An Empress Betrayed, Episode 3

“The Empress is in danger! She plans on turning over power to a ruling council. One of her entourage would like to see the Empress taken out, and himself on the throne before this happens. But which one? I do not know. They are all suspects…”

One of the most fascinating genres in books, movies, and RPGs is the classic “whodunnit”, or Murder Mystery. The story unfolds as the heroes gather clues, paring down the list of suspects one by one. Finally they confront the perpetrator, where there is always an unexpected twist… As a writer of D&D adventures for 20 years, this one just might be the most involved, most complex storyline of any I’ve created to date…

Last week, we left off with the heroes leaving the Pirate Ship, en route to catch up with a travelling circus. The circus had a one day head start, but is rumbling down the road slowly with all its wagons, carts, and a menagerie of performers who are on foot. The party decides to buy horses in the Village of Mighty Oak, and gallop at full speed down the road. It is only a matter of hours before they catch up with the wagon train…

The PCs approach the lead wagon with hands outstretched, making no threatening gestures. A successful diplomacy check from Delsior gets them a “meeting” with the Chief. A pudgy, greasy man sticks his head out of the curtain. “Yea, wuddaya want?”.

“When you picked up the wild animal cage back in Mighty Oak from our Sailor friends, they forgot to put on his collar! I’ve brought it to you. The customers will be VERY irate if you’ve forgotten this important detail. If we could just see the cage for a moment…” Bluff check. 20 on the die!!!

“Well, we already delivered the cage. We met a man in a hood a gloves back up the trail about a half mile. There’s a path that goes up into the mountains. Big pine tree there too. Can’t miss it. If you hurry, you can catch up… Oh, and by the way, make sure you stay OUT of the graveyard at night. It’s HAUNTED!!!”

The heroes snark at the old Carnie, and ride off at a gallop. Backtracking the way they came a short distance, they find the trail, and the big pine tree, and a broken cage. A group Nature check reveals several sets of footprints going in to the wilderness. After a bit of riding through the woods, the trail becomes a scramble up the rock face, and the group is forced to leave their horses behind. Another hour of climbing and the party reaches a ridge overlooking the road. “If anyone was watching the road, they certainly saw us approach,” Delsior says. Ahead in the distance, a ruined building can be seen, the tracks leading toward it…

Now, dear Reader, the group tries to sneak up on the building, using a group stealth check. (Lowest stealth roll out of all the characters is the result.) Did the warrior in plate mail armor with a +0 to stealth roll the lowest result? No. Delsior the Bard, with his +1, rolls a “1” on the die, for a result of 2. He steps on a stick. CRACK! “Hey guys, WATCH OUT FOR THAT STICK!” He shouts, forgetting to keep his voice down because they are sneaking. Tisk Tisk.

As the group approaches the ruins, arrows begin flying out of the trees. Ambush! The heroes are surprised. (Hmmm, didn’t see that one coming.) Roll Initiative.

1 Level 3 Goblin Underboss, 1 Level 2 Goblin Hex Hurler, 2 Level 1 Goblin SharpShooter Minions, 2 Level 2 Goblin Cutthroat Minions.

DM note: I picked up the “Haunted Temples” mapset published by Wizards of the Coast at my Friendly Neighborhood Gaming Store, Total Escape Games, in Broomfield, CO. I used the temple map with the graveyard for this encounter…

After making short work of the minions, the party takes its time dispatching the wizard and the boss. They get dangerously low on HP, and have to use up Delsior’s “Skald’s Aura” healing almost right away. All characters use their second wind during the encounter, as Valcora even drinks her one and only healing potion. All the characters used up their complete array of Encounter Powers, and were down to only at-wills toward the end. Afton decided to save her Daily spell just in case she needs it later… The party surrounds the goblin boss, and once he is bloodied, Valcora holds her sword above her head and shouts SURRENDER! The goblin cowers and her mighty words, drops his axe, and throws up his hands. (Successful Intimidate check.) The party is victorious, but got VERY close to being completely wiped out.

