Retirement?

To game-mastering, not the blog (although given the track record of how often this page has been updated, maybe that’s not a bad idea either)

Anyway, the last tabletop game I ran was about 8 months ago.  That’s a fairly substantial drought.  There hasn’t been any clamoring for a new game either.  The last game I ran also had perhaps the finest moment a game master can ever hope for.  Rather than attempt to top that moment, why not go out on a high note?

So, that story should probably be told…  I’ve written some of the details in this post here but that’s just a general overview of what went on.  The full story of Star Wars d20 campaign and the subsequent Fate of the Galaxy would take too long to recap but I can relate the proudest moment with sufficient detail to not be overbearing.

The Star Wars game is definitely the longest game I’ve ever ran and been a part of, starting in late 2010 or early 2011.  This is impressive, considering the game itself is pretty terrible.  There’s some interesting ideas (Force skills draining vitality and tying some of the more Force abilities to feats) but for a d20 game, it lacks the complexity to solve problems that D&D offers.  It also went through a revision and got phased out in favor of SAGA within about 6 years, so the game lacks the depth of the West End Games version.

If there’s trouble conceptualizing this image, think Dragon Ball GT with the terribleness of it replaced with the space fantasy of Spelljammer.  Keep Dragon Ball since the player’s home planet was the Earth from Dragon Ball and the entire first arc of the story was to keep The Empire from finding the wish-granting artifacts.  Dragon Ball Earth was the result of trying to find a good home planet for the PCs, since single-biome planets are lazy and I wanted something that would resemble a home to the galaxy’s multitude of creatures.  Dragon Ball had humans living alongside animal people, so why not use the Earth as a template?

This is all window-dressing for the events of the story, which stayed true to canon (since the galaxy’s a big place and all) until the timeline of Return of the Jedi.  While Gary Kurtz’s ideas were never fully implemented, they did influence the story and allow the PCs to take up the role of being the galaxy’s greatest heroes.

“We had an outline and George changed everything in it, “Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”

The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it.

Kurtz said that ending would have been a more emotionally nuanced finale to an epic adventure than the forest celebration of the Ewoks that essentially ended the trilogy with a teddy-bear luau.

He was especially disdainful of the Lucas idea of a second Death Star, which he felt would be too derivative of the 1977 film. “So we agreed that I should probably leave.”

With Han Solo dead and the other principals (Luke and Leia) slated to live, we need new people to take part in the finale.  Enter the PCs:  Jedi Master Jace Beleren (fresh off being resurrected with the Dragon Balls after his death at the hands of his Imperial nemesis), General Carmine (elite Rebel commando with powered armor that would make Tony Stark envious), Jedi Knight Carmine (the Carmine family being incredibly numerous, the player having at least 5 unique character sheets at one point) and Crime Lord Spice (the galaxy’s most prominent criminal who’s not in this fight for the revolution but so that his criminal activities can be legitimized in the new galactic order).

Now, a criminal mastermind sticks out in comparison to the other two.  However, Spice wasn’t a Hutt (so he doesn’t have some understanding with The Empire) and was the guy who came out of the Jabba power vacuum victorious.  I also figured in a galaxy as big as Star Wars, the Rebels wouldn’t be the united good guy front they are in the movies.  There’s be people who’d think Mon Mothma’s methods were too tame and they’d need to wage total war against The Empire (as opposed to just hitting military targets).  It also makes sense for Imperial propaganda to have any effect, there would need to be some Rebels who give the others a bad name.

Despite his vast resources, Spice was so addicted to his namesake drug that his physical body had withered to the point he needed to be “more machine than man” to survive.  The player really wanted nanites, which I ruled would give him vitality point regeneration (since that’s how they work in a d20 modern supplement).  The person who built these nanites and implemented them into what was left of Spice’s body was renowned mad scientist Dr. Kochin (the same one who had survived the events of The World’s Strongest).

As a mad scientist, Kochin’s creations had a very strong boom or bust effect.  When they worked, they were among the best in the galaxy.  If they failed, well, the results would be catastrophic.  Kochin had a very good working relationship with the Carmines, having designed the majority of that player’s armament.  The power armor, for instance, was capable of flight on par with an X-Wing (so it had a hyperdrive built in) and was the most durable piece of work in the galaxy…unless the player rolled a critical failure, than it would enter a meltdown that would result in either the power source being ejected (rendering the armor unusable and the player stuck until he somehow got out of the armor) or a massive explosion on par with multiple thermal detonators.  Despite their knowledge of Kochin, Jace and the Carmines never warned Crime Lord Spice that what he was having integrated into his body might be incredibly dangerous.

At the time, none of them know how dangerous.  In fiction, nanotechnology just does whatever the hell the writer wants and how it works isn’t exactly explained (if at all).  Now, one of my favorite things about gamemastering is deconstructing and exploring tropes.  So, nanotech in Star Wars works kinda like everything else does in that universe:  through the will of the Force.  Spice’s nanites fed off the Force itself, a pretty sweet deal since the Force is an omnipresent energy field binding all living things in the galaxy together.  As with all Kochin creations, there’s a rub:  Upon the death of the host body, the nanites continue to replicate.  Indefinitely.  This leads to the grey goo scenario, where the entire galaxy is consumed by nanites.

Kochin knew about this possible outcome but didn’t share it because he’s a mad scientist who figured the grey goo outcome and extinguishing of all life in the galaxy was preferable to the tyranny of The Empire.  Conveniently for him, Spice was a Force user who had neglected his abilities to pursue a life of crime (the final d20 session had the characters at either level 15 or 16 and to get all 10 levels of the Crime Lord prestige class, Spice had to multiclass as a Jedi Consular/Noble).  Kochin figured either the Rebels win the day through battle or via Spice triggering a nanite storm upon his death (highly possible considering he was in the same location as some of the most powerful Force users in the galaxy).

So, after the Battle of Kashyyyk when the players learned Kochin’s fleet left suddenly during a point where the fight was in favor of the Imperials, the players were completely baffled.  Jace and the Carmines wrote it off as simply Kochin being a wacky, weird mad scientist but Spice treated it as military desertion.  Spice would spend the next five years devoting all available resources to finding Dr. Kochin.  When Spice located Kochin, he declared martial law over the planet for the time it took to capture him, severely disrupting a Republic diplomatic mission.  Kochin was then executed after a show trial.

A drug-addicted crime lord is never entirely sane but the stress of locating Kochin, ruling a criminal empire and pouring resources into the creation of a virtual reality to replace the galaxy everyone lives in eventually wore on the guy.  Spice would go into bouts of insanity where he’d “nanite swarm!” where he’d split himself into pieces and reform as a way of finding mental clarity.  Of course, this had the side effect of pieces that didn’t reform into the central host creating a separate body…so he’d make copies of himself to explore ideas since he didn’t trust his subordinates.

So, instead of one crime lord with nanotechnology that could end the galaxy, we have a few hundred!

Of course, the Jedi felt the disturbances in the Force (since the nanites literally eat the Force to replicate) and needed some way to rid the galaxy of the Spice threat.  Kochin’s old research notes survived in the chassis of his old droid and the real threat to the galaxy was eventually revealed to the Jedi and the New Republic government.  All of whom now had to figure out how to handle the Spice issue while Grand Admiral Thrawn is reconquering Imperial space.

Now, there was a few months worth of sessions between the Battle of Kashyyyk and the reveal of Spice’s nanites.  So, when the truth was revealed, Jace’s player looked at me and said, “Did you have this planned out several months ago?”

“Mhm.”

The look on his face afterward was the proudest moment a gamemaster could ever hope for.  The look of shock (oh my god, Spice is a bigger threat to the galaxy than Thrawn!), awe (wow, this was all planned out several months and somehow didn’t get fucked up by the players) and appreciation (suddenly a lot of things that have happened in these sessions makes perfect sense)…it’d be incredibly hard to top that moment.  It’s probably best to think of this as a retirement in wrestling or music terms (where it’s never really anyone’s final performance until they’ve died) and maybe circumstances change but for right now…I’m satisfied ending on that note.

D&D Classics Campaign: Queen of the Spiders I

Continued from the conclusion to Scourge of the Slave Lords…  Our players for this session are Nick (Alarik, Human Crusader 12) and Steve (Steve, Human Swordsage 12).  GM PCs include Mornrandir (Human Wizard 8/Fatespinner 4).

Two years have passed since the party defeated the Slave Lords.  In that downtime, Alarik has perfected his Mountain Dew concoction.  He uses the addictive substance to form a legion of addicts dependent on him.  This also moves him squarely into chaotic evil territory.  Steve, on the other hand, has spent the past two years curing himself of his Mountain Dew addiction in the form of intense rehab.  So intense that when Mornrandir scry’d on him with a crystal ball, he couldn’t bear to watch more than a few seconds.  Mornrandir has married the lady Dame Gold (after enchanting her, of course) and in doing so, became Lord of Safeton.

Alarik disguises his tendencies under the guise of a completely legitimate business man, as he opens a chain of restaurants across Greyhawk.  He’s granted a permit to open one such establishment in the Grand Duchy of Geoff.  Because the Grand Duchy of Geoff lies outside the lands traveled by the party so far, Alarik sends out invitations to his fellow party members to support him in this endeavor.  The party and general populace of Geoff are not the only ones interested in the opening of this restaurant.  Caerwyn Tyr has been resurrected by the Drow Goddess Lolth.  She has provided him considerable resources to destroy the party.  Lolth does not think Caerwyn will succeed but Caerwyn’s attack will ultimately further her agenda regardless of the outcome.

Opening day comes, Alarik and Steve catch up on what they’ve been doing the past two years and Caerwyn attacks with several minions including harpies.  While Steve’s distracted by the harpies and Alarik’s tied up on evacuating his customers (protecting them from Caerwyn’s minions), Caerwyn orders the men outside to begin burning the building down.  Alarik escapes before the wooden beams supporting the entry door collapse, leaving Caerwyn and Steve alone.  Steve makes his own escape by throwing Caerwyn through the wall.  Mornrandir arrives as this happens and the rest of Caerwyn’s minions are mopped up shortly afterwards.

