icon of Caeloon, whereupon they returned to the Coaltongue.

Again, Uru was keen stay focused and head straight for Egalitrix, but Korrigan insisted that they had come here to explore, and would first check out the southern Gyre and see what planes were on offer. To this end, they crossed Hunlow again and headed for Thrag, despite Calily’s warnings.

Remote viewing of the plane showed a jungle landscape. Up close, the treetops seem to be writhing in a chaotic wind. Uru flew down to scout. The first think he noticed as he drew closer to the plane was the screaming. It seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. He passed through the canopy and found that the flora beneath was constantly moving and ambulatory, but too slowly to present an imminent threat. Finding a relatively clear spot, he called the others in, and while he waited for them to reach him, took a quick soil sample. (He would slip it in Hildegaard’s drink later.)

When the rest arrived they formed a protective circle around Kai who began to attempt to read the planar traits.Uriel performed location loresight; Uru tried to contact the spirits of the plane.

Leon noticed a pattern to the movement of the foliage to the north and peered more closely to see if he could interpret it. The brush had become more dense, although it had not moved towards them. He stepped closer himself to get a better look, relying on his teleportation powers to keep him out of trouble. The brush took up a horrible wailing.

Despite this eerie distraction, Uriel’s reading yielded results: he paled and said, “Something terrible happened here.”

Kai looked up at his father and asked, “Is it possible for someone to be born again?” Then he looked at Uriel and answered his own question. “Of course it is!”

As more information came to him, Uriel went on: “Mortals here slew a divine child who had been born to the god of death and the goddess of life. The mourning deities altered the cycle of reincarnation so that no one would ever die again. No new people were born, but souls remembered their past lives as they took on new forms."

“Everything here was once a person,” Uru added, then his ears twitched and he scanned the wailing undergrowth where Leon was standing.

“Every being on this world recalls thousands of births, thousands of lifetimes, and thousands of savage deaths,” said Uriel.

Deaths from what? they all wondered.

“Something’s coming!” said Uru. But the warning came too late. At that very moment ‘something’ burst out of the undergrowth and pounced…

End of Session
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Session 234, Part One - The Carnivorous Mandala Beast of Thrag

The Carnivorous Mandala Beast of Thrag

A bipedal bird with luxurious dagger-like feathers lunged from the underbrush, and as its clawed fore-limbs reached for Leon, a blinding disk of mind-warping white and purple appeared in the air behind it, rendering him incapable of recalling any spells. The best he could do was reach for his Dreaming Blade far too slowly as the mandala beast impaled him. The first claw strike was partly blocked by his silksteel mantel, but it was unable to stop the second, or the third. With blinding speed, the mandala beast struck and struck again, then dragged him back into the flailing, wailing bushes.

Quratulain dashed after it, hacking her way in and saw it poised to strike again at the prone, bleeding tiefling; Uriel followed in her wake, thrust at it with his new rapier, but missed. The beast dealt with Leon first, finishing him off with one claw, while lashing out at its attacker with the other. Uriel leapt back out of harm’s way. Calily adopted the stance of the paper wind, and chased into the underbrush to help. “I told you these creatures were dangerous!” she said.

Uru was about to take to the air, to try to find a spot where he could see the mandala beast, when he caught sight of something up in the canopy which he was sure had not been there before: a vaknid! How could he have missed the approach of something so huge? He reported its arrival to Korrigan, and asked for permission to strike; Korrigan gave him the go ahead, distracted and horrified by the report from his defender sword that Leon had been killed. At once, he sent a message to Rumdoom back on the Coaltongue. This situation was dangerous and they would need his support! As he did so, he scooped up Kai and threw him into the sling on his back.

Uru, meanwhile, took a shot at the vaknid, which flinched. Gupta studied it carefully, noting the fact that it did not appear to be hostile, just… observing them? In response to Uru’s attack, the vaknid withdrew, scuttling off across the canopy, unmolested by the ambulatory plant-life. Gupta switched to tiger form to join the fight to free Leon, when suddenly a huge barrier of screaming plants bisected the clearing, trapping Gupta, Korrigan and Uru on the far side. Uriel felt sure that the psychic energy that had raised this barrier had emanated from the mandala beast.

Uru took to the air on Little Jack and hid, watching to ensure that the vaknid had indeed fully withdrawn. It was some distance away already.

Quratulain, Uriel and Calily fought the mandala beast, striking blow after blow. Uriel set it on fire with his gold-dragon-tooth rapier, and the creature screeched in agony and fell writhing to the ground, where it was immediately absorbed into the soil. Uriel tried to trap its soul to stop it reincarnating, but the process was already underway.

Unable to reach Leon through the barrier, Korrigan clutched at the pommel of his defender sword again, and was surprised to learn that Leon was now alive and stable! At this news, Uriel dropped to his knees and tried to heal Leon, but the spell did not work. Something strange was going on; this required careful study.

With the mandala beast gone, Gupta turned back into human form to help Uriel, only to hear a sinister movement in the undergrowth behind her, just audible over the screams of the plant barrier. She turned and drew Lya’s rapier, even as another mandala beast erupted from the bushes and pounced at her. This one was a serpent with wings like a jagged butterfly, sporting a hypnotic disk of reds and greens and blues. Uru shot it immediately and distracted it from Gupta. It turned its gaze skyward and bamboozled Uru with its mandala. He was compelled to flee, but fought for control and did not do so. Gupta took advantage of the situation, and the terrible wound caused by Uru, and plunged her mechanised rapier deep into the beast. It slumped to the ground and immediately began to disintegrate.

