Relating the ongoing adventures of a group of Vikings, the Spitsberg Pirates, as they attempt to plunder a frozen alien ruin on the shore of distant Thule, in the land of the midnight sun.
There was high drama during this game. The party was challenged to a duel by an irate ship captain, a fierce, hulking Viking named Sturla the Berserk Killer, "I will break you", setting up the Rocky Balboa versus Clubber Lang situation when they sent their much smaller fighter out to battle him. We live near Philly, and the Rocky theme is pretty much the local anthem, so of course the boy started humming the Rocky music in the buildup to the big fight, getting some of the adults to join in. The players had a lot of silver coins on the line in side bets, counting on their underdog to pull off a big upset.
But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit - the group was still in the dungeon at the start of the session, ending last week shortly after they defeated the "psionic ghost of the hive mind" and smashing the mummified remains of the alien psion.
The players chose to camp their characters right in that domed structure where they defeated the psionic ghost; one of the henchmen was at zero hit points, so they needed magical healing in the morning (from the PC cleric) to get her back on her feet and moving.
The dome proved to be a secure campground; both the dungeon entrance (down the shaft) and the surface entrance (past a pair of stone "watchers") required orange passkey gems to enter, so the chance of wandering monsters was low.
There were a lot of "toys" to play with in the dome, various pedestals and podiums topped by crystalline structures and beds of lights; the details of all the tinkering, pushing, and prodding are dull to relate, but one of them proved to be quite entertaining - it had a number of colored stones matching the light spectrum - red, orange, yellow, green, etc… up to violet. Touching a stone seemed to open up a two-way communication to similar posts throughout the deeper dungeon levels, giving the players an interesting sneak peek of "things to come" - and in some cases, deeper denizens got a good look at them! Romanoid Praetorians, the Dreaming Hyperborean, the Secret Masters, the Devil Wasps, offspring of the Dark Goddess...there were a few times they had to "change the channel" really quickly when they came to the attention of something really gruesome from the dungeon depths.
I can't emphasize enough how much this opens the door for me to have excursions from the depths as these malign hidden forces send probing search parties to the upper levels. Here are some quotes from one of my favorite TNG episodes expressing my sentiments about the players revealing themselves to the deeper horrors in the undercity:
Q: You are about to move into areas of the galaxy containing wonders more incredible than you can possibly imagine - and terrors to freeze your soul...
Picard: Perhaps what we most needed was a kick in our complacency - to prepare us for what lies ahead... They will be coming.
Guinan: You can bet on it.The next day was the long trip out of the dungeon. They'd been exploring for 5 days, covering a lot of dungeon ground, and leaving a number of hard-to-carry treasures scattered around. So now they spent time tracking down hidden caches and hoping to avoid wandering monsters. A few of the items were gone, perhaps evidence that other adventurers had come along.
Lots of things happened back on the beach when they finally returned to Trade Town. The most exciting thing was being challenged to a duel by that furious captain, Sturla the Berserk Killer, as I foreshadowed in the opening. You have to understand, the group has frequently encountered hostile groups of explorers in the ruins, and many times these meetings end up in brutal combat; when NPC's surrender to the player characters, they make them swear loyalty oaths to the Isgerd's Fury and join the crew. It’s the pirate way! In this manner, they've replaced retainers and lost seamen with capable members from other groups, while making enemies among the other crews. Sturla was one of the captains that had enough.
Sturla got right up in the grill of Agnar, the party leader, calling him a coward and declaring that the men of the Isgerd's Fury had tainted his warrior's honor by stealing members of his war band. Sturla is a striking figure, draped in a raven feather cloak, bristling dark beard, a robust mountain whose fat hides piles of knotty muscles. A crowd had formed from nearby ships and crews, because everyone wants to watch a fight.
Agnar is charismatic and strong himself, and ignored Sturla a bit, playing to the crowd; as the challenged side, he could name his champion and the terms. "We accept your duel, Sturla, but seeing as this whole matter is beneath me, my champion will be him…" and he gestured to Mustafa, the group's scrawny desert warrior. There were gasps from the crowd at the insult, and Sturla was livid that Agnar wouldn't do the fighting. "Furthermore, it will be wooden weapons, to the first knock out - I don't want my man spoiling his blade on your blood".
It was totally on. Mustafa was quickly established as a 3-to-1 underdog, as tough Northmen warriors from some of the nearby ships sized him up, some going so far as pinching his biceps and shaking their heads at the lightweight matching scimitars he favored, over a sturdy axe or heavy broadsword. Sturla was going to crush him.
A formal duel was big news on the strand, and the jarl's men got involved to make sure it would run according to custom, in a large dueling ring outside the town. That evening, the offended parties attended the jarl at his hall, reaffirmed their grievances and intent to fight, and enjoyed the jarls's hospitality. Agnar told some tall tales about the group's exploits in the dungeons, to help unnerve Sturla, who glared from across the hall.
