Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Nerd in Fitness 4 - First month of gym

At first, it was just supposed to be running.
Things rarely go as such, and only a couple of weeks in, a colleague at work suggested starting working out in a gym.

Maybe it was the high and addled mind of someone recently starting out on an active life-style; maybe it was a latent death wish. Either way, I said yes.

I had a really hard time seeing myself in the gym, though. It was something all the cool kids were doing. I hadn't thought that hard about it till recently; but deep down inside I always felt I'd feel like an outsider – someone who didn't belong there and was intruding on their playground. This in itself is highly ironic, considering the sole purpose of gyms is to welcome people like me.

After a month, I now understand this. I'm such a nerd.
The second concern was one of practicality. This was unknown territory for me. I knew nothing. I mean; absolutely-Jon-Snow-oblivious-blank-nothing about what you were supposed to do with those infernal machines. Usually, when passing by there, I'd always try and stare at bouncy boobs or someone's ass, thinking myself lucky for avoiding such torment.

And now, I was about to become one of these unfortunate souls.

At this time of writing, I've been there for a month. I thought it proper to share some of my impressions.

First things first; the pains and the bro's

My first journey to the gym known as Fitness World was one of amazement, wonder and ludicrous pain.
I'll have to admit; it IS dangerous to go alone, and having someone along who knew the place was a big help. I'm certain I would've gotten lost pretty quickly; mostly because everything, at first, is a blur of mangled, black metal, rugged floors and mirrors.

There is a certain feeling that spreads inside your body, when you realize that you must be the most unfit person in the entire building. It's tragicomic, in a way. I'd hoped my running beforehand would at least give me an edge, but judging from my first 15 minutes of waiting outside, I quickly concluded I was going to set the low bar. Which is fine, since it only goes up from there.

The staff was nice and though it's their job, I was pleasantly surprised and well received. I've gone for a membership that requires me to be present with the other guy I'm training with.

Most of our training has been focusing on the building of muscles on the arms and shoulder+chest, which is classic and well. Legs and hips have been in for a fair share of work as well, and during my first visit, I was somewhat surprised I felt so little pain. So I went home, after an hour, and all was well.

So let me share a little secret with you.

Shit gets real the following morning.
As in, concrete, bat-shit insanely real, if you're like me and this is all new to you.

And it just keeps growing. Though I went to take painkillers, the entire Monday, I was more or less handicapped and unable to use my arms for anything. I thought Tuesday would be better at least, was actually worse.

It was four.fucking.days.till I felt the arms working again. I stretched for ages and nothing happened except more pain. This is the stuff that not only makes you cringe, you also seriously start questioning your previously chosen life-style. Realizing how weak and untrained your body has been for so long is scary to say the least.

On the good side, once this was over, the second and third visits were much, much easier.

Remembering to stretch properly when done likely helped too. Don't ask me how I manned up to go again after that pain-ride. Fuck me if I know.

Initial reaction, when your friend asks whether you're up for a second go.

Second of all, who are these people?

Through psychological studies whenever I had a few moments to breathe; I managed to do some observations regarding the types of individuals who frequent the place. I suppose I wasn't surprised to find archetypes in such a place, yet I was amazed at how many there were from various groups.

A) The “I'm just here to make the rest of you feel like shit”
These men are walking mountains. To the point that I expect them to punch out my teeth and gouge my eyes out a moment later. But we're all safe, because they really are mountains in many respect. They're build like powerhouses, with muscles in about every place that muscles can possibly be, and they look darn impressive (especially to n00bs like me) – yet there's a peculiar pattern the differentiates them from their fellow Stronginthearms; They don't really do much, except standing around, lifting a little bit now and then, but nothing that seems to stress them out the least.

I have no idea who these guys are, btw.
They're kind of like the top-end raiding guild players that just used to stand around in Iron Forge, back when people wouldn't wank it out in their garrisons, and not answer whispers. They don't seem to build or train anything while there, except for something that barely seems to put a strain on them. I don't know if they're training elsewhere and just come down to...stand around... but they sure do motivate you and think 'I can do that.....some time....'

B) The “What the fuck's the point?”
If the former were hardcore raiders, these guys are Dwayne from Day of the Tentacle (seriously, if you got this reference I'm making you breakfast) – These guys/girls just appear out of nowhere, likely sitting at some machine that you were going to use, and they just stare. At first, I confused them for those just being there to gawk at women and their ass (and call me a sexist pig if you please; there is a lot of very, very fine ass in a gym) – but, I've often tried following their stare. It's mostly into a wall or at something I can not see. Some times they just stare into a mirror, which kind of frightens me a bit.

I imagine it's some kind of despair. Or an off-day. Or something else entirely. But there sure are a lot of them. From close observation, some will eventually start doing something; others will disappear into thin air the second you look away.
I'm aware this entry makes me sound like a schizophrenia. Don't worry, I'll have more to say later. For now, I just want to go over there and give them a hug.


Going to the gym is about pushing yourself, I'm aware of that much. I've done my share of pushing during the first month. But these guys surely take it to the next level. At first, I kind of wanted to ask them whether they needed any help or something, because they would usually pound away, relentlessly, at whatever they were doing. And most of their features indicated that they were in pain.

And they seem to really like it.... masochists.

I suppose I ought to call them 'Pures' or something; since this is likely the cardinal archetype of people in a gym. They seem to put everything they've got into it; going that tiny-little-bit-extra-of-distance in order to reach their goal. I aspire to be able to do that one day. I'm still at the point where my brain screams yes but my body says “Fuck this shit!”

