13 October 2007

Bymill (I) - Wagon Woes

In my view, dungeon mastering involves walking a fine line. On the one hand, there are the “shit happens” DMs, who craft a story and base their “myth arc” dungeons and various random encounters on the preplanned story line, with the result that encounters are determined by the broader world and the plot rather than an exquisitely-crafted near-Party level EL. These DMs tend to let the story dictate the encounters, and let the chips fall where they may. This may result in a high-level party plowing through a batch of starving, one-legged orcs; or it may lead them into a totally inappropriate Ancient Green Wyrm’s convention.

On the other side, of course, are rules-mongering nimrods who design every last encounter to within an angstrom of perfection, make the PCs roll Diplomacy checks when renting a room, Will saves to avoid cowering under the blankets during a thunderstorm, and Balance checks while walking on an uneven sidewalk. In THESE worlds, the ELs are so carefully crafted that the PCs always know that no matter HOW scary the dungeon looks, they always have a precisely-calculated 50/50 shot at defeating whatever’s inside and walking away with level-appropriate loot.

Trying to hit the mid-point between these two extremes can be fun, because even with a bevy of lower-level foes, you can still serve up a little learning. Role-playing and tactics are the heart and soul of this game, so it’s always more interesting when the PCs run afoul of life due to their own choices than due to the random fall of the dice (or to the blood lust of a hate-crazed DM who thinks that EL stands for "Exterminate Losers").

Bad things do happen to good people, of course – but they are more likely to happen when good people make bad decisions. Joraz’s player has been taking a lot of flak from the rest of us for the quixotic behaviour that led to his untimely demise, but everybody makes a bad call every now and then. I think it’s even more fun when the bad call results from role-playing that is one hundred percent in character. I like to use the phrase “stupid ought to hurt”, but stupidity isn’t always necessary; sometimes nature is enough. There’s nothing like tripping up a PC by appealing to his better angels, and even after a few short sessions, you can get enough of a feel for how a Player RP’s his PC to be able to set him up for a fall.

That’s how I nailed Bjorn.

* * * * *

When last we left our intrepid band of adventurers, they had just parted company with Apstrasys, the Wilder Elven Ranger whom they had healed, and in whose company they had taken on and defeated an enormous, diseased Dire Bear, as well as the nine feet of moaning nastiness that had been possessing it – a Pain Devil, one of the Meindraugrin, a fiendish creature of the Dark. The PCs found a few tasty morsels scattered throughout the pus-drenched foulness of the bear’s cave, then returned to their wagon and horses, waved farewell to the Wilder Elf (because nobody spoke her Sylvan tongue), mounted up, and hied them onwards to the promised delights of Bymill. They reached the town after a few hours easy riding, under a bright, cloudless sky, early in the afternoon of 16 Lastreap.

Now for a little exposition:

The Sweetvale River valley is a glacial spillway, a deep gorge averaging 60’-100’ deep below the “uplands” to the North and South of the vale. In most places the valley is less than half a mile wide, but at Bymill, it broadens out to nearly a mile. The surrounding terrain consists of rolling hills and dense mixed forests, most of it virgin, gradually trending higher and rougher towards the Dragonspine Mountains another eight or nine leagues further west.

Bymill is a relatively young town, and it shows. Originally a central collecting point for the surrounding farming settlements, it has retained that role; there are hundreds of small farmsteads on the Uplands to the North and South, all located within 10 miles of the town. The town proper snuggles tightly into the river valley, filling it from the south to the north side, more or less following the River Road. At the east end of town, a heavy stone bridge traverses the Sweetvale River, giving access to the newer buildings on its southern bank. There is a large market square where the River Road, flanked on both sides by tightly-packed three-story buildings, runs through the centre of town. To the North of the square is an enormous, fortified stone manor house, and immediately beyond that, an imposing cathedral marked by a massive tower, which stands against the northern cliff. The upper reaches of the tower are crenelated like those of a fortress, and ravens circle and wheel around them – a sure sign that this is one of the Halls of the Allfather.

South of the river the buildings are sparser; but it is easy to see the dam and water-chutes leading down to the enormous mill after which the town is named. A little southwest of the mill, further back on the Uplands, there is a small keep; and beyond that, another imposing manor house, partially concealed by trees. There are a few differences between the two banks of the river; the north side looks older, well-worn, and most of the buildings are of stone or half-timber construction, whereas the south side looks newer, with brick buildings as often as stone. Interesting.

