New on Desk #86 — Coup Review Week

I’ve had a good writing week for a change! Nothing else going on, really, so I’ll just review the Coup campaign, as one does.

Coup review: Hexecontacting Campaign

Ten sessions have gone by since my last general update on how Coup de Main in Greyhawk is doing, so it’s review time again. Update the high score tables, general observations on how the campaign’s doing, etc.

Here are the prior reviews for comparison:

The original campaign pitch
The Decaton Review
The Icosiad Celebrations
The Tritonian Review
The Quadratic Review
The Anniversary Jubilee

The big theme of the Hexadecaton was the hand-off for my GMing hiatus, with the Monday Coup crew having since adventured in Gnarley Forest without me. So far it’s been going great, seems to me! Meanwhile, the Tuesday crew has continued doing advanced adventuring, highly convoluted non-standard adventures that only resemble dungeon-crawling by accident.

Thinking back on this, I personally continue to enjoy the campaign; it’s always fun to go play, I’m not really tiring of this stuff. The hiatus hand-off has dominated my personal perspective a lot, but as far as I can see, others have been having fun with the game, too. Some players have the rhythms of their lives change as seasons pass, which causes uneven participation, but that’s business as usual for a game like this.

At this writing i’m hoping the next decaton to be one where we manage to combine an energetic campaign with me personally not playing much. I’ll get some writing done and come back in later in the fall or whenever the relief GMs feel like giving up the rudder.

Scenarios Played

A summary of the decaton for the Greyhawk crew:

Barbican Adventures: The established routine of delving in dungeons of Castle Greyhawk continued up till session #53, with the adventurers making steady progress, yet with limited gains. The big highlights were defeating and destroying the Old Guard Kobolds tribe and rescuing Stone Battlecreek, who decided to become a retainer to Sven the Reaver in gratitude. Nevertheless, the dungeon corridors seem to extend forever with little rhyme or reason. Quitting the place in favour of adventures promising more treasure became an option once the party managed to arrange for a hand-off of their position to local Rangers.

The Brandonsford Dragon: Attracted by a truly magnanimous adventure hook (1000 GP to slay a dragon!), the party decided to head to the frontier country of the Gnarley forest, ruled by the iron hand of Tuomas-our-new-GM. The dragonslaying adventure was the stylistic opposite of the Barbican Adventures, with ancient tombs full of terrible monsters and great treasures. Nobody important died (I guess… nobody at all?), and the party was feted as heroes by the grateful town of Brandonsford!

Coup de Gnarley: The last few sessions have been dealing with the aftermath of the dragonslaying. With the party now rich, they’ve been sorting adventure hooks in the Gnarley sandbox. They even visited the city of Dyvers to hire up a respectable contingent of hirelings for once. The next actual adventure will surely be discovered soon.

And, in the meantime, the Sunndi crew:

Lalli’s class update adventure: Also known as Tomb of Slaggoth. A tense couple of sessions with Kratos the Fighter losing his life in the most awesome way, Piällikkö the Blackguard becoming an involuntary guest of an ogre family, and Lalli himself losing half his XP as he submitted to the spiritual tyranny of Slaggoth. Fine adventuring, although unfortunately little in the way of treasure was recovered.

Tournament of Fear: This was my stab at a “tournament arc” as a challengeful D&D adventure. In hindsight it was quite fun, albeit the players didn’t necessarily lean into it very hard in terms of leveraging opportunities, which was an interesting thing to see; they outright got their characters killed in tournament hijinks, but their characters weren’t really motivated to excel (few wanted to e.g. quest over the tournament rankings, or to actively sell their aid to other contestants), so that was funny.

Song of the Slave Paladin: This was the second feature adventure for us over this time period, just finished this week. The adventure concerned Slave Paladin John Hawkwood attempting to stage a breakout for himself and Iron Arush, another poor soul enmeshed in the contraptions of the Temple of Doom. Original material (by yours truly, built upon bones delivered by the tournament crowdsourcing), and an exciting adventure for how spycrafty it was despite being set inside a megadungeon!

The Dalmond Initiative: The Tuesday crew has also been trying to set me up for a hiatus, which seems like it will finally happen next week. The overall strategy has Sipi setting up shop in the Sunndian principality of Dalmond (or “Dalmutiland”, as Sipi geniously instantly nailed the theme of the principality), which has already inspired us to do some travel adventuring to reach the place. This’ll surely be the next big thing we’ll (they’ll) do, as the Tomb of the Iron God awaits.

The High Score Table

I list characters of 2nd level or higher. Characters entering from prior campaigns only enter the honor rolls after having showings (leveling), tracked unlisted as “ringers” until then. Name Level’s the Dream, so all honor to the high achievers!