“That was the same beast,” said Gupta.

“Regroup!” said Korrigan.

At once, Quratulain began hacking her way through the barrier with her armblades. As she did so, their screams reached a pitch that caused her allies to flinch, but Quratulain did not care. “It’s recharging my batteries!” she cried, happily. Ever since her dalliance with the Father of Thunder she had grown fond of loud noises and lightning.

Uriel used telekinesis to try to move Leon, but Leon arched his back and groaned in response and Uriel lowered him back down to remain in contact with the earth. “It seems to be sustaining him,” he reported. So Korrigan gave orders for the rest of the team to move through the gap Quratulain had created and gather defensively around their fallen comrade until such times as they figured out what to do. The mandala beast might return at any…

Suddenly, thrashing grass bristled beneath their feet, and the entire surface of the earth became a disorienting swirl of black, orange, and silver light from which the screaming tendrils of plant-life grew, their stalks capped with thorn-toothed mouths. Before it could bring them to bear on anyone, Quratulain shrunk it with her lantern blaster, from a huge patch of earth, to a much more modest one, and Uriel ignited it with an empowered fire spell. Again, it fizzled into the earth.

“I wonder if it will still be smaller when it reincarnates?” Quratulain said. (Flash-forward: It wasn’t.)

While they waited for the mandala beast’s inevitable return, Uriel, Gupta and Quratulain tried to figure out what was going on – how to defeat the beast, and how to save Leon. They shared ideas, one revelation building on another: Uriel realised they needed to get Leon off-world to shake him free of the stasis the beast had trapped him in; trouble was that would kill him without Rumdoom to prevent that happening. Fortunately, Rumdoom and Hildegaard arrived at that moment, feather-falling down from the Coaltongue, which circled hundreds of feet up. “Where’s this beast, then?” Rumdoom asked looking around him and brandishing the Stone of Not.

Standing in Wonder, Gupta realised that one way to defeat the beast would be to take it off-world too, to prevent it from reincarnating; the trouble with that was that their best chance of doing so was currently lying close to death.

Quratulain made a quick calculation and was about to share it when the beast leapt out of the undergrowth once again. This time, it had taken the form of a skeletal quadruped – something halfway between a dog and a horse - with razor-sharp bones. It attacked Korrigan, who was left bleeding from several wounds, before Rumdoom leapt at the creature and struck it with the Stone of Not. It vanished!

Had that put an end to the creature? It all depended on whether the power of the Stone –sufficient to obliterate the creature’s physical form – was greater than the magic of Thrag which would otherwise cause its spirit to reincarnate and regrow another body.

In the hiatus, while they waited to see if it returned, Quratulain shared her calculations: “We can slow the beast’s regeneration by scorching the earth beneath it. It won’t be killed permanently, but it will have to decay through natural means.”

“That’s doable,” said Uriel, who began to prepare a spell, as a humungous fungal growth bloomed at the centre of the clearing. Bulbous heads rose up, mouths opened, and tendrils lashed out to draw in victims. Rumdoom swung the stone, but having to fend off tendrils as he did so, missed. Calily threw stinging paper darts at the creature; it responded by going into a frenzy, lashing out at Calily, Quratulain and Rumdoom. Each had to fend off a virulent paralytic poison, and Calily had to shrug off the mind-numbing effects of the beast’s mandala, too.

Korrigan asked Kai if he knew what would happen to Leon if they moved him – assuming Rumdoom could stop him from dying. Kai said, “I think he’ll come back to life, but more slowly than the monster.” Korrigan nodded and took a swig from the Borenbog’s Gourd, to bolster his strength.

Uriel muttered an incantation and scorched the ground beneath the mandala beast. The beast itself also caught fire, and everyone joined forces to kill it. Its fungal sacks deflated, still ablaze, but it did not disintegrate at once now the ground was blackened. A few of them kept an eye on it, while the rest dealt with Leon.

Uriel levitated him, and Rumdoom stopped the initial shock from killing him, declaring this a very bad ending indeed. Then they all went back to the Coaltongue in haste, in case another mandala beast showed up.
 

gideonpepys

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
I'm rather proud of that monster.
One of my players wrote at the time: “That combat was terrifying. I thought we were all going to be potted plants.”

At least some of that fear might be due to the fact that I used a player absence to demonstrate how dangerous the mandala beast was, treating poor Leon as a Star Trek red-shirt and eviscerating him in the first couple of rounds (having asked one of the other players to look after him, which of course made them feel worse when he dropped). I wouldn’t normally go as far as to kill an absent character, but it was fun to do it on Thrag. Thing is, a lot of monsters could kill a PC if you focused on them, but you don’t because taking a character out of the fight in the first round makes the game less fun for them, so here was the ideal opportunity to inject a bit of realism. (I also altered the nature of reincarnation on Thrag to mean that the party couldn’t simply heal him when they realised he was still alive.). It was also useful that the absent player was Leon, because if he’d been there he could have simply evacuated the whole unit in an instant, which would have been a lot less fun.

But the main source of fear in the encounter was of course the design of the monster. Players expect something they kill to stay dead! I even decided to make the monster just low-level enough for Rumdoom to instakill it with the Stone of Not, once he arrived, so the last few rounds became more of a frantic puzzle, less of a HP grind. Knowing this would happen I used Numenera monster cards to generate more weird forms for the beast to reincarnate into. It really was a great fight.




 

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