Friday, February 3, 2023

Building Bhakashal - Session Report


My Wednesday group had a new player join yesterday. The party had been sent to spy on a powerful warlock who was opposed to their patron, Quin Faal the Iolite. Faal suspected the warlock, one Hoak the Red, of plotting against him (he was right!). So the party headed out to the forest where Hoak was hiding and attempted a surprise assault to either capture him or kill him. The dice, however, weren’t having it, and they did not manage to get surprise, instead, they alerted the guards.

Zero level guards aren’t really a challenge unless they happen to get a lucky critical or they grapple and overbear individual party members. Still, as soon as the party was discovered the alarm was raised and Hoak was alerted. Hoak appeared with a charmed mustard jelly at his side, surrounded by soldiers. Now, just for context, the party are 6-7th level, and there are 7 PCs. 7 mid level PCs are nothing to sneeze at, and they could have started something. But they chose not to.

Instead, they parleyed with Hoak, unfortunately for them Hoak had an ESP spell, and he used it to discover why they were really there. 

Ouch.

What to do?

I use encounter reaction rolls in situations like this. I add modifiers based on their actions and the interlocutor’s charisma, and we go from there. I got a “positive no action” result, so I had to interpret that, why would Hoak not just blast them? I decided that Hoak was pleased that Faal was sending out minions to check on him, that meant he was afraid and Hoak had the upper hand. But rather than slay the party outright and “tip his hand”, he was open to other options

The party suggested that they would report back to Faal and tell him that Hoak was not plotting against Faal, instead that he was exploring the forest for magic items rumored to be hidden there. It was a plausible lie, but Faal might have ways to check.

I came up with a list of three “positive no action” options, kidnapping the party for ransom, buying their loyalty from Faal, or sending the party back to tell their “lie” and see what happens. 

I diced and Hoak decided to go with the party’s plan. 

He had an ESP spell, so when they returned he could determine if they kept their part of the deal, and he insisted that one of the party stay behind as collateral. They discussed it and agreed to leave the party phantasmist (illusionist) behind, as he would have the best chance of escaping if the opportunity arose. 

They set off back to the city and managed to pass 12 consecutive random encounter checks! I love it when this sort of stuff happens, they feel like they are favored by luck as they made that many checks!

They spent a good half hour debating whether or not to lie to Quin Faal. Faal is their patron, and generally trusts them, so they could likely lie without being caught on the spot, but sooner or later Faal’s many informants and magic scrying would likely discover the deceit. The argument was eventually resolved, they would tell him everything, and hope that it went over well. This is in itself a big change, in the early days they would have tried to kill him in his own tower if he got upset at them, now they knew better.

Faal reacted by telling them that Hoak was clearly a threat, and that they needed to neutralize or capture him. So then we had another problem, if they went back to Hoak he would read their minds and discover the subterfuge. So the party and Quin Faal strategized, they suggested that Faal call out the warlock in open combat in the arena. I decided that, given the honor culture of Bhakashal, Faal might like this option, so I had an encounter reaction roll to see what he thought of it.

It gave me a “negative, no action”, so Faal dismissed the idea, “I will not call him to the arena until I know what he is plotting, if I slay him there I will not be allowed to use sorcery to speak with his shade, and I don’t look forward to flushing out his spies.”

They came down to two plans, one was suggested by Faal (me), the other by a player. Faal suggested that they return to his base with a white dragon he had polymorphed into the form of a small gekko lizard. When they return to Hoak and he went to use ESP the party priest would cast dispel magic on the gekko, transforming it back to a white dragon. Hoak would be pressed by the dragon while the party attacked from a distance. This was a variation on a gambit used by my players years ago. 

The players plan was to pretend that Faal was so enraged that they had backed off from Hoak and come back to deceive him, that he slayed them all in a rage. They were to be transported back to the forest by a small group of House soldiers and the priest. There several of the guards would go and meet the new party member, a bard, and wait for a signal. The NPC priest and the party priests would cast feign death on everyone, then the NPC priest and guards who witnessed the spells would leave, signalling the other guards and the bard to appear. The other guards would depart, leaving the bard to deliver the bodies. 

The bard had been only told to deliver the bodies, he had no knowledge of the plan, he was just told to escort the bodies to Hoak. He believes them to be dead, and is supposed to persuade Hoak to accept their delivery as a sign that Quin Faal is taking him seriously. Since he knows nothing of the plan, he will pass an ESP reading, and he will read a prepared statement from Quin Faal, while that is all happening, the party will regain consciousness and attack. Or at least that’s the plan. Both plans had strengths and weaknesses, I will say this, D&D players know how to strategize! 

The lads came up with lots of possible problems in both plans, and of course asked good questions, “Will my body have bleeding wounds and such with Feign Death?” “Will the warlock not think it’s funny that we are all dead and don’t have the signs of being killed?” LOL, the spell doesn’t specify any of that, just that you are in a “... cataleptic state which is impossible to distinguish from actual death”. So, would you have wounds? We discussed that one for a while. Pretty much every session I have ever run has one of those questions, one of those “the rules don’t specify so you have to decide” questions. In many ways these are the lifeblood of D&D, and the variances from table to table make up much of the flavor of the game.

So they decided on the feign death plan. They then traveled to the forest. This time the dice produced a random encounter with a Shen Lung dragon while they were on the river. It gained surprise on them, and set the water around the boat on fire, demanding tribute. The party doesn’t know what Shen Lung dragons can do, and they were worried that it would be too tough to take out quickly, so they asked what the dragon wanted, it demanded magic items. 

Somehow, they decided to acquiesce.

I was honestly expecting a fight or at least parley, but they wanted to get on with it, so they gave the dragon a scroll of 3 spells, oil of slipperyness, a +1 spear and a +1 dagger. The dragon left, sated for now, and they continued on. Next session they will be at the forest and execute the plan, we will see if Hoak is deceived, and if so, if they can take him in a fight. 

Interestingly, they have zero idea what spells Hoak has, other than something to control the mustard jelly. One of the keys to making warlocks intimidating is the Bhakashal spell allocation system. Rather than picking spells and “optimizing” the choices, spells and magic items for NPCs are randomized. This gives them tactical opacity. It is extremely important to realize that not knowing what your opponent can do is a huge disadvantage, one that, IMHO, can give your opponent an edge that is equal or exceeds the edge produced by optimization.

So many of the decisions made by the party (to not fight Hoak initially, to not deceive their patron) are informed by their respect for warlocks in the setting. They get it. They understand that a high-level warlock is extremely deadly. They assume that NPCs are a threat, so just starting a fight is not always a good idea. This leads to a lot of parley, characters and NPCs engaging in discussion with positive or negative outcomes. And this allows players to get creative. 

Good times.






Sunday, January 22, 2023

Building Bhakashal - OGL, Morality Clauses and D&D


I wrote a blog post last year dealing with the issue of “problematic” monsters in D&D, I sent it out to two different “left leaning” people that I correspond with on Twitter asking for opinions. 


They never responded. So I sat on the piece, figuring it was “too much”.


The OGL business has spurred me to reconsider. However, I have decided to make this post somewhat generic, as otherwise it will create a tsunami of responses as people on the left will think I’m trolling and people on the right will think I’m exaggerating.


That’s just how ridiculous the TTRPG Twitter is at this point.


The Argument

All arguments have premises, if you reject a premise, the argument falls. So here is the premise of this argument:


  1. Monsters aren’t real


If you disagree with this premise, then you can stop here.


If you accept this premise, read on.


  1. If monsters aren’t real, then they either:

    1. Represent nothing, they are “empty signifiers”

    2. Represent something in the real world


So you have two choices:

  1. Monsters aren’t real, but they don’t “represent” or “stand in” for anything in the real world

  2. Monsters aren’t real, and each one represents something in the real world


Now, there are a few options available to you at this point. Perhaps if you think A is correct, monsters at one point represented something in the real world, but subsequent use has changed that. So, for example, orcs may have been caricatures of real world groups at one point, but over the years that association has changed and now the representation is no longer strong. I think many D&D players ended up in this place, they saw orcs as empty signifiers as by the point they encountered them, that’s what they were. 


Or perhaps you think that orcs were never meant to represent any particular real world group in the first place. Wherever you fall on this argument, one thing is abundantly clear if you take the time to read any of the academic literature on this stuff: the perspective on the left is very emphatically B, and for good reason.


Most monsters in D&D are mythological, and mythological monsters represent other things in the real world. Some interpretations claim that monsters are symbols of our vices and sins (lust, greed, etc.), others will claim that they represent real world groups of people that were considered dangerous (e.g. witches, dryads, sirens, etc. represent the patriarchal fear of female power), but many of the “monsters” of mythology are representative of groups in the real world that have been considered dangerous.