The goblin apparently does not speak Common. And none of the party speak Goblin. “How many Goblins are there? How many inside?” Valcora says over and over. After some creative sign language, the boss holds up seven fingers. “Great.” Valcora rolls her eyes. “We fought six goblins. There is a seventh out there somewhere…”

After tying up the Goblin Boss, they enter the temple. A sigh of relief rolls through the PCs as they see a human in expensive clothing tied up and gagged. The Ambassador, Cedric Quillistan! Quickly, Delsior pulls off his gag and cuts his ropes. “Boy, am I glad to see you!” he exclaims. “Did the Empress send you to rescue me?”

The heroes explain the they are indeed on a mission for the Empress herself, and that they are to escort the Ambassador personally to the safety of the Sarpadian Capitol. He seems relieved and exhausted, his ordeal finally over. He explains that he knows almost nothing about his kidnappers. They nabbed him as he was travelling through Ultair, handed him off to the Pirates, who then handed him off to the circus, who then handed him off to the goblins. It seems that whoever is behind the kidnapping doesn’t want to get their hands dirty, as they have not shown their face yet. They have only hired lackeys and goons to do their bidding. He says that he understands only a few words of the goblin language, but he is certain that they said “Treasure Room” as they walked up and down a dark and malodorous flight of stairs. He points to theĀ  corner, where a descending staircase can be seen and smelled.

“We must warn the Empress immediately!” the Ambassador says. “There is a traitor in her midst, one of her advisors. Her life is in danger. She has no husband and no children. If she were to die, rule of the Empire would pass to one of her entourage. One of those four would be the new Emperor.” He takes a deep breath. “But that’s not all. The Empress plans on stepping down and giving away the rule of the land to a council. She plans on doing this at the harvest festival in three months. If a traitor strikes before then, he could become the new Emperor, and the dream of a land ruled by a council will die with the Empress. We have to find the traitor and expose him! There is only one person we can trust. And that is my contact, who delivered messages back and forth from me to the Empress. I trust him completely, though I do not know his true identity. He always appeared to me wearing the mask of a Brown Fox.”

The party takes a deep breath as they take in the gravity of the situation. They excuse themselves, and move into the corner of the room and talk amongst themselves in low voices. They decided that it would be wise to ask the Ambassador for the secret message that he is to deliver to the Empress’ ears. The PCs then approach Cedric.

The heroes tell the Ambassador that they would like the secret message revealed to them, just in case something happens to Cedric. At first, he refuses. He tells them that they would have to know the secret code word, that only he, the Empress, and his contact know. Then Delsior, mustering a serious look, gazes deeply into the eyes of the Ambassador. “Mayonaise.” The Ambassador looks stunned, then shakes his head, smiling.

“You are indeed in the good graces of the Empress. Here is the message:”

The Silver Eagle will be struck down by a Wooden Song, when he steps twice with his left foot.

The heroes look at each other in confusion. “That makes no sense!” Afton cries. “What does it mean?” Cedric says that he does not know the answer to the riddle, but he heard the message as he was eavesdropping on the unknown conspirator. The ambassador scratches his chin, furrows his brow, and admits that he thinks the Wooden Song could refer to an ancient legend in poetic form. The verse speaks about an orchestra of string players, dealing death to their enemies through a song. But the music coming from the strings is not a song played by fiddles or lutes, but by bowstrings. The ‘Wooden Song’ referred to in the poem are the sound of bow strings…

“Let’s check out this ‘Treasure Room’,” Afton says. The party mulls it over and then votes on it. Of course, Valcora, being a Knight, is not interested in treasure, as it distracts from her immediate priority of getting the Ambassador to safety. Bonus experience points for playing your Alignment! The group decides NOT to go down the dark and fetid staircase, but instead to high-tail it back to the Capitol without hesitation.

That’s where this weeks episode will end (cue sound track: aaawwwwwwww). But tune in next week, as the brave heroes leave the ruins and enter the graveyard. (You ask: the haunted one?) Yep. That one.