Score         CharacterLeague
Reigning13 283 XP
(ditto)
Phun Eral
Mint Foil Magister of Wee Jas (Theurgist 4)
Selintan
Runner‑Up13 226 XP
(6 030)
Sven Torsson
Mint Reaver (Barbarian 4)
Selintan
2nd RU9 728 XP
(ditto)
Rob Banks
Near-Mint Foil Elder Brother (Thief 5)
Selintan
Honors Roll7 222 XP
(3 082)
Artemur
Fairy Blade Weredeer (Fighter/Elf-Friend 3)
Selintan
2nd7 195 XP
(ditto)
Magister
of the Song (Cultist 4)
Sunndi
3rd3 910 XP
(-)
Ælfstan
Foil Immaculate (Monk 3)
Selintan
4th2 813 XP
(-)
Sparrow
Royal Inquisitor (Paladin 2)
Sunndi
5th2 739 XP
(-)
Peter Pandemic
Wild Goat Ranger (Ranger 2)
Selintan
6th2 530 XP
(2 909)
Lalli
Praetor of Fear (Blackguard 3)
Sunndi
7th2 517 XP
(ditto)
Fridswid
the Elflock (Elf-Friend / Witch 2)
Selintan
8th~2 300 XP
(-)
Rocky Balboa
Fightin’ Cultivator (Fighter 2)
Sunndi
9th2 307 XP
(-)
Saad Maan
Mint Baklun Evil Fighter 2
Selintan
10th2 279 XP
(-)
Kermit the Hermit
Savage Forester 2
Selintan
11th1 865 XP
(-)
Bob
Wretch Foil Commoner 3
Selintan
~4 702 XP
(4 702)
John Hawkwood
Slave Chevalier (Paladin 3)
migrating ringer
31 030 XP
(ditto)
Luigi de Luca
foil Saint (Theurgist 6)
Second Ultramontain
migrating ringer
1 435 XP
(ditto)
Senja
Foreign Battle Master (Fighter 3)
migrating ringer

I think I’m missing one or two Sunndian 2nd levelers on the list. Hazards of giving all the campaign materials to the substitute GM before trying to compile this. In the 2k–3k range, I’d say.

The very top of the pyramid has not grown at all over the last 10 sessions, as Tuomas was at first playing his second character (Waylost, still not 2nd level!), and then running the game for the others. However, the lower ranks have certainly shuffled! Sven, the Coup campaign’s official mascot, finally got his 4th level and bounced up to almost seize the lead. Several newcomers to the lists have extended the honor roll to 11 places in total.

The Sunndian league has had losses, most grievously in the form of Kratos the Fighter plummeting to his doom and Lokki the Warlock succumbing to the perils of cultivation. Lalli the Thief-turned-Blackguard also took it in the chin by losing half his XP to spiritual tyranny. Magister the Cultist still reps Sunndi with honor, but not having been used in play for a while, he’s forced to relinquish his place at the top of the honors roll to Artemur.

The Selintan league has been producing a fair number of level-ups thanks to the dragon questing. Sunndians, in comparison, have engaged in adventures that haven’t really amounted to high XP awards for all the technical merit it’s had. Goes to show, dungeon crawling is where it’s at for low-levelers!

Monday: Coup de Main #59

Coup de Gnarley has been proceeding apace with another orienteering session: the party has been advancing towards their next adventure with deliberate consideration, as befits a hungry party liminally advancing on mid-levels. We’re relying on Tuomas’s GM perspective again:

Our heroes had arrived to city of Dyvers, rival of Greyhawk. They spent well earned week resting, hiring men and digging new adventure hooks.

They asked about the Malevol family and were eventually contacted by agent of the family. They heard that the wizards of Malevols occasionally hired adventurers to procure various artefacts for them and this time they were looking for some magical playing cards from the ruins of St. Clewd’s monastery in central Gnarley Woods and a golden magical compass in some lost tomb near town of Helix south of Narwel.

They also asked how the family felt about Gilbert, who they met last session hiding the Castle Xyntillan gatehouse, shooting arrows at the adventurers. They got the answer that it was unwise to start killing the nobility, even the estranged sons of the family.

Classic adventurer stuff, stylistically. It makes sense that an accomplished party like this could swing a sponsored adventure hook like this. Now to hope that the Malevols aren’t sending the team into a death trap!

And yeah, I totally agree about killing nobility: it sets a bad precedent, you basically have to censure that sort of behavior to maintain the class establishment. If the PCs really want to fuck with Gilbert, the proper thing to do is to capture him and ransom him back to his family.