I think this is a solid argument, as I accept that mythological monsters were meant as warnings about real world groups/issues, this seems obvious. And if they were meant to represent real world groups, then they are “othering” by default. Reducing real world groups to “threats” is a process of undermining their humanity and othering them, pretty much by definition.


Monsters are not real, monsters are the “other”, and monsters are historically associated with real world groups/issues, so any monster in D&D is, in principle, “problematic”, e.g. either racist, sexist, ableist, etc, etc, etc.


It won’t stop with orcs, or undead, there is plenty more to come.


Which brings us back to the OGL and the morality clause.


I think the conclusion here is pretty obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: almost every monster in D&D is going to be “problematic” by these standards, standards already used to argue that orcs are “racist”. So if the TTRPG community “on the left” already accepts the “orcs are racist” argument, they will inevitably have to embrace the “most if not all monsters are problematic” argument.


Which means that the morality clause in WotC’s newest iterations of the OGL is easily weaponized to silence people. I suspect this will lead to two results:


  1. In the beginning, people on “the left” will use this to lodge complaints about creators on “the right” whom they dislike. It will be super easy to do, just point to a monster that has historical/mythological associations, and say it’s problematic as it reproduces harmful stereotypes. You have seen this with orcs, recently with undead, and you will see it with other monster types as we move forward.


  1. As time goes by, people “on the right” will glom on to this, and start to do the same, arguing that monsters in games made by creators “on the left” are also cyphers for real world groups, because they have to represent something, and thus problematic as they reproduce harmful stereotypes.


In short, the morality clause in the OGL will become a tool in the culture wars. 


Oh joy.


The root of this problem is that people on the left haven’t really thought through the consequences of what they are doing. They were more than happy to jump on the orc train when it was first discussed, as it gave them a quick and easy way to dunk on old school gamers as “racist”. I was surprised at the initial fervor with which it was used in this way. I mean, I’ve been playing D&D for decades, and I haven’t had a single POC player complain about orcs or suggest they were offended by them until the last few years. And yes, I’ve had many POC players over the years, and yes, they were vocal and politically engaged so if they were concerned I’m sure it would have come up. So clearly the people who were supposed to be stereotyped by fantasy orcs weren’t concerned about it for decades, for many of them, orcs were just orcs, and any historical associations were long gone by this point.


But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Social media is ALL ABOUT the quick dunk, obtaining Twitter points for accusing someone of something heinous, which both makes you look virtuous and makes the community “safer”. 


I don’t think that many of these people really understood the theory behind their accusations, that pretty much all monsters in D&D could be discussed in this way, and thus that almost all of the game is “problematic” on a basic level. I’ve seen a few people over the last few years realize this, they will consistently argue that D&D is “colonialist” all the way down, and is thus irredeemable, e.g. it cannot be “decolonized” and is thus hopelessly flawed, and that playing it is inherently harmful. 


I would suggest that most people on the “left” haven’t gone this far, but then again, most people on the “left” that you see on Twitter haven’t really engaged with the academic literature on these subjects to any meaningful degree, they are just weaponizing a concept they only understand on the surface. 


That pretty much sums up left leaning Twitter.


The solution to all of this nonsense is to go with option A, TTRPG monsters aren’t real, and aren’t meant to represent anything in the real world. I think this makes sense as the associations mythological monsters have now are very different from the associations they have had historically. This happens as decades of media representation have changed the meanings and associations.


Take zombies as a case, historically, there is ample evidence that they have racist associations, but modern zombies are often associated with things like rampant consumerism. I think this is one of the consequences of “postmodern” theory, if you are constantly problematizing and reinterpreting signifiers then you can’t hold on to any one association or meaning, they will always be shifting and changing.


In fantasy TTRPGs monsters are there to provide opposition for the PCs, a threat to motivate them and to make the game challenging. I refuse to believe that thousands of POC gamers over the last 4 decades or so associated humanoid races like orcs, gnolls, etc. with POC, and were thus engaging in the slaughter of “stand-ins” for themselves in some sort of self-hating process in service of white supremacy. I suspect that for most people playing D&D over the years, the historical associations that would have made evil monsters “stand-ins” for real world groups were lost years ago. 


I think that WotC should just drop this morality clause entirely. If some 3rd party makes problematic content using the OGL then WotC can just publicly denounce them. No one actually believes that WotC is responsible if a third party makes problematic content while using the OGL. If WotC is using this morality clause with good faith, I think it will backfire on them, creating endless problems as content is put under the microscope from both sides of the political spectrum to fuel the culture war.


If, however, they are just doing it as a shield to justify their draconian approach to the OGL, if the concern is not genuine, then they have just botched this up terribly.


Either way, it will be an interesting future for WotC.


Monday, January 16, 2023

Building Bhakshal - Running from the Wizards

For the last week or so I have been assessing developments at WotC with respect to online D&D gaming, microtransactions and the changes to the OGL to determine if they would impact Bhakashal. The interim conclusion is “not really”, I may have to alter my presentation of certain information,  but I won’t have to use anything from the WotC PI, and I have changed all of the classes and “races” so I suspect that there won’t be concerns. I have no need to involve anything with D&D online. So I think I’m good.


However, it’s not just designers that are hit by this, it will also impact DMs and players who decide to switch away from 5e D&D to something else. Pathfinder is an obvious choice, and from what I hear it’s pretty fun.


However, I think people are vastly underestimating the choices available to them, even if they don't want to stray "too far" from D&D.


D&D Adjacent Games

There are a number of games which are “D&D adjacent”, e.g., they are similar enough to 5e that you should be able to switch to them without too much difficulty. An obvious example is my system of choice, AD&D 1e. It is NOT the same as 5e, but 5e was created by mixing and matching bits from previous systems of D&D, AD&D 1e included. 


I know this can be done as dozens of my players have done it. They play 1e with me, but some run 5e at home. They want to be plugged in to the latest thing, or their parents got them the 5e books, or whatever, but they play 5e at home and 1e with me, and they have no issues. The games are different, but similar enough that they can figure it out.


The thing is, there are quite literally hundreds of games that would fit in this category, OD&D, AD&D 1e and 2e, Holmes Basic, Moldvay BX, Mentzer Red Box BECMI, Rules Cyclopedia, Classic D&D, 3rd Edition, 3.5, 4e, any of these games will be approachable by someone who played 5e.


Then there are the retroclones, OSRIC, Iron Falcon, Swords and Wizardry, Castles and Crusades, Swords and Six Siders, Whitehack, Adventurer Conqueror King, BlueHolme, Labyrinth Lord, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Adventures Dark and Deep, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Basic Fantasy, etc, etc, etc. There are over 100 retroclones of D&D that are approachable by anyone who has played 5e.


So far we are still on D&D adjacent games, games that emerged from D&D so they should be easily approachable by a group of 5e players.


D&D Inspired

When D&D originally hit the scene in the 70’s it inspired competitors, and they were legion. Tunnels and Trolls, Tekumel, Talislanta, Chivalry and Sorcery, Skyrealms of Jorune, Runequest, Rolemaster, Basic Role Playing, Stormbringer, Amber Diceless, GURPS, Warhammer… Some of these games are very different than D&D, but they are no more difficult to learn and run than at least some of the editions of D&D. 


The reason I’ve listed these games is that most of them would be “close enough” to 5e that your group could pick them up, and there is a metric ton of support materials available between them.


Honestly, if you have played any edition of D&D (with the possible exception of 4th), I think you will find enough familiar in most of these systems that you would be able to pick them up and run a game that would be tons of fun for your 5e group.


And as for the systems that are quite a bit different (Amber Diceless, Jorune or Runequest), the level of complexity is approachable, which means, IMO, that you would be able to make this work for your 5e group.


Personally, my recommendation for someone who wanted to transition a group off 5e would be Talislanta. Hands down one of the most flavorful settings ever made, mechanics that resemble D&D enough to be usable with minimal fuss, a unique system, tons of support materials, an online community with resources, and mountains of it is FREE (http://talislanta.com/). 


Talislanta materials are free because the game designers wanted them to be available, and that means that the website and the community are a LABOR OF LOVE. These are people who WANT to share this unique gaming world, and WANT you to be able to play in it for FREE. 


I know to people who want all the bells and whistles and to be involved in the “current thing” this may seem ephemeral, but that sort of enthusiasm means you will ALWAYS find people willing to help you with rules problems, you will never exhaust the support materials, and you will get to experience fantasy gaming unlike anything you have played before. 


Some people might think it would be too much a shock to transfer to a game like Talislanta, but here’s the thing. If you can master D&D (5e or otherwise) you can master Talislanta or any of the games that I have listed above. 


Give WotC the business and go play Talislanta!


