Level 1, Room 7

01.07: The Back Gate

Access: The back gate separates the Grounds from the lands beyond the manor’s walls.

Description: Once, a proud gate stood here. Its remains can still be seen laying in the overgrown grounds on either side of the path: two individual five foot wide, ten foot tall structures made of steel banded hardwood. Rusting hinges are still embedded in the stone walls. The gate on the eastern side had a man sized door built into it, which was used to allow servants and laborers in. The gates were only fully opened for official visitors.

Vestige of the Guardian: In the days before the fall of Parenix Manor and the Alastairn family, the back gate was enchanted. There was always worry that one day those people who lived in the vicinity of the manor might come with torch and pitchfork in hand, so the gate was reinforced with magical power: a spirit from the Realm of Wrath and Wind was bound to the gate. Careful examination of the remains of the fallen gates reveal intricate but subtle arcane marks.

The guardian remains, still bound to the gates despite their fallen, decrepit state. Where once it could have blown angry villagers away like a gale, it can muster little more than a cold, foul wind. Anyone who passes through the gate from the outside into the Grounds feels this wind and a sense of anger directed at them, but suffers nothing worse. If the gates are burned or otherwise completely destroyed, the guardian is returned to its home plane. Alternatively, the gates may be gathered up, repaired and hung (either at the manor or elsewhere), reinstating the guardian’s power and continuing its service.

Level 1, Room 6

01.06: Kitchen

Access: The kitchen can be accessed through two doors in the south leading to the cookhouse prep room (01.05) and a door in the north leading to the Grounds.

Description: This massive, once well furnished and stocked kitchen was used to prepare the meals for Parenix Manor. The massive hearth is big enough to roast a large pig or hang a great cauldron — which is currently in place there. Shelves and tables are covered in the evidence of food long ago rotted or devoured by pests.

Boil and Trouble: The last use of the kitchen was not to cook food, but rather to summon something from the veiled dark by matriarch Constance Alastairn. She filled the cauldron with all the right offerings and sang the right dirges, but she was called away by the calamity that ultimately devoured the last of the Alastairn. Despite the ritual being unfinished — or perhaps because of it — something nonetheless slithered into the cauldron from the outer reaches. The cauldron is occupied by an amorphous devourer. It senses anyone entering the kitchen but remains still, appearing as a thick black tar in the cauldron until it suddenly lashes out with a pseudopod. The amorphous devourer cannot be sated and will attempt to dissolve and absorb as many characters or creatures that remain in the kitchen. It cannot leave the cauldron but can reach up to 6 feet away with a pseudopod.

Treasure: If the amorphous devourer is destroyed it’s black bile like liquid remains can be poured out from the cauldron. The cauldron weighs 300 pounds and will fetch a high price from a coven of witches or a hag.

Level 1, Room 5

01.05: Cookhouse

Access: The main prep area of the cook house is accessed from the Grounds by a door in the south wall and from the Kitchen (01.06) by two doors in the north wall.

Description: The cook house prep room is large and open with a big solid table, counter space and various pans and utensils hanging from the ceiling. Like the rest of the manor, it has seen bad weathering and damage from pests. When in use this room could accommodate the preparation for large meals served to the Alastairn family and their guests.

Heavy Metal: Much of what is found in this room is decayed beyond use, but the Alastairn did not skimp on tools for cooking and some items remain. Two large cast iron pots, a set of rusted but easily repaired knives, and a full set of porcelain crockery can be found among the rubbish. These could be of some use, or sold for a long stay at the Bridgeroad Inn.

Level 1, Room 4

01.04: The Coachman’s Room

Access: The coachman’s room is accessed through an unlocked door in the south wall that leads to the carriage house and stables (01.03).

Description: Despite a leaky roof and broken windows, the coachman’s room has survived mostly intact over the decades since Parenix Manor was abandoned. The furniture is sturdy but unassuming. The small table and chairs are beneath a hole in the roof and thus most deteriorated but the bed in the corner is still functional. Any provisions that were left here are long since rotted away, The hearth is in decent shape minus some pests up the chimney and may be used. Against the north wall there is a coat and hat rack. The mildew and moth eaten remains of a pair of velvet cloaks and tall hats hang there.

