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Monday, May 23, 2016

Tales From the Infinite Staircase - The Dream Well

This past week I had a lot of real life work stuff to take care of. Usually I like to prepare a day or two in advance, and then put some final touches on my plans a few hours before game time. But for this game, I had to wait until game day to assemble everything into a cohesive adventure plan.

The night before we played, I actually had a nightmare about being unprepared. In the dream, I was trying to run a game at a game store and I realized I had nothing prepared. The session starts and I was trying to make stuff up off the top of my head and it was terrible. I could tell the players thought it was terrible, too.

Modifications: I completely altered this adventure. Tales from the Infinite Staircase is purposely vague. The Iron Shadow is barely described, the adventures can be run out of order, and there's really no final showdown with the bad guy. In fact, half of the adventures have little or nothing to do with the Iron Shadow.

I'm adding in For Duty & Deity, which is a sort of 'crossover' adventure in the Forgotten Realms. I've tried my best to meld this into a cohesive story. I decided to add some major recurring villains.

The Devils: I made up recurring villains. The heroes have been sort of given a mission from the Lady of Pain - stop the Iron Shadow. The shadow is a piece of the Lady of Pain that was expelled from her when Bidam gave her the Heart of the Lady of Pain. Theran has this magic book which is aiding him. The Devils have been given the exact opposite mission by the Iron Shadow. Quimath the Kyton has a book, too, also aiding him.

The best thing about devils is that when you kill them, they just reappear in hell. The only way to truly slay them is to kill them in Hell. That means my bad guys can keep coming back.

Splitting up the Party: The general rule of thumb in D&D is "don't split the party." Everyone dies, or everyone gets bored. But I saw Chris Perkins do it on Dice, Camera, Action and it was the best session of his campaign so far. I decided to experiment tonight and see if it could work with my group.

It did work just fine, and it actually added quite a bit to the game. I think there are some key things to remember:
  1. Make sure you jump between the players quickly. Keep your eye on the inactive players, and if they look like they are getting restless, jump back to them.
  2. Allow meta-gaming. Let the inactive players make suggestions and brainstorm ideas. This will keep them involved, and honestly it is probably going to happen anyway. What that means is that when you design a scenario for a split group, assume the other players will chime in and plan for it in advance!
Hag Planning: I think I mentioned last time that I am planning a big hag-based adventure that should take place in about 7 sessions from now. During this past week, I started working on a Guide to Hags for this blog. I dug up this gigantic article from a Dragon Magazine Annual called "Pox on the Planes." This article that has tons and tons of new information on hags, soul larvae, the Gray Waste and "Altraloths." I have never seen or heard of this before. Some of that material went right into this session.

Theran's Lament: I should mention that over the past few sessions, a weird thing began to brew. I originally ran Theran's apprentice as if she was interested in him romantically. Theran told her that he didn't want to sully the teacher/student relationship. So I had her take it to heart and she moved on, focusing on her quest for revenge against the rakshasa, Raja Khan.

But last week, George (Theran's player) piped up and asked me why Selinza wasn't interested in Theran any more. I was kind of taken aback. I told him that she had taken him at his word.

Since that moment, Theran has been messing around with all sorts of ladies in true Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser fashion.

What's interesting is that Theran's beliefs (which are very important in Planescape) are all about preferring learning and knowledge to making social connections.

I am thinking of trying to set up a situation where Theran has to make a choice between learning something of tremendous value, or of rescuing his apprentice from a very dangerous situation.

Maybe in each session I'll try to put in a subtle "test," to see what Theran really thinks of his apprentice and what he values more, learning or connecting with people.

Last Time: Bidam and Fall From Grace fell into some random plane, possibly never to be seen again! Theran and his apprentice, Selinza remained in the Infinite Staircase.