All put together, our heroes decided to head deeper into Gnarley and investigate the ruined monastery of St. Clewd. The actual travel plans took some time, there was possible route through the hills and forest from Brandonsford directly south to the monastery or take the long route along the roads by Illmire and Narwel. In the end they realized that they had enough money to get horses for themselves and all their recently hired men. 14 men on horse, armed to teeth headed south.

Travel proved exiting this time, they spotted giant weasels with ludicrously valuable pelts but they were too far away and ran before the heroes could do proper violence towards them. They also ran into some moss dwarves and asked them about the Goblin King, got some info and also bought some mushrooms.

Somewhere north of Illmire, during the night something attacked the party camp and made away with half a horse. The recently hired men were rather spooked by this. This proved not be too much of a delay since Illmire was close and new horse was acquired easily.

Roads south proved to be no problem since most problems couldn’t catch horses, these included some mischievous fey and stirges. Heroes spent one day in Narwel asking about the monastery and situation in Gnarley in general and got good brief overview of the local hotspots. Travel continued to Prigworth.

On the way there a crazed wererat made the mistake of attacking the heavily armed group. The men once again got spooked when their weapon did nothing against the ferocious creature that jumped them from the trees but then the PCs, lead by Sven arrived and cut it to pieces (literally). Sven’s leading from the front seemed to impress the men greatly.

Our heroes made arrangements in Prigworth to stay the night and used the evening to go for brief look around at the monastery.

Darn, I hoped it would be a hexcrawling session in honor of the Hexekontakis milestone of the campaign.

Session #60 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 29.6., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like. In celebration of the Hexecontacting Campaign session, Tuomas will surely add a special event into the overland random encounter tables for me.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #36

On Tuesday we finally put the Tournament of Fear to rest by concluding the epic side quest of…

Slave Paladin John Hawkwood
at the Temple of Doom

We’d ended the last session in pretty grim circumstances, with Arush the Iron Arush, the heart and joy of Sunndi’s sports establishment, enmeshed in the dread ploys of the mysterious Riddler. What’s worse, both Arush and the brave adventuring party, ably led by the Slave Paladin, were entombed deep in the Temple of Doom, uncertain of how to get out.

The session once again started with a strategy review; the great thing about this sort of spy thriller adventure is that the players are near constantly teetering on top of the strategic pivot; really exercises the thinking muscles when every new tidbit of information has the potential to recast the entire decision stack. It’s different from how in conventional dungeoneering you “drill” down through strategic layers, and once you’re inside the dungeon wondering which way to go in the labyrinth, all the wider concerns have already been fixed in place.

The key strategic issue was what would happen to Arush after his nocturnal outburst, toppling a statue and generally being a poor guest to the Wastrian shrine. The players smartly decided to find that out first, sending their more-or-less-loyal Temple of Doom cultist, Balboa, to look for Arush at the Tournament of Doom. The third day of the tournament was dawning, so Arush would be fighting in the semi-finals against one of the Order of Fear contestants. Balboa in turn had established himself as something of a fanboy, and the Wastrians didn’t know of his flirting with the forces of Good, so fair odds for him to manage to exchange a few words with Arush.

The approach paid off big time when Balboa did indeed manage to make contact with Arush. The champion had been beaten black and blue (half hit points) after his negotiations with the Wastrians had gone awry: Arush had wanted to abandon the tournament now that he’d discovered a new clue to his family’s whereabouts, but Apostle Nigma had other plans, so here Arush was. Intriguingly the man still didn’t seem to understand or accept that his “benefactor”, Nigma, surely was the very same Riddler who’d been leaving him these mysterious clue scrolls.

Arush had cracked the new scroll’s hint on his own, the adventurers learned, and as befit his programming in the hands of the Riddler, he couldn’t wait to follow the lead. Something like this, translated into English:

“The domain of ever-thirst, down the stairs of darkness, a hidden way to be found. Down through the fearsome path, hidden ways into the hall of many pillars, passing the supporting star, therein what you seek, laid to rest underground.”

(While the riddle encodes a bunch of route information that may or may not be useful for the adventurers, the main clue, which Arush correctly solved on his own, is the reference to the “domain of ever-thirst”, one of the poetic bynames of the Grandeecombs, a dungeon level in the Temple of Doom. The players had adventured there in the past and knew about the association, so not so difficult for them either.)

What happened here is something that occurs in wargamey D&D specifically, something that many other styles of roleplaying do not have, namely an anti-dramatic turn: if this entire adventure was a story, then the PCs failing to convince Arush to follow them at the end of the last session would surely have been, would have to have been, the emotional and thematic climax. Here we find instead that, due to the dice falling as they would, the event was far from decisive: Arush was still alive, he still had the scroll, had in fact solved it, and was 100% ready to go delve some catacombs as soon as he cleared up this tournament bullshit.