The players find a contract assassination paper on Caerwyn, with the hit put out by the Slave Lords.  The contract tells Caerwyn to report to Isitivin, a city to the south, when he’s finished the job.  The party’s curious to see who would revive Caerwyn (of all options!) to come and assassinate them, so they decide to investigate the lead.  They head to Istivin and meet numerous refugees who are fleeing the lands surrounding that city.  The refugees talk of giants coming down from the mountains and enslaving their kindred.  Because the nobility is dealing with their own matters (rumors vary so the party isn’t hearing the full story) to deal with giant raids on such a large scale, adventurers are being hired to deal with them…with the promise of being able to keep whatever treasure they find.

The party reaches Istivin and come across the reason why the nobility there haven’t bothered with the giants.  The city has nearly been engulfed by a black, ebony sphere!  Adventurers are being sought to solve the mystery of this sphere; why it’s here and how to get rid of it…the problem is the sphere seems to be very selective of who is allowed to enter within it.  Most people touch the sphere and feel nothing but the hard surface.  Others have been able to enter it (as if it’s a portal) but the trip appears to be one-way.  The few who have entered have not emerged…

The King’s Agent, a wizard named Lashton, is in charge of dealing with the black sphere.  All who enter the city report to Lashton but hubris clouds his better judgment.  He has the party undergo bureaucratic procedure of filling out forms and indulging whatever silly answers they put down.  For instance, Alarik says his purpose in the city is to find the color yellow.  So, the King’s Agent assigns a troupe of guards to escort Alarik through the city to find all things that are yellow.  Steve and Mornrandir chat with Algorthas, the man who provided Caerwyn the information he needed to plan his assassination attempt.  The duo spare his life in exchange for information regarding Caerwyn’s masters, who are behind the giant’s enslavement raids.

With the information they need, the party begins a rampage through the lands of the giants.  Algorthas is able to give them the location of the hill giant steading and it becomes the first stop for the players.  The players slaughter the hill giants with relative ease after infiltrating the jarl’s quarters.  They make their way to the nursery and murder giant children, thus gaining passable disguises.  Mornrandir polymorphs into a hill giant, posing as a single parent with some very unruly children.  Said unruly children destroy the hill giant steading.  The jarl and most of his subordinates die at the hands of one of the giant children’s flame strike.  After freeing some prisoners, the party finds clues to the frost giant’s hold and achieve similar results (minus the disguises, since they no longer work).

Before heading to the fire giants (the last of the giant strongholds), the party teleports back to Istivin to rest and acquire a new party member (hopefully)…

D&D Classics Campaign: Scourge of the Slave Lords Part III

Continued from Scourge of the Slave Lords Part II…  Our players for this session are Nick (Alarik, Human Crusader 8) and Steve (Steve, Human Swordsage 8).  GM PCs include Mornrandir (Human Wizard 8) and Laurin (Human Cleric 8).  While more in-depth entries (such as the previous one) are more evocative and informative, this one will be more of a bullet-point highlight reel detailing events of interest.  The change of format is necessary so the session can be accounted for before the events of it escape my mind.

***

* The party skipped the majority of the wilderness encounters, thanks to the use of alter self and Alarik’s diplomacy.  Steve disguised himself as Dustin, whose death had no yet reached those slavers in the interior.  The only encounter they were required to do was the trek through the cave network to Suderham.

* The cave network itself was fairly challenging.  Among the opposition the party faced was a storoper (which turns whoever it hits to stone for a round before the victim reverts and attacks its companions), an illusionist and a rust monster.  Laurin was slain by the party after he was hit by the storoper and started attacking his comrades.  Alarik went a little overzealous with his divine surge strike and Laruin’s remains were cremated in an acid trap room.

* The party gained entry to Suderham after they assumed new disguises/identities.  A week passed with our protagonists taking advantage of the city’s resources.  Steve used his new identity as a city guard to memorize patrols and gain entry into the city treasury.  Mornrandir joined the wizard’s guild.  Alarik took to the bars and taverns, learning what he could about the Slave Lords.

* Alarik eventually found a secret entrance to the Slave Lord stronghold after cozying up with the right people.  The party then took this path after they raided the treasury vault and made off with a haul of over 200,000 gold.  The above raid was nearly spoiled when the wife of the guard Steve was posing as turned up, asking his co-workers where her husband had.

Steve successfully bluffed her into believing that “he” had been hard at work and taken up drinking to cope.  She was unaware that her real husband had been dumped in the city sewer system after receiving multiple stab wounds.  While Alarik understood Steve couldn’t tell her the truth, he was pretty appalled by the lies Steve concocted.  This woman would not know her husband’s true fate for some time, if she ever would.

* Parts II and III of this account were actually one session total and it lasted about seven hours total.  That said, the Slave Lord stronghold was supposed to be longer and involve a lot more traps.  As it happened, I misread the map and led the party down a passage they shouldn’t have encountered that led them straight to the Slave Lords.

* The Slave Lord encounter was interesting in that they tempted Steve and Alarik with money, hoping to use them against the wizard.  The leader offered Steve a million gold and a position as leader if he turned on his friends, which I thought Steve was close to accepting.  It turns out that Steve was only bluffing his acceptance, as he was just trying to get into a position to hit the Slave Lords with a flame strike (which he killed five of them outright with).

Combat-wise, the fight with the Slave Lords was a mess.  The Slave Lords themselves were overconfident and hadn’t planned for a fight lasting more than three rounds…and what little they had planned was rendered useless after Steve killed half of them with one attack.  Alarik was feared away from the battle and didn’t do much until the end (when Mornrandir got a chance to dispel it).  After an assassin’s poisoned sneak attack nearly killed Steve, he was put in a resilient sphere by Mornrandir.  This made him immune to attacks but meant he couldn’t attack in turn.  The remaining Slave Lords were grappled by black tentacles while Mornrandir went to dispel Alarik’s fear.

The Slave Lord fight would have been a lot tougher had they been converted to 3.5.  Because the session was nearing the seven hour mark, I just used the AD&D stat block that was in front of me.  With 3.5, Steve’s flame attack would have been less damaging and the encounter would have been the real beat-down the module intended it to be.  As it went, Tome of Battle and two 4th level spells (Black Tentacles and Resilient Sphere) gave the players a huge advantage.

* The death of the last Slave Lord triggered a volcanic eruption.  Suderham being at the foot of this volcano and in the middle of the lake, this prompted a bit of a panic for the party.  They made a mad dash for the docks.  Their arrival at the docks was the climax of the adventure…as they decided to take the ship with purple sails.  The same ship that had raided Dame Gold’s castle and taken the citizens there into captivity.

* The party wasn’t the only one with this idea, as Caerwyn had found Dame Gold and her guests in the city jail.  He had led her and those with her to this boat in hopes of taking the presumed reward for her rescue for himself.  The crew of the ship he had arrived in the city with (the one with yellow sails) was also at his command.  In the confusion that had ensued from the volcano’s eruption, Caerwyn and his crew were in the process of seizing the boat from the slavers.  Caerwyn still had an assassination contract to carry out and (correctly) assumed that any Slave Lords would make their way to this boat.

In addition the people already present here (Dame Gold, her subjects, Caerwyn, his crew, the slavers)…the leader of the Slave Lords was also here.  He had teleported here after barely surviving Steve’s flame attack…and only persuaded Caerwyn to spare him momentarily after telling him those who had framed him as “the arsonist of Highport” were also here.  From previous experience, Caerwyn had enough trouble fighting Steve and so accepted the leader’s proposal.  With cleric buffs and a slaver crew at his disposal, Caerwyn figured the odds were in his favor.

* Despite all that, the party survived the surprise round and Steve won initiative to start the next turn.  He short-range teleported next to Caerwyn and threw him into the water.  Mornrandir then cast ray of enfeeblement and ray of exhaustion on Caerwyn, plummeting his strength score to 0.  With armor, armor check penalties and the tumultuous waters shaken up by the volcano’s eruption, Caerwyn’s lungs filled with water as he sank like a stone.  While his death was most painful, he knew this was not the end…as the Spider Queen had assured him he would get his vengeance.

* The leader of the Slave Lords was dealt with by Alarik’s divine surge.  With the leader and Caerwyn dying in a most graphic fashion before their eyes, the remaining slavers and Caerwyn’s own crew surrendered.  Only enough to sail the ship were spared, the rest executed by Alarik and Steve.

* As the volcano’s eruption consumed the city of Suderham and the surrounding island, the party found a trinket amongst the slaver’s storage:  the vial containing the cure for Dame Gold’s brother.  While Dame Gold relieved the party of performing the task (due to the events with the Slave Lords taking precedence and the ship not being fast enough to reach his last known location), Mornrandir assured the lady there was still hope…and he would cure her brother’s illness once he had rested up.

The adventure ends with the party going their separate ways upon returning to Safeton.  Mornrandir leaves to cure Dame Gold’s brother of his illness while Steve and Alarik ponder their next move.  The party would not reunite for another two years…when they will return in Against the Giants!

D&D Classics Campaign: Scourge of the Slave Lords Part II

Continued from Scourge of the Slave Lords Part I…  Our players for this session are Nick (Alarik, Human Crusader 8) and Steve (Steve, Human Swordsage 8).  GM PCs include Mornrandir (Human Wizard 8) and Laurin (Human Cleric 8).

***

Amidst the candles and braziers, knelt a cleric in prayer.  The incense burned as he muttered his words, beseeching his god for the means to repay those who wronged him.  Only half a year ago, he had been cast into this realm to rid it of great evil…only to have been sold into the servitude of said evil instead.  By those who had been sent in with him no less!  Revenge burned inside him like a bonfire but that was fine.  After all, his god was the one of the sun.

So focused on prayer was he that he did not hear the steps of the Slave Lord entering.  Instead of interrupting, the Slave Lord merely listened as the cleric spit the words of hate towards his former comrades.  When he had found that this so-called “Dustin the Good”, who had helped destroy the Temple of Elemental Evil, was a slave on his market…well, he had to know more about those who had discarded him.  And how he could use them for his own purposes.

So, the two of them talked all through the winter, each using the other unknowingly to further their own machinations.  The Slave Lord had heard Dustin’s tale, how the crime the cleric had been sentenced for was not one he committed.  Relying on this thirst for revenge, the Slave Lord stationed Dustin in Highport and waited for the party to move on from the village of Hommlett.  He soon heard of their invitation to Safeton and the manor of Dame Gold, engineering the raid there.  From Dustin’s intel regarding their lust for wealth, he counted on them rescuing the lady…if only for the bounty.