The Party

(Jessie) Bidam - Platinum-Scaled Dragonborn Fighter
(George) Theran - Drow Wizard
* NPCs - Fall From Grace (Succubus Paladin), Selinza ("Litorian" Wizard, level 5)

You know, it's funny. Selinza is a white tiger cat/human hybrid, right? I decided she was a Litorian from Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed. She should be a Shifter, right? I can't believe I forgot about that race.

We start off with Theran and Selinza in the Infinite Staircase, looking down at the spot where Bidam and Theran vanished. George was still sure that there was some way to fix this. He thought about jumping in and following them, but the lillend nearby told him that he'd likely appear somewhere else entirely. He tried to figure out how to find them. Eventually, thanks to NPC nudging, he realized that maybe this Dream Well could help him find them.

He had dreamed about the Dream Well, and knew how to get to it. He and his apprentice ascended the stairs and made their way to a small landing made of gray-white stone. The door was made of burnished bronze covered in strange (githyanki) carvings.

Theran & the Githyanki City

The Githyanki City
They stepped through, and found themselves in a githyanki city in the astral plane. The city was on  floating moat designed to look like a person, sort of.

Because this was the Astral Plane, Theran and his apprentice were able to fly.

Looking down on the city from a tower, they saw that there were dead githyanki everywhere. They had been dead for days. Many extraplanar dogs (spectral hounds) roamed the streets, eating whatever they could scavenge.

The heroes began to wander, searching for the Dream Well. They spotted two strange winged creatures and avoided them.

Two spectral hounds sniffed out the heroes (Selinza is constantly fixing her hair, doing her nails and spraying perfume, thus she is easily scented) and attacked them. Each of them got bit once, but they were able to drop the hounds with magic missiles and a well-placed fireball.

The fireball explosion attracted the strange winged creatures. One of them said in a kind voice, "Greetings..."

Bidam & the Larva

Soul Larvae
Meanwhile.. Bidam and Fall From Grace had appeared in a strange realm with no sun. Everything here was gray and white. they were in a forest of dead trees.

A creature approached them from behind a tree. It was a five foot long worm with the face of a man. It was a soul larvae! Bidam used his breath weapon on it, and Fall From Grace finished it off with her sword.

Fall From Grace explained just what a soul larvae was:
  • When an evil person dies, they become a soul larvae. Hags collect them and sell them to demons, devils and liches. The demons and devils love soul larvae, because they can turn them into imps and quasits. To them, soul larvae are "premium" souls that can start off their fiendish career at a higher rank than most other demons and devils.
Fall From Grace flew up in the air to look around. She didn't know what plane they were on, but she spotted a dusty settlement in the distance. They decided to head for it...

Theran & the Shedu

Back in the githyanki city, The group met creatures called "Shedu." They were winged lions with human heads. They despised evil, and sensed goodness in Theran and his apprentice. They gave the heroes a pile of backstory:
  • Four days ago, the city had been attacked by psurlons (worm-creatures). The psurlons killed all the githyanki here and moved on.
  • The spectral hounds were pets of the githyanki. Now they roamed the city in a feral state.
  • There were some githyanki still alive over in the building that contained the Dream Well.
  • Some devils had arrived not long ago and headed for the Dream Well. One of the devils had a big iron book. The players gasped when I said this. They picked up on my idea immediately.
Theran and Selinza thanked the Shedu, and flew over to the building with the Dream Well. They quietly flew over to the entrance and eavesdropped.

This is where I got to introduce my recurring villains! I gave them German accents. Why? Because every time I make a bad guy with a German accent in one of my campaigns, the players love it. Every time!

Here are our recurring villains:
  • Quimath: A kyton (chain devil). He has a book like Theran's, except his is iron. He runs a fortress in Hell called Panos Qytel. The bad guys job is to bring the Iron Shadow all throughout the planes, draining creativity and causing people and places to vanish.
  • Feurina the Hell Hound Whisperer: A warder devil from 4e. Warder devils are females with huge flaming swords and a teleport ability called "Hell's Step." If you remember in Curse of Strahd, there is a vestige known as "Seriach the Hell Hound Whisperer." I thought it sounded cool, so I have made Feurina a disciple of Seriach. She has the ability to speak to and command hell hounds.
She has one hell hound with her...