It will keep you busy until Bhakashal is ready!!!!!

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Building Bhakashal - Session Report


Image by Sarah Dahlinger

My Friday group was given a job by their patron, Quin Faal the Iolite.


A powerful warrior, Romak the Redeemer, who wielded an artifact known as The Sword of Yrgon, was harassing border towns in the realm. What they don’t know is Romak and his men are behaving like bandits on a tear to hide their real goal, getting to the location of three fallen solars, and to use a special necromantic spell to bring them back to life, corrupted and under their control


Quin Fall’s agents thought it was just bandits, but Faal himself became curious and cast divination magic that revealed that Romak and The Sword of Yrgon were with the group. He doesn’t know why they are there, but their presence is enough to merit interest. Quin Faal wants the party to find Romak, see what he’s up to, and either slay him or get the sword from him. Barring that, find out why he is there and what he is doing. If needed they can bring back his dead body for a Speak with Dead. 


Any defeat of Romak will lead to his troops losing confidence and likely dispersing. And Quin Faal wants to see the sword. So last session they set out to find Romak the Redeemer. 


It was a 2 day journey to get to his last sighted location. Once there, the party attempted to pick up the trail but several days of rain (I rolled for those) had wiped out the majority of tracks, so the slayer’s (Bhakashal class: ranger/assassin) attempt to track failed. The party priest used Speak with Plants to ask about the bandits and discovered which way they went. The party then went in that direction and tried tracking again. The second roll proved fruitful and the chase was on.


Bhakashal has pursuit rules, the party was small and faster than the large group of bandits, so after some quick calculations I determined that they would catch up after a day’s travel if they rode at full speed resting when needed to avoid exhausting the mounts. So they rode. On the night of that 24 hours of travel, when they were bunked down, I rolled a random encounter. That produced a coatl! The party spider (thief) was on watch, he was throwing knives into a log for practice while watching the marshes. It was a clear night with a half moon, on the vast open marshes you can see for a long way, even at night. I rolled for surprise, neither party was surprised. 


So I rolled to see how far away the coatl was when the two groups spotted each other. The creature was visible at around a half mile. The spider woke up the party and the warriors put on their armor while the coatl approached. Once close enough I described the creature as a flying 12 foot snake with feathered wings. In this case none of them knew what it was, so there were a lot of questions, I only answered the descriptive questions. Eventually it was hovering around 200 feet away, and the group decided to stand down.


The party all heard a voice in their heads, the coatl asked why they were there. The players argued about how to answer, some felt they should be honest, others felt that the creature could be in league with Romak. One pointed out that if it could speak to their minds it could probably read them, so they responded honestly that they were there to find and slay/capture a bandit leader with a powerful magic sword. 


The coatl responded, saying that many adventurers raided ruins and temples in this land, they weren’t here for that? They stuck to their story, and I rolled an encounter reaction roll. I gave them a positive modifier for being honest (they were right, it could read their minds) and it came up very high so I had to interpret that at the table. I decided that the coatl did not like Romak and his sword wreaking havoc on local villages, so he told the party where Romak and his men were camped. The party priest then asked the coatl if it was “a god or a god servant”. I decided to have fun with that, and the coatl told them that it was a “lesser god”, and that the marshes were its domain. It then asked the party what gods they worshiped. At this point they were a bit concerned, but all decided to tell the truth again.


A few more exchanges and the coatl decided to leave, flying off into the night. The players love encounters like this with powerful beings that aren’t necessarily fights, it gives them a chance for role-play and to explore the lore of the game world. Based on the information the coatl gave them, they had a reduced chance of being surprised by Romak’s group and an increased chance of surprising the bandits. They pulled up stakes and left to intercept Romak.


When they reached the area of the encampment, Romak and his men were still sleeping (it was 5 am at this point) and there were sentries awake. We rolled for surprise (perhaps one of those sentries spotted the party first and maneuvered to surprise them). The party gained surprise with the bonus given from the coatl’s knowledge, and they cooked up a plan. They decided to present themselves as a group of sell-swords looking for employment, they were traveling to the city and saw Romak’s camp. They judged from a distance that they were large enough to be a group of soldiers or a caravan, either way there was work to be had. The party bard was going to regale them with tales of the “the Company of the Silver Boar” if needed.


So they went in mounted but with no weapons in hand. As it happens, the party magic-user had died in the last adventure, they hadn’t replaced him yet, and the party priest wore armor, so they presented as a group of warriors / mercenaries. 


They were spotted and 10 riders with a sergeant came out to meet them. They were challenged, and told their story, that they were looking for employ. I rolled to see if the sergeant bought it, and the roll result was indifferent, so he asked the party to send one member forward to fight with one of his men, if they could hold their own, he would take them to the commander to see if he would take them in. If not, they would be told to leave (actually, he planned on having them hunted down so they wouldn’t report back on them). 


The party fighter came forward with his glaive and one of the guards came forward with a bastard sword. Now, in Bhakshal you can shift your damage down if you want, so you can subdue without slaying. The player decided he didn’t want to play it that way, and opted for regular damage. Initiative was rolled, the PC won and swung his glaive and missed, the bandit ducked underneath and stabbed out at the PC, missing him. Initiative was rolled again, the PC won. He rolled a hit, and did 4 hp damage, the bandit had 3 hp, and was slain. “The bandit stabs at you and misses, you bring your glaive back in an arc and slice his neck open, his body collapsing like a puppet with cut strings”


Now, I had to determine the reaction of the bandits. On the one hand, one of their brethren was dead, on the other, he may not have been well liked, and they might want ruthless mercenaries to join them. The PC looked like a badass after all. There is also the context of the setting, Bhakashal has a martial culture, dying in combat is considered honorable, and martial prowess is respected. The PC is a 7th level mercenary (fighter), a 7th level fighter is BADASS. So this would have come across. Ultimately I don’t make those decisions, the dice do. So I decided on modifiers, including the PCs charisma, a bonus for a quick, skillful slay, and a modifier for the bandit’s popularity in the camp (diced for). The roll came up just positive. 


The bandit sergeant orders the body of the slain bandit taken into the camp and put on the fire, and since the result was low positive, he asks the party to come with him. They were escorted to see Romak, who emerged from a tent with three bodyguards


He asked the party why they were there, and they told him they were sell-swords traveling to a nearby town looking for work when they saw Romak’s camp and decided to see if there was work available. It was a plausible story. Romak was suspicious though. Romak is intelligent, and he was there in the marshes under false pretenses, so he would be suspicious of any group just showing up at this point. He was also a powerful warrior and leader, so he asked them point blank.


“Are you from one of the villages we destroyed, or were you hired by one to infiltrate my camp and then I find an assassin in my tent one night?” The party fighter, who had slain the bandit just before, responded, “We were hired to slay you, but when we saw the size of your camp we decided to throw in with you instead, the reward would be greater, and we owe the local villages no loyalty.” I thought that was a pretty good on the spot pivot, so I rolled for encounter reaction.  


With the PCs CHA modifier and the plausibility of the story the result was a solid positive, so Romak took them on, he added four of his bandits to their group to form a unit, and since the party was on fast mounts, they were to be a strike team. Romak made it clear that they would follow his orders when in combat, and to do otherwise was to court death. After the break we get back and they will have to decide when to turn on Romak. The bandits are heading to a coastal village for a raid. The party will have to decide if they want to go through with the raid before betraying Romak, and how exactly they are going to take him out, given that he has three personal bodyguards and a sentient artifact as a sword. 


If they wait too long they may experience the necromantic revival of the three solars that Romak is searching for. They haven’t met the high level priest in the camp that will be doing that revival either. Much fun in the new year!


Sunday, December 11, 2022

Building Bhakashal - Corporate D&D and the Hobby


I got into TTRPGS, specifically first edition AD&D, in 1984. At the time the only books we had were the core three, PBH, MM and DMG, and to be honest, none of us read the majority of the DMG outside of the treasure and combat sections. It took a few years to digest the DMG!


We incorporated materials from Dragon when we found them, and bought modules. That kept us going for a while, but in short order most of us were creating our own worlds, most often hopelessly obvious rip-offs of established worlds from sci-fi, comics and fantasy, but our own “takes” nonetheless.


I loved that time, we played constantly, and the only limit was our imagination.


Recently, Hasbro announced that they were “under monetizing” D&D and planned to do something about that. What they are going to do is not something I’m privy to, perhaps it’s microtransactions on their online services, perhaps novelizations, or something else with the IP. 


Honestly, I have no idea.


This has made a lot of people very sad. I see it on Twitter, old fogeys like myself looking at D&D through rose colored glasses and seeing the game they grew up with, the game that unlocked so much of their imagination, the game that gave them hours and hours of sheer joy through adventure, THAT game, being discussed like any other corporate, branded product.