The sequence of events had been manipulated to lead the party to Highport, one way or the other.  While the slaver’s plan had not gone exactly as it should have (mainly the party’s escape once reaching Highport), their time in captivity upon the galley should not have endeared them to the Slave Lords.  They will find this temple, the crux of the slave trade in Highport, sooner or later.

Waiting for them will be their former cleric, Dustin.  He will have the resources of the temple at his disposal, which should be enough to overcome a party deprived of their magical items (or any scrounged up during their time in Highport, provided they find a dealer willing to sell).  Once the party is dealt with and when he had finished using Dustin to purge the Slave Lord hierarchy of a traitor, the cleric will easily be discarded.  The slave trade would resume unabated with the deaths of those who conquered the Temple of Elemental Evil.

Dustin was not going to be a mere pawn, however, as he had ambitions of his own.  While he had no love for the other party members, only the wizard had sold him into slavery.  He figured his former comrades were more selfish than evil…and if they were nefarious, he could use that to get them to turn on one of their own.  He had gleaned much about the Slave Lord’s operations that he could share with the party, provided they hand the wizard over.

Even if the scenario did not play out as predicted, Dustin was confident that evil would be cleansed from the world.  For his god had shown him visions of evil men being cut down by a blade of flame and a great volcanic eruption consuming their stronghold.  His god had interpreted the vision for Dustin, telling him the meaning and significance of each nightly dream.  Dustin had it on divine authority that all this would come to pass.  He had already won.  It was now only a matter of time waiting for everyone else to catch up and realize it.

***

Once a crown jewel amidst the local jungle, Highport was the center of trade along the sea.  Commerce from all places flowed into the city and the wealth was evident by grandeur of the buildings.  While the money and goods that flowed into Highport made the citizens there rich, it also attracted the attention of barbaric hordes.  A conglomeration of orcs, gnolls, goblins and other humanoids sacked the city after six attempts.

Curiously, the head of the horde did not keep Highport for himself.  Instead, he merely occupied the city and allowed humans to resettle it…only the humans who were allowed to return were none of the original settlers.  Instead, a more evil stock was sought.

As the party recuperates in Highport, the city is little more than a ruin with enough of a touch up to make it look presentable.  Its inhabitants are divided amongst their own ambitions, united only by their fear of the Slave Lords.  The Slave Lords only care that their profitable trade is conducted in Highport, with enough pretense of a government concocted to keep that establishment in tact.  Outside of slaves, Highport is a town where the only law is whoever has the strongest sword arm.

To the surprise of no one, the party fits in with the evil around them.  For 6 days, Steve sets fire to any ships in the harbor and manages to evade detection.  As can be expected, he racks up a considerable bounty (27,000 gold).  Ser Nicholas adopts the alias “Alarik” and uses his suave charm to influence those in the slave trade.  Caerwyn tries to work his way through the slave organization as well but does not manage as well as Alarik.  Mornrandir uses his leadership abilities to organize an underground resistance movement for free (i.e. escaped) slaves…who also help retrieve the party’s belongings from the bottom of the ocean.

On the sixth day since their arrival, Mornrandir meets with Alarik and Steve to plot their foray into the Temple of Highport.  Alarik has learned that all slaves are taken there, as it is a processing center of sorts.  People dealing in the slave trade enter and leave via the temple’s main gate.  Some of the slaves recently processed match the description of Dame Gold and her guests.  Although there is a secret entrance to the temple, Alarik has convinced those in the city he’s a prospective trader and would like to see the stock…a request that has been granted.

To continue the tradition of framing other party members for crimes they have committed in order to secure a bounty, Steve suggests incriminating Caerwyn as “The Arsonist.”  All present sign off on the plan, for the public commotion regarding The Arsonist’s arrest would likely draw some attention away from the Temple of Highport.  And thus, Caerwyn was knocked out, silenced and hauled off in the middle of the night before being turned over to the authorities.  When they checked his hideout, they found all kinds of materials used to make alchemical fire.  The authorities declared the arsonist case closed after paying the party the bounty’s reward.

The next day, with Highport authorities and (some) citizens trumpeting the capture of the dreaded arsonist, the rest of the party (plus Laurin, a recruited cleric) made their way to the temple.  Steve uses Caerwyn’s magical hat of alter self to disguise himself as a buff specimen.  Mornrandir uses magic to achieve a similar effect.  Alarik is able to pass off Laurin as a friend.

The party enters the Temple of Highport, with access to its interior easily granted.  Alarik knows the location of two slave pens, one on the temple level proper and the other in its depths.  He leads his “slaves” through the temple’s courtyard into the garden but soon loses control of them.  For in the garden are a group of harpies, the mortal enemy of Steve.  Steve blows the party’s cover by attacking the harpies, downing two of them before the others fly off to warn their masters of intruders!

The four soon come to the slave pen on the temple’s top level…but find it’s not much of a slave pen at all!  As the party moves to free them, the “slaves” turn out to be half-orcs!  Armed with short swords concealed within their raggedy robes, the half-orcs attempt to slay the party on behalf of the Slave Lords.  One fear spell later and the humanoids are cowering within the corners of the room.  Alarik, Steve and Laurin slay a few of them before leaving the room, with Mornrandir placing an arcane lock on the door.

Before venturing back into the courtyard, Mornrandir and Steve alter themselves to look like half-orcs.  They take Alarik and Laurin as their “prisoners” and plan to use them to catch the guards unawares.  Upon entering the courtyard, they notice the area is on full battle alert.  Orcs have pushed over tables and are taking cover behind them while some half-orcs have a primitive flame-throwing device aimed at the door to the garden.  Luckily, the humanoids are not too trigger-happy and are pleased to know that some of their own managed to catch the intruders!

This allows Steve to use the same technique he set so many ships in the harbor ablaze with on the flame-throwing device!  The half-orcs are immediately incinerated while some of the orcs are cut down by Alarik as they flee the temple into the city!  The rest escape, raving about how the arsonist lives as they do so.  The party does not give chase, figuring that the authorities would believe Caerwyn was the real arsonist.

Exiting the courtyard, the four open the main doors to the Temple of Highport.  They bypass the trapped corridor lined with gargoyles by simply flying over it (and carrying those who can’t).  Listening in at the door, Steve hears the moaning of a few slaves amidst the grunting of some half-orcs…and a murmured prayer uttered by a familiar voice.  He does not know why Dustin is here but figures he won’t be too happy to see Mornrandir.

A minute later, the door to the alter swings open with Steve and Alarik dragging Mornrandir towards Dustin.  They force the wizard to kneel down in front of Dustin, with Steve asking why the hell Dustin’s here.  Dustin tells Steve he’ll tell him everything but only after he’s exacted the revenge he’s waited so long for.  Dustin casts divine power but Steve and Alarik help Mornrandir to his feet.

Then all hell breaks loose!  A troll suddenly appears from a poor box, suddenly growing from a small stone miniature!  Alarik faces the troll alone while Laurin deals with the half-orcs.  Steve grabs Dustin and they both teleport to the top of the room.  Steve manages to keep Dustin in his grasp while fixed on the ceiling, thanks to his spider-climbing magic gear and an increased strength buff.  Dustin’s divine power buff is then dispelled by Mornrandir.

Dustin’s last thoughts are of confusion and fear.  Why did Steve not betray the wizard?  He struggles to free himself of Steve but it is in vain.  Dustin’s thoughts are interrupted when Steve comet throws him into the ground, the impact upon the stone floor paralyzing him.  Steve then helps Laurin deal with the half-orcs before facing the troll with Alarik.  Mornrandir’s attention is fixed on Dustin.

Alarik reminds the party that Dustin is needed alive but Mornrandir dismisses that.  After hitting Dustin with rays of enfeeblement and exhaustion, the wizard poly-morphs into a mind flayer.  Powerless to stop him, Dustin’s brain is soon extracted by the mind flayer.  With Dustin’s knowledge now in possession, the party frees the slaves.  The slaves are grateful for freedom but fear for their lives after seeing the brain extraction.  After descending down a trap door, the party rests for 8 hours in an extra-dimensional space created by an extended rope trick.

[ The above encounter with Dustin was supposed to be with another cleric…until Gabe suggested it would be pretty hilarious if the party ever ran into Dustin again.  This was the best place to fit that encounter. ]

The next day consisted of a rampage through the lower levels of the temple.  Slaves were freed, brains were extracted from hosts and the party recovered some intel regarding a slaver caravan.  Said caravan is believed to be the one transporting Dame Gold and the other kidnapped villagers.  They also found a map and directions to the Slave Lord capital, the city of Suderham.  The party wasted no time in pursuing the caravan, hoping to catch up with the caravan…either in the wilds or in Suderham.

***

As the party ventures into the jungle wilds, a drow priestess makes her way to Highport’s dungeons.  Any questions from guards immediately cease when she shows her ID, revealing her to be one of the Slave Lords.  She had received a most disturbing message from the spider goddess:  That she would soon be framed for a plot to usurp control of the Slave Lords.  The evidence “incriminating” her would be manufactured by the head of the Slave Lords himself, hoping to purge the ranks of those undesirable.

The spider goddess, Lolth, had told the priestess this news, as well as to seek aid from one of her own.  The only other surface drow around was in this very prison.  He would be grateful for his release and stay of execution.  He would prove useful in eliminating the Slave Lord leader…and be grateful for the chance to get revenge on those who had wronged him.

She opened the cell of Caerwyn Tyr and together, boarded a ship with yellow sails.  During the trip to Suderham, they discussed the terms of his contract…  Caerwyn was now an assassin, all he had to do now was kill someone.

***

Next Time:  The players skip most of the content by using the alter self spell!  The party rampages through Suderham, making off with a considerable bounty of gold!  The Slave Lords are dealt with!  And one of the party members dies!

D&D Classics Campaign: Scourge of the Slave Lords Part I

Continued from Temple of Elemental Evil Part II

Having left one of their own back in the world of Greyhawk (via selling him into slavery) and replacing him with an inhabitant of that world, the mole-rat mad scientist was furious at the party!  So furious, in fact, she forcefully sends them back to reclaim their former comrade at the expense of their new friend.  Our party consists of Caerwyn Tyr (Gabe’s Drow Rogue 5), Ser Nicholas (Nick’s Human Crusader 7), Steve (Steve’s Human Swordsage 7) and Mornrandir (GM PC Human Wizard 7).

