Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Monday, August 30, 2010

Session 9: Best Laid Plans

Continuing the exploration of the third level of the crater, the party quickly stumbled upon a secret door leading to a spiral staircase leading down.  A cold waft of air they felt as they opened the door suggested that the staircase descended to great depths.  Having already skipped the 2nd level of the dungeon, this party of 1st to 3rd level decided that going even deeper could only be a good thing.  Oddly, most of the players have played Diablo.

They descended the staircase for half an hour before it ended in a passageway sloping downward, and followed it to discover that it was a switchback path leading even deeper into the bowels of the earth.  A day and half later found them still descending, when they heard footsteps ahead and saw the soft glow of lantern light in the distance.  Coming up the path was a Drachmari elf named Talarion traveling with a dwarf, and two humans.  The party attacked without warning, casting, sleep and hold person, which left only the dark elf able to fight back.  They questioned the elf, and learned that the band of strangers hailed from the subterranean city of Dragotha, which meant 'hidden city' in the dwarf tongue and were on their way up to the crater to trade with Sothiss the necromancer.

The party was dismayed to learn that Sothiss, the object of their quest, was a day and half's travel back the way they had come - uphill this time.  Apparently bypassing levels isn't always a good idea.  Who knew?  They were able to turn this chance encounter to their advantage, however, by convincing Talarion and his band to aid them in slaying Sothiss in exchange for a large sum of gold and first pick of Sothiss's treasure hoard.

Since Talarion and his band had done business with Sothiss on several occasions, and were expected by him, meeting with the necromancer was an easy matter and the party posed as Talarion's helpers.  The plan was that Talarion and his band would wait until the party attacked with surprise and then join in to slay the necromancer.  The only hitch in the plan was that when the time came, none of the PC's wanted to be the one to initiate the attack.  They delayed until the business transaction with Sothiss was complete - rare subterranean fungi in exchanged for zombie slaves to be taken back to Dragotha - and Sothiss dismissed the mercenaries and returned to his lair.  The opportunity was lost.  To make matters worse, Talarion and his band no longer wanted to be part of such  half-assed treachery and felt that since they no longer had any legitimate reason to be in Sothiss's dungeon, there was no chance of getting close to him without arousing suspicion.  Thus, Talarion and company took their zombie coffle and departed for the depths of Dragotha, leaving the PC's to go necromancer-hunting on their own.

The party now had no idea where Sothiss was in the complex and hand to search room by room until they found him.  When they finally did track him down, the necromancer was, indeed, immediately suspicious of attack.  The only thing that saved the party from horrible doom was a lucky first initiative roll that allowed them to close to melee range, followed by some exceptionally lucky saving throws against Sothiss's spells.  Caught alone without any undead protectors Sothiss, quite predictably, fell quickly to the sharp steel blades of the party.  Though the PC's completely pooched a beautiful plan, they managed to triumph through dumb luck.

After looting the level and recovering the mysterious orb that Brother Frosk demanded as payment for resurrecting Jin, the party instead of returning to the Flaming Faggot, elected to head down the long path to Dragotha and explore the fathomless depths below.  As heavily laden as they are it is going to be a long trip...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Psychology of Adventure

"We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.  Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!  I can't think what anybody sees in them."
-B. Baggins

I've had ample occasion to ponder and sympathize with this point of view over the past couple of weeks doing field work on the north end of Lake Winnipeg.  I'm often amused at how field work is often idealized by laymen who perceive it as glamorous adventure.  Well, okay, sometimes it is, but mostly it's nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable and all too often makes you late for dinner.  The glamor fades pretty quickly in the sweltering heat while you're being devoured by thick clouds of mosquitoes and black flies; or, as was the case this year, cold and wet.  It rained for days without pause.  Some days the wind gusted so strong that it rained sideways.  One day the rain turned to sleet - even in Canada, that's just wrong.  At least the black flies had the sense not to go out in weather like that.

The first two days of work consisted of exposing new limestone beds by shoveling and sweeping ground cover off of them.  This is pretty unromantic, tedious work, and my blisters are only now healing.

Cleaning the Outcrop

After the newly exposed section was uncovered and cleaned we were finally able to settle down to the real job at hand: levering up limestone slabs and carefully examining them for fossils.