I hate to be the one to say this, but Hasbro is just doing what’s been done to D&D quite literally for decades, they are monetizing it. This might seem to be new, or unusual, but I’ve been aware of this since around the early 90’s. I came to realize it as I bowed out of AD&D after the transition to 2nd edition. At the time I preferred 1st edition, but I did see the point to the transition. 1st edition was VERY opaque to the newcomer, the editing was terrible, and it was written with the unspoken assumption that players were familiar with both wargaming and earlier (pre 1st-Ed) editions of the game. As someone who was familiar with neither, and someone who liked 1e AD&D, I turned my back on the corporate version of the game and kept my version alive.


I watched as D&D was cleaned up and expanded in 2nd edition, and wow did they expand it. Even at the time I was dubious about many of the expansions, and I realized the primary purpose of those expansions was to make more money for the company, but I figured that there was something there for everyone. Maybe I didn’t want the complete book of ninjas, but hey, someone might…


Then came 3rd edition, after which I stopped paying attention, 4th came out, and then most recently 5th. The only reason I even knew about 5th was that my son heard about it from friends at school. 


In addition to 5th, the emergence of “actual plays” and streamed games was something that changed the game. Love it or hate it, Critical Role changed the way the game was perceived, and brought a whole new generation of gamers to the often virtual table. When you watch many of these streamed games it’s hard not to notice that they are not the same thing as getting together with your friends and tossing dice in the basement. They are often slick, produced and far more focused on the voice acting and role-playing. Not that old-school D&D didn’t have voices and role-playing, every group had its magical mix of min-maxers, theater kids and wargamers, but the streamed game has made the focus on “acting the role” and “playing the story” more prominent. 


And it has led to the game becoming more popular than ever. And that has led us to a crossroads of sorts. The game has always made money for someone, and there has always been a desire to monetize it, the current levels of popularity, fueled by it’s social-media darling status through shows like Critical Role, has led to the potential for even more profit.


And this is what gets us to today, to that quote about the game being under-monetized. I GUARANTEE you that sort of thing was being said in boardrooms in the 80’s and 90’s as well, that SOMEONE was pointing out that MORE COULD BE DONE to make money off of D&D. We did get Gygax going to Hollywood, Saturday morning cartoons, the potential was certainly there.


With all this in mind, I have a suggestion to make to all of the old-schoolers out there, and any new players who are not liking the direction of the current owners of the D&D IP.


You don’t need them, you never did. I may need to wait for an official sequel to my favorite video game, or my favorite board game, but I don't need to wait or rely upon anyone to make my D&D for me.


If you are worried about running out of material, you won’t. I’ve been running games off and on for almost 40 years, I’ve never run the well dry. If you play any of the standard OSR compatible games you have a universe of materials, some free, some you have to buy, to access, with more being made every day. 


If you don’t have money for this hobby, you are still good. Once you have the introductory materials, and there are any number of free OSR games that mimic D&D well enough, you can do the rest on your own. I can’t stress this enough, you need ABSOLUTELY NOTHING other than the initial books/materials, and you can get legal versions of these for free in a number of different places. It will, of course, require you to do the work yourself, but if finances are an issue, you can still play this game forever. 


If you are worried about inspiration, perhaps you think you won’t be able to come up with stuff on your own, you are still good to go. Comics, television, movies, fantasy novels, there is a virtually ENDLESS well of source material to draw from. If you are willing to cross genres and reskin materials there is even more. 


If you are worried about getting people to play whatever Frankenstein’s monster version of D&D you come up with, “as everyone is playing 5th”, you are still good. Yes, “everyone” is playing 5th, but I’ve run a business running (1st Edition Advanced) D&D for the last three years and had no problem getting people to sign up.Yes, at first there are questions, but once you roll dice NO ONE CARES. The players can run 5th at home if they like (and some do) but at the table, edition doesn’t really matter. The big dirty secret of D&D is that the referee is FAR MORE IMPORTANT than the system. People who like your game like it because YOU are running it, not because it’s any particular edition. If you don’t believe me, play a session of your favorite game with a lousy ref, LOL.


If you are upset about the lore changes to the game, get over it. Lore changes, removing race, changing wording, those things have ZERO impact on your game. You can do whatever you want at your table, it’s always been that way. If you are really upset that Drow aren’t evil anymore, then perhaps you are too immersed in the culture wars to see the forest for the trees. Feel free to be mad about what the libtards are doing, if you want to fuel your rage with D&D lore changes I can’t stop you, but then it’s not really about the game and you might want to think about that. 


But the big takeaway here is that, as opposed to almost any other game or activity that you can name, any and all changes that WotC makes to the game have ZERO impact on your ability to run D&D games for you and your friends. I know this is the case as I’ve been doing it for decades, and there is MORE material around for me to do it now than there has ever been.


Let WotC have the IP and run it into the ground. Watch as terrible movies are made, and they squeeze every single penny they can out of the IP. Watch the brand become a lifestyle brand, watch as people walk around in D&D themed merchandise. Watch as streamed D&D displays a version of the game you barely recognize. Watch as people insist you need custom dice, dice towers and all other varieties of gadget to play the game “properly”. Watch as WotC struggles to produce a version of the game that won’t offend anyone, and watch as their new audience skewers them for every single change they make as “not enough” (because once they accepted the premise that in-game objects can signify out-of-game objects, the game was doomed to endless cycles of “not enough”).


Let them have it all. 


Because you can play without them, play EXACTLY the version of D&D you want, none of their changes impact this. None of their monetization impacts this. You can still play D&D as you like and continue to support the phenomenal independent gaming community that continues to put out amazing, creative and fun materials decade after decade. WotC is not a part of this and need not ever be. I know this as I’ve been outside of official branded D&D for most of my life, and our games have been AWESOME.


You don’t need them.


You never did.


Game on.


Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Building Bhakashal - Session Stories



In my business I sometimes run one shot games for people. After these sessions, I offer the option to have a short fiction of their adventure written up for them. I take the events of the game, add some flavor text and fill out what happened a bit, and write it up as a short story. 


I completed one a few weekends ago for two players, I have their permission to share it here to give a sense of how Bhakashal handles one shots for people unfamiliar with AD&D. The two players had played a lot of Pathfinder and some 5e, that’s it.


I used Bhakashal’s system for generating adventure seeds and created an adventure, generated two PCs and an NPC for the players, and we ran the session for 4 hours. They had a blast, the ending was really fun, and I got to see some of my custom classes and spells used in real time by complete newcomers. I have a regular “playtest” group, so running things past outsiders helps. 


If you wanted to get a sense of what a one-shot session or individual campaign adventure would be like in the setting, this is a good example.



A Hell of a Time…


Yorkun the Ambergris felt the boat bump up against a dock pole. The chitin who had punted them here was wearing a soft gold kilt, a bandolier with two daggers and nothing else, the sun blazed on his dark blue carapice. 


Yorkun took out three silver, one more than the trip was worth. It was not wise to give too much here in the Raosk, it would mark you for theft, but to give too little might do the same…


Yorkun climbed on to the dock and took in the sounds and smells, the city had its sensoria, the Raosk was another thing again. The smell of the marshes was heavy here, even with the strong breeze and the miasma of mist and smoke that emerged from the tents of the Raosk. The enticing odor of frying food, decanters of strange liquids brewed from wild berries exhausting their fumes, everything vied for his attention.


Garudin pinwheeled in the crimson tinted sky above, some hunting, some carrying things, some even carrying passengers. Yorkun had considered getting here that way, but feared one of his enemies might pay off a garudin to drop him to his death. 


No point being careless.


A Togmu hunter with a sizzle bowl sat at the nexus of hanging bridges that extended from the end of the dock into the Raosk. There was a circular platform there, resting on driven poles, and a steady stream of hunters, fishers, day laborers, mercenaries and tent merchants swirled around and through. Yorkun had arrived at a busy time, all the better to blend in and not be noticed. He wandered over to the Togmu, who was using a pair of metal sticks to pinch what appeared to be a large, defeathered poima bird, easily three hands long in the barrel. The smell was intoxicating, the hunter was using risha wine to steam bathe the bird, which had been roasted first before bathing. 


Yorkun stopped, the hunter did not look up from the bird. He had chalked out a circle around him, Yorkun just crossed the line with his foot, not entering the circle. The Togmu held up his hand, spreading his fingers to show a fan of membrane, yellowed only slightly compared to the dark green skin around it. He shook the hand three times, then attended to the fire with a handful of what appeared to be sawdust.


Flames leapt up and bird flesh sizzled.