D) The “Robocops” aka “Inspector Gadgets”

I'm aware of the hypocrisy of this one. After all, I'm here on the internet writing about it. So I'll have to point out, I've nothing against any of these groups; they just poke my interest in many ways. There aren't many in group D, but I've noticed a few. Some of them have like, three gadgets, attached to themselves while everything is going on. Me, I usually carry along my MP3-player when running, but this seems really interesting. I've been told it has something to do with measuring your pulse or something like that.

I'll have to ask them about that.

E) The “I think I can, I know I can!”

This is me. Will be for a long time. There sadly aren't many like me down there. We're the ones who're likely in the most vulnerable position and we're there to make everyone else look good most of the time. We're the ones who're boiling red in the face, as we struggle with weight-lifting just the 20 kilos bar (I just left this zone today, huzzah!) and it feels like everyone else is just staring.

The amount I've met from this group, I can count on two hands so far. Either they don't show up when I do, or they train somewhere else. But we share a very special bond. One time, when training with hand-weights, I walked past a woman who was struggling greatly with the same weight I used a couple of weeks earlier. I remember meeting her gaze and nodding slightly, and she the same. Because we know; we still have that slightly lost and confused look in our eyes. The one that makes it even more important for us to come back, and make our failures better.

And the common thing for all of these people?
They've been so very kind to me, whether deliberate or not. They've been awesome at making me feel at home right there, and made me glad to come back. And I'm thankful for being part of it.

Now, with the basics being nailed down, I look forward to the next chapter, in which I'll actually talk about the progress and things I've trained so far. Stay tuned!

For now: Achievement unlocked!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Nerd in Fitness 3 - First month of running

Instead of splitting up the various weeks in individual posts, I thought it'd be way more comprehensible to stick them into one. Because; most of the lessons I've been through apply to every week.

As noted in the previous post; during my first week of running I managed to complete a 2+1 record. Meaning; I did a warm up for five minutes, then ran two minutes, then walked four minutes and finally ran one.

During the following four weeks, I kept to the program; slowly I would escalate things and not really try to rush it. Not rushing things was actually harder than I originally thought. Sometimes I grew impatient, other times I got eager for results and a few times I simply had too much fun doing what I did. The program I follow doesn't recommend going for more than three runs a week, preferably with a day in between each.

The escalation is really slow, and then at times it spikes in ways that make you dread the outcome and fear for your life. The first time I was supposed to run for three minutes, I refused to believe it. Same thing when I was supposed to hit five. And to be brutally honest, in the beginning I was very close to utter collapse after barely one minute.

And this leads me to the fourth rule I learned the hard way.

Running Rule #4: There's no shame in pace
The problem with being alone in such things, is that you've got nobody to say stop and tell you when you need to tone it down a notch. So I think you'll just start doing what everyone else is doing since it seems to be working. In my case, I set my pace at the same level of those pro runners I so often saw outside my window.

I quickly realized, however, that this is a bar set way too high.
Most of these people have been at this for ages, and the only result (besides from a feeling of failure) is tiring out way too early. On the other hand, slowing down to a pace that is barely a notched up jog isn't what I was expecting my running career to be!

I'll be honest. This was pretty much my reaction whenever someone was faster than me.
But it was necessary, because otherwise my body couldn't keep up. My legs would simply refuse. Once I took this to heart, I not only managed to complete the times set by the program; I also managed to speed up certain distances, such as when going downhill or on even terrain.

It was all about finding the speed that worked for me, and be proud that this was a vast improvements compared to my usual standards.

And, of course, there's the mandatory one...

Running Rule #5: Gear, gear, gear
When I began running, I thought I'd be able to do well with just my old shorts and trainers. Fact was, this only worked well for the early runs, when I was doing 2+2 or below. Going higher than that simply wore out my feet and hurt.

Luckily, I have a girlfriend who's way more learned in the field than I am, so she was eager to take me down to the local store and get a proper set of running-shoes. Now, I'm not here to advertise, so I'll just say; finding a set of shoes that match made a world of difference for me.

The store I went to offered a running-test, in which they put me on a machine and filmed me as I ran. It was a weird feeling to say the least, but it helped a lot in deciding what kind of shoes I would need. There are so many options in this regard that I can barely differentiate them from one another (a quick google should help, though) and since they aren't exactly cheap, one might as well get the best.

I think I spent half an hour just trying them on and off in various sizes and models. I'm terrible when it comes to this; I pretty much just want to buy something and have it over with. Having a salesman and your girlfriend talk about you and your feet in third-person right next to you isn't a barrel of fun either, but I'm glad I made it through.

Running Rule #6: Music
One thing I've always known I wanted, should I ever start anything active, was music. I love music. It helps with everything. When I started running, I would bring my old mobile to take time, but it became extremely cumbersome, so setting up musical tracks instead worked wonders. I again decided that since I was anyway going to do this, I might as well get a proper MP3-player. I have a notorious reputation for breaking these.

In a way, I've found music to be a bit of a dual-edged sword. In one way, it really helps taking my attention off the fact that my lungs are screaming for air. But if it's too fast, I get carried away and unconsciously speed up my pace.

So far, I've stuck with fast paced combat music, such as from the Witcher and other role playing games. But slow music, I think, can be really good for those long runs in which its more about enduring than speed. 

Not just a great game; also perfect for running.

Running Rule #7: Determination!
All fun things come to an end. In the beginning, I loved running and wished I'd do it several times a day. Recently, I have to push myself a bit more, especially if it's cold or rainy outside. I know of the old cliché that getting started is half the pain of running, but keeping up determination has been a real bother for me. I like it, though, and I want to do it. Yet, getting out into the shoes is such a drudge some days.