The duel itself happened the next day. Skoldig, a retainer-thief with a fair amount of charisma, was tasked with laying bets on Mustafa amongst the crowd, putting down 500sp of hack silver in various side wagers with other captains. The jarl himself presided, since the first formal duel of the season was a big event and promised rich entertainment for the rowdy crews. Sturla stared across the sandy field at Mustafa from behind his shield and heavy club, who warmed up with a pair of lighter clubs so he could mimic his dual-scimitar fighting style while in the arena.
Ship captains are typically 3rd level fighters, with some of the larger longships commanded by 5th level fighters; Mustafa was only 2nd level. However, he has an 18 dex and really high defense, whereas Sturla was stronger and heavier (higher strength and con, but low dex). It was a classic fight between a faster, lighter, combatant, and a big bruiser with twice the hit points. Sturla strode right out across the arena when the horn was blown, swinging wildly with his heavy club.
Besides his speed, Mustafa's other big advantage was "Bless". We're using the LOTFP rules, and a number of common spells have been changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes not; Bless no longer gives a short term bonus, it gives the blessed person actual points to spend at any point throughout the day. Mustafa had something like 12 bless points stored up, after getting a couple blessings from the clerics, to spend on rolls (saves, attack rolls, that kind of stuff) - the key factor is that the player must decide to spend the points before they make the roll. It’s a neat, strategic take on the Bless spell.
Mustafa was spending a point or two of Bless per round, while using called shots (-4 to hit) to try and knock Sturla in the knee to slow him further; once he laid a good crack on Sturla's knee, he switched tactics to circling and swinging at Sturla's head to improve the chance of a an immediate knockout. After a few rounds of inconclusive fighting, Sturla was only softened a little, and then he landed a crushing blow on Mustafa, taking him from 13 hit points to 3 hit points with a bruising 10 point smack. The next shot would knock Mustafa out cold.
A few of the players put their foreheads on the table at this point. They were about to forfeit 500sp, lose a good retainer, and also become the laughingstock of the camp. It's fine to talk a big game, after all, but you have to be able to back it up.
And here is why you don’t fudge dice in these games, why you roll in the open. Groans escaped from the players when Mustafa lost initiative next round, and the group waited for defeat as I shook the attack dice and tumbled it across the table… only to see Sturla's attack roll (my roll) miss horribly. Mustafa had a chance. The player decided to use all of his remaining Bless-points on one final attack, trying to strike Sturla on the side of the head while he was over-extended from a big swing… everyone leaned in anxiously to watch the player roll… and it was a natural twenty. 20! The bless points weren't even necessary. Double knockout damage from the head shot, and Sturla crumpled to the sand after Mustafa cracked him across the temple with a telling blow that echoed around the stunned dueling circle. The table erupted in cheers.
You just don't get the same sense of immediacy when the DM acts like a puppet master, hiding rolls behind the screen and keeping open the possibility he's ignoring the dice arbitrarily. Let the dice fall, win or lose, and whatever emerges is usually pretty dang interesting. In this case, the legend of Mustafa, the wiry desert man who knocked out the Berserk Killer, was born out of improbable odds in front of an assembled mass of incredulous Vikings. Good for the players.
In addition to tripling their money, the morale amongst the henchmen and retainers was high, and Agnar now had the ear and goodwill of the jarl. The players have been working on a long term project to start a gambling ring on the beach, and now the jarl is willing to provide some muscle and let them give it a try, as long as he gets a piece of the proceeds. "Pig Knuckles" is in business.
Other news in the camp was that a foreign ship had arrived in the same fjord as Trade Town, and rather than beaching near the fort, the foreigners made a remote camp across the sound. Rumor was that they included Byzantine warriors, and Varangian guardsmen from the distant empire. During the council session in the jarl's hall, some voices counseled sending a war party to crush them as interlopers, whereas others called for envoys to open talks and declare the jarl's law. Agnar and the players agreed to be those envoys, further cementing their good name with the local boss, but placing themselves in harm's way on a potentially risky mission confronting a large party of outsiders.
As usual, the game report is getting long, so I'll tell you how the visit with the Byzantines went… next time. After many excellent sessions of play, here is how the party composition now looks - surviving PC's are level 2, and a few of the zero-level men matriculated to level 1 fighters. Players needing new characters introduced some of them in session 11.
Cast of Characters
Agnar Beigarth, a Northman fighter (L2)
Mustafa of Arabia, a scimitar wielding desert warrior (L2)
Brutok the Strong, a dwarf (L2)
Borghild, a Norse cleric of Odin (L2)
Fighting men retainers:
Ayerick the Young (L1)
Bjorn Fjordrunner (L1)
Skoldig (specialist L1)
Brick Bunnybreaker (halfling L1)
Bottvild (cleric L1)
Halam (cleric L1)
Ivar the Bow-bender (specialist L1)
*The picture is Rocky Balboa vs Clubber Lang from Rocky 3, a classic underdog vs big uncouth bruiser - you've got to have the eye of the tiger, brother!