Yorkun looked away and saw Jokai walking down the dock. Jokai was also a Saan, a full foot taller than the phantasmist, with dark wine red skin, and armor that shone a bright polished brass: helm, breastplate, greaves and vambraces, with his circular shield on his back, blazoned with a twisting lizard for his Noble House, Tairn. Yorkun could have handled this job alone, but he had learned over the years that a warrior of Jokai’s presence could cause enough hesitation in his foes to allow him to use magic before things got out of hand. Then again, Jokai often caused the trouble that got things out of hand in the first place, but Yorkun wanted someone trustable, and they had worked together for years.


Jokai took out his hands and brought them, palms together in front of him, Yorkun closed his hands on Jokai’s and Jokai said, “Karas kam, karas dir”, pulling his hands apart. Yorkun repeated, “Karas kam, karas dir” and took his hands away. 


Now that it was clear that no one was holding a knife, Yorkun smiled and pulled out a silver, pointing to Jokai, and the hunter began to strip off slices of meat and collect them with two fat, dark purple bokua leaves. Once each leaf was filled, he spiced the meat with several powders, and a last splash of risha wine for good measure.


Once they both had their food, Yorkun dropped the silver and waved off change, and they walked over the rope bridge to one of the large platforms. The sun was searing today, and Yorkun felt the cool touch of shadows as they found refuge winding through colorful tents. Most of the platforms by the dock were filled with tents and vendors of all kinds. Yorkun had kept only a few silver in his pouch for purchases, the rest of the coins and gems on his person were hidden away. 


Fast hands abounded in the Raosk.


They wandered through the tents and around the periphery of the Raosk. Yorkun knew that they were headed to their arranged transportation, they had taken the extra precaution of changing here at the Raosk, and of not discussing Jokai’s travel arrangements ahead of time. Meeting in the Raosk gave them a chance to talk outside of the city, away from prying eyes, ears and enchantments.


A pair of Kutya seers, worshippers of Keskittall if their black kilts, elaborate boar tusk daggers and two large mastiffs on lead were any indication, beckoned the adventurers to a telling, to be held in the fire pit two platforms to the west at sundown. 


The pair of Saan nodded politely then continued.


Jokai was making short work of his food, between bites he spoke, “So you only told me to arrange transport, you did not say what we were going to find.”


Jokai understood that Yorkun had made his messages vague to avoid detection, but the time for vagueness was past. Yorkun finished another bite and wiped his mouth, the juices from the meat spilling to the platform below.


“Yicinth the Tourmaline suspects someone in House Himmenghost of betrayal, he did an accounting of his gold recently and came up wanting. He believes that Hoak the Red, one of his closest allies in the House, is responsible. He has been siphoning off gold in small amounts to avoid notice, possibly for a year or so, he is unsure what Hoak has been using it for, but through the use of divination magic he is sure of his guilt.”


Jokai did not know Hoak, but he believed what Yorkun was saying, warlocks always needed gold for something, though stealing from one of your peers was a particularly bold move. No matter, Jokai smiled to himself, Hoak’s head can be separated from his body as easily as anyone else’s.


Jokai walked towards a square between the tents where a pair of large Jugyi were dueling with xama, each one taking turns playing off the other, adding intensity and color to the sound. Of all the wind instruments, Jokai loved the sound of the xama the most, and they tarried there until their food was finished. Yorkun wasn’t particularly fond of the raspy, sharp sound of the xama, but stopping to listen helped them to blend in. He even found himself tapping his feet.


“So where do we go today then?” Jokai wiped his mouth and took a swig from his waterskin, it was searing hot in the square.


“Yicinth the Tourmaline”, Yorkun spoke the warlocks full name as a sign of respect, “used subtle magics on agents of Hoak to determine where he has been for the last few months, anything more direct would have tipped his hand. He has discovered that Hoak has been going to the same area in the marshes now since the spring. It is in a remote, untamed forest off the trade routes, known for its hostile inhabitants. A perfect place to set up undisturbed.”


Jokai and Yorkun wound their way along the outer platforms of the Raosk until they finally came to another long dock, Yorkun waved at the tall, rugged Emberi who waited for them, she was surprisingly young, and lightly attired in a dark green vest, purple pantaloons and long boots, carrying a rather heavy looking axe on her back and a long, cruel looking machete at her side. She had vambraces and a hard leather belt, otherwise she wore no armor.


“Yorkun, you are on time, as always, and you bring a friend. Is my axe not enough to satisfy you anymore?” Her voice was high yet soft, it was always reassuring in its confidence.


Yorkun laughed and patted his broadsword, “Your axe and my broadsword are usually more than enough Seathala, but an extra arm was in order this time”.


Seathala was a slayer, she trained all her life to hunt the various oversized animals that stalked the marshlands, she knew the part of the marshes where they were going today very well. Once Yorkun was told where they were going he knew Seathala was the right choice to guide them there.


Yorkun looked past the slayer to dockside, there were three tulures there, all resting atop the water, floating in place and in total contentment. Each one had a canopy saddle on their backs, made of worn but quality Saan-worked leather, engraved with the image of a three frond plant, the signature of the artisan who had created it. From the back of the saddle a pair of sturdy wooden poles thrust up and formed the anchor for a canopy that had two ears, enclosing the rider on three sides and above and blocking out the unforgiving sun.


“Tulures, not so good in a fight you know”, Yorkun wrinkled his brow as his eyes narrowed, the croaking beasts had never been his favorite mount.


Jokai spoke for the first time since they had arrived, “They are the fastest thing on two legs that can’t fly, and they can swim too. The slayer knows her business.” Jokai then reached down and stroked the head of one of the beasts. Jokai had been a rustler for tulures and gess as a child, he felt more at home in the saddle than on his feet.


Yorkun grunted and looked up at the blood red sun, “Why leave now, it is infernally hot and will get worse by noon, why not travel at night?”


“You wanted me to get you there unnoticed, yes?” Seathala smiled, and pointed across the water to the road on the nearby shore that stretched away from the Raosk going north. There was what appeared to be a caravan there, all emerald, black and brown gess, being packed for departure. 


Yorkun squinted and pulled down the brim of his hat to shield his eyes, “I see them”.


Jokai turned to the slayer, “we accompany the caravan, then break off at some point, yes?”


Seathala turned to grab her pack and some small items before mounting her tulure, with her back to Jokai she smiled wickedly and spoke to Yorkun but so Jokai could hear, “You brought a smart one this time, good, maybe he won’t get killed.”


The three of them then got comfortable on their tulures, Jokai rode a sleek black runner, “the fastest of the bunch, I can tell” he asserted confidently. Seathala rode a larger glossy red beast, it had striations of inky black from muzzle back to the ends of her feet. Yorkun had the largest of the three, light greenish yellow with sky blue mottling, it stood a full 8’ at shoulder with legs extended and could leap ridiculous distances.


They swam through the river to the caravan, Yorkun directed his tulure to sit low in the water so he could put both legs in and cool off his feet. When they arrived on land and the tulures walked out, standing their full height, well above the gess who made up the caravan. There were 18 gess, each laden with baskets slung over their backs, 3 on each side. Only the first and last gess did not carry baskets, they had bags. Each gess had two Saan riders nestled in front and behind the baskets, both had shields (hanging left rear), spears (sheathed right back) crossbows (sheathed right front), and carried long tetsubo in easy reach (hanging on the left front). The gess flicked their tails, scratched the ground and clicked their leathery tongues, restless to move.


The caravan set out soon after, Seathala agreed to accompany the caravan as a hunter and a guide, in case they had to go off road on their way north. She had told them that the others were here as protection, and they would be leaving the caravan in several days to strike off on their own. In exchange for traveling with the caravan for that time, Seathala had committed them to fighting off any beasts that might approach them as they traveled. The tulure would trail, parallel and precede the caravan, Seathala took the lead, Jokai the rear, and Yorkun rode on the right.


All three of the adventurers stayed in the marshes to the side of the road, letting the caravan draw out possible threats, then the three of them could attack from surprise if needed. Yorkun did not disclose that he was a phantasmist, and he had not been in the arena much lately, so there was little chance any of the caravaners would know him. That would be their secret.


By the time they were heading north it was halfway through the morning. Everyone had their canopies up, flaps down, and the driver had them stop every hour to water the gess and the riders for a time. 


Peak summer heat was never disrespected in Bhakashal.


By noon they had passed two teams of shepherds, the first herding axebeaks and the second water bison, in both cases the shepherds were bright yellow Togmu who croaked lewd river songs as they reed whipped the strays back into line. Yorkun was mildly surprised when Seathala joined in the singing as they went by.


By nightfall they had passed an armed patrol on its way back to House Jin (the black spiders on red that adorned their chests was the giveaway), and two marching lines of primarily Emberi mercenaries, let loose from their service at some village near the road they were heading to the city, many were already drunk. They passed without incident.