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An Empress Betrayed, Episode 2

“The companions approached two dockhands in the midst of loading crates onto a ship. After Valcora made some small talk about the sunny weather, the sea dogs grumbled something about rain tomarrow. The pair continued their labor, paying little attention to the newcomers. “I hear a storm is brewing tonight,” she said in a serious tone. “Do you know where we can seek shelter?” The two workers almost dropped the load they were carrying, and turned to gape at the dragonborn, their jaws dropped and their eyes wide. “I think you should talk to the Captain. Follow me…”

In our last Episode, the Empress herself charged our group of three stout heroes to find the kidnapped Ambassador. They are to find him in the lair of an anarchist group who seeks to separate themselves from the Empire. But who do they really represent? The Ultairians? The Elves? The Gnomes? And what is this secret that the Ambassador was in such a hurry to deliver to the Empress?

The three companions weigh their options. They could travel to the forests of Ultair, where the Ambassador was last seen. Perhaps there was a witness to his kidnapping. They could travel to the mapmaking sage, and seek out any ancient caves, ruins, or hideouts in the Grey Mountains. Or they could travel blindly into the Grey Mountains, and without any clues or information, hope to luckily stumble into the lap of the cultists. Of course, they chose the later.

The Royal Wizard agrees to teleport the trio to a Cathedral of Light in the Grey Mountains, since there just happens to be a magic circle still active there. There is no one to greet the PCs, as the temple has been abandoned decades ago. Oh well, at least no one saw the group enter town, so they’ve got the element of surprise on their side…

The group walks in to the local tavern, the Blind Pig Inn. A Dwarf jumps up onto a table and shouts; “I need a hearty band of adventurers for a quest!” No, wait, that’s the wrong story. Let me start over:

The group walks in to the local tavern, the Blind Pig Inn. Can you smell a Skill-Challenge coming on?After using some Streetwise, Insight, Intimidation, Perception, and Bluff, the party passes themselves off as sympathizers to the rebellion. Valuable information is gathered about the local magic shop owner, and a curious verbal code about the weather is revealed.

Wait. Hold the story. How does a Knight of Sarpadia in red plate mail armor bearing the symbol of the Empire fool the townfolk into believing that she is indeed a rebel sympathizer? She put on a non-descript, baggy grey robe, that’s how!

Anyways, the trio heads off to the local magic shop where some more successful Diplomacy (lying) by Delsior gets the owner to reveal that “Its the docks where you may find what you are looking for…”

And so, as the companions walk down to the docks, they happen upon two scurvy sea dogs loading boxes onto a boat. They strike up a conversation with some small talk. Then the subject quickly turns to hatred of the Empire, the blasted Empress, yada yada yada, and soon the sailors are nodding in agreement. Then Valcora turns the conversation to the weather, and everything changes. The pirates suddenly look afraid of the companions (or afraid in general) and they insist on taking the group to see the Captain.

The Captain. He doesn’t beat around the bush. “So these are the annoying newcomers that walk into our local watering hole asking too many questions. Boys, let’s do to them what we did to that stinkin’ Ambassador! Lock ’em up in the lion’s cage!”

Roll initiative. The dice gods were cruel, cruel hosts to our heroes this evening, as the tank of the party rolls a “1” on the die. Afton rolls a “3”, and Delsior gets a “4”. It can’t get much worse.

DM Note: for this encounter, I used One Level 3 Pirate Captain, One Level 2 Githanki Sky Pirate (First Mate), and 4 Level 1 Human Pirate Minions. The deck of the ship also contained a 2×2 terrain feature: bars. Walking across the bars requires an Acrobatics check of 15, or the creature falls prone. The pirates can open the bars with a standard action, and then try to push the PCs into the cage. The pirates can then shut the door to the cage as a standard action, trapping the PC within…

And so, dear readers, suffice it to say that the party was victorious, and is learning to work as a team. Valcora toasted two pirates the first round with her dragon breath, and Afton zapped the other two with a lighting bolt. Delsior didn’t hit any of the pirates even once throughout the entire encounter, but his Bard’s Aura came in handy for a couple heals.