Hell Hound
In future adventures, they will also bring a gorechain devil with them, which is basically an ogre/chain devil from a 4e book. I'm saving him to use as a surprise.

Theran and Selinza whispered back and forth, and decided to just watch the devils and hoped that they would leave.

While babbling in Infernal/German, Quimath the kyton climbed into the Dream Well and had an experience. After a few minutes, he climbed out and the devils headed for the exit. Theran and Selinza flew to the back of the building, and Theran told Selinza to make herself invisible.

Unfortunately, I rolled a perception and the hell hound smelled Selinza's perfume! Feurina and her dog flew over and spotted Theran. She called "Herr Kyton" over and after a brief discussion, Quimath told her to kill Theran. Quimath left.

Theran cast an ice storm spell which killed the hell hound and enraged Feurina. I had decided hat Feurina's big flaw was that she loved her hell hounds so much that the heroes could use that fact to their advantage.

Selinza flew above Feurina, became visible and started firing off magic missiles cast at a higher level.

Feurina teleported out of the ice storm and appeared next to Theran. Her huge sword burst into flames and she sliced into him. Within a few rounds, she rolled a critical hit and dropped Theran into negatives.

On her very next round, she teleported up to Selinza and rolled another critical! Selinza was down, too!

Feurina was down to just 8 hit points! It was an epic battle that actually works out great as far as making the recurring villains a true menace. The dice told the story on this one.

Bidam & the Hag
Back in the other realm, Bidam and Fall From Grace were traveling through the forest of dead trees. They felt like they were making no progress despite walking for hours.

They came upon a battle. Demon and devil soldiers were clashing. This was a battle of the Blood War, the eternal war between the lawful evil devils and the chaotic evil demons.

Most of the participants were dead. The last two demon spawn adepts killed the last two devils. The devils vanished in a puff of smoke.

This was an opportunity for me to have Fall From Grace explain that when devils were "slain", they simply vanished and reappeared in Hell. The only way to truly kill them is to slay them in Hell.

Bidam and Fall From Grace rushed the demons and killed them. They picked around the battlefield looking for loot, and they realized someone was coming.

It was a hag, leading a herd of soul larva. The heroes hid. Bidam's hag doll sprung to life and made happy noises.

Bidam decided to try to make friends with the hag using the hag doll. It worked. The hag doll has three "children" in her belly. The doll gave one to the hag, who was delighted.

This hag was Jenny Greenteeth, the NPC hag from the Curse of Strahd Adventurer's Guide. The hag agreed to help the group get to the settlement, if they would do favors for her (Jenny Greenteeth has a random chart of favors that I find hilarious). The heroes reluctantly agreed.

Jenny explained that they were in the Gray Waste, an infinite realm that was the embodiment of apathy, hopelessness and despair.

Traveling worked differently here. The heroes would most likely never reach the settlement. In order to truly travel here, you have to not concentrate on your destination. Lack of desire lets you travel ten times faster. The heroes tried it, and began to zoom toward the settlement.

The place has a sign that read: "The Grand Larvae Emporium."
Theran & The Dream Well

Back in the Astral Plane, Theran and Selinza had been left for dead. They were making death saves. They rolled a few. Theran rolled a one! He accrued two failures in a single roll. One more, and he was dead-dead.

Next thing they knew, they were getting mouth-to-mouth by the Shedu. Selinza barfed. The Shedu had saved them.

The group thanked them and proceeded to the Dream Well. The Shedu came along to guard the wounded wizards.