After some discussion they located a copse of trees off the road, and after a brief inspection by Seathala they all disappeared into the trees and camped down. Watches were set and a fire was lit, the surrounding trees meant that its glow and smoke would not easily reveal them, and the smell might put off some predators. The mighty gess slept nose to tail in a long chain, their deep slumber filled with chaotic dreams. The watch consisted of two gess mounted by one guard each that circled the camp continuously and slowly until the next watch was roused.


In the center near the fire Yorkun had out his carving knife and a piece of bright metallic blue krys stone. He had carved out the rough form of a carrion crawler, and had started to finesse the back end up to about halfway down the torso. Now it was relatively soft and could be worked with the knife, once it was finished it would be heated for a few hours in a kiln then be shiny and hard as iron. 


His knife worked relentlessly and precisely. 


“Tomorrow won’t be so busy on the road, not this far up, we might see some hunters, and likely lots more beasties”, Seathala’s voice was bright and fast, she loved being here. For all the temptations and conveniences of the city, she was a creature of the marshlands.


Yorkun gently ridged the sectioned leg of the crawler, drawing the stone back and up to define the joint. Once he had carved such a creation, his illusions of those creatures were more formidable and real to his victims. The crawler had attacked him and his group several weeks ago, it’s bulbous, reeking form was still fresh in his mind.


At this hour about 3/4 of the camp were asleep, and the watch had completed several turns of the camp.

Jokai was gambling with the caravan guards, he played cards but preferred dice, and the caravan guards were bored enough to risk precious silver for the thrill. 


The night was uneventful, and the morning brought clear skies, an almost non-existent wind, a searing heat, and tendrils of mist emanating from the greenery all around. The caravan set out again, and followed the same routine as the day before, they stopped frequently for water and shade, allowing the gess an hour long sleep at midday for good measure. Late morning  saw a troupe of chitin troubadours, sporting woodwinds and drums, riding a very large and very long snake that criss-crossed the road to the swamp and back over the road again. By mutual agreement the two groups stopped for a break under shady trees and the chitin serenaded the caravan in exchange for samples of spice and powder.


The afternoon saw nothing of note other than two groups of kutya hunters making time on the road before heading into the deep marshes to hunt for boar. Seathala spoke with them for several minutes before the caravan moved on. They decided to continue traveling through the evening as it was substantially cooler than it was before, and by midnight they had found a suitable spot to camp for the night, a small Togmu fishing village a few miles off the road. The caravan master negotiated their stay in spices, a sample of a half dozen or so of their wares was enough.


As they were close to their departure point from the caravan, Yorkun decided to reveal his talents to the group. The Togmu had stoked a roaring fire and were roasting food for the visitors, while the food was being prepared, Yorkun asked the Togmu if they were interested in entertainment. After enthusiastic croaks all around, he spoke muffled words below his breath, then stepped forward and gestured in an arc with his arm, then, from the fire, arose a life sized carrion crawler, it stepped out and moved to a clearing just beyond the fire, then out of the darkness three spectral warriors appeared, each armed with spears, they kept the beast at bay with the spears, it thrashed at them with tentacles, while the loud shouts of the collected Togmu egged them on.


One of the illusory warriors was struck down by a tentacle, their body freezing up in paralysis. Many of the Togmu hushed at this sight, they had all seen crawlers before, and knew what they were capable of. As the beast moved in for the kill the two remaining warriors stabbed with their spears, each sinking them deeply into the beast. It thrashed, bled profusely, then stumbled.


The Togmu raised a mighty cheer in appreciation.


Yorkun was about to the end the illusion when a gaggle of the Togmu children howled in protest. Yorkun smiled, and the crawler came back to life, it’s greasy orifice flashing teeth, and the children screamed. Yorkun entertained them until the village elders called it time to bed down.


The night was uneventful, except for the howl of what Seathala indicated were likely caterwauls, they kept their distance from the village as the Togmu, due to repeated exposure, were immune to their cries. And they fancied caterwaul skin cloaks for the cooler months.


The morning brought rain and a respite from the heat. The caravan master had them moving early to take advantage of the break. The road was easy to travel despite the rain, but everyone knew that off-road would be a muddy mess. By mid-afternoon the rain was coming down in sheets, and they met a pair of giant alligators on the road. Seathala cautioned the caravan master to wait and draw weapons. They did so, spears dripping rain, and the beasts saw the better of it and slithered off into the marshes. 


By nightfall the caravan had reached the separation point. Seathala gave some final instructions to the caravan master then they broke off from the group. The rain was now coming down in waves, with thunder and lightning rolling in from the South. Even with their canopies in place water made it through to them, the wind whipping it to and fro. Yorkun suggested that they stop and camp down, but Seathala was insistent that they continue. 


“The tulures don’t mind the rain, and we won’t get better cover than this downpour in open marshlands, we should press on”.


Yorkun replied with a grunt, Jokai with a determined grimace, and the group continued on. 


It would normally be a 2 hour trip to reach their destination from the road, but with the driving rain and wind that was slowed significantly. Jokai was grateful to have Seathala at the helm, at one point they skirted a small lake rather than crossing it, and as they departed Yorkun saw a huge, mottled head on a long neck emerge from the water.


“They come out in the rain, never cross the lakes in the rain”, Seathala cautioned. Jokai laughed, the creature’s maw looked big enough to swallow him whole!


After 4 hours of slogging through the rain it began to let up, and Seathala pointed to a large forest ahead. The clouds were still thick enough that the moonlight was gentle and unrevealing, the forest loomed black in the distance. 


“That is where Hoak the Red has been going for the last few months, I have skirted the forest several times, not going in, hunters regularly avoid the forest so it would be believable if I was seen”. 


The slayer pointed to a spot near the forest’s edge, “It is hard to see, but there are broken branches and flattened grass right there, Hoak and his men have worn a path into the forest, I have no idea how many there are or what they are doing, but that’s the way in.”


Yorkun was tired and wet, but he recognized the value of going in now before dawn, hopefully they could catch their quarry unaware. They entered the forest a few hundred feet away from the opening that Seathala had identified, paralleling the path, their tulures rose to their full height to walk through the undergrowth. At night, with minimal moonlight and the forest all around them, the way forward was quite black, all three adventurers put their trust in their mounts to navigate through the towering yellow-leaved golabi trees. 


After around half an hour, Seathala held up her hand and signaled a stop.


“You see, off to the left, there is a fire”, Yorkun looked and saw a pinpoint of light, likely Hoak’s camp. 


“Time to see what all the fuss is about”, Jokai smiled, he was restless and looking for something to hit.


Seathala shook her head, “The path that we have been paralleling, the one that led in from the forest’s edge, it does not go to this camp, it passes to the East, we should follow the road and see where it goes, we have identified the camp, we can return once we have seen what lies at the end of the road.”


Yorkun was irritated, this was his mission, and Seathala was directing things without asking him, he hissed quietly and was about to respond when Jokai, sensitive to his friend’s moods and mannerisms, broke in.


“It is a good plan, the camp will be there when we are done, and we need to know why they are here before we do anything.”


Yorkun breathed in and sighed, “Fine, I defer to the maid of the marshes, forward.”


Seathala chuckled as they broke through the brush to the path several hundred feet away. Yorkun was sure they would never find it, but the slayer’s instincts were on point as usual, and the tulure’s webbed feet soon found the beaten down path. It was so dark that Yorkun had a floating sensation, he could barely see his own hands on the reins, and it was disconcerting, he felt disconnected from his own body.


In short order the path they were following led to a clearing. It was a good distance from the camp they had seen, and there appeared to be no one here. Not that it was possible to tell very much in the darkness. Jokai decided that it was time to change that. He drew out a torch and lit it, the distance and the trees would keep anyone at the camp from seeing the light, or so he hoped.


By torch light the group saw what had appeared as indistinct shapes in the darkness. The clearing was perhaps 50 feet across, and it was surrounded by a ring of 8 tall stone pillars. They were made from granite, red with black highlights, and each had runes carved on the side facing the circle. Yorkun inspected the runes by torchlight. 


Then Jokai spoke up, “You need to look over here, on the ground.”


Yorkun tore himself away from the stone and looked towards the ground, Jokai moved the torch right down to ground level, there was what appeared to be a thaumaturgic circle on the ground, meticulously laid out with multiple stones of the same red granite, embedded in the ground. 


Yorkun’s face soured, “It is a conjuring circle, Hoak is attempting to summon something and bind it to his service.”


Seathala’s hand moved and she touched her axe, reflexively, “That is bad, yes?”


“That is very bad, any circle this elaborate” Yorkun stared at the sheer size and intricate design of the circle, “how long must it have taken to bring these stones here, they would weigh enough to give the largest gess pause…”, Yorkun hissed, “whatever Hoak is doing, we need to stop it before he summons whatever it is these are designed to bind.”