When it comes to running and bad weather, denial will get you far

I often have to remind myself of why I do this. This blog has helped a lot in this regard.

So where are we now?

I didn't skip one day of running the entire month and I'm damn proud of it.
There were days, yes, when I wanted to just throw everything away and quit. These were the ones in which I needed to kick myself even more in the ass to get going. Knowing the great feeling of afterburn when it was over, was a strong motivator all in itself.

So this brings me up to my current stage: The 8+1!!

Achievement unlocked!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Nerd in Fitness 2 - First week of running

There's a saying that all beginning is hard; but really, the initial steps of self-improvements have, despite my new found passion and drive, been beyond whatever pain and exhaustion I'd imagined. Yes, this did come as a surprise; I'm supposed to be a tough guy, despite my calm and nice demeanor. I don't cry to movies and get dentist operations done without sedation. How bad could a simple little start up be?

Initially, my only interest was the running-program. Running has always been the thing I used to loathe the most, so it made sense to start out there. The program in itself is rather simple; you go out three times a week and shift between running and walking, with increasing magnitudes of the former.

As mentioned in my previous post, the first trip was surprisingly easy. I've always had good legs, so I suppose that was to be expected. I actually ended up going for another run the following day, though I was supposed to rest (moron mistake number one there) but I still had good fun with it.

At this point, I think the mere taste of success is the cardinal point. Ones personal expectations are dramatically low; feeling this accomplishment was an amazing follow-up to the turning-point in my life.

One piece of wisdom that hit me pretty early on, was the rule number 1 of running.

Running Rule #1: Thou shall always feel like dying at 1 HP and thou stamina drained. But this be folly.

There's is no such thing as an easy run – not in the beginning.

At the initial phase of running; a debuff is placed on you that constantly tickes for an insane amount of stamina. Trust me, if you're like me, you'll see that precious energy evaporate like some unseen foe was constantly mana-draining you. But it's one of those tricky debuffs that don't exactly kill you once you hit 1 HP (WoW-runners, think of Prince Malchezaar – it's safe as long as you remember to run!) But it's enough to make you scream on the inside and go into blind panic. Yet somehow, I seemed to make it back alive every single time. Then I collapse, and lie at the floor, staring into the ceiling, wondering whether the next run will be the one that gets me...

At least one more
 Then, of course, there's the second one. This one is kind of obvious, but it's important.

Running Rule #2: Everyone has a higher level and more skill points in Athletics than you.
Yes, everyone has to start at the bottom. Yes, the mountain is tall. Yes, most people around you have been at this shit for years before you.
But holy hell, why does it hit you so hard in the face?

Pretty much everyone I ran past during the first week sprinted past me like a dervish. Eventually, I started making mental Roadrunner sounds in my head when it happened. Add on top of that, that the program required me to make occasional breaks, which would always be when someone would pass by me. At first this made me feel terrible and like I really didn't belong out here with all the grown-ups. But after the first couple of runs, I kind of started to adapt.

One thing I later noticed, was that semi-guilty-stare-down-into-the-ground gaze some people had when I ran by them, just as they were out for a walk. As if I'd just poked horribly at their bad conscience or something. Running is truly all about impressions for everyone.

Just remember; there will always be someone out there with a higher Challenge Rating than you. You don't hit that level 20 just from scratch; slaying those annoying goblins is just a mandatory fact.

For my first week, I mainly stuck to the forest because it was secluded and seemed safe. That taught me my third rule of running.

Running Rule #3: Don't fuck with the rules for 'Difficult Terrain'
This is entire subjective perspective here (like everything else on this blog, really) – but there's a significant difference from running uphill or downhill.
At first, I told myself that I ought to sprint up those hills...
Well, derp.

But it was way bigger than I thought. Difficult terrain has fucked me in wargames for years, and now it comes back to haunt my real life as well. Great. One thing that truly devastated me when I started running (see rule #1) was that I didn't pay heed to elevations, meaning I'd just trudge on and think it would be okay. It wouldn't. 

If you're like me, you need to respect such things. At least because it made me feel pathetic for not even being able to cross a small rise like that. But things get dicey real fast, and after I started regulating my running whenever I hit such passages, running them has been much more pleasant.



Eventually, I made it past my first week of running. I managed to reach the 3 minute marker (note; that would be a 2+1 marker, as I call it. Meaning, two minutes of running, a break of four minutes or so, then another one) – Pebbles, you may say, but coming from this guy who has been out of it for 25 years or so? I'd say it's pretty nifty! Following up with the exciting next week soon!

A Nerd in Fitness 1 - The beginning

So, there's not really any point denying it or creeping around the bushes. I've started the life of the fitness. The menial, bodily drudge of no-pain-no-gain. Increasing my STR score. Taking a fighter level. Call it what you want; I am sure my message is coming across perfectly.

In fact, I'll just boil it all down for you and say; I've done something I for the life of me never thought I'd be able to, nor interested in. I've taken up the mantle of improving my personal physique.

Now, why is this special? This kind of shit happens every day, right? I mean – Good on you, bro! Is there any more to it? Why even bother your otherwise nerdy blog about such trifle real-life elements?
Well, I'll need to share a bit of personal information with you. I don't intend to make it short, however. It will be personal, first and foremost.

I didn't exactly grow up as what you'd call a happy kid. In many ways, I was the more or less stereotypical chubby-kid-nerd who didn't exactly thrive. Sure, for the first half of my childhood, I had well-meaning parents and I wasn't exactly lonely in school. But on the other hand, for reasons I'd rather keep discrete due to the involved parties, I grew more and more sad and buried this beneath escapism into fantasy-universes and food. Eating was something the family could usually gather up for, and like for so many people, it's a rewarding stimuli.