Our heroes return to the world of Greyhawk, materializing in the village of Hommlett.  Hommlett is the good counterpart to Nulb, the wicked village the PCs made their base in for Temple of Elemental Evil.  If we had played the past module straight (starting as level 3 characters), we’d have begun that adventure here.  In hindsight, we should started here because the players really enjoyed their time in Hommlett.  They spent the winter season here, establishing characterization and relationships with the townfolk.  Ser Nicholas helped out in the inn with his cooking while Steve established a reputation as the most fearsome barfighter in the land (or, at least, along that particular highway of traffic).  Caerwyn uses his newly acquired Hat of Alter Self to blend in with the various humanoids, posing as different travelers.

The party’s routine is interrupted with the arrival of a messenger representing the interests of Dame Gold.  The note she gives each PC reads…

“To Those Brave and Worthy,

May it never be said that the courageous undertake valor for the hope of reward nor the righteous seek purity, and thus may aspersions of evil never fall upon thy name.  But, as ye know too well, the rewards of virtue are painful and cold.

Our advisers, through wisdom and sagacity, have proclaimed thy actions good and virtuous, done for the wealth of the people of Hommlett.  Those so noble as yourselves will grace and ornament the presence of any gathering.  We beseech you to kindly honor us with your presence during the Feasts of Edoria at Windy Crag in the town of Safeton.

Dame Gold”

Caerwyn is suspicious of the invitation, although he soon gathers that Dame Gold is a benevolent soul with a genuine invitation.  If she has an ulterior motive, it won’t be nefarious.  The player’s invitation to Dame Gold’s festival is soon the talk of the town and the only thing stopping the party is the connection they’ve built with Hommlett over the past season.  The innkeeper is sad to see the best cook he’s ever had the pleasure of tasting food from leave and while he’s pretty happy property repairs will be down when Steve leaves, he knows a good business attraction when he sees one.  Caerwyn is more than ready to leave the village, though, as is Mornrandir but he is glad for other reasons…

As the party prepares the logistics of the journey to Windy Crag/Safeton, they are approached by a halfling who introduces himself as Revv Aair.  He is a tinker on the way to Safeton, his family once being in the employ of Dame Gold herself.  Revv only wishes for some company on the road ahead and suggests traveling with the PCs, since they’re heading the same way.  The entire party agrees to the suggestion, although Ser Nicholas suggests a grand cook-off between the halfling and himself (as the Iron Chef, who will be doing his cooking while wearing dragonbone plate armor made from the young adult red dragon the party anti-climatically slew in the Elemental Node of Fire).

The party’s last day in Hommlett was that cookoff, with Ser Nicholas winning pretty decisively.  Who knew the Iron Chef makes such great entrees, mouth-watering third courses and excellent dessert?  I only wish I had written down what all Nicholas cooked and that the hobbit had a better imagination (I’m a DM who cooks mainly from the microwave and orders out).  All I remember is that Nicholas essentially made Mountain Dew and got Steve addicted to it.

The trip to Safeton was the longest 5 days of Mornrandir’s life.  Notable events include Caerwyn attempting to cure Steve’s addiction to Mountain Dew by slipping him an alchemical cure, failing to do so, being spotted by Steve in the attempt and then being comet thrown for his troubles.  The road took the party through the Kron Hills, home to a sizeable population of gnomes.  Caerwyn Tyr is a result of Gabe really liking the plot hook to Kingdoms of Amalur, where the main character is brought back from the dead with no recollection of their past life by a gnome mad scientist.  As a result, gnomes are a morality pet of sorts to Caerwyn.  He inquires about his master here, although none of the gnomes have heard of him and Mornrandir reminds the drow that he’s technically from another plane of dimension…Gabe was so immersed in Greyhawk he forgot about that.

The party also caught a pair of thugs who had swindled an entire gnome village and delivered them to the proper authorities.  The decision was mainly made by Caerwyn (who likes gnomes) and Mornrandir (who knows about other worlds where gnomes can be just as evil as other playable humanoids).

Eventually, the players reach Safeton.  “USE NO MAGIC HERE!” reads the sign upon entry to the town, much to Mornrandir’s chagrin.  The party makes their way to Dame Gold’s without delay, who welcomes them as guests…and they are not the only guests.  Caerwyn is able to dig up information on each guest, although only a few encounter the party during the week of the festival.  They include “Burly” Katrina (a noble-born fighter who quickly loses a drinking contest between Steve and a dwarf…who is then taken home by Mornrandir and befriended by him), Jack Knob (the dwarf who manages to drink Steve under the table), Randallson the Neat (a wizard prone to sweet confectioneries and constantly runs afoul of Ser Nicholas and Steve), Black Kerr (an alchemist Caerwyn would have conversed with if Kerr hadn’t been so anti-social) and Arianrhod de Turiss (an elegant lady who is bemused, but nothing more, by Ser Nicholas’ incredibly forward pick-up lines that involve his dragonbone hilt).

A few days pass and Dame Gold approaches the players late in the evening.  She tells them to meet her in her private chambers just before dawn of the next day.  The party all agrees to attend.  Before Dame Gold relates her business, she makes the party swear a solemn vow of secrecy on behalf of their god.  Ser Nicholas is the only one to take the oath seriously.  Mornrandir swears but crosses his fingers behind his back.  Caerwyn is posing as a human, so he does not take the vow on behalf of Lolth.  Steve teleports out of sight upon being asked to swear (he actually sticks to the ceiling but no one sees him).

With all present agreeing to not tell another soul what she is about to say, Dame Gold relates her story:  Her adventurous elder brother, once thought dead after venturing to a distant land, has been found to be alive.  He wishes to return home but has contacted a disease similar to lycanthropy.  The brother is slowly losing his mind and turning into a ravenous beast but fortunately, Black Kerr has developed a potential cure.  Unfortunately, it is only potent for 40 days and it loses its potency if disrupted by magical means (teleporting the cure to the Brother Gold is not going to be an option…not that the party could teleport at this level anyway except for short distances).  Dame Gold agrees to pay the party 5,000 gold each for the delivery of this cure, a task she only trusts to brave and noble heroes such as they.  While she has no sailing ship to provide, she agrees to reimburse the party if they bring her the deed to the ship (or contract they sign).  Caerwyn agrees to hold on the cure, fearing Mornrandir’s magical energies will disrupt the cure’s potency.

Upon acquiring the cure, the party makes plans to charter a vessel to the distant jungles of Hepmonaland…the known location of the Brother Gold.  Before they leave, the manor of Dame Gold is attacked by a ship flying purple colors.  The party returns to the manor on the basis that if Dame Gold is dead, there’s no reward and thus no point in delivering the cure.  Among the ruins of the manor, the players find a journal on one of the people who sacked the place.  The journal is a diary of a raider working on behalf of an entity known as the “Slave Lords” and the man has listed the nearby areas where the ship he was on makes port.  The party decides to head for the port of Elredd, the closest area where the pirates will dock and hope to beat them there!  Ser Nicholas is able to convince a ship captain to take the party on as crew members for a voyage to reclaim those taken from the manor, for great justice and all that.

The trek to Elredd is uneventful, save for the captain trying to have a joke at the party’s expense (basically, making them acquire their sea legs by intentionally sailing into rough waters).  Steve responds by grabbing the captain and teleporting him to the top of the crow’s nest and back, which endears him to the captain and crew (who proclaim that “this guy gets it”).

The party reaches Elredd, which can be described as Mos Eisley as a sea port instead of a space port.  As the party leaves the ship looking for leads, one of the “sailors” approaches them and relates his story.  He too is after a ship flying purple sails that nabbed some of his folks from his home village.  He directs them to the innkeeper of the Broken Rudder, saying that guy would be a good source of information.  However, his speech is punctuated by a lot of “see” (“I gots the name o’ folks who don’t like the slavers, see.  The place’s writ on this paper here, see, this paper here”) so Mornrandir follows him under the guise of Alter Self while Caerwyn explores the town.  Steve and Nick head to various bars to rough things up.

All goes fairly well except for Steve, who ends up being knocked out while at the Broken Rudder.  Luckily, Nick’s diplomacy allows him to gain favor with the innkeeper to keep “his friend” safe.  Meanwhile, the rest of the party interrogates the “sailor” and finds out the Broken Rudder is a front for the slave lords.  Hilarious reaction from Caerwyn upon realizing Mornrandir had tortured the sailor:  “Oh Lolth, how many fingers does he have left?”  The encounter at the Broken Rudder goes well, save for one of the employees teleporting away.  The party finds a new lead among the inn’s bouncer’s room…the town of Highport.

The party reaches Highport but not on the vessel of their choosing.  The first night out of Elredd, Caerwyn notices the ship anchoring on a spit of land in the midst of the ocean fog.  Caerwyn spots a boarding party but before he can awaken the rest of the ship, he’s shot with one of his own drow poison arrows!  He succumbs to the paralyzing poison and finds himself, along with the rest of the players, on a slave galley!  All are shackled and separated while Mornrandir is gagged…leaving the party having to plan their own escape individuality.  This is further complicated by the slavers dumping the party’s goods overboard (although Steve and Mornrandir are able to use their respective knowledge skills to remember the location according to the alignment of the stars).  Those goods include magic items and tens of thousands of unspent gold from The Temple of Elemental Evil.

Caerwyn and Steve manage a way to work themselves free of their shackles, although they hold off the opportunity to do so for good until they reach a port.  When the slave ship holding the PCs reaches Highport, the party enacts their escape attempt.  Caerwyn and Steve slip loose of their shackles, with the drow pickpocketing a sword off a sleeping guard for Steve.  While Caerwyn frees the rest of the party and slaves from their restraints, Steve uses his swordsage abilities to set fire to the slave ship…allowing the party to escape amidst the rioting chaos that ensues.  Caerwyn acquires money by pickpocketing random citizens to procure room and board for a few nights and the party plans its next move…

All in all, 19 days have passed (5 to travel to Elredd, 1 day in the city, 1 night at sea before being shanghai’d into slavery, 6 nights as a slave on either a galley or The Ghoul, 6 days spent in Highport total thus far) since the players received the cure for Dame Gold’s brother…leaving them only 21 days to deliver the cure.  Unfortunately, that quest looks as if it might be put on indefinite hold as the party holds the slave lords as a graver threat.