Lovelorn: If the PCs search they find a surprising well preserved hat box under the bed. In it are a dozen or so pieces of folded parchment. Each one is a love letter. They are brief but obviously written with a careful hand. Neither the writer nor intended recipient are noted, but the writer spends each letter extolling the chaste virtue of the recipient and their (the writer’s) desire to run away with the recipient. All the letters read like this, except one. It is crumpled in a ball and stained with what appears to be ancient blood. In the same handwriting as the others, it reads only: “I demand you stop your advances at once or I shall be forced to reveal all. Good bye.”

Connections: These letters were written to the coachman (a man named Arthur) by Mithwell Alastairn, whose unquiet spirit still haunts Parenix Manor. See room 01.XX.

Level 1, Room 3

01.03: Carriage House and Stable

Accesses: The wide door on the southwest wall still hangs on its rusted hinges (it swings out against the manor wall). A heavy chain promises to lock it shut but the door itself if badly damaged with large areas where the elements, pests and worse can enter. Inside a still sturdy but unlocked door leads north to the coachman’s room.

Description: The Carriage House and Stable is a dark, decrepit structure. While sun and moonlight filter through the many holes in the ceiling, a hay loft and multiple stalls keep much of the interior in shadow. The carriage, once well crafted and utilitarian if not fine, is a rotting heap.

Many Mouths to Feed: In the most northeastern stall is the bloated, putrescent form of a massive flying bloodworm queen. While it is itself harmless, its brood of flying bloodworm hatchlings are not. Once the carriage house is disturbed, 2d4 hatchlings fly out to meet the intruders. If any taste blood, they screech their find and the whole swarm of 32 descend on the unlucky interlopers. If all the hatchlings are killed they can no longer bring blood to their queen and she dies in 1d3 days.

Treasure: As stated, the carriage is a ruin. However, it was adorned with small silver Alastairn family crests (an abstract symbol that brings mind to smoke rising from water). A total of fours can be recovered from the wreckage requiring 1d6x10 minutes work total, and each is worth 50 gp if sold to a collector or 10 gp if sold for their metal alone.

Level 1, Room 2

01.02: Guard Alcove

Accesses: Door on the north wall leading to the Grounds.

Description: This close chamber was once the place where the Alastairn gate guard would stay out of the elements. It is sparsely furnished, including a stone bench and an ancient, rusted brazier where a fire once burned.

Weird Flames: If a PC enters the alcove at night and closes the door, sealing themself inside, something strange happens. An immediate sense of anxiety and dread begins to overcome the character and after less than a minute they feel the urge to flee, as if affected by a fear spell. However, the door will not open! Then, the brazier lights with cold blue flames that seem to be dying embers. Through the door they hear a muffled, angry voice say, “Shirk because of a little chill, will you? Then stay in there!” Slowly over the next few moments the brazier’s light fades and deep, killing cold fills the alcove. When the last bit of light from the brazier finally winks out, the character feels a frozen hand grip their own. Once this happens the character (or their companions outside) are free to open the door. There is no evidence of the event and neither the chamber nor the brazier radiate as magical. This haunting only occurs once per night and never twice for the same PC.

Level 1, Room 1

Map by Dyson Logos

Level 1: Parenix Manor

Level Story

Parenix Manor was built two and a half centuries ago by the Alastairn family. For 150 years, it was occupied by that family and served as the base from which they delved ever deeper into Mornrax Hill, the ancient cairn of innumerable generations of now lost dedicants to forgotten powers. As the Alastairn dug deeper, they succumbed to creeping madness and corruption until finally a century ago the last scion of the family was consumed. The manor has remained empty ever since, a decaying ruin filled with strange artefacts and mournful echos.

As PCs explore the manor, they will find many strange things, weird ephemera that does not seem to have purpose or value. However, much of this will serve invaluable as the party explores the dungeon beneath.

Level Features

Since it is abandoned, Parenix Manor is unlit. However most rooms are furnished with candelabras and lanterns and the PCs may choose to illuminate the place as they go rather than just carry their own lights.

The windows are mostly broken and the roof is holed in places, so the manor is partially exposed to the elements and well as subject to the depredations of pests.

Interior and exterior walls are strongly built. Despite the constant groaning of timbers caused by fluctuations of humidity and temperature, the structure is sound.

Unless otherwise noted, doors inside the manor are swollen shut and must be forced open even if unlocked.

The entire manor radiates mild evil and anyone sleeping in the manor has a 25% chance per night of being plagued by foul dreams. If so affected, they gain no benefit from the night’s rest.

The Grounds

The grounds inside the outer wall are overgrown gardens thick with weeds and thorns. Characters exploring the grounds off the paths have a 10% chance per turn of disturbing a swarm of vicious flying stinging insects.