Or, maybe even before then: with the adventurers helping him, it wasn’t that difficult for him to get out and fuck off. The clever gits actually got Sinister Thaal, the head referee and Grandmaster of the Order of Fear, to help smuggle Arush out. For him it was kinda an obvious thing to do, as it prevented Nigma from having further victories against him in their status game, and with Arush disappearing moments before the semifinals his own guy would win instead.

(This all accidentally happens to align with the way things went the first time we played through the tournament, to be clear; we assumed at the time as well that Arush would be MIA starting with the semis. With the foibles of player participation being what they are, the players of the Slave Paladin and Lalli the Blackguard, two prominent tournament PCs, never seem to participate in the same sessions. Thus we essentially ended up playing through the events of the tournament two times in two parallel adventures. No particular trouble, particularly as the second adventure conveniently ends up with the exact same tournament outcome.)

Venture into the Catacombs

It is safe to say that having Balboa, a native inhabitant of the Temple, helping the party (for all his motives were opaque to me) made a great difference in the planning and pathing of the journey down into the Grandeecombs. Balboa knew a limited subset of routine travel routes through various parts of the Temple, and could therefore lead the party on a path that didn’t require them to outright dungeoncrawl through five levels to get where they were going.

Another effect of Balboa’s participation is that with his particular bias over which parts of the megadungeon are familiar and which aren’t, the party ended up going [First Darkness] -> [Jungle Maze] -> [River Cavern] -> [Frigidus’s Cult] -> [Grandeecombs] instead of the the route hinted at by the clue, which would have gone [First Darkness] -> [Fear Below] -> [Deep Darkness] -> [secret entry to Grandeecombs]. With Balboa on hand, the first route was no doubt easier.

(To be clear on the context, this entire adventure is horribly difficult. As it unfolded, I was constantly surprised by how well the adventurers were doing. Like here, those who know about dungeoncrawling might shake their head at the idea that the adventure is asking the party to delve down to what amounts to the 5th dungeon level or so. I treated all of this more as an exercise in cutting your losses — knowing when to give up — when designing the adventure.)

One interesting choice the adventurers made here was that they chose to shed a couple of their NPC reinforcements from the crypt rescue; the player characters still went, as did Arush and Eccentrix the Dragon, but the two gunmen, John Steele and Melville the Frenchman, were left to wait for the party to return. I never quite found out what advantage there was to this choice, considering how things might well have turned out different if they had the extra strength of arm (and gun) with them.

With Balboa leading the party through the safest and quickest paths, I opted to use “summary execution” procedure instead of the usual dungeon crawling procedure for the passage through the intervening dungeon levels. Just some random encounter checks and a summary narrative discussion of what various kinds of underground tunnels the path took the party. Makes for much, much faster progress through dungeons, but more importantly maintains fog of war better for future operations; it’d be a bit cheap for me to just give half a dozen dungeon levels worth of maps to a player who’s playing a native inhabitant, spoiling them entirely, all just to be able to say that their character leads the party through a direct and safe route. Better for long-term use of the dungeon to summarize the travel, as that way the player can later participate in dungeon crawling these very same places from a position of ignorance.

The most important landmark on the route was the captive sacrifices room in the Jungle Maze. It was important for several reasons:

The room was a cannibal jail for captured victims; could the Paladin leave these people to their fate?
There was a large rift in the ceiling of this particular cavern, letting in sunlight.
The secret path that the Gorilla Gym uses visit First Darkness from their own lair goes through the room.
A guardian gorilla and a half dozen guard dogs happened to be in the room.

So that was a bit of action and paladin morality play for us. The funniest part was when the party Cleric aced their gorilla diplomacy such that the guard gorilla gifted them a golden amulet. The gorilla was clearly bossing the dogs around, as those didn’t dare attack either.

Moving on, the party passed through the river cavern, losing an unfortunate player character to drowning, and then deeper into the earth, ultimately making their way down to the Grandeecombs. Therein we went back to normal dungeon crawling procedure, as Balboa didn’t know where to go in the expansive crypts; the players would have to figure that out for themselves.

Balboa, in fact, decided to not enter the crypts for Temple faction political reasons. Probably a smart move, that. Grodd’s Gym and the Nihilists actually have better relations than most factions, but amusingly enough that’s still not something Balboa wanted to bet on here.

Discovering the Bad End

The adventurers encountered some local death cultists, the “Nihilists” who worship Grandee the Silent (NB: Solomon Grundy of DC superhero lore), but didn’t have much patience for them. The concept of the baseline Nihilist is that they’re pretty weak, a bit of a comic element in the cartoony grim Temple of Doom social tapestry. I’m not surprised if the players after several encounters have taken to treating them a bit like goblins.