And the above was only the first chapter in a nine chapter module (of which seven are required, the last two being optional)!

Next Time:  Covertly infiltrating the slave lord stronghold while establishing a resistance movement!  An arsonist evades the local authorities and destroys slave ships, acquiring a massive bounty…will history repeat itself and have Mornrandir sell a party member into slavery?  We only played a little bit into the second chapter (making preparations to storm the slave hold in Highport) so what happens next…as of this writing, I do not know.

D&D Classics Campaign: Temple of Elemental Evil Part II

Continued from Part I

The party once again rendezvous outside the Temple of Elemental Evil.  Our players for this session are Steve (No Name Given; Human Swordsage 7), Gabe (Caerwyn Tyr; Drow Rogue 5) and Nick (Ser Nicholas, Human Crusader 7).  My GM PC was a Human Wizard 7 named Mornrandir.

Nick is, technically, a returning player but should be a new one for all intents and purposes.  He played the second session I ever GM’d as a level 1 (or 2) monk.  The party then was playing the Wreck Ashore beginner adventure and he charged a group of bandits wielding crossbows.  He got to them, used flurry of blows (missing every single attack) and was promptly shot dead. Rather than ease off the gas and get a recurring player, I played the encounter completely straight and turned him off from the game…until now.

It’s important for a GM to know (or understand) his player’s tendencies.  This does not mean you need to read their minds but that you need to know what they like, dislike and how they’ll approach a given situation.  Nick is very much a believer in the “a good offense is the best defense” and will kick down the door rather than try to find a way around it.  I made him a Crusader over a Warblade for two reasons:  (1) With Dustin not there, I needed some way for the party to be able to heal and (2) Crusaders are a great beginner class since they only need two feats to be effective (and both are available at level 1).

Dustin’s absence was explained by Mornrandir selling him to Nulb “authorities” for the bounty.  He was then sold to slavers, which will tie in nicely with the next module…

The players had in their possession the Orb of Golden Death, a Macguffin that could be used to access the hidden areas of the temple’s third level.  It is a device of pure evil, giving whoever has possession of it a Charisma of 20 to chaotic evil creatures.  There are spots for 4 gems to be inlaid with the skull, although those gems weren’t in the party’s possession.

The party enters the lair of Zuggtmoy, the demon shackled by the magic doors marked with silvery runes.  They do not know that, though, and instead are interested in the floor, which has markings corresponding to the classical elements:  air, earth, fire and water.  Ever impulsive, Steve walks over and steps on the symbol of fire.  He vanishes in a flash of fire and puff of smoke, leaving nothing there.  Luckily, it was just a flashy teleportation and not a disintegration! The rest of the party follows.

The majority of the session dealt with the Elemental Planes.  Only Mornrandir’s magic and the Golden Orb could provide protection from the constant damage effects.  The party soon blundered out of the Elemental Plane of Fire and into the Water one.  This allowed them to learn that the symbols would teleport them to the corresponding plane, but they had no idea how to get out.

The Elemental Plane of Water posed a problem for the party.  The area which the party ended up was an immense cavern with an indoor lake that was 50 feet deep.  Mornrandir didn’t have the spell points to allow each member protection from the elements and the luxury to fly around.  Some party members flew, some carried others, and Nick surfed the water with his animated tower shield and incredible balance.  The party soon found a gem sparkling in the cavern walls, guarded by a pair of grues.

Now, each power gem in the planes is guarded by grues but grues aren’t in the 3.5 Monster Manual.  Using their 1st edition stats doesn’t translate very well considering some rule variants we were using (class armor bonus and defense as damage reduction).  They’re also very “bleh” monsters (why have a pair of grues guarding a power gem in the Elemental Plane of Fire when you can have a red dragon?).  We used them for the first encounter in the water plane before dumping them.

Mornrandir grabbed the gem (which the party didn’t know the significance of yet) and was instantly teleported to the Elemental Plane of Earth.  The players did not know that and decided to go off and find him while the elemental protection and flight was still available.  I know they at least made their way through one plane, playing hot potato with the Golden Orb to mitigate damage, before finding the wizard.

The near-scare of losing the wizard made the party more cautious through the next elemental planes.  Caerwyn with Greater Invisibility cast on him took down a basilisk and the party later took down a young red dragon…although it was a rather anti-climatic fight with Mornrandir hitting it with a Ray of Clumsiness before a Ray of Exhaustion brought the dragon down in a couple of turns.  Nick got the honor of putting the beast down while Steve got toasted by the dragon’s flame breath after attacking the creature with a fire-based attack.

The players acquired the remaining power gems, although they did stop to try and provoke a fight between a family of cloud giants and white dragons.  The party knew how to destroy the Golden Orb but had discussion regarding the means of doing so.  We needed to hit the Orb with a wind gust of 50 mph, strike it with a solid maul and subject it to a fire 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit before immersing it in freezing water.  We eventually settled on using a smith’s furnace in the village of Nulb.

The players did not know the smith was actually a 10th level ranger who had previously dealt with the Temple’s evil the first time around (so he would have been completely OK with his forge being used to destroy the Temple forever).  The party, thus, convinced him to allow them to use the forge for their own non-nefarious purposes.  The ranger had a cover act, though, to thwart the temple followers in Nulb: that of being a smith who really likes to brawl in bars.  And instead of staying at the forge, Steve and Ser Nicholas go to brawl in a bar.  The ranger actually sees them, wonders why they’re not at his forge despite convincing him they should be able to rent it for the day…and then the area is hit with a shock wave as the orb’s destruction coincides with the bottom levels of the Temple collapsing.  The truth of the party’s actions regarding the ranger’s forge is soon revealed and he points them in the direction of a less hostile village, Hommlett.

The party is brought back to their home dimension but upon seeing that they brought back a native (Nick), sends them back immediately!  The players then spend the winter in the village of Hommlett…

Final Verdict:  A good session ending with the players clamoring for more.  Luckily, I had the module for Scourge of the Slave Lords and we were able to start the next chapter in the saga…

Next Time:  A cook-off between Iron Chef and a hobbit.  More role-playing than roll-playing.  A quest to deliver a cure within 40 days being sidetracked by slavers.  The party starts Scourge of the Slave Lords!

D&D Classics Campaign: Temple of Elemental Evil Part I

To start the new year, D&D Classics offered a free download of the original 1st edition Temple of Elemental Evil.  I forget if it was a “thank you” download for being a part of D&D Next or to commemorate the Dungeons & Dragons franchise being 40 years old.  It also made me realize that some of my friends have been playing for nearly a decade now.  To celebrate the occasion, I initially decided to run a few classic sessions starting with Temple of Elemental Evil.  One of my players really likes it when I write up D&D campaign sessions for people to read, laugh, insult and make fun of the party and/or GM.  While this won’t be a comprehensive overview, the details of the first sessions (and others) will be presented in the format of many paragraphs.

Our party for this session consisted of three 6th level PCs and 1 GM PC.  Other people invited were busy but can always join in later.  The three players and their characters are Steve (No Name Given; Human Swordsage 6), Gabe (Caerwyn Tyr; Drow Rogue 4) and Dustin (Dustin the Good; Human Cloistered Cleric of Pelor 6).  My GM PC was a level 6 Human Wizard named Mornrandir.  Steve and Gabe are veteran players while Dustin’s fairly irregular but when he plays, the session’s usually good (he was present for the infamous Robin Hood session).

The PCs had been invited (or forcefully conscripted, in Steve’s case) to partake in a magical experiment.  In the world the PCs live in, all the ruins have been thoroughly pilfered…leaving adventurers few ways to seek their fortunes in the world.  To give adventurers a means of exploration, a mole-rat mad scientist has constructed magical portals that lead to other dimensions of time and space across the multi-verse.  Where the portals go, no one knows but there is great treasure to be found from the few who managed to survive.

The above idea was inspired by Guild Wars 2’s Fractals of the Mists, where each fractal has its own self-contained story allowing present-day adventurers to experience historical moments.  It’s also a total excuse plot since I wasn’t familiar with the Greyhawk campaign setting and did not have access to many other modules.  That has since changed and at one point in the next session, Gabe completely forgot about the home dimension (being too immersed in the Greyhawk setting) so this could be retconned later.

Since this was originally intended to be a short shot session and not something that could take the rest of the year, we skipped the majority of the packet and elected to focus on the Temple itself.  Rather than spawn them directly outside the Temple, I decided to give them a home base according to the module.  That base would be the village of Nulb, which bears similarities to Tortuga from Pirates of the Caribbean.  Nulb is a very disreputable town where everyone’s looking out for themselves and engaging in constant barfights.  Not five minutes into the session, the party splits up: Caerwyn and Steve decide to scout the village stealthily while Dustin beseeches Pelor for spells with Mornrandir offering advice (I had Dustin’s character pre-made and spells of interest according to the Cleric’s Handbook highlighted…but let him pick which ones he wanted).

Caerwyn and Steve scouted different sides of the street until reaching the Waterfront Tavern, where Steve joined in a barfight, attracting attention from the other tavern in town.  A few dozen people involved in combat would have bogged the session down at the outset and since most of the villagers are level 0’s, they wouldn’t have done much of anything to Steve.  So, we just ruled that Steve was the last man standing aside from the bouncer.

Dustin the Good had ranks in diplomacy so Mornrandir used him to sell a horse…that had been magically conjured and then had its magical aura removed.  They managed to find an unlucky sap who had been on the receiving of Steve’s village-consuming bar fight and make a couple hundred gold.  They then had to camp outside the Temple of Elemental Evil, for the mount would have magically vanished after a few hours and Dustin would have a bounty on him (since he handled the business transaction).  Mornrandir hadn’t consulted Caerwyn for disguises (since he was off scouting) and hadn’t prepared Alter Self due it to being massive game-breaking cheese.

Steve’s fighting prowess makes him reputable around town.  He gets free room and board (which Caerwyn also benefits from), as well as visits from devotees to the Temple of Elemental Evil.  These visitors arrive at different times, providing the party with colored cloaks that can be used to disguise.  The module has an interesting mechanic regarding the elemental factions but it never came into play due to the party skipping most of the temple’s top levels.