01.01: Gateman’s House

Accesses: Locked door on the north wall leading to the Grounds. 

Description: Parenix Manor’s Gateman was in charge of seeing to visitors, managing the staff and making sure everything outside the manor house itself was in order. The northern chamber was a combination of workshop and living quarters and the southern chamber was primarily storage. The furnishings here were simple but serviceable and have long since deteriorated beyond use as more than kindling.

Of Note: PCs that thoroughly search the Gateman’s House may discover a small leatherbound journal under the ruin of the bed. It is horribly weathered and almost impossible to read, but appears to be a dream journal Snippets of words and phrases indicate the owner’s dreams got worse and worse of the course of years and in the end one word is scrawled on each of the last dozen pages, first in ink, then charcoal and finally what appears to be dried blood: MALCHOLATH

Treasure: While most everything is wasted beyond value, amid the rotted barrels and bags in the storage chamber are a half dozen sealed bottles of brandy that may fetch a fine price or serve as close to kerosene.

Connections: MALCHOLATH is a malevolent force the PCs may encounter later in the adventure and having its name will greatly increase their chances of survival.

Vextrapolation

First and foremost, all credit goes to my good friend Greg Shea, artist and man of one million talents and zero hairs. Go check out his work.

Anyway, Greg suggested “vextrapolation” when I asked for a term that encapsulated one of those things you see on geek social media: the tendency to look at a thing that has been announced with scant details and fill in the blank spaces with the worst possible idea ever. In this case, it came from an internet message board discussion of Paizo, Inc.’s recently new science fantasy RPG Starfinder. The details aren’t important, other than to say that since the game will not release until GenCon this summer, not everything is known. So many people have engaged in “vextrapolation” and assumed Paizo is going to fumble this or that in regards to the game, its setting or its marketing.

(For the record, I am super excited about Starfinder and am looking forward to standing in line at GenCon this year to get a hold of it!)

 

But this post isn’t really about Starfinder. It is about vextrapolation and the more generally broad tendency of fandom to expect the worst without necessarily having any evidence for it. First of all, let me say this up front (mostly because I am going to get called on it anyway): I, as a geek, have engaged in this and have done so recently in regards to the DC comic cinematic universe. Based on my feelings about Batman vs Superman, I am pretty sure everything coming down the pike is going to be terrible. Even Wonder Woman, which looks awesome but will probably suck.

When No Man’s Sky was first announced, I fell in love. It seemed like the sci-fi space sim equivalent of choosing a random direction in Skyrim to walk until you found cool things to see, kill and/or otherwise interact with. There were lots of folks that pooh-poohed the game from the get-go, and if I am being honest I assumed they were just being negative and unimaginative. But in the end, these vextrapolationers turned out largely right: Hello Games could not deliver on the game experience they promised. So it isn’t that “vextrapolation” is necessarily wrong headed — but that doesn’t change the fact that it is negative in nature.

What I really wonder is why we, as fans and geeks, do this. Why do we presume that things will be terrible, that creators will make the wrong choices? Is it a way to protect ourselves from unmet expectations? If we have low expectations we can never be disappointed? We tell ourselves it is based on experience, that we are being wise or we are being realistic, but that is hardly true in all cases. And we are wrong as often as not. Sometimes a game or a film that seems like it will be dismal turns out to be great.

I think the truth lies in geek culture. While it is now in its ascendancy and has captured the spotlight, most people who identify as geeks were used to having their opinions belittled and their expectations crushed. When you live on the fringe of popular culture –and not in a cool punk rock way — it is easier to assume that any attempt by the mainstream entertainment media to produce something of value is going to fail. I mean, come on, the Dungeons & Dragons movie? And that is still true, but the difference is a lot of geeks are now in the mainstream entertainment media, making movies and Netflix shows and producing their own tabletop and computer RPGs. We as geeks can be a lot more positive because it is us that are now producing our own entertainment.

Now, that isn’t all sunshine and roses. It can lead to a lot of navel gazing and retreading of the same old tropes. We need new blood — young geeks, geeks of color, LGBTQ geeks, and so on. But we can be positive about what is coming down the pike. We absolutely should admit when it turns out terrible (I am looking at you Star Trek Into Darkness) but we don’t have to preemptively hate it.

Leave the vextrapolation behind.