The well was 3 feet high, 12 feet in diameter and made of mortar and stones. It was 7 feet deep and had no water.. instead, a shaft of light rose out of the well. Theran climbed in and connected to the Dream Well, which gave him visions and abilities:
  • Magic Book: Theran's book was enchanted. It could reverse the effects of the Iron Shadow, but doing so drained Theran's life force.
  • Traveler's Ring: Theran learned the magic recipe to create traveler's rings, a magic item that allowed you to cast True Strike on yourself once per day. The players were underwhelmed by this. Hey, I thought it was cool.
  • The Rakshasa: Theran saw Raja Khan's face, and a skull super-imposed over it. Theran thought that meant Raja Khan was dead. Not quite!
  • Dabus: He saw a vision from his own perspective, of him being inside the legendary forbidden Dabus city. This is foreshadowing major stuff that will happen in the next two sessions.
  • Memory Storage: Theran figured out how to give himself a power - the ability to store his memories in a ball of light. He was able to create a "pocket" in the side of his torso to store the sphere and other small things in. This ability was etched into his soul, so even if he died and was reborn as an angel in Celestia, it would still be there. I did not expect my players to point out that Theran had a vagina in his side. They hooted and hollered as I tried to explain that it was not a sex organ of any kind, it was merely an awesome little magic cavity for him to hide stuff.
  • Grazzt: Theran had a vision of the goddess of love, who currently was walking the worlds as a mortal (I established this sessions ago) being wooed by Grazzt, the demon lord. This foreshadows For Duty & Deity, which I will be running for the next few sessions.
  • City Vanishes: Theran saw the Iron Shadow causing a city in the Outlands vanish. This city is Sum of All, and the heroes will be going here in one of the final chapters of the Infinite Staircase.
  • Devil City: Theran saw a brief vision of a city in hell made entirely of Chains. This is Jangling Hiter, the kyton city that is likely to be the setting of the final showdown between the recurring villains and the heroes.
Suddenly, the githyanki city rumbled. Theran heard faint shouting. He snapped out of it and climbed out of the Dream Well. Selinza had been calling for him.

Selinza pointed outside the building. The Iron Shadow was here, and she was godzilla-sized! She loomed over the city and was using her power to make the entire place vanish.

Bidam & The Grand Larvae Emporium

Fall From Grace
Back in the Gray Waste, Bidam and Fall From Grace went to Jenny Greenteeth's home. The favors: Fall From Grace had to give the hag a long, lingering embrace, which was creepy. Bidam was told to fill a container with his saliva.

You can probably guess that Bidam did something really gross to spite the hag. Yes, while the hag was hugging Fall from Grace, Bidam ejaculated into the container. I think it would be funny for the hag to use it in a ritual and have the ritual go wrong somehow. I'll have to mull it over. In fact.. I just had an awesome idea that will probably pop up when I run the hag adventure.

Bidam and Fall From Grace explored the Grand Larvae Emporium, asking around about how to get out of this plane. Everyone they met had been drained by the plane, and were apathetic. They told the heroes that it was hopeless. "What's the point in leaving? Why bother?" The heroes bumped in to a number of minor encounters:
  • "Dead Poolers": Gamblers who bet on Blood War skirmishes. The main bookie had poles on his back that held up big banners.
  • Clue: A group of blood war soldiers walked by, led by a marilith. This is a very subtle clue to something that happens next session.
  • A Hag Grooming a Nightmare: I wanted to associate nightmares with this place, as they will play a big part in my hag adventure. Bidam wanted to steal the nightmare, but backed down from the idea after considering it for a moment.
  • The Halfling: They saw a halfling staring at them. He had color, unlike the other citizens, who were white and gray - drained by the Gray Waste. The group greeted him, and it turned out that he was a mute. He wrote on parchment to communicate. His name was Karagesh.
Risky Business: This halfling is crucially important to next session! I don't want to say more even though I know my players don't read this blog. I feel funny about spoiling it. So much hinged on this guy befriending the party. Thankfully it worked out perfectly.

Karagesh pointed out that the group was being followed!

Barbed Devil
It was true. A barbed devil named Tarnalak was following them. Long ago, Fall From Grace's mother Red Shroud sold her to the devils. For many years Fall From Grace lived in Jangling Hiter, city of the kytons. There, she was an agent of the ruler of the city, Pollus Windmane.