And so, fast forward to the Pirate Captain’s footlocker, where the PCs find an order for delivery of one “wild animal” in a cage. The travelling circus apparently picked up the wooden cage from the docks, and is delivering it to an abandoned temple in the Grey Mountains. Tune in next week when the party follows this circus train, and wanders into the Temple of Anarchy! Mwah ha ha haaaa!

An Empress Betrayed, Episode 1

“The companions returned to the Throne Room, victorious in their mission to free the Emissary of Ultair. Her Majesty stood stoically, facing the party with unblinking eyes. Wondering why the Empress was so still, they approached cautiously. Before them was poised a statue in the perfect likeness of Brelia. Her face was frozen in a pleading gaze, her hands raised as if to shield a bright light. To their horror, they suddenly realized that in their absence, the Empress had been turned to stone…”

The first meeting of the companions is tonight, in beautiful Longmont, CO. In the group so far, we have three Level 1 characters:

Valcora – a Dragonborn Cavalier, played by Angela

Afton – an Elven Mage, played by Shasta

Delsior – a Satyr Bard, played by Andy

As a child, Valcora disobeyed the direct orders of her parents, and ran into a burning building to save her two brothers. Unfortunately, she could carry only one of them, and had to leave the other behind. Upon exiting the collapsing home, her mother gave her the ring off her finger, saying “No matter what happens, make certain that you bring this ring to Master Simon.” Her mother then ran into the flames to rescue her still trapped son – but neither emerged. To this day, the brother she saved is bitter toward Valcora, as if it was her fault that they lost both a brother and a mother.

Years later, Valcora is in the Young Cavaliers program, learning about military discipline and defending the Empire of Sarpadia. During this time she takes an oath to obey every order she is given by her superiors. One evening, as she is walking past the alchemist’s tent, he commands her to enter. “Drink this!” her orders, handing her a green, frothy potion. Obeying the order, she drinks it without hesitation. The liquid burns her mouth and throat, as well as the inside of her skull, and the back of her eyes. Lightning shoots upward from the ground, and scars her with a purple streak from the bottom of her right ear, down her throat, and across to her left armpit. She is now spell-scarred for life. Sometimes the purple streak glows with a ghoulish light when she gets angry, or when she is in the midst of battle, but she does her best to hide it beneath her collar…

Later in her teenage years, Valcora is constantly teased by her rival, Xanth. He is a handsome human Cavalier, who pokes fun at her spell-scar and constantly tries to embarrass her. During a parade, she finds herself in several situations where she could push him in to a mud puddle, or embarrass him in a speech at an awards ceremony. She elects to do neither, taking the high road of honoring fellow knights. Upon graduation from the academy, Xanth pulls her aside and commends her on holding back, and a delicate truce is declared between the two as they both attempt to move up the ranks as Knights…

As Valcora takes her first assignment as a knight, her father dies of old age. Being a Knight himself, and having served decades faithfully for the Empire, the Dutchess of the Grey Mountains commissions a statue in his honor, to be built on the burned out ruins of the family home. The land is cleared, but before the project can get started, Valcora decides to take the budget for the project and give it to poor hungry children instead. Cleric Peltanis visits Valcora personally, and thanks her for the donation. It is more money than his charity has seen for three decades! He promises Valcora “If you ever find yourself in need of a favor from the Brotherhood of Light, name it, and I will see that it is yours.”

Spirits high, Valcora walks the streets of the capital city as a celebrity. Roses pelt her from every direction, and dirty children and street urchins jostle for a touch of her cape. But the reverie is shattered as she passes her old home where the statue was meant to be – a merchant named Jardan is now building there, having bought the land from the Dutchess for ONE GOLD PIECE! Angered by court politics, she demands to know how her family’s land can be sold off for pocket change, but she is dismissed by a wave of Jardan’s hand. “Finders keepers, loosers weepers! You should have kept it, you fool! But now its mine and there’s nothing you can do about it!” he says with a crooked grin.