There are, however, more potent members in the cult, as the adventurers found out when they encountered two of the three high priests in their outer sanctum. Crypt-Keeper and Old Witch, 4 HD death cultivators, happened to be amiable, which I take to mean that they didn’t take offense to the murder of their initiates. It’s a nihilistic death cult, so what’d you expect, anyway. (I imagine that had Vault-Keeper, the super-ego of the triad, been there, the priesthood would have been less amiable to outsiders.)

The players here did the boss adventure gamer move of bribing Crypt-Keeper and Old Witch with the golden amulet they’d gotten earlier from the tame gorilla. It was a quest item all along instead of treasure, clearly! (The Old Witch even remarked about how it was rare for stolen treasure to make its way back into the Grandeecombs.) Convinced by the tribute, the death priests pointed the adventurers to the direction of the “hall of many pillars”. They also confirmed that Apostle Nigma had indeed been wandering the crypts for his riddling games, and had even marked one of the tombs with his curious glyph. (Similar to this, except green: ❓)

So yeah, good play there with the death priests; the party encountered some giant rats, but otherwise it was relatively smooth sailing, as they soon found a room with a singular distinctly star-shaped (in cross-section) supporting pillar. As the players had not figured out that the clue scroll described a secret passage into the crypts, they tried hard to make sense of how they could have missed the hall of many pillars while finding the “supporting star”. (The hall of many pillars would have been further on, beyond the star chamber, with the secret entrance Riddler was thinking of at its back.)

The navigation concerns fell by the wayside when we actually found a tomb entrance marked with a rather blatant Riddler glyph. For context, by this point the party was pretty morbid about Arush’s quest: surely Nigma had simply placed another clue in this place? Or if he had placed Arush’s family in here, why ever would they still be alive in this gloomy place… Arush himself, of course, was literally unable to consider such possibilities, and of course we wouldn’t turn back at this point, having come so far.

The climax of the adventure was such a great piece of gothic horror D&D; yes, that particular combination is clearly real. Picture this: a dark mausoleum at the bottom of a staircase, with two sarcophagi newly moved in. Arush makes a WIS check and absolutely nails it, so he understands now, seeing this place. Except, can he allow himself to understand, considering how the Riddler has prepared him for this moment, set him up just so for a horrible psychological blow? Arush leans on a wall, mumbles incoherently, sits down on a convenient bench at the entrance. The adventurers are helpless to aid him; some understand more, some less, of what is happening, but none have any immediate idea of what to do.

You see, what Arush understands is that there’s a 4d8 psychological attack hanging for him here. He realizes (yet cannot afford to know!) that it is most likely his dead family in those stone chests. But if (and even the hypothetical, were he to consider it, drops one of those damage dice on him instantly) he were to see it… the damage would drop immediately. And while Arush has a hellacious HP pool, he was beaten to half HP in the morning, he’s not in the shape to take this. Yet, he can’t really retreat either, now can he? No, it is impossible: Arush has to face the truth, take the damage before he can leave. But doing that, suicidal when on some level (the WIS check working overtime here) he already knows what he’s going to find. Such a great moment of static horror.

(To be clear, what we had here was a mental trap, a thing Apostle Nigma with his twisted intellect is capable of creating. The moment Arush stepped into the room and comprehended the sarcophagi, he was trapped; it was only his WIS check that allowed him to delay the onset. Anybody could produce psychological damage like this in Coup by e.g. kidnapping a person’s loved one and killing them in front of the target, but Nigma’s set-up here certainly pushes the envelope in that regard. A baseline human would almost certainly be driven into gibbering lunacy by the 4d8 intensity.)

The excellent part was that while this rather non-standard D&D situation was a mystery to some players, others clearly understood immediately what was going on. So the players kept prodding Arush, telling him things, demanding things as he sat there. They actually managed to drop 1d8 of the damage on him by suggesting to him out loud that his family is probably dead; not something a man in his fragile state of mind needs to hear. Then again, forcing him to face the situation would make it easier to talk him out of the crypt: the PCs needed a CHA success of degree equal to the number of damage dice remaining to get Arush out. So it was this interesting locked-in situation where the careful (and not so careful) maneuvers of the PCs could maybe extricate Arush from the metaphorical minefield he was standing in. And different players kept doing different tactics: one’s all “we need to heal him and then ding another die!”, another’s “one of us gotta succeed in this 3rd degree CHA check!” and a third is “I’ll open that fucking sarcophagus myself!”