Getting Weird: Why I Can Never Run A Grounded Campaign

It is all my players’ faults. I set up the campaign, one where magic is rare and magical creatures are alien and dangerous, where culture and technology are based strictly on a real world society at a particular time and where the primary conflicts are built around maintaining order as the larger social structure collapses. What do they do? They decide to play dragon men with a penchant for building armies of street urchins, demon bound warlocks that want to sell magical trinkets and marry into the nobility, civilization hating gnomes at war with colossal squirrel royalty and all manner of other weirdness. What’s a DM to do?

 

The answer, it turns out, is to say, “Yes.” Or, at least, “Yes, but,” with the possible inclusion of the occasional begrudging, “Fiiiiine.”

 

First of all, I can hardly blame them for grabbing on to the weird fantasy elements I myself put into the setting.

 

I only like “realism” in my fantasy insofar as it gives me firm foundation on which to build. Moreover, historical cultures, even in pastiche, provide ready resources when I do not know a thing or need to fill in details that I might not have considered. What do nobles in the court wear? I look up 15th century English noble attire on Wikipedia. What kinds of names do these people have? There’s a website for that. Is plate armor worn yet? I happen to have a book within arm’s (ha!) reach  to tell me. It isn’t that I am going for historical accuracy, just something approaching consistency or verisimilitude.

 

But all that mundane historical stuff gets very stale very quickly. I grew up on a cocktail of D&D, comic book super heroes, video games and pulp science fiction and fantasy. If there is a more incestuous family of weird fantasy influences, I’ve not had the pleasure of partaking. So once I established the lords and ladies and guilds and what not, I threw in the dimensional rifts from which monsters spring, the ancient Celtic and Norse inspired faerie races, the lost civilization of unknowable otherworldy wizards whose vaults and libraries wait to be plundered for arcane secrets and the city sized dragon that killed a king and brought about a (regional, at least) Apocalypse. This is the structure of the fun built onto that solid foundation and it should be no surprise to me (and, yet, is every time) that the players want to not only engage that stuff but expand on it leave their own weird fantasy marks on the world. That is, after all, why players show up at the table in the first place, isn’t it?

 

What I find interesting in my own process is that I always think I want to rely on my own imagination. I think I want to lay out the world and its denizens and locations and systems and then let the players move through it freely, yet constrained — as if it were a museum, all look and no touch. I do that every time, it seems, but just as inevitably I realize what my kids already know: museums aren’t actually any fun unless they are the sort in which you get to touch stuff. Maybe I think too much of my imagination, or too little of the players’, or it is simply that I cultivated a thing in my mind and I just want to share it so I am a little jealous of it in those first few outings. The reality is, though, that players improve the exhibits. Imagine how much more fun Michelangelo’s David would be if the Accademia Gallery kept a box of costume clothes and water based paints nearby and told visitors to go at it? Letting players dress up and paint the world I have created is like that.

 

This isn’t to say there aren’t pitfalls to allowing players to run amok, creatively speaking. First and most obviously, they usually do not have the whole story as it relates to setting secrets. If a player wants element X to work one way, but in the DM only notes it is actually part of situation Y it can be a little touch to navigate. Usually I can say something as simple as, “That thing is sort of off limits to players,” which has the added benefit of suddenly attracting that player’s attention to it. After all, I wouldn’t both including a secret if I did not want the player’s to uncover it, would I? Other times it is easy enough to let the player (and their character) believe a thing is X when it is actually Y. The look on their faces will be worth it in the end.

 

To be honest, either of those scenarios are relatively rare. Usually a player comes up with an idea or extrapolation I would never have considered. That’s the beauty of the cooperative nature of D&D and other RPGs. People complain about “movies made by committee” for big budget Hollywood releases, and for certain too many cooks can ruin the stew. But in D&D, I have found that generally speaking the more input, the more ideas floating around the table, the more fun everyone has and the better off the game is. Plus, it has the added benefit of taking a whole lot of work off my shoulders and, frankly, I am a Lazy DM.

The Fate of Zaskettr

sigurd

In the cold mountains of Vermont, the great wyrm Zaskettr met its fate.

Let’s back up. Last weekend was Carnage, the annual northern New England tabletop gaming convention that currently takes place at the Killington Ski Mountain Resort. It is a great con, with hundreds of attendees playing all manner of games. This year, I ran a long form game called The High Guard which you can read about here. For the purposes of this discussion, only one detail of that adventure matters: the fight against, and victory over, Zaskettr, the great wyrm responsible for the death of the High King and following chaos.