Temple of Elemental Evil emphasizes random encounter tables but I never really bothered with them here for several reasons.  (1) We didn’t have enough players, having only three people plus the DM for a module designed for 5-7 people.  (2) Gabe is very adamant of his dislike towards random encounters and I don’t much care for them either.  Unless the table has special encounters, random monsters just showing up tend to bog down the game.  While I wasn’t expecting the run to be completed in a single session, I didn’t want unnecessary fluff either.  The only time I rolled for them was when the party split up, which was enough incentive to get them back together (more on that later).

The party rendezvoused at the Temple.  Caerwyn scouted the perimeter and managed to do so without alerting the guards in the watch tower (which, incidentally, would have taken the party to the dungeon’s third level had they survived some tough bandits…).  Not much of interest happened on the ground level, save for a decision to avoid the magical doors that sealed the demon Zuggtmoy.  The players didn’t know the exact details but knew the doors were holding some great evil at bay.  There was an initial interest to unlock those doors but unshackling the evil was soon realized to be a bad idea after discussion.

The Temple of Elemental Evil is made up of four levels, the top two being the only ones accessible at the start.  The party found a variety of entrances but the well had two: a spiral staircase leading down to the second floor and a secret door to the first level.  Steve used his ring of feather falling to jump 80 feet down the well while the rest of the party takes the stairs.  Fortunately, he’s able to restrain from touching anything valuable from the chamber he lands in…which would have awakened an air elemental that could have made for a formidable challenge.

Having entirely bypassed the dungeon’s first level, the party splits off from this chamber.  Steve starts exploring the northeast sections of the second level whilst Caerwyn stays in the main chamber.  Mornrandir elected to stay with Caerwyn, as did Dustin.  Steve persisted onwards, though, so I rolled out the random encounters.  He was safe until he bungled into a room with two werewolves…who actually weren’t the main issue.  Steve had no silver weapons but the werewolves couldn’t hit him due to his high defense.  What happened was a prolonged stalemate until stone-laden hall begins to shake with the footsteps of two approaching trolls…

Meanwhile, Caerwyn nearly triggers the aforementioned air elemental encounter by entering the creature’s secret room.  He’s fortunate not to, however, and even more lucky to find stairs leading to the third level.  Drow can detect secret doors when they pass within 5 feet of them and rogues are the only class that can disable magical traps…so, despite being two levels lower than the party and not as proficient in combat, Caerwyn was a fairly valuable asset.  The party decides to follow Steve but would have had difficulty finding him were it not for spotting two trolls.

Since the trolls were the first evidence of life we had spotted while in the dungeon, the party decides to follow them.  Mornrandir makes Caerwyn, who takes point, invisible via magic.  The party was fairly nervous about fighting werewolves and trolls but the situation was resolved fairly well…with the exception of a single troll escaping.

How the troll escaped:  Steve was surrounded by werewolves on one side and trolls on the other.  He got out of the encirclement thanks to one of his maneuvers (essentially a short range teleport).  The trolls split up to search for him while the rest of the monsters engaged the party.  The hallway was big enough for one of the trolls to block passage so the combat with the remaining creatures took a long while to resolve.  Instead of circling back around, the troll reported to his chieftain.  The chief put his forces on alert but the party avoided his domain so the encounter resolved in a beneficial manner.

Dustin could create food and water while Mornrandir provided ample shelter with an extended rope trick.  A bag of holding allowed us to carry what loot we did find effortlessly, so the party stayed in the Temple until the end of the session.  Events were more intense on the third level, although not initially despite an encounter with five trolls (all of whom were holding keys to different doors).

Side-note:  Steve and Gabe had played Tomb of Horrors as part of our Star Wars campaign before so they were somewhat familiar with what a Gygaxian module could throw at them.  Namely, encounters that initially seem unfair but require a bit of player ingenuity to solve them.  So, the party was a bit nervous fighting trolls when really there was no need to be.  Steve’s swordsage is an incredible a blink tank and Caerwyn’s mobile enough to make use of flanking for sneak attack.  Mornrandir could buff or assist while Dustin could do the same.

We took the keys from the trolls and Mornrandir cast invisibility on each party member to get them by the ettin in the next room (which had multiple doors leading elsewhere).  Dustin left the session at this point (it was around midnight) so now there’s 2 GM PCs in the party…not an ideal situation for a module designed for 5-7 people but this was a similar situation when we did Tomb of Horrors with Star Wars characters.

Gygax D&D modules also have some “gotcha” moments that are sometimes obvious and sometimes not.  The party was stumped for direction wondering the third level when Caerwyn noticed the scent of a dead body.  Steve followed Caerwyn, who went to investigate.  I figured investigating corpses was a bad idea and “Dustin” agreed.  But the PCs persisted, so we followed.  What happened was Caerwyn opened the door to see an elf banshee, failed the will save upon seeing her, immediately shut the door and ran the opposite direction as fast as he could.

Caerwyn didn’t tell Steve what was behind the door (because he was too scared) and no one else knew what was in there (other than a dead body) because they did not see in the room…so Steve opened the door and was subjected to the banshee’s wail, which killed him when he failed the fortitude save.  “Dustin” and Mornrandir went after Caerwyn, only going back for Steve’s body when the drow shook off the fear.

The session derailed from here because of numerous factors:  First, Gabe was getting tired.  He works early in the morning (crack of dawn early) and hadn’t made his character (despite knowing ahead of time we were playing), so we didn’t start the session until a few hours after we had all arrived.  Character creation for Gabe takes hours no matter what game it is so I should have planned for a contingency.  Steve was pretty shell-shocked from getting killed, so he was rather subdued for the remaining session (he could have been tired as well but he was a lot more engaged than Gabe was).  I wanted the players to inch on a bit further (since they were getting close to where I wanted them to go). I hand-waved Steve’s revival by allowing Dustin to do it (despite him being several levels too low to have access to resurrection) and kept the party in the dungeon. The decision felt right especially after they encountered a choker shortly afterwards…but the rest of the session was a lot less intense than what it could have been.

Alternatively, I would’ve enforced Steve’s death and turned the module into a nervous retreat out of the temple.  The party would have to make good use of both Caerwyn and Mornrandir scouting patrols (invisibility would help) while getting out of the temple…and then finding someone willing (especially in a town as disreputable as Nulb) to resurrect Steve.  Ah well.

With Steve shellshocked and Gabe tired, the rest of the session was fairly uneventful aside from the bugbear encounter.  We did acquire the Orb of Golden Death following an anti-climatic battle with a wizard (the basilisk fake-out was pretty sweet, though).  More on that in the next part…

Final Verdict:  Not a terribly good session but that was the fault of the players (Gabe not being prepared, questionable decision-making) and myself (not having a contingency for Gabe, starting the session too late, not bothering with the prior content at all outside of handouts).  Everyone was willing to give Temple of Elemental Evil a second trek, so it’s a win based on the fact the players wanted to keep playing the next weekend.

Next weekend:  The epic conclusion to Temple of Elemental Evil!  Featuring…a returning player who, for all intents and purposes, counts as a new one!  Selling former party members into slavery!  Surfing the Elemental Plane of Water on an animated tower shield!  Anti-climatic dragon fights!  The most morally ambiguous group of PCs getting the best ending to Temple of Elemental Evil before starting Scourge of the Slave Lords!

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit is a pretty good film but there are lots of little things that keep it from being a great film.  Having been written and produced by the same people who did Lord of the Rings, one would think The Hobbit would, at the very least, stand on its own merits as a successful movie.  One would think those writers, editors and directors would not make such a dull, prodding film.  The Hobbit suffers from pacing and structure issues that make a viewer’s return to Middle-earth a difficult experience.  Recently, I posted several changes over the course of a trilogy that made no sense…what follows are a list of questions (listed in bold) and a general critique that prevented me from enjoying The Hobbit.

For starters, why are there three opening acts?  Actually, a better question would be why they were edited to not segue into each other?  The film begins with Bilbo narrating the history of Erebor and Dale until Smaug the Dragon destroys both.  Then the movie cuts to Bilbo having a nice chat with Frodo about the book he is writing about his adventure and the upcoming birthday party shown in Fellowship of the Ring.  Finally, we go to Bilbo 60 years prior where he meets Gandalf, the dwarves and is recruited into their company.

If that sounds confusing, watch the sequence play out on screen.  It’s a giant mess that can easily be solved by editing.  Put the Bilbo/Frodo conversation at the beginning and then have him narrate about Erebor, Dale and Smaug.  Or have the movie start off with just Bilbo writing, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”  Then the exposition about the Lonely Mountain can be given when the dwarves and Gandalf are gathered around the dinner table.  Either is more preferable to the zig-zagging the film does.

Why is Azog alive?  And why does he look like Kratos?  In the books, Azog dies at the Battle of Azanulbizar (the big battle outside the east gate of Moria).  In the movie, they change it so that Thorin only chops off his arm.  Somehow, this orc doesn’t die of infection (commendable for a guy who leads a race that is not known for their hygienical practices) and manages to live another 142 years to inconvenience Thorin.  Why not just have Azog’s son (or great grandson) hold a grudge against the dwarves?  Fellowship of the Ring was particularly awesome at creating a big bad Orc chief that was eventually slain in the film’s climax.  The Hobbit film copies so many other aspects from Fellowship, why not this too?

Speaking of copying from Fellowship, look at the similarities The Hobbit shares with it:  Both films begin in The Shire and within the first half-hour, a party takes place there that lays the groundwork for the plot.  A Hobbit then heads east towards Rivendell, where the enemy’s minions harass him and his companions every step of the way.  The party recuperates in the House of Elrond where a council is held to set in motion the rest of the plot.  The group attempts to cross the Misty Mountains but are foiled, forcing them to navigate through the mountain’s interior which is infested with goblins.  Once they exit, the film’s climax takes place within a forest east of the mountains.  Is this simplified plot describing The Fellowship of the Ring or The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey?  This is not necessarily horrible but it invites comparisons to Lord of the Rings, a standard which The Hobbit has no chance of living up to.

Some of these similarities aren’t bad and are to be expected.  Of course the score for The Shire and Rivendell are going to be the same as they were in Lord of the Rings.  Galadriel and Saruman appearing?  They’re both members of the White Council and they did meet that year, so it makes sense for them to appear.  The orcs convening at Weathertop to plan their next move against Thorin’s company?  Blatant fan service for the sake of it and a poor geographical choice for the orcs to boot (it’s farther away from not only their home in the Misty Mountains but the Trollshaws where Thorin’s dwarves are!).