Speaking of, total horrorcore moment when the party Cleric goes and manages to push the stone lid of one of the sarcophagi open. There’s clearly something in there, and with the Cleric being one of these 1 HP winners, that something just grabs on his neck and pulls him into the chest. The lid very satisfyingly happened to fall back in, too, so it was all this smooth jump scare moment. First you have the Cleric and his torch there, then something happens and in an eye-blink the torch falls to the floor, unattended. Nobody dares listen too closely to the sarcophagus. Arush, of course, takes another d8 of mental damage, for all that he doesn’t quite look in that direction.

Best scene of the entire Tournament, and we’ve had some humdingers!

Another great detail: this entire adventure was set up by Eccentrix the Dragon, right? He’s this peppy no-nonsense optimistic Good operator, an astral summon sent by Arush’s parents to save him. Eccentrix has been up in Arush’s business all this time, and we’ve established how Arush doesn’t particularly like the dragon. One of the long-running gags throughout the adventure has been that the two have tended to end up situations where Arush throttles the dragon for one reason or another. A man of great passions, Arush.

So we’re running out of characters: left a few NPCs back in First Darkness to wait our return; lost one in the river; Balboa left the party to take the last leg alone; and of course the Cleric just now disappeared inside a chest. So basically we’re down to the Wizard (a passive player, don’t expect independent action), the Slave Paladin himself, and Eccentrix the Dragon. The Slave Paladin commands everybody out of the tomb for now, let Arush alone. 2d8 hanging on Arush, with him at single digit HPs. Attempts to convince him to leave, failed.

Arush is down in the crypt, thinking who knows what, probably trying to talk himself away from the brink of this very theatrical gothic insanity. The rest of the party is up top, and it’s an argument between the Slave Paladin and Eccentrix the Dragon: Hawkwood the Paladin is a hard man of the “hard choices while hard” school of though, so he absolutely doesn’t get what’s going on with Arush here. And Eccentrix hilariously fails his WIS, so he’s all “what’s going on, is this some mammal thing?”, completely blind to the sociopsychological dynamics that this trap operates on. So one of these buffoons thinks along the lines of “if Arush wants to stay down there with a crypt monster, that’s on him!”, while the other is all “I’m panicking, is this some kind of curse, why is nobody explaining what’s going on?”

Eccentrix cannot (possibly physically cannot, being a summoned creature geased to action) abandon Arush, so when John Hawkwood decides that he cannot help Arush and they need to leave, Eccentrix instead figures out that Arush is in danger and that he has to go back down there to “help” him (while explicitly not understanding what’s going on). This is fine with the PCs because, well, in Hawkwood’s world humans have agency, so when they tell you this or that you take them at face value. This has been a massive theme in the adventure all along, as Arush has been influenced, manipulated, hypnotized in subtle ways that cannot be summarized neatly as “he’s been Charmed!” (or maybe it can, but nobody’s made the determination!), all in preparation for this cruel moment. The players have generally been very willing to subscribe to the hard man agency theory, which means that every time Arush tells them something self-destructive and stupid, they’re all “well that’s a relief, now its his fault if something bad happens!” Basically, these are men who are happy to witness a suicide and not lift a finger because “that’s what he said he wants!”

(Without going into the philosophy of whether this is a responsible or realistic way to think about life in the real world, consider this: the adventure goal is to “save Arush”. The party would be culturally pretty well set up to save Arush from say threatening monsters — if the hero needed saving from such — but saving him from fatigue, poor judgement, nefarious advice and, well, evil magical influence, is clearly much harder.)

So the party lets Eccentrix the NPC go down and join Arush the NPC in the crypt, while the PCs outright leave. I could have just left the outcome ambiguous, but with the players committing to letting events proceed without them, and with the scenario more rewarding if you actually know what’s going on, I quickly resolved what happened in that tomb:

Eccentrix goes down, distracts and annoys Arush.
Arush decides that sooner or later his attention will stray and he’ll take that lingering 2d8, possibly driving him insane. Better to open the chests to resolve this; maybe they’re not what he fears and this is all a big bluff.
But no, it totally is: Arush’s wife is a 4 HD vampire spawn, his son, daughter and dog zombies.
The 2d8 realizes, plus seeing this horrible mockery deals +1d8 damage per chest opened. Arush goes raving mad.
Arush cannot face the mockery of the undead, throttles Eccentrix to death in shame.
The monsters slay Arush. The corpse will surely end up as party favours of some sort.

I think that the weight of these unseen monsters was a big element in the player decision-making: they pretty much knew (not having the cognitive impairment Arush was operating under) that there was something in them, and they didn’t want to be there to find out what it was. The Slave Paladin hid so hard behind his “hard man” narrative to retain his paladin honor when choosing to abandon Arush. Can’t say that you’re too coward to help the man fight his wife turned vampire, but you sure can convince yourself that you’re just respecting the man’s agency, so if he wants to be left in a tomb, then by all means.

