Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Castle Mordha, the 13th Age, sessions 1-2

So far the party of highly disparate adventurers has gathered in Mordha town, directed by dreams, nudged by wizards, hired by guildsmen and dispatched by the Old Man to see to the bandits harassing the trade route across Shankill Island. The elusive bandits were discovered to have been trapped by... something... inside the vast complex under the remnants of the collapsed castle that once held the Mordha Family, the Hawks of Shankill Isle.

More details to come on the specifics, but the map of the exploration so far is below.

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...

Castle Mordha: the end of the 12th Age

Back in 1984 I started my first real D&D Campaign -  The Shankill Isles:

A peninsula where each island had a slightly different culture, dungeons and problems, with the PCs living the island city state of Shankill, a major port city on the largest island. While everyone lost a few PCs early on Jesse, Mike and Steve got PCs up to 3rd level and with that increased durability their triumvirate of the paladin Cathoris of Haven, the magic user Elf (he never shared his name for mysterious reasons) and the monk Rasputin became the core of the party. Johnathan played a succession of ill-omened fighters, Peter had a cleric (until he switched to a psionicist due on a Dragon Magazine article that no one ever entirely understood) and Greg was playing a fighter not because he wanted to but because he wanted to have a bard and in AD&D that required 5+ levels of fighter and 5+ levels of thief, so he was slogging through those on the weeks he made it to play. Alas, PCs names escape me in my dotage.

The group had some fun: They dealt with a Sumatran rat plague and the undead spawning it. They cleared an island of giant ants and ankhegs that were devouring the livestock of a new colony. They tackled a vast slave trading consortium from the TSR Slavers modules and my own design (cribbed from the Guardians of the Flame books). I discovered that players really, really, hate having their stuff taken away from them at the start of module A4. They worked their way through part of White Plume Mountain, secured Blackrazor and then went home, only to lose the sword shortly thereafter when Cathoris determined it was very truly evil and threw it into… something. The sea? A volcano? I don’t recall.

Cathoris hunted and slew a dragon that had been menacing trade routes but then had to hand the horde over to a clan of dwarves that claimed it was theirs, leading to Jesse’s refrain of ‘short little ugly little greedy little stupid little…’ muttered under his breath whenever dwarves turned up. Mike insisted that Elf also wanted to be a Bard but couldn’t due to race restrictions on the class, and so he content himself with making up self-aggrandizing ditties on his ukulele. (“Elf is back and he’s better than before! Hey la, hey la Might Elf! With spells and power and magical lore! Hey la, hey la, Mighty Elf! Hey, what a great and powerful guy, yeah, he can touch the sky! Hey la, hey la, Mighty Elf!”) Rasputin had several run ins with an evil monk leading to a three part macguffin quest across the islands – I’d like to think we had the good sense to make John’s fighter a sailor for some spotlight time, and we might have, but I really don’t recall – that culminated in a spiral mountain dungeon containing an artifact gemstone that took over Rasputin’s body, leading to an epic Paladin vs. Monk battle to free Rasputin’s soul.

One stop on the MacGuffin quest was a Drow Giant tree Fortress (also from Dragon Magazine) which they survived by holing up in a storeroom to have Peter’s psionicist heal everyone, then foray out, kill stuff, run back and repeat. That got them into contact with the Drow, which led to the players insisting I run the Drow modules, which I had just purchased. We got a little bit into D1 but no one really wanted to do the logistics that went with such an expedition, so they made some tentative raids into the underdark and then pulled back. Jesse told me later he really wanted to finish the series but I don’t remember ever actually running it. I do remember running D1 on the back porch at Steve’s house and them facing one of those floating eye spores and not getting much further. Everyone preferred shorter adventures that worked for days people couldn’t make it, so I developed more ruins, lairs and evil towns/slaver outposts for them to battle.

The last thing I remember running for those characters was Tomb of Horrors. As with the Drow module the players found out I owned it and insisted on tackling it. Greg’s PC, who had made it to Fighter 6/Thief 5 I think and was in spitting distance of his goal of Bard-dom, stepped on a pit trap 70 feet in, fell onto poisoned spikes, missed his save three times and was stone dead 10 minutes into the module. Again, I’d like to say we elevated one of the henchmen to PC status and got Greg back in the game but no, he was upstairs reading and playing computer games for the rest of the night. 25+ years on and I still feel guilty about that.

Anyway, the other PCs dragged his body out, stripped it of key magic they might need and left it with some henchmen for revivifying later. One ‘borrowed’ magic item was Greg’s sword which, unbeknownst to him, was a Luck Blade with one wish left. Cathoris had it slung over his back in case something happened to his own weapon. The group hacked, schemed and spelled their way through to the false lich/actual mummy chamber with its illusionary earthquake. During the course of things Cathoris’ shield had been eaten by acid so he was fighting two weapon style, holy sword in one hand and the luck blade in the other. Seeing how bad things looked Jesse/Cathoris said “I wish we were at the end of this!”


And there they were in Acereak’s chambers, facing the soul-eating floating skull, trying to find some way to kill it. Johnathan’s fighter (he was on his 3rd or 4th for the campaign, or perhaps had been resurrected a few times, or both) was quickly dispatched, and Pete’s psionicsit/cleric followed. Cathoris managed to resist the effect once, but everyone knew time was against them. Their salvation came from a historical oddity: Rasputin, having been nearly consumed by a soul sucking gem once in the past, was now immune to such attacks. It said so right on his character sheet from something that happened a year before I even read Tomb of Horrors! That protection gave them just enough time and wherewithal for Rasputin, Cathoris and Elf to triumph and shatter Acereak’s skull, banishing the deli-lich’s spirit.

With two of the regular PCs permanently dead, all of Cathoris’ equipment disintegrated, Elf at the elven Magic-User level cap and Greg just a little peeved that his gear got to save the day when he was upstairs bored, I decided it was a good time to end the campaign. The players agreed. Cathoris used a share of the treasure to pay for reviving Greg’s PC, gave the rest to him to found a bards college and then retired with Rasputin to that worthy’s monastery (claiming he was dressed only in the magic scrolls recovered from the tomb wrapped around him as a loincloth) and Elf sailing off for the “Elf lands far away”, having earned his place among them.

I don’t recall Greg, Peter or Johnathan playing D&D after that. The next set of adventurers in Shankill was to be very different.