 

Dragon fights are notoriously difficult in D&D. As very powerful singular monsters, dragons can be both overwhelming for a party and at the same time anti-climactic. This is due to the nature of threats, combat and so-called “challenge ratings” in D&D. As what can be referred to as “boss” or “solo” monsters, dragons have tons of hit points and the potential to deal a lot of damage. As such, they can be very deadly, even for level appropriate PCs. Despite this, they can also seem somewhat weak. As singular monsters, they are inherently the focus of a heroic party’s energies and all those arrows, swords and spells stack up quickly. This is doubly true when, such as at a convention, the party is larger than usual.

 

Zaskettr began as an indistinct concept. I wanted to create a setting defined by a central monster, one that would always be present but not necessarily involved. This being D&D, the obvious choice was a dragon. Not any dragon, mind you, but an ancient red wyrm, the most powerful evil dragon in any edition of the game (barring deities and the like). The dragon would have destroyed not just the king and his castle, but the very stability of the kingdom. It would be the ultimate boss monster for a party that started out as zero level nothings trying to survive giant rats in the inn cellar.

 

Of course the idea evolved over time. Eventually when I was deciding what sort of long form game to run this year, I remembered the idea and created a world around the creature, which I called Zaskettr based on some random googling. Despite whatever details changed, the core idea remained the same: the dragon was the monster that had brought down the apocalypse and whatever else the heroes accomplished, destroying it would be the ultimate test. That said, I did not actually go into the con game expecting the PCs would tackle the dragon. I thought they might so I prepared, but it was just one of a few threads. It became clear early on in actual play though that if you put a dragon at the center of a game, the players are going to want to kill it.

 

Many adventures led up to the direct conflict with Zaskettr. One of the things I believe I am really good at from a Dungeon Mastering perspective is working on the fly. I create a realized setting and I prepare some expected encounters and Non-Player Characters. So armed, I am confident in letting the players go whatever direction and dealing with it as they go. Truth be told, I prefer this method of DMing simply because I get to be surprised, too. Who knows what a random group of players are going to do at a convention game, let alone one that stretches over 5 or more slots? I certainly don’t, and I like it that way.

 

Eventually, the PCs did come into direct conflict with Zaskettr. Twice, actually. Once the party had acquired the weapon with which to defeat the dragon, they went looking for it in its domain. That location proved very challenging and when they retreated to lick their wounds, the dragon, drawn by the very weapon designed to defeat it, attacked. The party barely survived and managed to escape through sheer luck. (Aside: that luck happened to be in the form of a helm of teleportation that one player rolled as a random starting item at the beginning of the first session. I believe in random input into the game. I can’t think of everything, and sometimes a random die roll, whether for an item or an encounter or even just a name, can completely change the course of an adventure. As I said, I like to be surprised.)

 

After the party fled, they chose to seek aid from the lords, churches and common folk of the land. With such aid, they drew the dragon away from a populated area and used magic to create a battleground of their devising. Zaskettr met them and this time the wyrm and the party were far more evenly matched. Even so, there were tense moments where only lucky die rolls on the part of the PCs or unlucky die rolls on my part spared their lives. It was glorious — everything a tabletop D&D fight with a dragon should be. I guess that an outside observer inexperienced with the nature of play would probably have been bored to death as we worked through a single battle for 2 or more hours. But for us at the time, it was thrilling. By the way, in my opinion that, in a nutshell, is tabletop gaming.

 

In the end, the PCs managed to whittle Zaskettr down. I had the dragon all set to flee the battle and force the PCs to come to its lair for the final round. Sadly, I did not leave the poor beast enough hit points. I did not expect the last round of luck the PCs had and before Zaskettr could fly off, the party cut the dragon down and impaled it with the magic spear that would keep it in torpor so long as the spear remained in Zaskettr’s heart.  They whooped and hollered on their victory and, to be honest, so did I. I talk a good “killer DM” game but in the end I want them to succeed just as much as they want to. After all, what we are all really looking forward to is a good tale to tell afterwards.

 

I gleaned a lot more from that extended game at Carnage this year than the fun of the party defeating Zaskettr. I will go into that in a future post. But for now, the joy of a well fought battle that mattered to the players, even at a convention without any of the weight of a home game, is enough to make me smile. This is why I run games and why I run games at conventions the way I do. Success after 20 hours, even if you as a player was not there for every single moment of it, is still far sweater than after just four.