Graham Young examines rock with hand lens
 As uncomfortable as my field work often is, there are very seldom any monsters trying to kill me. (though one of my friends was mauled by a bear, one of my professors died in a helicopter crash, and I once had a run-in with a crazy shot-gun wielding farmer in northern Wales, but that's a story for another time).  All this has led me to wonder what sort of person would pursue adventuring and dungeon-delving as a career.  Many protagonists in fantasy literature are reluctant heroes, thrust into dangerous adventures by circumstance rather than by choice.  Notable exceptions are pulp-era heroes like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but even they often get swept up in events not of their choosing.  Only role playing game characters actually go looking for trouble.

A couple of weeks in the field always gives me new appreciation for the comforts of home that I might otherwise take for granted: a soft bed, a comfortable chair with a good book and a pot of fresh coffee.  Just imagine the life of the itinerant wanderer: sleeping on the ground in all manner of weather, being roused in the night to battle the menace that some sadistic bastard rolled up on his random encounter chart - only to finally descend into the subterranean depths risking an all-too-likely death in hope of hauling out some treasure.  There's got to be a better way to make a living.

It's funny that I've never given a lot of thought to what motivates adventurers, given how often I've played one, but I think it must be a combination of one or more of the following traits: desperate, suicidal, or just plain crazy.

Desperate: there isn't much that someone won't do when they have nothing left to lose.
Suicidal: personal tragedy can lead to a death wish; when you don't have anything to live for, there isn't much that scares you.
Crazy: this covers a lot of ground, from thrill-seeking adventure junkies, gambling addicts, and misanthropic outcasts who don't fit society's mold.  I think most player characters fit into this category and share a lot in common with the sort of men who went off to try their hands at prospecting during the gold rush.

When you compare the number of player characters that die to those that retire wealthy, you've got question the reward-to-risk ratio.  In my own case, I've put in a lot of long, back-breaking hours over the years to accumulate my bit of "treasure," and this past summer there were a number of rare and outstanding fossils found, including two fully articulated eurypterids preserved together on a single slab, one giant eurypterid - possibly the largest Ordovician eurypterid ever found, and a brachiopod with it's fleshy pedicle preserved (something I've been searching for my entire career), but none of them were found by me.  It makes it worse, somehow, to be enduring grueling field conditions when people all around you are making incredible finds and all you've got is a rock.

This, too, is reminiscent of adventuring.  You know, when it comes time to loot the bodies of the orcs you just killed, and Bob the Cleric finds a magic ring while all you find is some tarnished copper pieces and a dead rat.

Despite it all, I'll keep putting my characters in mortal danger in hopes of someday making that big score, just as I know that next summer will find me back in the field, enduring the discomfort and the blood-sucking insects, in hopes of making an even bigger score.  I can't help myself - I must be just plain crazy.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gone Fossil Huntin'

I just wanted to let everyone know that I will be doing field work for the rest of August, so there won't be any further posts until September.

Hopefully, I'll find some cool stuff to turn into even cooler monsters when I get back.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

My Retirement Dream

This has been the summer of home-repair-hell.  Between a kitchen renovation, that has been going on since mid-June and last week's emergency chimney repairs, my bank account is about $30,000 lighter than it was two months ago.  Yesterday, as I was mowing the lawn and hacking down the forest of weeds that have grown out of control during this unusually  hot and humid summer, I was wistfully fantasizing about condos.  After the past couple of months, paying a condo fee to not have to worry about home repair or gardening is sounding awfully attractive.  Of course, this isn't going to be practical any time soon, but when I retire...

My grandfather used to live in a seniors retirement condo complex, and it was a pretty sweet set-up.  The unit was very comfortable and the balcony overlooked well-maintained grounds with nice walking paths throughout, and every room had an emergency pull-cord in easy reach to signal the nursing home next door.  The best part though, was all the amenities, like a common lounge and games room on every floor, and my grandfather always enjoyed meeting other residents every day for afternoons of snooker and billiards.

This got me to wondering whether role playing has become mainstream enough among those of us now in our 40's that twenty five years from now we'll be sitting around those retirement homes playing D&D all afternoon.  Now, I can't speak for everyone else, but I plan to keep gaming until they nail my coffin lid shut and I don't think I'm alone here.

I see the typical day going something like this: breakfast on the balcony with coffee and a good book, followed by miniature painting in the mid morning.  After lunch meet up with cronies to walk in the garden and bemoan the decline of modern society, punctuated by an occasional shaken fist at passing teens, after which we retire to the games room for an afternoon of dungeon exploring, monster slaying and treasure looting.  After supper, fall asleep on the couch in the middle of good movie.