In all seriousness, that's how it can be as a chubby kid.
Said tendency did, however, turn out to only add insult to injury.  In more than one way, I wasn't a pretty kid. Kids know that, often early on, because today's society rarely hesitates to hand them the template for what's pretty and what's not. And for me, things really did start to escalate. Understanding why this tendency, eating, was even allowed to progress in such an early stage of my life is usually done in two groups. Those who've been there and those who haven't. For the latter, it's possible to imagine why. But truly understand it is another story. Put in other words; for those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, none is possible.

As childhood turned to youth, teasing became bullying. I won't lie, but stick to what I acknowledge is the often too seen story; for a time I was bullied a lot, and combined with the problems on my homefront, I coped as I used to. Soda is amazingly good; it helps you cope and having tried both by now, its effects are surprisingly similar to grown-ups' coping through cigarettes. Same counts for food and video games, to some degree.
Being chubby as a kid today is hard. Very hard. I made do as best I could; trying to get by by being the funny guy around, being noisy, exposing myself. Ironically, the very last thing I wanted to happen, because I was taught that I was supposed to feel ashamed.

Shame is a heavy emotion for a child, especially when it comes from people you otherwise would respect for various reasons. As the years had passed, I'd more or less come to accept this from my class mates and some of the older children. Hell, I'd even gotten used to some of them simply walking up, screaming into my head that I was disgusting. You can get quite resilient like that.

No, the worst part was when the grown-ups started interfering.
At first it would be when I visited friends from my class, and they'd give me those slightly concerned looks when we ate dinner together. A few times, I was asked about my weight, and when I replied, they would appear shocked, telling me I was approaching grown-up weight. (In fact, this was around 4th grade, during which I'd reached an impressive 50'ish kilos)

Later on, the teachers would start. Of course the gym teachers were the worst. I've known a couple of nice gym teachers, but I can't shape the feeling that there are some of them out there, who're purely offended by the presence of fat kids. Whether it's sadistic glee or a passion for healthy living, it sure sparked me some attention that I usually ended up avoiding through much persistence.

Then some of them would start calling my parents, just to inform them that they'd started a local initiative for 'kids of special body sizes' – for some odd reason, I still remember the day my mother told me said teacher had called and pretty much called it for what it was: “A group for fat kids so they can get out more” - and the notion that I was on that list saddened me.

Sadness is the way too persistent roommate of Shame. Once they party up, the music plays like there's no end to it, and in my case I was quite a sad child for a long time. Looking back on this, I hid a lot of it.

And the thing is, in hindsight; they were all right. I think everyone can agree that obesity, especially in children, is never a good thing. I don't think the majority of people today really want to be in that place. I'd never argue that any of those people should think otherwise. But to this day, I hate their methods to hell, with a passion.

Once something is forced upon you with enough force, what usually happens on a psychological scale, is a contra-reaction of equal or maybe even bigger force. In my case, I felt a lot of people had started pointing out my coping-mechanism as something I should be ashamed of. I felt sad, I didn't know what to do with it, so I isolated myself, I ate and now everyone was telling me that I should practically stop reacting like this.
Except for a very few individuals to who I owe so much; so few actually sat down and had the proper time/energy/understanding to dig deeper into this.

Now add on top growing up, dealing with essentials developmental topics such as your body, your social prowess in a very social world directed by results and to a large extent; looks. It was going strong in the 90'es; I shiver to think how fierce that is today.

It's something you can start ignoring or pushing aside as you grow older. You can tell yourself it'll be okay, though you still don't understand completely, because you never really dared to, when all you were told was that you ought to be ashamed and that it was your fault.
When you're told about these things from a result-oriented perspective dealing mainly with measurement, it becomes an external scale of comparison and judgment. Put in other words; very little time was spent actually, fucking talking to kids like me, about how the personal feeling was of being who you were. What personal feeling did it evoke in you, when you were larger than the rest? Was it unpleasant? Was there anything you could do and could you actually learn to conjure up a positive emotion afterward, for example?
No; it was about results and looks.

Around the time I hit 18 I struck a pseudo-anorectic period. I became severely thin, which frightened me. I don't remember doing an effort for this, and for a time almost feared I was ill. Again this was a time when my body became something odd and strange, and still riding high on my wave of escapism, I just kept going with what I did. At that time, my fondness for soda had grown and though it was a couple of years to resettle, I made it back to being chubby with no problem.
It has been so for the last 10+ years of my life. I haven't been obese. I haven't been what you'd call healthy either. I've done things I likely shouldn't, drank things I likely shouldn't have and all the time clinging to my old notion like a furious, fierce beast protecting its den.

In my case, my den is described as: “Since my childhood, I've found solace in eating and straying from everyone who wants to interfere with this” - I've been constantly watching, patronizing anyone ever mentioning the notion of working with body, trying to respect it or changing my ways for the better. Because this coping was mine; it made me feel safe, and fuck everyone who would ever want to take it away.

So, what makes a man change? 
From my psychological work, I'm convinced there's a time and a place for everything. Especially making personal changes. The million-dollar question for me would be; why the sudden change of heart? What happened?

The thing is, there's a main reason. And I've sworn not to tell anyone till I eventually feel I've reached said goal. It's a somewhat silly goal, I'll say, but I know that saying it out loud would shatter it by now.
The secondary reason was just the effect like a lightning-strike. It was a dark afternoon in May, I was home alone and I'd decided to make a blooming onion; mostly to try something new. It involved a lot of cheese.
My girlfriend called, we did chat a bit and eventually, I told her that I was getting somewhat restless tonight. Since she moved in with me, being home alone has become somewhat more tricky. We joked a bit about it, and she suddenly said that I could just go ahead an take a run if I felt like it.