Bymill is a bustling town; the streets are filled with passersby, many of them pulling handcarts. Horse- and ox-carts abound, filled with agricultural products and finished goods. Here and there, houses and even brick and stone buildings are being repaired, and new ones are going up. The townsfolk, in general, seem chipper, well-dressed, clean and busy. There’s a lot of activity, and the market square seems busier than you would expect of an afternoon. Then you remember: the Harvest Festival takes place tomorrow, a rite lost in the ancient years of the Yonarri settlers who colonized most of Erutrei, leaving the roots of their language and the rudiments of their faith behind. All Sons of Esu celebrate the Festival, from east to west, and from north to south; there will be fair food, ale and games; bright clothing, goods to buy, songs to be sung, and pretty girls to be kissed. Something to look forward to.

Things seem pretty cosmopolitan in Bymill; there are more than a few Elves, Dwarves and Halflings scattered through the crowds, and even a few Half-Orcs can be seen here and there. Clothing styles include outrageously modern fashions, and some folk appear to be wearing elaborate hats, shoes and jewellery. Obviously there is a lot of money flowing through Bymill.

(Exposition off)
The Party’s pace slowed to a crawl as they rode into Bymill’s bustling streets. Although cobbled, the roads were still somewhat uneven, and the wagon shook and jostled as Bjorn tried to avoid pedestrians, peddlers, horsemen, pig-drovers and a tinker pulling a jangling handcart overflowing with pots, pans and tools. Breygon, his nose burning and eyes watering from the unaccustomed concentration of charcoal and wood smoke, coughed slightly, and raised his voice to be heard over the tumult. “Any idea where we’re going?” he shouted.

Bjorn shrugged. “I’m taking our passenger to the Great Hall,” he said, nodding at the recumbent form of Ankallys, who lay blanket-wrapped in the wagon bed, staring at the sky with vacant eyes. “The sooner we see to her, the sooner we can expect some answers. Why don’t you see to quarters?”

Breygon turned to Gwen and Lyra. “Can you handle that?” he said. “I’m like to go with Bjorn and meet this ‘Father Hardfist’.”

“No problem,” Lyra answered.

“Olgin mentioned a couple of places just off the town common,” Gwen shouted. “We’ll try them first. If we can’t find anything, we’ll meet you at the temple.”

“Well enough,” Breygon acknowledged. He turned his horse’s head to follow the wagon, which Bjorn was attempting to wrestle through the insane bustle of the town square.

Gwen, Lyra and Joraz found a pair of large, imposing inns just off the square, fronting on the River Road. The first one they tried – the Iron Caravel Inn – featured a large dining and drinking hall, but did not have much in the way of accommodation. They had better luck a little further along; the Stag’s Head Tavern was ideally suited to them. For the princely sum of 20 gold per night, they were able to rent the Traveller’s Suite on the inn’s second story: six single rooms off a large dining and living room, with its own back entrance and stairway leading down to the riverbank – and with meals included.
“That should make Bjorn happy,” Lyra murmured.

On the north side of the square, Bjorn and Breygon parked the wagon outside the entrance to the massive and imposing Great Hall of the Allfather. From close up, it looked even bigger – particularly the tower, built of close-set granite blocks, which seemed to lean out over those standing at its foot. “Just like home,” Bjorn said happily, throwing the catatonic Ankallys over one shoulder. “Follow me.”

The pair were welcomed profusely and, having introduced themselves and explained their mission, were conducted into the presence of Haugulf Hardfist, Cleric of Esu, and Prelate of Bymill. Hardfist was as imposing as his temple’s tower – a tall, strongly-built man with waist-length braids and a vast, unruly beard. He welcomed Bjorn like a long-lost son, and was duly courteous to Breygon (whom he recognized at once as a follower of Larranel). He gave Ankallys a quick once-over and recognized her problem immediately: her mental faculties had been entirely drained by her contact with the foul and deathless denizens of the Aether. Without demur, he agreed to restore her mind that very evening.

“But I’ll ask you to be present to lend me your assistance, young Bjorn,” he added gravely.