And now, dear reader, the childhood of Afton the Elven Mage. When she was 8 years old, a band of High Elves came to conscript her father into the Army. Rather than hide in a tree trunk with her mother, Afton jumps out and tries to fight off the brigade single-handedly. The captain of this Elven unit has his eyebrows singed bu Afton’s child-sized fireball, and is impressed. He decides to conscript her as well.

The Army gathers to fight a huge dragon, a nightmarish beast of both red and black scales. The Army is decimated in minutes, and Afton’s magic bounces off the wyrm’s skin harmlessly. The dragon’s tail swipes through the ancient oaks like tissue paper, and Afton and one other child from her village are buried beneath the timbers. When the smoke clears, Afton and Lagor are the only two survivors.

After living in a Wild Elf village for several years, Afton comes across a gruesome scene in the forest. A human caravan has been destroyed, all of its members slain. All valuables have been picked clean by some unknown thief, but Afton finds a magic wand of unspeakable power among the rubble. Instead of keeping it, she travels to the nearest human town to try to find its rightful owner. She eventually finds him; she gives the wand to Allbright the Ancient, a wizard of enormous power. Impressed by her selflessness, he takes her on as an apprentice. After years of tutelige, he tells her that he’s taught her all he can, and encourages her to make her own way in the world. Allbright promises to remain her staunch ally.

As Afton travels to the Sarpadian capital to participate in the tournament, she finds herself in a tavern. Overhearing the local’s conversation, she is flabbergasted: she hears the name of her father mentioned! Not only alive, but a famous dragonslayer? Although she did not find his body after the dragon attack all those years ago, she assumed he was dead just like all the rest of the Elves. But these townsfolk speak of him in fear, as they are afraid of his ‘dark magic’. After asking for a bit more information from the townies, they begin to get curious. “Why do you want to know?” they ask. Afton elects not to tell anyone her true identity until she can find out more about this “DragonLord”…

The adventure begins with an Arena Battle, where the Empress chooses this season’s champions. If any of the PCs are victorious in defeating another level 1 adventurer (with one magic item), that PC will gain experience points and that magic item.

DM Note: each character starts by roleplaying a backstory, which will have a major story event at the end of level 10, as well as the end of level 20. The story will conclude with a major battle and story hook at the end of level 29. In other words, when the character is created, the DM already has a plan for major events in the character’s career, and eventual success in their life’s major quest…

The Empress then called on her new champions. She described a sticky situation that needs a brave group of heroes to solve. A Sarpadian ambassador was kidnapped, and is held for ransom. The group claiming responsibility is a sect of anarchists, intent on bringing down the Empress’ rule. What’s worse, the Ambassador had some important and secret news he was bringing back for the Empress’ ears only. The party is to save the Ambassador if possible, but more importantly, get the top secret information and bring it back as soon as possible.

Next week: the party travels to the Forests of Ultair (where the Ambassador was last seen) to gather clues. Ultair is one of the Brother Kingdoms. It used to be one Kingdom, but when the king died, the twin brothers split the land down the middle and created two kingdoms…

5th Edition???

Everyone is buzzing about the possibilities of 5th edition. What’s it going to be like? Well, this old school gamer has one single suggestion, and only one.

Gone are the days when a newcomer to the game can pick up a blank character sheet and a pencil and literally “draw up” a character. Playing 4th edition means using the computerized character builder. No one plays from a character sheet they’ve filled out with a pencil.

Oh, the goblin chieftan took your armor and magic sword? What’s your armor class now? What’s your bonus to attack? Hang on, let me log in to Wizards.com. Uncheck a few boxes. Hit preview. Now I’ve got it!

If you need a computer to play the basic game, it is a huge, gaping flaw in the mechanics. Yes, I understand that having that convenience makes it easier and faster sometimes, but we’ve gone beyond that into RELYING on the computer generated sheets to play. Many DMs at Wednesday night encounters I’ve been to won’t let you play UNLESS you have a printout from the online character builder.

My suggestion is this: make the game mechanics and character sheet simple enough to let any player with a pencil create their character on paper AGAIN, and play the game without the use of the online aids, if they choose to do so…

Oh, and I almost forgot. Where along the line did role playing get removed from this role playing game?