This was like a mental thunderbolt. It struck the exact right spot; triggered the essential synapse in a long lost part of my brain. I remember after the talk, I went to taste my blooming onion. It was really good. And, as they go, fatty. As I chewed on it, the idea grew inside my mind. It was something old and new at the same time. The notion of personal change, but for once it wasn't riddled with shame or personal loathing. It originated from an entire new notion; “I can become better,”I thought. “I want to become better.”

Something like this
My girlfriend has had this intro-running program around for ages; it pretty much describes how to go from zero to 5 kilometers of running, in 12 weeks. I've often eyed this with distrust, but that night something was kindled inside of me. It was burning, thrilling and new. It was me taking control of my life; not anyone else persuading me because I was fundamentally wrong, but me wanting to see new borders.

And so I ran that night. I ran and ran, for one whole minute in the rain. Resting for five minutes as the program told me to; and then another minute. My breath was gone, but as I got to my feet, it dawned on me that for the first time in my life, I felt good about exercising.

And thus began my journey, which I've decided to dub “A Nerd in the Fitness” due to later reasons. I've decided to write this entire thing down before I lose track, and hopefully it will at least be entertaining stuff for all you people out there to read.

As I go along, I'll keep all the links here for easy navigation:

Friday, May 29, 2015

Way of the Wicked pt. 1 "Bad moon rising"

So, we started our official fifth campaign some weeks ago, and for once, we decided not to settle for any of the big names. So far, our credentials include well-known names as 'The Savage Tide', 'Carrion Crown' and the relatively new "Tyranny of Dragons" from Wizards' own hands (and yes, I WILL complete the review line for that one as well).

So why didn't we settle for something safe, like the upcoming 'Elemental Evil'?
The short story, we were tired of saving the world. A lot of the people in my group have gamed with me for the last 8+ years. I'm sure some of you out there join my choir; we've saved the world so many times, it's becoming more or less a chore now. Even 'Skull and Shackles' from Paizo didn't really manage to try anything new, in terms of making PC's of questionable alignments. So we turned to check out our options. Many beers were consumed.

We ended up on an old fling of mine; one that I'd been recommended and read a bit about before, but never really had the chance to try out. We went for the severely underappreciated gem called 'Way of the Wicked' by Firemountain Games (

What is Way of the Wicked?

Minor spoilers may await you, but I'll do my best to keep them low.

I could talk for hours about how insanely appealing this AP is, but I'll smooth it out for you as we go along with the adventure. Allow me to simply say; If you and/or your party is tired of saving the world over and over, this is THE adventure path for you.

Way of the Wicked (Wotw) is a Pathfinder adventure path (though we played it with D&D 5th edition rules, which is easily doable). It puts the players in the shoes of some of the worst villain the small and peaceful island kingdom of Talingarde has ever seen. For once, the world is in balance, people hug and fluffy bunnies jump the fields between shining, lawful good paladins. Small stains of shit like the unorthodox players aren't tolerated, seeing how they remind everyone of ages past, when the worship of the dark, infernal god Asmodeus was prevalent.

The players create villains instead of heroes, who are put in prison and sentenced to death for various reasons. They're pissed and angry, and they want out to mete out their revenge on the kingdom.

The adventure path spans over six books, taking the villains through various tasks including infiltration, managing their evil minions, assassinations and all the evil stuff the NPC's used to do. They'll suddenly clash with noble paladins and all those monsters in the bestiary you never, ever had a chance to use as a GM. Unlike Paizo's usual, retarded way of designing their AP's, most of the 100'ish pages of an adventure is actually...adventure. Not a bunch of pages near the end with random monsters and some fiction I don't give two shits about.

The kingdom of Talingarde is generically designed on purpose; it's very easy to plot in just about everywhere in a campaign (in my case of the Forgotten Realm, I placed it far off the coast of Amn) and it only includes to deity elements; the new, benevolent sun-god known as Mithra and the heretic Asmodeus, whose church is now all but extinct and lost in the mists of time. The history of Talingarde is briefly described in the end of the first book and is easily managed and conveyed, leaving plenty of room for improvisation, if making things up your players instantly forget is your thing.

If you're considering this adventure, as a GM, I strongly, strongly recommend the seventh book of the series, "Tales of Talingarde", in which the designers sit down and provide you with extra ideas and input for the entire campaign, including a new ending.

The rise of the fearsome five...
Eventually, my players created the following villains:

'Vince' Barkalion, human cleric of Asmodeus. Sent to prison after visiting a brothel and killing a harlot who went into labor , thus triggering some deep, emotional problems in the priest. He ended up slaying the woman and the unborn child, proceeding to have sex with her afterward (I know what you're thinking, and yes; you're right) – he was immediately arrested in the capital, by Sir. Balin, the royal witch hunter.

Selina, human female druid. The Morrigan of the party, who'd been living in the swamp around Brandenscar Prison with her grandmother. Practicing her craft as a midwife as well, she infused dark magics to make women with child, but for what costs? She pushed her luck, as the tried getting to the current king, Marcadian the V, who currently has failed to produce a male heir. Someone ratted her out, and she was seized by Sir. Balin and accused of witchcraft, immediately sent to Brandenscar Prison.