Surprised but flattered, Bjorn agreed. “Be here at moonrise,” Hardfist ordered. Bjorn thanked the Prelate profusely, and turned to leave.
As Bjorn returned to the wagon, Breygon caught Hardfist’s ear, explained his own predicament, and made a request. Hardfist listened impassively, then told Breygon that he would undertake that rite at moonrise the following evening – but that he would be asking a service of the Ranger in return for his aid. Breygon agreed with a nod, then rejoined his comrade outside.
The pair found the Stag’s Head without difficulty (one corner of the building was, in fact, visible across the town square from the Great Hall), and were delighted by the quarters that the ladies had arranged. Bjorn suggested delicately that, after the morning’s activities at the bear’s cave, the first order of business might be to squeeze in a bath before dinner. Inquiring at the front desk, he determined that there was, in fact, a large and luxurious public bath house in Bymill, and suggested a visit en masse, looking forward to a good soak. The remainder of the Party agreed, and they all mounted up, Bjorn driving the wagon, so as not to leave it, and it’s enormous cargo of silver bars, sundry coinage, and magic items, unattended.
The bath-house lay among a cluster of newer buildings at the west end of Bymill, south and west of the Great Hall, and not too far from the town square. It was one of the newer structures, with lower walls of stone, and upper walls of an artistic mixture of stone and grey brick. The roof was of slate rather than thatch, and enormous chimneys pumped vast quantities of shimmering heat and smoke into the sky. But there was one hitch: no valet parking.
The adventurers looked at each other for a few moments, until at last Bjorn sighed. “I had a bath two days ago,” he said mournfully. “You go ahead; I’ll wait.” His colleagues were happy to take full advantage of his generosity.
While the other four splashed happily in the (segregated) soaking tubs and strigiliae (scraping of the oiled skin with a brass strigil, an Ekhani custom that had made its way to Zare, and that Breygon found extremely peculiar), Bjorn sat glumly on the buckboard, his mood swinging between grumpiness at the fact that he was stuck outside, and grumpiness at the fact that he was grumpy because he was missing out on a bath. “I’m going soft,” he murmured to himself. “What would my father think of me? ‘A bath when you’re birthed, and another when you’re laid out, will see thee into the Endless Hall’. Hah!”
He was still meandering in thought when one of the town’s commoners bolted past, panting and sweating profusely, and yelling, “Help me! Help!” in a terrified voice. Before he could so much as jump up, three other men, armed with cudgels, came chasing after the first man.
Bjorn snarled, his lip curling behind his beard; one of the pursuers was a half-orc. Clambering back over the cargo, he untied his horse’s bridle from the tail-post of the wagon, leapt into the saddle, unlimbered his hammer, and went pounding after the running quartet.
As he came out of the alley beside the bath-house, he saw the pursuers disappear down another side-street, and dug his heel’s into Sleipnir’s flanks. Hooves sliding on the damp cobbles, the great beast turned the corner, and then another, and then another, until Bjorn reined him in sharply.
There they were, a few paces down a fourth alley, clustered into a barrel-jumbled nook behind what smelled like a tannery. The three thugs had the fourth man at bay, his back to the tannery’s wall; and as Bjorn leapt from his saddle, he saw the half-orc fetch his quarry a vicious thump to the stomach with his cudgel.
The priest stepped up behind the half-orc’s two accomplices and gave each a gentle tap with his hammer. One of them went down immediately; the other required a second tap. This gave the half-orc the opportunity he needed – and he ran for it. Really, REALLY fast. Bjorn contemplated chasing him, but decided to check on the fallen victim first.
The man was shaken, but not badly injured; Bjorn muttered a brief prayer to the Allfather and healed the fellow’s wounds. In gratitude for his rescue, the man stammered out his thanks, along with an incoherent story about owing gild to the half-orc, monies that he had borrowed to purchase medicines for his sick wife.
Bjorn gave the fellow a stern lecture about the unwisdom of having financial dealings with unsavoury characters, and gave him a handful of coins from his own purse. The fellow teared up, thanked the priest profusely, and stumbled away.
Satisfied at having done a good deed, Bjorn jammed his hammer back into his belt, climbed back into Sleipnir’s saddle, and rode quickly back to the bath-house. And then he started cursing.
The wagon was gone.
* * * * *
The look on Bjorn's player's face was all the reward I'll ever need. It didn't quite make up for the time when (in a different campaign) they killed my boss demon by throwing an Alchemist's Fire down its throat with rolls of 20, 20 and 19 - but it came close.