Next question:  How does Gandalf not know about Dol Guldur?  This might be a question answered in the later films but right now, it’s a fair to ask.  In the books, Gandalf knows Dol Guldur is inhabited by The Necromancer who is actually Sauron.  It’s where he finds Thorin’s dad, who gives him the map and key to Erebor.  The only reason the White Council doesn’t kick Sauron’s ass is because Saruman is the leader and refuses to take action.  The trailers for the film showed Gandalf walking in a sinister area that fit Dol Guldur’s description, so why does he look bewildered when Radagast tells him of Dol Guldur when they meet?  The movies also imply that the darkness in Mirkwood is a recent phenomenon, as it starts during Bilbo and the dwarves’ adventure.  Why change this from the books, where Greenwood has been under encroaching shadow since Sauron took up residence in Dol Guldur?  For a story that desperately needs to stretch itself to fill a trilogy, this change makes no sense.  At the very least, if the darkness in Mirkwood has to be changed, why not have it start around the time Smaug destroys the mountain?

Much criticism has been made of The Hobbit being adapted into a trilogy.  After watching the first act, this criticism is warranted.  It’s hard to believe the same people who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing are responsible for the plodding mess that is the first half of this movie.  There’s an unnecessary chase sequence between the orcs and Thorin’s company that stretches believability.  How do the warg-riding orcs not catch a group of dwarves, a Hobbit and an old man who are traveling on foot?  Axe that whole sequence and have Elrond’s elves find them after the scene with the trolls…problem solved.  It’s even worse if you count the entire Rivendell sequence and realize Bilbo Baggins, the movie’s main protagonist (i.e. The Hobbit of The Hobbit), has dropped out of the movie’s focus for the entire middle portion.

And what does this non-Bilbo time provide the audience?  A sequence to see the White Council convene and decide…nothing.  In the books, they decide to attack the fortress of Dol Guldur.  Even Saruman agrees, if only to keep Sauron from searching the Anduin for the Ring.  In the movies, the Council disbelieves Gandalf’s warnings that Sauron has taken shape there.  They cite a 400 year peace as proof, which is silly because of how old they are (400 years would be a footnote to an elf and wizard) and of prior history in Middle-earth (think how long Sauron terrorized Middle-earth in the Second Age…).  Also, the sword of the Witch-King should be pretty damning proof but instead Saruman brushes it off and Elrond says/does nothing.  Why not cut and/or edit some of those establishing walking scenes and build on why Elrond doesn’t think Thorin’s quest is a wise idea?

Last question:  Why does Galadriel refuse to openly take Gandalf’s side during the White Council?  Elrond seems to hold her in high esteem (he tells Thorin or Gandalf it’s the Lady’s favor they’ll have to earn to continue on their quest…despite the fact that her jurisdiction is nowhere near the Great East-West Road).  She has great respect for Gandalf and supports his decisions every other time…why not the time he needs it most when he’s opposed by Saruman and Elrond?  She even plays along with Gandalf’s plan to keep Elrond and Saruman from noticing Thorin and company from leaving Rivendell (the consequences for which are not shown, so it must not have been a major issue…in which case, it was a waste of screen time).  If that’s the answer, then we have to ask…If Elrond is against Thorin continuing on with his quest, why does he not have his elves watching to make sure the dwarves don’t leave without his notice?

These questions made the film’s first two acts really tough to enjoy because they were always on my mind.  It wasn’t until Thorin’s company are captured by the goblins that the film finally comes into its own.  Goblin-town and its inhabitants look unique from the Moria goblins.  Gollum appears but his interactions with Bilbo during the game of riddles have him come across as a completely different character.  The action sequence that starts with the party’s escape from the mountain and ends in the film’s climax is fun (if over the top) and enjoyable.  The actor performances are amazing and Martin Freeman in particular stands out.  With a better editor, this film would have been enjoyable on its own merits.  Instead, The Hobbit sticks too closely to Lord of the Rings to really flesh itself out and ends up feeling rather like a letdown.

But it was still better than The Dark Knight Rises

d20 Lord of the Rings: Woodland Realm of Greenwood

Currently gearing up for my first ever dungeon, a module that will have lots of branching paths and interactivity.  At least, that’s the plan.  It’s a return to Middle-earth as the PCs help the Dwarves under Durin VII retake Moria!  One of my players is playing Wood Elf and asked how this campaign would relate with canon.  Rather than post a rather lengthy message on Skype, I decided to answer his question here.

There’s little definitive written about the Fourth Age other than the ascension of Men and their dominance of Middle-earth.  This allows for more creative freedom and one of the reasons I GM’d a Fourth Age setting before.  How I went about designing what happens was based on (1) Tolkien’s limited writings, (2) various fan works including the Rome:  Total War mod called The Fourth Age:  Total War, (3) my own roleplaying experiences in Middle-earth, (4) actual ancient history since Middle-earth is suggested to be a precursor to modern Earth and (5) my own personal conjectures of how things should have progressed with the major theme being the world becoming more mundane and less magical.

A Character is Born

A definitive post concerning all the events would take ages to write so we’ll just limit ourselves to the Wood Elves of Greenwood.  Let’s start with when the character would be born and what historical events he may have witnessed.  As someone who has not read The Silmarillion well enough to understand it and knowing that the player has not done so either, we’ll limit his earliest birth date to no earlier than the beginning of the Second Age (SA).

The Second Age:  No specific date is given but it was at that time that Oropher, father of Thranduil, established the Woodland Realm of Greenwood.  Dwarves began to populate Moria in greater numbers around the year 40 SA, their encroachment causing the elves to move north.  This movement was helped along by Sauron establishing Barad-dur in Mordor, work he started on in the year 1,000 SA.  The elves would eventually settle permanently in the north.  The earliest possible age for this character is thus 7,322 years old (2,441 SA + 3,021 TA + 900 FA).

The Last Alliance:  Despite the lengthy time period, nothing of note happens in Greenwood for much of the Second Age.   The Silvan elves are aware of the events going on but stay reclusive until they are called upon to join the Last Alliance.  The elves here would have taken part in the Battle of Dagorlad.  While the battle was a victory for the Alliance, the Wood Elves suffered heavy losses.  Nearly 2/3 of the army was killed, including their king Oropher (their corpses would eventually compose much of the Dead Marshes).  Oropher’s son, Thranduil, would succeed him.  He would lead the remaining elves and take part in the victory against Sauron.  The character may be someone who survived that campaign and took part in the victory against Sauron.

Early Third Age:  Thranduil would also rule Greenwood upon his return and for the next 1,000 years, all was quiet.  Post-war years usually see a baby boom so this is a good interval to place a birth date.  Anytime before the year 1050 Third Age (TA), when Sauron’s shadow fell upon Greenwood, works best.  After Sauron established Dol Guldur, Greenwood becomes known as Mirkwood and it’s a foul evil place.

Middle Third Age:  The wood elves once more relocate themselves north, seeking to escape the shadow of Sauron.  The dwarves of Moria awaken Durin’s Bane and those that survive eventually claim the Lonely Mountain of Erebor.  In 1999 TA, Thrain I founds the Kingdom Under the Mountain and trade relations blossom between the Free Peoples of Rhovanion.  The Kingdom Under the Mountain, the Men of Dale and the Woodland Realm prosper despite Sauron’s power growing.  A character could be born in this wary yet peaceful time.  The peace ends in 2770 TA with the arrival of Smaug the Dragon.  The Dragon descends upon the Lonely Mountain and destroys Dale.  The wood elves’ two major trading partners are now devastated, Smaug occasionally rampages through the forest and with the encroaching shadow of Sauron threatening to overtake them…Thranduil’s people become more reclusive than before.

Later Third Age:  Sauron would be driven from Mirkwood in 2941 TA, an eventful year that also saw Smaug vanquished from the Lonely Mountain.  The wood elves were one of the major players at the Battle of Five Armies.  Thranduil’s people suffered losses but rekindled their relationship with the dwarves of Erebor.  The Men of Dale also rebuild their lands under a new king, bolstering trade relations.  The PC may have fought in the Battle of Five Armies and heard the prophecy foretelling the birth of Durin VII, who would return the dwarves to Moria.  If a younger age for the character is desired, anytime after 2941 TA is a good time to be born.  The shadow has not been cleansed from Mirkwood but it is a happier time than most.

The Shadow Persists:  It also provides the character enough time to have matured before the War of the Ring.  While Sauron may have been driven physically from Dol Guldur, he quickly reclaims his stronghold with the help of his Nazgul.  Only a decade after Smaug’s defeat, Sauron’s prescence is re-established.  The Nazgul begin to amass an army of orcs and goblins to besiege not only the wood elves of Mirkwood but Lothlorien, Dale and Erebor.

Gollum’s Escape:  In June 3018 TA, orcs attack the Woodland Realm.  The assault is driven back but Sauron’s goal was not one of conquest.  Instead, the attack provides the creature Gollum a chance to escape the care of his wood elf captives.  Gollum had left his Misty Mountain home to hunt for Bilbo, a hunt that eventually got him captured by Sauron.  After being tortured there, he was set loose and eventually captured by Aragorn in the Dead Marshes.  From there, he’s brought to Thranduil’s hall and interrogated by Gandalf.  He is then left in the care of the wood elves until he escapes during the battle.  This character could have been one of Gollum’s guards subordinate to the watch leader.

The Battle under the Trees:  The next year, while the orcs of Mordor besiege Minas Tirith, the armies of Sauron and Thranduil clash under the trees of Mirkwood.  The wood elves win convincingly and use the momentum of victory to clear the forest of evil.  With assistance from the elves of Lothlorien and the wood men, Sauron’s taint is finally purged from Mirkwood.  It’s a pivotal battle that the PC may have fought in.

End of the Third Age:  Lord Celeborn of Lothlorien meets with Thranduil a month after the Battle under the Trees and the forest is renamed Eryn Lasgalen, Wood of Greenleaves.  The boundaries established during this battle set the story for the Fourth Age.  The forest north of the mountains belongs to Thranduil’s Woodland Realm.  The section south of the Narrows around Dol Guldur becomes East Lorien.  Everything in between belongs to the wood men and the Beornings.