Gabinus, human wizard. Gabinus grew up in the capital, Matharyn. He was adopted by Master Talin, who taught him the basics of the arcane arts, but the lessons were harsh and Talin a fierce worshipper of Asmodeus. One day, he was found dead on the floor, and Gabinus made his way off with whatever magical trinkets he could find, and made his way in the world by exploiting and fraud. One day, however, he pushed his luck, and Sir Balin seized him in a setup, immediately sending him off to Brandenscar Prison for work in the salt mines.

Gabinus the wizard
Samael, the Traitor,“The Bastard of House Barca”, human paladin oathbreaker vierty.
The black knight of the party, who started out as a promising member of the Knights of Allerion. Despite him being a bastard of the oldest house on the island, he made a good name for himself in the holy ranks, but his ambitions grew larger than that. As he learned that the king was unlikely to produce an heir, he attempted to reinstate the old ways and his house through the means of poison and allies in his network. His attempt failed, and the black knight was cornered in the palace, where he fought and took down several soldiers with a dark fury. He eventually surrendered and was sent to Brandenscar Prison to die by drawing and quartering; the most severe punishment in the realm.

'Solo', drow rogue.
Solo is a relative newcomer to Talingarde where he has made his way through his nimble talents and sense of death. Not long after arriving at the prospering kingdom, Solo started hearing dark whispers in his head. The words were infernal of nature, and told him his path was clear and that he was meant to serve the burning lord; all he needed to do was unleash his wrath on the local Mithra temple, and so he did. Slaughtering priests in the dozen, the dark elf was eventually apprehended by Sir. Balin (yes, Sir Balin is a very busy man) and dragged off to Brandenscar Prison to die. He was genuinely calm all the way, putting his faith in the dark lord's will.

I feel a bad moon rising...
(as always, GM-comments are in blue)

It was dark, cold and wet as the prison caravan thundered across the wet roads and into the night; keeping a steady course towards the towering shadow with specks of light in the distance. Around it, the blue-uniformed guards were obviously tense, more than once glaring at the dull, brown prison-carriage they were guarding. Within, five people were chained up with sacks over their heads, and though they were more tightly restrained than any prisoner ever taking this trip, everyone was on edge. These were some of the worst criminals to have sprung up in the otherwise peaceful kingdom, and like any other weed, the best way to deal with it was pulling up the root and make sure it was never seen again. Surely, more than one of the accompanying guards wished to seem them all burn for their crimes, like the blight on the landscape they were. Both Talingarde was a lawful landscape as well, and justice had to prevail. Thus they were to spend the following three nights at the prison, before their fate awaited them.

Brandenscar Prison
As the wagon made its way closer to the prison, it passed the first gate post and rumbled up the path towards the concrete walls. The sound of the ocean surrounding the prison and smell of the sea was evident to the prisoners inside, and they even heard the muffled sound of someone exchanging words at the main gate, before moving on into the compound itself.

(If you use the seventh book, there's a small guide in which the villains roll a perception check on the way in, and deduce some potentially vital information, such as the presence of dogs, the smell of the ocean and the fact that they pass two gates, etc.)

They were dragged from the wagon, and heard several boo's, insults, yells and rotten stuff was thrown at them. They were accompanied by several heavy boots, past a heavy door, up some stairs, and finally their blindfold was removed. They were in a small prison corridor, and the guards didn't hesitate much before they were all hurled into a tiny cell.
The group of guards exchanged some mocking comments about these wimps not being so tough after all (you know, the usual guard being so brave when there are bars between him and his victims; conventions are important!) and left. As they got their bearings, they noticed a huge scream coming from a nearby room, and a giant, lumbering shape being escorted out and into his cell by a small group of guards. They were surprised to notice it was an ogre, and even as the guards left, it screamed and yelled at them; “This not over! Grumblejack eat you!” it wailed and took swings through the bars.

 (Grumblejack is WotW version of Minsc from Baldur's Gate, pretty much. If used right, he has the potential to become a key-character and a true icon of the campaign. Take good time to introduce him, both as intelligent and certainly a potential ally who has suffered as much as the heroes)

The villains spent some time staring each other down; some of them recognized seeing each other from before, and they knew they were all in this together (we usually don't spend that much time 'bonding' in our group; we just want the story to get going, and by this time, it's pretty obvious they only have each other in this place!) It wasn't long though, till they were summoned to a small room down the corridor, in which a fat sergeant greeted them with a sinister smile. They did notice, however, the room being packed with guards, weapons drawn. These people were scared, no doubt about it. They'd heard the stories.

The fat man introduced himself as Sergeant Thomas Blackerly. He seemed severely amused by the crimes of the heroes and took turns to mock their heritage, their deeds and made insinuations about what was going to happen to them in this prison; things that nobody would ever hear about (these things being left up to your imagination and the level of adult themes you wish to include in your game). He giggled like a maniac by the very thought of breaking their backs in the gardens, starving them out with disease-ridden food and maybe even hand over the witch and one of the others to the guards, who hadn't had....good company...for months. The villains remained stoic about this, but the few who attempted snappy replies were met with a fist to the face. Being chained, there was very little they could do.

(As written, Blackerly is just fat, stupid and mean. I chose to portray him more as a sociopath)

Once two of the villains were sitting with nosebleeds and the rest staring at him with defiance, he chuckled and pulled out the burning branding-rod from the fire. “Don't worry,” he said, “you'll feel right at home here!” and then plunged the burning metal into the first available arm. With a searing sound, it burned its way down and mixed in with his laughter and the screams of the now restrained victim. (Allow the villains to decide whether they yell or just stare at him coldly, they love that shit)

When it was all done, they were returned to their cells, noticing the guards mumbling “about damn time; why does he always gloat like that? Creeps me the fuck out... Now we're late for the game too; come on!”