(To be clear, this kind of hypocrisy works fairly well in the Coup campaign vis-a-vis the Paladin code because the character’s self-image is one of the main components of their paladin honor. If the character themself thinks that they’re being a honorable knight, then they are.)

Still, I’m sure we’ll all be thinking about the scenario for a while afterwards: could it have ended in a different way? For me personally it’s most notable how the party never seriously considered outruling Arush: outright force him down, tie him up and kidnap him. If you actually believe that his family is dead and this entire clue-hunt plays into the hands of the bad guys, what is it that’s keeping you on the rails, exactly? Opening those sarcophagi was never destined to happen.

Apostle Nigma got a Level from this, by the way, so he’s now an 8th level Saint. For him this whole Arush thing worked out quite well, as he got to pull down his great rival, Sinister Thaal, by mocking his tournament, and then neatly finish Arush by his own hand, proving to his demented mind that he’s superior to the Temple of Pelor.

History Turning to Farce

Although Arush was a lost cause, and with him the quest to rescue him, Slave Paladin himself still had a fat stack of XP riding on his own freedom. He just needed to get out of the Temple of Doom. Shouldn’t be that hard with everything the party’d learned so far.

I find that I never grow tired of the refrain where the players remind the group that “my character can just walk out of here!” Yes your 1st level character indeed doesn’t have the enemies or infamy that John Hawkwood has, so fair odds nobody will stop him if he shows his visitor pass at the gates and gets out while the Tournament is still on-going. It’s the tone that makes that statement so amusing: it’s half smug, half excited, fully unconcerned about Hawkwood as long as their own posterior is covered. Very human, that. Most players probably didn’t really think that it would be up to them to figure out how Hawkwood could get out. After all, why save the 3rd leveler when your 1st level character is just fine.

(Hint: we’re in the game together. Difficult for anybody to advance if everybody just checks that their own character is safe and then tunes out because the rest is somebody else’s problem.)

Through this whole thing, the players have been consistently over-estimating Hawkwood’s infamy, to the extent that they’ve pretty much concluded that he possibly couldn’t just walk out of the Temple. Fair as far as that goes, as he would need a visitor pass of the sort distributed to every guest of the Temple during the Tournament of Fear. I appreciate that Hawkwood himself as a Paladin never entertained the possibility of taking such a pass from somebody (thus condemning that somebody to the mercies of the Temple), but I can say that if I had a character in this scenario, and they were not a Paladin, I’d have just knocked out some lowlife and given Hawkwood a damn pass. Keep it simple, and all that. Well worth the risk in terms of XP alone, as there was a whopping 10k XP award riding on Hawkwood’s freedom.

The players, while figuring out how to escape the Temple, knew that a) there are places in the dungeon where sunlight gets in through holes in the ceiling, and b) the Wizard has the Spider Climb spell. The Wizard player even asked about climbing out through the hole in the Jungle Maze that they’d seen in passing. Pretty amusing how this never cohered into a plan along the veins of casting Spider Climb on Hawkwood and letting him climb out of the Temple. It was getting late by now, so the players probably weren’t thinking most clearly. Still, it was outright discussed and then promptly set aside for no reason I could see. Pretty good odds of working, too.

Instead, Hawkwood ended up attempting a daring escape with John Steele in his trusty armored car: the idea was that Steele, who had a contestant pass, would wait with the car until the finals ended, and then join the big throng of people who would surely want to get out of the Temple. In the hassle of the big crowd of exiting visitors Steele’s car wouldn’t be examined very carefully by the Temple Guard, so Hawkwood could just hide in the car.

Not a bad plan as it goes, but the dice weren’t cooperating, so Hawkwood was discovered! The situation went ugly, with Steele actually dying in the skirmish with the guards. Hawkwood himself might have survived (the man actually has a fate-based protection of some degree), but we’ll dice for that at some point later. Had to end the session here, as the adventure had pretty much concluded. Total failure, except for Balboa the cultist, who got their rewards for helping Arush meet his destiny. Nobody ever found out that he had helped a paladin (pretty much a death sentence in the Temple of Doom, that).

Actually, as the player told me to figure out Hawkwood’s fate, best if I roll for it right now. It’s 2/6 for surviving the skirmish with the guard alive, and a further 3/6 for his Dark Fate to interfere… <rolling in Discord>… Yeah, he survived! Miraculously, only because it is his fate to [it’d be telling]! John Hawkwood was defeated alive, and probably brought in chains back to his new owner, Sinister Thaal of the Order of Fear! A sad end, particularly in that the next decision point will probably be to convert to the service of the Yellow Light (become Blackguard), or die. We’ll look into that at some point with the player, no doubt.