The Fourth Age

As a new age begins, the Woodland Realm is much the same as it always was.  While they have plenty of trade partners and it is a prosperous time of peace, the elves mainly stay to themselves.  The wood elves are content to leave the world alone to enjoy the natural beauty of the restored Greenwood.  The only exceptions are those in the small group who leave with Legolas to colonize Ithilien.

While the Woodland Realm is rather passive in regards to Middle-earth’s events, they are the most powerful elf nation by default.  Elrond and Galadriel have departed for the west.  Lothlorien is now an empty wood where the golden mallorn trees no longer shine.  Lord Celeborn has left East Lorien to reside with the sons of Elrond in Rivendell.  Lord Seron now oversees the elves of East Lorien and his son rules the Ithilien colony.  Both, however, are very active in Middle-earth’s affairs, particularly in fighting the raiding Easterling warbands.  While elves are very skilled at warfare, their numbers are not replenishing their losses…

The immortality of the elves is well known.  Unless they die of battle or grief, elves live in Middle-earth until they tire of it and choose to sail west for Valinor.  Unfortunately, the wood elves never crossed the Misty Mountains and chose instead to enjoy the world’s natural beauty.  They do not possess the longing of the sea as their other kin do.  With the destruction of the One Ring, the power of the elves has faded and in the case of some older wood elves, that fading is quite literal.

The reason behind elf immortality is because their soul supersedes the body.  As a result, they are creatures resilient to Middle-earth’s physical woes but less so against emotional ones.  Eventually, if an elf does not sail to Valinor, their physical form will fade away entirely.  In the body’s stead is left a rustic wood spirit.  This change is subtle and can go unnoticed by neighboring elves (think Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense).  Such spirits range from all manner of benevolent, apathetic and antagonistic.

Outside of their decline, the wood elves occasionally deal with raiding orc/goblin parties from the Grey Mountains or Gundabad.  These foul creatures are descendents of those who died at the Battle of Five Armies.  The raids are enough to cause a fuss but are a far cry away from the troubling times of the Third Age.  Rumors of dragons in the mountains persist but none have been seen since Smaug.

Politically, Thranduil’s people keep their closest ties with the dwarves of Erebor, the Men of Dale and the Men of Greenwood.  One member of Thranduil’s court, the woman warrior Ariel, has caught the eye of several of Middle-earth’s most prominent men (and elves).  Among their number includes Eir the Champion of Dorwinion, Lord Seron of East Lorien and King Minasdir of Angmar.  Marriage between elves and men often has a powerful influence on Middle-earth so whoever wins her hand can strengthen their nation (not to mention all the boons that come with finding a true love).

Five Changes To Ruin Them All

With The Hobbit being released next month, people are surely overjoyed that Peter Jackson is returning to direct the prequel to one of their favorite series of movies.  There are others that are a bit more cautious, however.  While I’m not pessimistic about the films, I do wonder what changes Peter Jackson will make to The Hobbit trilogy that will infuriate fans of Tolkien’s work.  Perhaps he’ll have Legolas be the one who shoots down Smaug instead of Bard?  Maybe Bilbo will meet 10 year old Aragorn in Rivendell?  Maybe Peter will go the George Lucas route and have that same 10 year old prequel character be a major player in the story?  I jest with these suggestions but it is worth wondering what liberties will be taken with the source material.  After all, The Hobbit’s a shorter book than Fellowship of the Ring and yet it’s going to be a film trilogy.

Despite this, there’s not much reason to be pessimistic about Jackson directing The Hobbit.  The majority of changes in Lord of the Rings actually made a good bit of sense.  Having Arwen find Frodo and take him to Rivendell instead of Glorfindel?  Makes sense.  No reason to introduce a minor character (Glorfindel’s a more major player in the mythos altogether but in Lord of the Rings, he’s a minor character) for a one-off sequence when that role can be filled by someone who needs more on-screen characterization.  Faramir taking the Hobbits to Osgiliath because he wants the Ring for Gondor?  OK.  Don’t like the change (especially to a character Tolkien likened himself to) but the reasoning for it is sound.  They already had one Man prove worthy enough not to take the Ring for himself (Aragorn at the end of Fellowship), two would weaken the influence of the Ring.  Frodo telling Sam to go home?  The moment itself added a bit of drama, it was Sam’s reaction that ruined that change.

And that’s what this blurb is going to be about:  changes Peter Jackson made to the movie from the book that make absolutely no sense and could have been handled better.  I realize Mr. Jackson is the one who has all the money and fame…but that doesn’t make him immune to criticism.

These changes will be listed chronologically and first up is Aragorn not getting Anduril in Fellowship of the Ring.  Aragorn’s entire motivation for reclaiming the throne of Gondor was so he could marry Arwen.  So in that scene where they pledge their love to each other before the Council of Elrond, I figured Aragorn would recant his previous reluctance towards becoming King.  Instead, the sword is not forged until the 3rd movie.  This leads to an awkward scene where Elrond rides to Dunharrow just to deliver a sword.  There also never seemed to be a moment in the movies in-between that Aragorn decided that hey, maybe he should give this whole “King of Gondor” thing a try.  As it is in the movie, Aragorn never seems to evolve beyond reluctant heir who would actually be quite a good king if he bothered to.  Despite being a major protagonist, he feels like a very stagnant character.  Instead of this awkwardness, let’s have the sword reforged in Rivendell before the Fellowship leaves.  Aragorn can then take it, intent on being King so he can marry the one he loves.  The rest of his character development would focus on being a leader.  This leadership learning experience would not only come from leading the Fellowship post-Moria but also in Rohan, where he advises King Theoden and inspires the men at Helm’s Deep.

The Two Towers might be my favorite movie but that doesn’t it exempt it from some critique.  Towers is home to the most egregious changes, one of them being the Lothlorien Elves arriving at Helm’s Deep.  Perhaps it’s cheating to include knowledge of the books but Lothlorien was under attack from Sauron’s forces in Dol Guldur.  It’s really nice of the Elves that they are able to send a company of archers under Haldir’s command to Rohan.  Haldir speaks of an alliance between Men and Elves that existed long ago and the reason for him being there is to show that long-dead alliance has been resurrected.  Perhaps he’s speaking in broad terms but Rohan did not even exist as a nation the last time Sauron was around, so technically speaking, there’s no alliance between the Men of Rohan and these Elves.  An alternative to this scene would be having Aragorn give a moving speech to rally the Men of Rohan (similar to the one he gives at the Black Gate).  Show that while the odds are against these Men, they’ll fight to the last and have hope and faith that things will work out (which it’ll eventually do, as Gandalf shows up with Eomer).  Perhaps if Dol Guldur is destroyed in The Hobbit, this change will be less irritating.

While the Elves at Helm’s Deep is a more nitpicky than some of the other changes, having the Entmoot sequence be completely pointless is a silly deviation.  In the books, Treebeard and the Entmoot deduce that they do need to go to war with Saruman.  In the movies, they decide not to and Pippin has to trick Treebeard into taking himself and Merry south to Isengard.  When Treebeard comes to the freshly-made clearing of all his dead tree friends, he lets out a shout and the Ents all come out to sack Isengard.  If all Treebeard has to do is shout to overrule the Entmoot’s decision, then what was the point of the Entmoot?  Does Treebeard have some sort of supreme veto power that he can exercise?  If the idea is to give the Ents a character arc, there were better ways to do this.  If the Entmoot has to be stubborn in the films, why not have Quickbeam and some other younger Ents voice their frustration?  Have them make arguments that’ll persuade the older Ents to fight.  Merry does this in the film but Treebeard ignores him.  Why the change?

Notice how all the changes mentioned in Two Towers so far have come towards the end?  This is what happens when you have to rewrite the ending to it.  The last change is a result the sequence of Faramir taking the Hobbits to Osgiliath.  Now I sympathize with fans of the book who complain about the change in Faramir’s character but I see the logic behind it.  We already saw one Man reject the lure of the Ring’s power (Aragorn near the end of Fellowship).  If Faramir had done so, the Ring’s influence would have been lessened because now we have two guys who can reject it.  While I don’t like the changes made to a character Tolkien compared himself to, the logic of the film makers’ wins out here.  Faramir taking Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath is not a problem, it’s the scene on the bridge where Frodo nearly puts on the Ring in clear sight of a Nazgul!

This scene raises all kinds of question.  This Ringwraith could fly back to Barad-dur and tell Sauron he saw a Halfling with the One Ring and give him a full description of Frodo’s likeness.  This is the same Frodo who was stabbed in the wraith world on Weathertop.  Wouldn’t this discovery prompt Sauron to send all his available forces to assault Osgiliath, instead of biding his time and only sending “enough” like he does at the Pelennor Fields battle?  Why would Sauron be fooled by thinking Pippin had the Ring when Pippin uses the Palantir in the next movie?  If changes are going to be made to the source material, they need to make sense from both a writing standpoint and character perspective.

It was mentioned earlier that Frodo telling Sam in to leave in Return of the King wasn’t a bad change, it was what resulted from it.  I will stand by that statement because the scene of Sam going down the stairs of Cirith Ungol sobbing is a blatant out of character moment.  Of the entire Fellowship (including Frodo himself), Samwise Gamgee is the most steadfast and loyal.  If Sam didn’t listen to Frodo when Frodo told him to go back at the end of Fellowship, why would Sam listen to Frodo on the border of Mordor?  Sam nearly drowned in the river just to fulfill the “Don’t you leave him” promise he made to Gandalf.  If Sam was willing to risk his own life to stick with Frodo, why would he change his mind in the 3rd act?  Cut the scene of Sam going down the Stairs of Cirith Ungol out.  The next time Sam is on-screen, he’s back to fight Shelob, save Frodo and prove that he’s sticking with Frodo to the bitter end, regardless of whether Frodo wants him to or not.  Instead of a scene that damages Sam’s character, we now have a sequence that reinforces it.

Now the movies are well-regarded.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy is both a critical and financial success.  That said, even the greatest movies have their flaws, some of which could have been easily addressed.  Each of these changes damaged the movies in some regard, either by creating a plot hole that pulls the viewer out of their immersion in the movie or by needlessly damaging a beloved character.  There appears to be a solution to each of the above changes that would have fixed those problems but then it’s not like I was part of the process.  Anyway, careful (or even eager) fans should keep these changes in mind when The Hobbit is released next month.  Maybe people won’t be surprised if a drastic change to the source material is made for film.  It’s not like there’s a precedent…