(This is the time for you to build up animosity. Pour gasoline on the fire. Ignite their hatred. Let the villains feel the guards hate them, humiliate them and drag them through the dirt. Give them a good reason to bring forth hell once the chains are broken!)

A visit from beyond...

As the villains returned to their cell, they noticed the guards had, by instruction from the sergeant, emptied the remains from the dog-kennel all over the floor. As a little welcome-present, they called it. Finding a quiet corner in the cell, the villains quickly deduced one thing. They had to get out of there, right now. At first, they tried making contact with the ogre, Grumblejack, but their talking was swiftly interrupted by a guard from the guard room, yelling for them to be quiet or they'd get a solid beating.

In whispers, they decided it could be time for them to try and make a bold escape of overcoming the guards, if only they had the right tools. The ogre was a benefit, if only they could get him out, and Vince was especially interested, as he could sense infernal blood running in the ogre's veins.

They spent a couple of hours discussing in hushed voices, and then the door swung up. A strangely distant Blackerly walked in with a couple of guards. His schmuck expression gone, he told Vince that his beloved was here to see him. He was to follow. Immediately.

Vince went to the small interrogation room, where a woman dressed for a funeral was crying her eyes out. When she saw Vince and the guards enter, she wailed with rejoice and threw herself around the prisoner, crying 'My love! I've missed you so much! I was afraid they had killed you already!” - Being up for the act, Vince followed up on it, and eventually the woman turned to the hypnotized Blackerly, asking him to give them a moments' peace. The enslaved sergeant agreed and left.

Just as soon as the door slammed shut, the woman dropped her facade and became stern and focused. She smiled a sinister smile and introduced herself as 'Tiadora'. “But I don't blame you, if you've already forgotten about me, dearest,” she said and handed over her white veil. She told Vince that she was in the employ of a potential mutual friend, who was very interested in meeting the villains. All they had to do was escape, cross the swamp around the prison and seek out an old manor with a single lantern burning in the window. They had three days.

Vince, knowing better than to ask too many questions, agreed and was transported back to the cell with the others; the guards being too distracted by the beautiful woman to bother searching him. As she left, she gave him a short kiss, which he noticed was cold as ice. Odd.

(Tiadora makes for a very interesting NPC that will take up a lot more time later on in the AP. For now, it's important to make her interesting, professional, teasing and patronizing. That's what she does, and if the players take an ambivalent love-hate relationship to her, all the better. She's not there to answer questions and should remain elusive all throughout.)

Returning to their cell, the villains unfolded the white veil, only to realize they'd been granted a mighty gift. A veil of many things, from which they could extract daggers, gold, a healing potion, a thief's toolkit, an unholy symbol and even a moveable window that would create a hole in a wall! Grinning in the darkness, the villains carefully began planning their prison break...

Friday, May 8, 2015

Hoard of the Dragon Queen Chapter 4: On the road again

Once again, back with a timely update for the adventure path. At this moment of writing, we've actually managed to complete the entire thing, just two days ago, so I guess I have a lot of stuff to do before catching up on our next campaign; "Way of the Wicked". So let's get to it. After all, we're still in the first half of the campaign (the first book) which is for the majority a lousy piece of work, so thrill at the overwhelming praise and enthusiasm by which I scribble these words of worship!

You must gather your inspiration before venturing forth!
At the end of the previous chapter, the heroes had brought waste to the cultist tunnels and hopefully vanquished the dragon hatchery. At this time, they're able to head back to Greenest, rest up and resupply, before heading to the town of Elturel; about six days travel north.

This is optional, of course; what most adventurers would likely do, is to set out directly after the cultists, who by that time has more or less a day's head start. Sadly, the adventure spends preciously little time describing this, only stating that this could be an option and leaves the rest up to you. The more detailed road takes the heroes to Elturel along the road, in which they meet up with their old ally Leosin, the Harper Monk, and a potential new friend, Frume from the Order of the Gauntlet. Frume is presented as a likeable character; he's the good guy they can trust, as long as they want to compete against him in horseriding, arm-wrestling and drinking.

There seems to be one central point to this detour: introducing the heroes to two of the big factions that'll be important in the next book. Namely, the Harpers and the Order of the Gauntlet. As a GM, it's worth noticing that said factions' impression of the heroes start here already, and if they aren't on good behavior, it should reflect in the later chapters. In my case, the heroes had a hard time relating to a paladin who wanted to eat, drink and race and thus came through rather patronizing, which eventually lead Leosin and Frume to just send them on with their business.

I have one problem with this passage. It has too little point to justify the long travel. The heroes don't really learn anything new. In fact: they are the ones relaying to the NPC's what they've found out. It can easily feel like a stupid chore they just need to undertake, rather than following the cult in the first place.

What I did: I sent the heroes there, but I wish I didn't. You can easily introduce these factions in the second book. Instead, let the heroes follow the route they wish, along the tradeway. I let the heroes track the cult west, to Beregost, Candlekeep and north to Baldur's Gate for the second part of the adventure. If you're a fan of the old game by the same name, this should be a brilliant opportunity for you to revisit some old favorite locations. Odds are, that someone in your group has fond memories of those places too. You can simply add in clues at every town about 'strange wagons and riders' arriving in town and leaving just a few days before. Allow the heroes to feel that they are the one who came up with the plan and did the tracking.