Tarnalak was one of many devils who met Fall from Grace during this time and wanted her as their consort.

Now, Tarnalak saw her in the Gray Waste of all places, and wanted to whisk her away to his home and make her his devil girlfriend or whatever.

Tarnalak greeted her and said some sleazy stuff. Fall From Grace flew into a rage and attacked! Throughout this battle, the halfling Karagesh did things to give the heroes advantage. He slapped a nightmare so that it kicked the barbed devil. He grabbed a banner from a "Dead Pooler" and covered the devil's eyes.

Bidam rolled a natural 20 with his sword of sharpness and the barbed devil got beat up really badly. In just a couple of rounds, he was slain and he vanished in a puff of brimstone.

Bidam loved the halfling and wanted to "keep" him. This is exactly what I had hoped for.

He led them to a portal. It was a giant, spinning translucent coin. To activate it, you needed to use a platinum piece as a portal key.

Bidam had plenty of platinum. The group used the portal to head to the Outlands and from there, they returned to Sigil.

Theran & the Iron Shadow

Back in the astral plane, the Iron Shadow was draining all of the creativity from the githyanki city, causing it to vanish entirely. Theran, Selinza and the Shedu flew for the door to the Infinite Staircase.

I had a series of events planned, but there was a wrinkle. First, the Shedu began to vanish. Theran's book glowed. He could reverse the effects on the Shedu, but he'd have to give up half his hit points. Problem: He had one hit point!

Theran had to make a split decision. He decided to use the book. The Shedu were saved! Theran was unconscious! It was up to his apprentice to get him to safety!

Theran began to vanish. Selinza made some rolls, grabbed him and flew him through the door to the Infinite Staircase. Theran was safe, but one of his magic items had vanished forever - his ioun stone. The truth is that he forgot about it the moment he got it. He has never used it, and I have pointed it out to him more than once. It bothered me so I decided to use this to get rid of it!

Return to Sigil

The adventurers reunited in Sigil and told each other what had happened. Then they took a much-needed rest.

Theran headed to his bedroom in the office building. He realized someone was hiding in his wardrobe. He pulled out his wand of lightning bolts, and it turns out that one of his employees that he messed around with last session was hiding in wait for him.

This was Convivia Kettle, the "Saucy Tart" from the Gary Gygax harlot table. I decided that she really likes Theran and I wanted to see what he'd do. Theran had massive flaming sword wounds, and staggered to his bed. He protested, but Convivia bandaged his wounds and did the Indiana Jones "Where does it hurt" thing and Theran fell asleep. She stayed there with him.

Downtime Carousing

We burned through a bunch of stuff:
  • Paladin Story: I gave the group an opportunity to do something with the 'paladin is destined to have a magic baby' story, but they didn't bite.
  • Fall From Grace Origin: Fall From Grace told the group about her life among the devils, and talked about Panos Qytel, the fortress that is the site of the final adventure in the Infinite Staircase book.
  • Plan is in Motion: Karagesh the halfling made himself useful, cleaning the festhall and doing errands. He went in and re-organized Theran's wizard lab, which I really had my fingers crossed for. Theran was wary but accepted the little fellow. And thus next session is set up and ready to go!
  • Noice, Noice: Chad Menses and Dorpin No-Beard convinced "B-Slice and T-Slice" to party with them in Sylvania. A 4e skill challenge ensued, where the group met some women in Greek togas, fended off a muscly fellow named Testosticles who challenged them to feats of strength (the group mage handed Dorpin's vomit into the poor guy's face) and hooked Chad up with a lady named Romanticania. All of them woke up with a hangover each next to a different lady. Bidam's power kicked in and he gave a metal heart to a woman named Urethragoria.
Next time, I am going to shoehorn an adventure featuring Iggwilv into the set-up for For Duty and Deity and I'm pulling the trigger on the Karagesh the halfling mega-scheme.

Click here for the next chapter.

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