Jokai and Seathala had nothing to add, conjuring circles were beyond their horizon of experience, but both knew that Yorkun was not prone to exaggeration. The phantasmist took out his broadsword and slid the blade against one of the stones that was part of the circle. He pushed on the blade until the stone slid loose, tossed the stone into the woods, and packed down the earth where it used to be.


Jokai smiled and looked at Yorkun in the torchlight, “What did you just do?”


Yorkun mounted his tulure and sheathed his broadsword, “If Hoak tries to summon anything, he will have a surprise coming, a broken circle is useless. Now, on to the camp.”


Jokai snuffed his torch out while Seathala spoke up, “What is our intention, to raid the camp, to survey the opposition, should we report back with what we know before going in?”


Yorkun rubbed his chin and looked towards the camp, “Hoak may or may not be in the camp, but either way, he has dishonored his friend and his House. I intend to bring him in, if you wish to leave I will understand.”


Seathala noted that Yorkun had not challenged her honor or questioned her bravery, something that she appreciated. Yorkun was proud, but not arrogant. 


“I will see this through, otherwise you and Jokai get to claim all the glory.”


The three of them moved through the forest atop their tulures, the darkness once again embraced them, and they trusted their steeds to navigate the trees and the foliage. In short order they were in sight of the camp. The fire at the center was lower than it was before but still strong, and from what they could see most of the people in the camp were bedded down. Two figures sat by the fire, very likely the guards on watch, but much to Jokai’s surprise they did not appear very attentive. 


“They have grown lazy, they aren’t even looking around, just sitting by the fire and gambling from the looks of it, this should be easy.”


Yorkun held up a hand and shook his head, “They may be lazy, or perhaps Hoak has laid magical wards in the forest, they could have others who walk the woods around the camp, or there could be creatures ensorcelled to Hoak’s service guarding things. We do not know.”


Jokai grunted and shifted in his saddle, refraining from comment.


Seathala dismounted from her tulure and took out her axe, “I will move forward, looking for snares, tripwires and such, you will follow.”


Yorkun held up his hand and cleared his throat, “No, you could easily trip a magical ward in the darkness, you wouldn’t see it coming. I have a better idea.”


Yorkun dismounted, tied up his tulure beside Seathalas, and took out a flat iron bar, the length of his hand, from a pocket. He grasped each corner of the bar with his thumbs and index fingers. He raised the bar up in front of his eyes and spoke softly, “Stín za mnou, stůj přede mnou”, as the last word passed his lips, a shadowy duplicate of Yorkun, identical in size and shape, stepped out of his body, and stood several feet in front of him, facing forward. [Spell: The Vengeful Shade of Mire Sithin]


Seathala grinned, she had no interest in magic herself, but delighted at the phantasmist’s tricks.


“If there are harmful wards or enchantments, my shade will trigger them before I pass through.”


With this comment, Yorkun moved forward, the shade in front of him mimicking his steps perfectly. Seathala walked beside the phantasmist, looking for signs of snares or deadfalls. Jokai, much to his disgust, trailed the two with his crossbow loaded and ready.


The three adventurers moved slowly but steadily forward, several times Seathala stopped them to inspect the terrain more closely, in the dark this was difficult work, but she did not want to be skewered by a spike trap or fall into a pit. Then, when they reached a point approximately 50 feet from the camp, a shriek was heard from a nearby stone.


“Awake, awake, enemies approach”, repeated over and over again.


“Damn”, Yorkun’s shade had triggered the magic mouth that was laid in the forest, they had lost the element of surprise. 


He gambled that it was worth the time to cast spells while the camp organized itself, it would rob them of an unanswered attack against any of the guards who were not prepared, but they needed an advantage.


He whispered to Jokai, “Look ahead”


Yorkun took out a small handful of black cloth wrapped around a small opal. He moved them in the air to five points of a star, then pointed forward. The air in a 10 foot radius, located approximately 40 feet closer to the camp, shimmered for a brief second. [Spell: Morkoth’s Black on Black]


“Go on your belly and rest in the area where the air was ennervated, wait for my command to rush out and attack once you determine who needs to be killed.”


Though Jokai decided who to engage when the melee started, he deferred to Yorkun for strategy, and he had learned years ago to let the spell casters direct the action, otherwise he might get immolated.


Jokai nodded, his lips curling back into a smile, and started to crawl to the spot ahead. 


The camp was coming alive, when they set off the magic mouth there had been only 2 guards awake, now there were 10, and others being roused.


Yorkun cursed them, “Palashurem’s axe take your heads.” 


Palashurem, god of duty and honor was invoked by Yorkun as Hoak was betraying his master, Hoak’s servants earned the wrath by association. It was the Bhakashal way.


Yorkun turned towards Seathala, his shade still standing several feet in front of him, mirroring his pose and disposition, “Find a nearby spot with cover and wait with your crossbow, we need not engage directly for now, I will summon a distraction, Jokai will move closer and wait with his mace ready to charge when the time is right, I will stay here. We will let my illusion wreak maximum havok before revealing ourselves. Wait for the signal to attack.”


Yorkun reached into his pocket and removed a tuft of fleece, he held it pinched between his fingers and spoke the words, “Skutečné, neskutečné” three times over. [Spell: Spectral Force]


Out of the darkness several large shapes appeared, a trio of wasps, each the size of a small horse, each one buzzing loudly. Jokai, Yorkun and three of their companions were attacked by giant wasps several months ago. Yorkun could still see the spartan Oamal the Silent, his face paralyzed in a mask of terror, as he was carried off into the night to be injected with wasp eggs.


Yorkun despised giant wasps, and they would stoke maximum terror in his foes.


They flew forward toward the camp.


By the time someone spotted the wasps, there were 15 guards armed and moving.


The screams were immediate, giant wasps were not uncommon in the less inhabited areas of the marshland, it was likely each guard had seen one work its horror on someone they knew. The guards were in clusters, unsure of where the opposition was, Yorkun found three guards that were somewhat separated from the rest and had the wasps dive down and attempt to sting but not carry them off. Illusions had no substance, but they would believe a sting.


The wasps had terrified the guards to the point that they attacked before any could respond.  All three felt the bite of illusory stingers, and immediately froze up, paralyzed by their own minds, collapsing to the ground.


Jokai reached his spot, mace ready as his side. The area was in the light cast by the bonfire, but it did not permeate the shadows, they stayed stubbornly dark.


Yorkun had the wasps swing up and over the camp, a hail of crossbow bolts flew, but in the darkness it was impossible to tell if they contacted the wasps, so Yorkun had them continue unfazed. So far no one appeared to have realized that the wasps were an illusion, and if they were looking in their direction, it was dark enough that they would be hard to spot, Yorkun moreso with his shade around, so Yorkun directed them at several guards who were sporting longswords. This bunch had more courage than the last and stood their ground, swinging at the wasps with grim determination. Yorkun gambled that they wouldn’t notice anything unusual when their swords met no resistance, it was all happening quite quickly after all. 


This time two of the wasps stung guards, and both fell to the ground, rigid.


5 down, Seathala thought, she had forgotten how formidable Yorkun’s illusions could be. He had the wasps disappear into the woods for a moment, but he made their buzzing noise quite noticeable as they left. The slayer nodded silently, let them imagine how they were going to die, Yorkun knew the secret of his craft, an unseen threat was sometimes more terrifying than one right in front of you.


Jokai was watching from the enchanted shadows of Yorkun’s spell when he saw someone emerge from a large tent at the back of the camp. He was quite tall, and had a dark black shock of hair with blood red fringing, a long silver leather coat (Jokai suspected it was dragonskin) and high leather boots, and a blood red shirt and pants. Even in the comparative cool of night that outfit would be uncomfortable. 


He must be Hoak the Red, only a warlock would dress so extravagantly. 


Hoak shouted, “Deise, Kakalm, Rogha and Furlak, to me, the mouth can only be tripped by those on foot, so there is a warlock directing those wasps.”


Yorkun smiled, Hoak hadn’t figured out that the wasps were illusions yet. Spectral Force was the most powerful regular illusion spell Yorkun knew, and it was possible to have the spell continue according to simple instructions for a short time without Yorkun actively directing it. He imbued the illusions with direction to attack the guards repeatedly until they expired. 


Yorkun then reached into his pouch and took out a black feather, a pair of black silk gloves and a diamond the size of a fat grape. He placed the gloves on his hands, then put the feather in one and the diamond in the other. Holding the both out from his body, he whispered the words of the spell several times over, “Lučištníci stínu, přijďte k této jiskře, připravte se na pohyb ve tmě”.