Gotta make a move-action to a town that's right for the plot
The players make a short stop at Baldur's Gate before moving on. As an old veteran who's spend...way too many hours on the PC-game of the same name, I was severely alienated and didn't understand why Wizards don't capitalize more on this. The heroes make a short stop here, find some meh excuse to join the cultist-caravan along with other travelers (the book suggests body guards) and they're off. I really wish there'd have been more tribute to Baldur's Gate, though. Just listen to this description:
Baldur's Gate doesn't allow wagons, pack animals, horses or even dogs into the city. The streets are so narrow, steep and slick from the frequent rain that heavy wagons would be a menace.”

I suppose things really did deterioate greatly after that whole Child of Bhaal thing, huh...

Narrow streets?...
But I'm aware this is a highly subjective complaint. The heroes aren't expected to spend much time here anyway; it's mostly a pit stop.

As the plot moves on, it takes to the road, in which the heroes get to spy on the cultist carts from a distance, while at the same time getting to know the other people traveling with the caravan. Along the way, they encounter various events that make an otherwise dull section of the adventure much more interesting. And I'll have to admit...this was the first part of the book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Not all the encounters are equally interesting; some of them are mostly just hooks for later. And once again, we're introduced to a character who's supposed to bring another faction into play; the gnome Jamna Gleamsilver from the Zentharim and a red wizard of Thay. Again; there really is no point to include these unless you're very eager to shove factions down the heroes' throats. None of them serve any significant importance later on, their plots are kind of tame and there are several other great opportunities for you to get creative with your plots and make up your own caravan of unique and memorable individuals. Here's my setup:

A caravan master consisting of an old minotaur. Though his heritage frightens some folks, he knows his way up and down the coast better than most.

A group of wild hunting dwarves, their master a poacher and eccentric hunter of exotic animals; his beard stuffed with gems and he's always on the lookout for new prey. He's heard great things of the beasts in the North and wants to go there to hunt. He's a great chance for you to include a beast of your liking along the way, that he insists on stopping to hunt for. Say, a basilisk for example.

A husband, wife and son on their way north to Waterdeep. They wish to settle down, but their young son is very, very interested in the adventurers, hoping they'll let him in on how to be an adventurer, maybe even give him a weapon. Of course, his parents are against this.

A half-orc dealer in brass bowls and other cheap stuff. Smokes too much, wears a long coat and is very observant of the heroes and their potential magical items.

An old scribe from Neverwinter who's returning home. He's actually a wild mage trying to keep his talent at bay, which will likely go awry, should the entire caravan ever come under attack.

The cultists wagons; these keep to themselves most of the time.

A richly decorated and heavily guarded merchant wagon of unknown origin. It's actually from the Zentharim, and if the heroes grow curious enough, this is a chance for them to learn of the faction.

A traveling band of five gnome minstrels, called “The Merry Harpies” - they can't sing. Everyone hates them.

You can add more people if you want to, but I found this setup to be manageable and memorable without overloading the heroes with names.

You have been waylaid by enemies whose sole purpose is to make sure we can justify leveling you up at the end of the adventure and must defend yourself!
The chapter comes with 12 random events that can occur during the travel north towards Waterdeep. It's a two-month trip, after all. But hold your horses, not all of these are equally interesting. Some of them are simply a random encounters or a skill check.
I ended up using the events “Everything has a Price” in which the dealer of brass insisted on buying a magical item from the heroes (if they don't have one, he insists on the notion that they have) going so far as to searching their backpacks and spying on them.
Fungus Humongous” is great too, only I designed a whole dungeon of Myconoids. The heroes arrived in a small town almost besieged by the shrooms and the heroes had to clear the road by clearing out the dungeon of fungus. It wasn't long, but enough for them to try something else.
The Golden Stag” is beyond doubt the best thing this entire book offers. The heroes would often see the golden stag on the road, and the dwarves put out traps and started hunting it, till the heroes realized it was a cursed elven prince who sought to be restored and reunited with his love. This is such an interesting setup and you can go crazy with your creativity here. Either make a side quest in which they have to turn him back, or let him be a companion for the rest of the adventure.
No room at the inn” is great as well, it can be run just as it is. The heroes are denied room at the inn because a small band of assassins have bought them all, and pretty much laugh out everyone else. Since they're disguised as officials, the heroes need to do some research and snooping (in my case, one player searched the stables and their saddlebag, noticing they weren't officials and the horses were too mangy for the story to stick) – After all, fights in taverns are always great fun.
Roadside Hospitality” seemed okay, but I never used it. You have to work it a bit, as more experienced players will likely be on alert from the start; but for newer groups it can be very effective to have the old 'gotcha!' feeling going, by two benevolent doppelgangers stab someone in the back.
Finally, “Spider Woods” is an interesting encounter. It's ettercaps, and we always love those, but the heroes also have to make sure the things don't run off with the horses. This should feel like a bit of a surprise. I let the ettercaps drag off with some of the heroes and the heroes gave chase through the forest to get them back.

But wait, there's more!
There remaining six options aren't bad but mostly boring, and some of them rely on Jamna joining the campaign. This brings us to the final verdict of this chapter, as the heroes eventually arrive in Waterdeep where they're paid for their service and the cultists move on. In case the heroes signed up as guards for the cultists, they simply pay them off in Waterdeep and says their services are no longer needed. It should be no problem, however, for them to track them out into the swamp in the next chapter.

The main reason why I like this part of the adventure is because it really loosens up from the otherwise tight structure and starts suggesting to instead of directing the GM. You can potentially run every single encounter and have a couple of sessions with this chapter, of do as I did, and instead focus greatly on just a few of them. I sure wish there'd been more of this along the way, but alas. Enjoy it while it lasts.

For that reason, I'm not going to tell you how to run it or what to include, but merely let you know what I did with this. Following the sad tale that was the third chapter, it was very nice to see something else.