Reference: final death tally of the Tournament

One key reason for why I could have such a nuanced Tournament of Fear was that the online players helped me create combatants for the tournament! As I promised at the time, I would use the entrant characters ruthlessly as NPCs, but the players who helped me could get the characters back afterwards to use as player characters if they wanted to. Assuming they’d survive the tournament, of course!

So with the conclusion of the Hawkwood-Arush side quest, I can provide a final survivor tally; we shouldn’t have any further reason to go back to the tournament scenario and mess with things. Aside from the player characters, here’s a simple list of who survived and who didn’t among the NPCs:

Survivors

Meinhard — 1st round loss.
Noble Telonius — 2nd round defeat.
Obert — Wins 3 rounds, opponent disqualified in the semis, relinquishes finale spot.
Pandur — Relinquished 1st round spot to ally, seeded again on 2nd to win, lost 3rd.
Pravos — 1st round loss, serious injury.
Raghu — 1st round loss, serious injury.
Shahoon — 1st round loss.
Shana — 1st round loss.
Sulman — 2nd round loss.
Blackhook — 1st round loss, bought into 2nd round, also a loss.
Dadir — 2nd round loss.
Medi — 2nd round loss, magically enslaved to Lyra.
Lyra — 3rd round loss, survived exhausted.
Kieza — 1st round loss, survived with modest injuries.
Richardo — Took a dive on 1st round, bought 2nd round slot, lost.
Lotar — Qualified for reserve, didn’t compete.
Bromb — Qualified for reserve, didn’t compete.
Zarthasan — Fought his way through all the way to victory in the Tournament!
Jarque — 1st round humiliating defeat.
Molvar — Qualified for reserve, seeded for 2nd round, sold spot.
Seela — Qualified for reserve, seeded for 2nd round, gave up her spot.
Geoff — Qualified for reserve, didn’t compete.
Melville — Qualified for reserve, didn’t compete. Fought for Arush, escaped the Temple by the skin of his teeth.
Tonus — Qualified for reserve, didn’t compete.
Duran-Dun — Didn’t qualify.
Garag — Didn’t qualify.
Hardran — Didn’t qualify
Jack Stone — Didn’t qualify
Kester — Didn’t qualify.
Ostrot — Didn’t qualify.
Small Fang — Didn’t qualify.
Zak the Wyld — Didn’t qualify.
Zeilee — Didn’t qualify.

Casualties

Eccentrix the Dragon — dead in a regrettable vampire-related accident
Shankaracharya Jayavant — 1st round loss, perished in recovery.
Turak — 1st round mutual serious injury.
Etukhan — 1st round mutual kill.
John Steele — 1st round loss. Fought for Arush, died in attempting to abet the Slave Paladin’s escape.
Arush — Dead of tournament-unrelated vampiric causes.
Ssshtak the Salamander — 1st round mutual death.
Medi — 2nd round loss, magically enslaved to Lyra.
Jeremias — 1st round loss, perished of blood loss.
Pekka — 1st round death.
Zahr-Eir — Fought and won until round 3, died to a Blackguard.
Zealios — Challenged for spot before 1st round, died of injuries.
Tuhar Tatambo — 1st round death in a fiercely fought duel.
TUM-R-ELO-3 — Qualified for reserve, joined 2nd round of tournament, died on the field.
Arman Savage — Eaten by ghouls.
Bardel — Mysteriously eaten by ghouls.
Bitus Bitumen — Mysteriously eaten by ghouls.
Juber Harsa — Eaten by ghouls.
Kuep — Eaten by ghouls.
Vinodi — Mysteriously eaten by ghouls.

Roughly 60% survival rate. Pretty much what I was shooting for when planning this thing!

If you gave a character to this madness, they survived, and you want to recover them into your character stable, let me know; they might have picked up something or other from the experience.

State of the Productive Facilities

#NameStatus
1Character CreationDone
2Fighter ClassDone
3Thief ClassDone
4Cleric ClassDone
7ExperienceEditing
9Combat RulesDone
10AlignmentEditing
15Paladin ClassDone
17Barbarian ClassEditing
25Divine CultivationDone
26Physical CultivationEditing
27Martial ArtsDone
29Hex CrawlingEditing
30Downtime ActivitiesConcept
31Economic ModelingConcept
32RetinuesConcept
36Magic ItemsConcept
38Campaigning in GreyhawkConcept
40Sanity and StressConcept
42More OathboundDone

I’ve been focusing on CWPs this week, and finished #3 and #4. You can see where I’m at from the accompanying summary. Almost halfway done with finished pieces. If I were to finish two a week, it’d still take over a month to be done with these, so hurray for overly ambitious projects.

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