Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Castle Mordha: the start of the 13th Age

Whereas the last campaign sprawled across the peninsula with several major battles against slavers, drow and liches, this one was smaller, urban and much more inspired by Thieves’ World and Lankhmar than what had come before. Shankill was a big city at this point (I was enamored with the ideas in the “Lankhmar – City of Adventure” book that TSR put out, even if I didn’t want to have the specific wizarding restrictions). The players were gamed out of high heroic noble heroes and descended gratefully into the port city’s underbelly or the island’s steamy jungles.

(It turns out a large swath of Shankill Isle was unpopulated jungle filled with family crypts, abandoned forts, mad hermits and wizard’s enclaves; all the real wealth came from its harborage and trade routes and the always sparsely settled interior of the island had been mostly abandoned over the decades. I would love to say that my younger self had planned all this out in advanced but it was all pretty much on the fly. It sounds much better here as I dredge it from memory and filter it through my adult gamemaster sensibilities. I just wish I could remember the names of any of the PCs)

Jesse’s PC was the first to play and made use of a piece of pure rules manipulation: he played a thief character solo (though Mike might have been there for some of them) for a few weeks to get him to 2nd level, then used to the stolen money to pay for a magic-user apprenticeship. We picked up the story a few in game years later with said PC now a 2nd level thief/first level magic user under the old AD&D human dual-classing rules, and the PC had sufficient disguise skill to make himself look like a half elf. For some reason it was important to Jesse that no one be able to pin down the character’s background, and I remember Dylan being driven to distraction one night trying to figure out how Jesse’s PC worked mechanically. Every time he struck on the idea of dual-classing Jesse brushed it aside with “but half-elves can’t dual class”, which was true, and the idea that the PC was just a skinny man with fake pointed ears never occurred to Dylan (and why would it?) The character was a rogue, second story man and con man, with a high enough dexterity to eke every last bonus out of his level limited thief skills.

Mike had two PCs in this game: the first was a straight up thief, a magsman and lock expert. One memorable night Mike and Jesse ran a Violin Scam ( on a hapless young fighter, convincing him that only the most powerful magic weapons didn’t glow when drawn or radiate magic. I had said fighter mentioned a few more times as being a successful adventurer since the placebo effect of his ‘magic’ sword made him more daring, but Jesse and Mike just wanted his money (they eventually found the poor sap petrified outside a basilisk’s lair – I recall Mike thanking him kindly for the warning and the group deciding to just skip entering that cave; they might even have taken the sword back). Mike’s other PC was a more noble paladin type whom the rest of the PCs would contact whenever their latest caper involved something to do with evil or the undead – said PC was being directed by a coutal who claimed he had a grand destiny if he helped these diamonds in the rough. This was very likely true, but it was mostly an excuse to have this Paladin occasionally help out our ‘rogues with hearts of electrum’.

Dylan, deeply inspired by Cook’s Black Company books, was playing a former army/mercenary wizard who was taciturn to the point of silence. (One night Jesse had had quite enough of that and started badgering Dylan until he said something, anything, and then started proclaiming that he had “cured this poor mute!”) I think Graham was playing a fighter type who was from the same company as Dylan so the two worked together. These days I would have found things to do with the shared mercenary backstory, but back then it was stated and forgotten.

Pat was playing a half-ogre fighter who spent adventures on end saving up money for some ogre sized plate armor; he had it for maybe two sessions before I introduced a rust monster into the next crypt in, what I can admit in retrospect, was a pure dick-move as a GM. Sorry Pat. Even still the PC had an enormous two handed sword that let him intimidate the hell out of everyone and a 19 Strength that made him a pure terror in combat. Steve was playing a fighter-thief of some sort, if memory serves, but I couldn’t tell you anything about him.

Greg and Peter might have played a couple of sessions with these PCs, but if so have no recollection of it.

Back to the seedy underbelly: these rogues found ways to sneak into the walled off ‘gold gate’ part of the city and rob the houses of the wealthy while refusing to join the thieves’ guild. They took questionable jobs from disreputable sorts in seedy bars to act as bodyguards, thieves and tomb robbers – but drew the line at being assassins. When one of said disreputable patrons was killed they broke into his house and stole his collection of papers and maps to scour for hints of other old ruins and tombs on the island. OK, they also avenged his death on general principles but they also wanted to cut out the middle man on the tomb robbing stuff. Either avenging that death or some other antic got the thieves’ guild to sic an assassin on Jesse’s PC; our heroes caught rumors of the hire and split themselves between pre-emptive revenge on the guild and guarding themselves from the assassin. A good third of Shankill’s shantytown was torched when Jesse unleashed a flaming sphere against the assassin while fleeing from him across the slum’s rooftops. The gang war got so out of control the army came in and Jesse’s PC had to fake his death to give the thieves’ guild a face saving reason to stop the war before the army crushed both groups.

Our heroes split town after that for a bit – there might have been smuggling involved? – but by then these PCs stories were wrapping up. To give you an idea of the difference between the games the end of the last one was an epic quest to slay a demi-lich. In this one it was an informal competition with a thieves’ guild group to loot the ultimate ruin on the island, a long-abandoned wizards’ school (stolen from a Dragon Magazine module, possibly “Into the Forgotten Realms”) where the headmaster had become a lich and was completely bonkers. They learned about the lich from a lemure (a slug like minor demon) that was claiming to be a polymorphed young wizard and who spent the adventure riding on Jesse’s shoulder and advising them in a high screechy voice; eventually someone detected evil on the thing and whacked it in half. Knowing the lich would slaughter them the PCs started pretending to be students, got the lich on their side, sicced him on the thieves’ guild group and scarpered with whatever they could lay their hands on. We played that session from 7PM to 7AM, and I remember the fresh daylight streaming through the window behind with at least one player asleep on the floor of my room. That is the only all-nighter I have ever pulled as a GM and IT WAS AWESOME.

And that leads us to the current 13th Age game...