When he finished, the feather and the diamond were gone from his hands, and in the branches of one of the golabi trees above a shadow seemed to bleed from the night, unlike the one in front of him, this shadow was more angular, it looked bipedal, with two arms and a head, but the head was vaguely triangular, and the shade appeared to hold a bow in its hand, made of the same ebony stuff. [Spell: The Stealthy Shadow Archers of Shon-Sinn]


Yorkun smiled and waited.


The illusory wasps returned and made another dive at several of the guards. Unfortunately for them, the darkness made running difficult, and two of them fell, soon after all three were stung and froze up. With this, another three of the guards panicked, leaving only the four guards that were circled around Hoak.


Now Hoak reached into the folds of his long coat and took out a handful of black dust, he spoke the words, “füstkígyó, táncolj nekem” three times, and as he did he sprinkled the dust in a circle in the air. The dust fell and when the last of it hit the ground Hoak raised his hand into the air, and a thick column of smoke arose from the bonfire, slowly forming into a snake like shape. [Spell: The Sinister Smoke Serpent of Illyig the Corpulent] 


The smoke snake shot forward and immolated the wasps… to no avail. Yorkun was no longer directing the illusion, so the wasps were acting automatically, ignoring the smoke entirely.


Hoak smiled and shouted to his remaining guards, “We have a phantasmist in our midst, these wasps are an illusion”. 


Yorkun ignored the warlock’s words and whistled, giving the signal to Seathala and Jokai.


At the sound Seathala let a crossbow bolt fly. She had hoped to hit Hoak, but his guards served their purpose and the quarrel flew into Furlak. The Emberi mercenary collapsed like a puppet with cut strings, the quarrel embedded in his neck.

 

As soon as the bolt left the crossbow, Jokai exploded out of the foliage and charged the remaining three guards with his mace in both hands.


“Hoak, I come for you!”


The warlock was not expecting such a close assault, the serpent of smoke suddenly collapsed, Hoak let the spell end, and he stepped back several feet, taking out a small leaden ball from his coat. Hoak began to move the ball around in a circle while quietly repeating the words of the spell three times, “Az ólmos teher rajtad legyenAz ólmterhelés legyen”, “Az ólmos teher rajtad legyenAz ólmterhelés legyen”...


When Yorkun saw the warlock reach into his coat he directed his shadow archer to fire, to do this he made the motions of pulling back a bow to fire while wearing the black silk gloves. The creature of glossy ebony drew back its spectral bow and a black missile flew through the night towards the warlock, the angle was such that it passed over the heads of the guards surrounding Hoak, and it struck true, followed by a second shot that also hit home.


Hoak gasped and dropped the leaden ball, his spell ruined. He also slouched and clutched at his shoulder and chest where the arrows had hit, a numbing cold spreading over him.


At the same time Jokai engaged the guards. Deise attempted to stab the charging warrior with a longsword but the blade was turned back by his armor, Kakalm tried for a cleaving blow but Jokai moved to the side at the last second, Rogha went for a sky to ground blow but met only dirt.


Jokai brought his mace upwards into Deise’s midsection, crushing the warrior’s insides and dropping him to the ground, he then pulled the mace back and around, smashing into Kakalms head, a sickening crunch told the tale as the fighter’s head skewed to a grotesque angle. 


Only Rogha was now left, and she backed up in front of Hoak, her weapon at the ready.


Jokai smiled then sneered.


“He will let you die for him and care not, leave here before I must kill you.”


Yorkun shouted across the distance, “Hoak the Red, I, Yorkun the Ambergris claim your life in the name of Yicinth the Tourmaline of House Himmenghost, surrender now or your road ends here.”


Hoak laughed, “You are beneath me Yorkun”, Hoak used his diminutive name to insult him, “I will see you flayed alive for this, I’ve come too far to let you stop me now!”


With this, Hoak, with the arm not numbed, took a handful of dust and threw it into the air, stepping into the cloud… and disappearing.


Jokai charged forward to the spot where the warlock was just standing, hoping to tackle him if he was still there and just invisible. He shot through the space and met emptiness.


Jokai shouted, “He is gone Yorkun, did he transport away?”


Yorkun was unsure, but suspected that he had made himself invisible. 


Seathala watched the spot where the warlock was standing and saw what appeared to be flattening of grass leading away from his location.


“He flees Yorkun, to the East!”


Yorkun shouted to Jokai and Seathala, “Wait here, we will regroup, finish off the remaining guards while they lie frozen, and pursue in short order.” Yorkun said this loudly enough that Hoak was sure to hear. Let him believe he had some time, the phantasmist was fairly sure he knew where Hoak was going.


Jokai looked at Rogha, she knew that her life was forfeit.


Jokai took out his axe, “I will make it quick”.


Rogha spoke calmly, “I would die for honor, but not for he who abandoned me like a craven dog.”


Jokai smiled, “Good fortune navigating the marshes in the darkness, I give you your life.”


Rogha fled towards the guards who had left earlier, hoping to catch up to them.


Yorkun spun around and called out to the adventurers, “Time to leave, we must mount and flee as fast as we can!”


Jokai and Seathala did not hesitate or question, they quickly found their mounts and rode away. Once they were several hundred feet away from the camp, Yorkun waved them to stop and paused, concentrating. Slowly the circle of stones in the clearing appeared in his head, he was familiar enough with the location to scry it. Yorkun then focused again, and heard the wind blowing through the trees and Hoak’s steady breathing [Spells: Clairvoyance and Clairaudience]


He saw Hoak, now visible and sitting cross legged outside of the circle. Yorkun’s attack had forced his hand, and he now summoned the beast to slay Yicinth the Tourmaline.


Hoak began to chant the spell of summoning, his arms gesticulating while his voice repeated the unholy words evenly and precisely, there was no room for error here. Hoak had spent a year researching this binding spell, meticulously assembling the binding circle and stones, hand carving the unique runes that would bind the demon Kalukam to his service. 


His revenge would be sweet, this infernal beast would tear Yicinth apart, and he would take his place in the House hierarchy, blaming the terrible incident on a botched summoning spell on Yicinth’s part. The plan was flawless.


As he chanted, Yorkun could see smoke begin to emerge from the circle, slowly at first, and then the sounds, horrible screams and moans of agony, empty cries of desperation, then a shaggy hand emerged from the ground within the circle, it grasped the ground and pulled out an arm, then a head appeared, like an ape’s head with batlike ears and matted, filthy dark green fur. Slowly it pulled itself from the ground and stood a full 12’ tall in the circle. The beast had small bat wings, ragged 8 inch claws and cloven hooves on bent back legs. It’s eyes glowed a deep, smoldering crimson. 


“Who calls me to the plane of mortals, who commands Kalukam to their presence?”


Its voice was like cracked glass.


“I, Hoak the Red, Warlock of House Himmenghost, command you to my service, by the power of the binding circle, surrounded by eight spires of damnation, you are to find the warlock Yicinth the Tourmaline in his tower in Bhakashal, and destroy him.”


The beast smiled a crooked, sinister smile, and replied, “You lack imagination sorcerer, rather than breaking him here, I should drag him to the fields of hell and torment him for your wrath.”


At that the demon raised up his hands, and flames appeared in the circle, within the flames were bodies, twisted and torn, burnt and beaten, writhing studies in agony. 


“See my realm, would it not be the perfect place for your sworn enemy?”


Hoak contemplated the horrific idea and his lips pulled back from his teeth, “Yes, I had wanted his fellows to see him torn apart in his tower, but seeing him dragged off to hell, that would be delicious.”


The demon known as Kalukam mock bowed in front of Hoak… then waved with his hand, and pulled Hoak from outside the circle to hang in the air with his arms pinned to his side, mere feet from his grotesque visage.


Hoak the Red of House Himmenghost screamed, “How, the circle is flawless, the stones bind you, how do you do this!”


“Your circle is flawed little magician, either through incompetence or betrayal, you are now mine.”


The demon laughed, the sound of which was like jagged nails scratching flesh. 


Then the two sank into the ground together, leaving only smoke behind.


Yorkun turned to the group. He was going to suggest going back to the camp, corralling survivors and looking for loot, but he thought better of it.


“Let us return to Yicinth to tell him the tale, I want to be as far from that… thing… as we can get.”


“It is a perilous business you find yourself in Yorkun”, Jokai offered, “when your kind must dally with creatures such as these to gain your ends.”


Yorkun nodded, “Advice that would have served Hoak the Red well, had he chosen to heed it.”


The phantasmist looked at his companions, then began to laugh, which spread to his companions, and echoed in the trees as they turned and headed back to Bhakashal. 


Building Bhakashal - Session Report My Wednesday group had a new player join yesterday. The party had been sent to spy on a powerful warlock...