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.