Wouldn't it be cool if there was a senior's condo unit that catered specifically to geriatric gamers?  The lounge areas could have sand tables for miniatures war games, and purpose-built gaming tables with super comfy chairs.  Put some vending machines, and perhaps a Slurpee machine in easy reach and we'd be set.  I know this is a long shot, but this is a retirement dream.

I know lots of people dream about retiring somewhere warm, and they're welcome to it.  Me; I'd rather spend my remaining years sharing epic adventure and rolling dice with like-minded friends.  Who's with me?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Weird Wonder Wednesday: Sea Cucumbers

This week I'm continuing my discussion of the most outre of animal phyla, the echinoderms, this time focusing on the Class Holothuroidea, better known as the sea cucumbers.
 I find the comparative anatomy of echinoderms fascinating.  The phylum is, of course, united by its characteristic pentameral symmetry, meaning that its body parts come in multiples of five.  But also, although the different groups of echinoderms, such as starfish, sea-urchins, sand dollars, sea lilies, and sea cucumbers appear to be vastly different they all share the same anatomical parts, just adapted differently.  For example, the tube feet, which I described in the starfish post, are modified as tentacles surrounding the mouth of sea cucumbers (shown in the picture above) and are used to capture food.

Sea cucumbers have some truly interesting defensive mechanisms: when handled they violently contract their longitudinal muscles to dramatically shorten their bodies - the sea cucumber equivalent of rolling up in a foetal position and hoping you go away.  I must confess to having molested my share of sea cucumbers while diving in order to trigger this mechanism.  More interestingly, though, is that if they are seriously provoked they can expel their innards through their anus - you can, quite literally, scare the crap out of them.   Although this seems like an extreme and unadvised reaction, they can regenerate their expelled organs with no harm to themselves.  I think that any of us who have suffered the after effects of a night of hard drinking would envy sea cucumbers this ability.

Probably the coolest feature of the sea cucumber is the collagen that forms its body wall, which can be loosened and contracted at will.  This allows sea cucumbers to squeeze through any crack or crevice, effectively liquefying its body and pouring itself through the opening.

Sea cucumbers inhabit a wide range of depths in the ocean, from shallow water to deep water.  Indeed, they become more abundant at abyssal depths, as their collagen body wall allows them to adapt to great pressure, and they form large herds that roam the sea floor in search of food.

Sea cucumbers always look to me as though they should be one of the entries in the beautifully illustrated Call of Cthulhu book, S. Peterson's Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands.

The following photos illustrate some of the beautiful variation of different species of sea cucumber - perhaps they'll serve to inspire some new Dreamlands creatures.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bohner Beer

I had to share this advertisement for Bohner Beer, because it is just too cool:

Has anyone ever tried this?  And I've got to wonder: does it taste like fermented bohner juice?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Session 8: Ode to Akillian - we barely knew him

This session opened with the characters descending in a lift to the second level of the sinkhole, with a large party of forewarned Redcaps waiting for them on the landing platform.  Their overwhelming numbers were no match for a Sleep spell, though and what should have been a very challenging fight turned into a walk in the park.

The party began their ingress into the level by making their way along a ledge bordering the Gaping Pit of Infinite Depth that is the Murian sinkhole.  A hail of arrows fell upon them, fired by Redcap archers on the other side of the sinkhole.  Melfynn, the torchbearer was killed instantly before the party could react.  Jin cast a Light spell on an arrow and fired it across the pit, illuminating their attackers so that fire could be returned.  The Redcaps were quickly dispatched and the party continued along the ledge.

The ledge ended abruptly as part of it had crumbled away leaving a 10 foot gap.  There was much debate about jumping over the gap, but several party members were peering over the edge into the aforementioned Gaping Pit of Infinite Depth, and decided that one slip would result in a very long drop.

Akillian decided to scale the slimy, wet sinkhole shaft and make his way across to the other side of the ledge.  By himself.  He got to the other side and made his way along the ledge eventually finding another lift cage that would descend to the third level.  He also found the four Redcaps that were guarding it.  They threw their spears at the interloper, impaling him four times and killing him instantly.

The rest of the party heard four wet, fleshy thunks, a cry of pain, and Redcaps cheering victory, followed by their squabble over the shiny silver dagger looted from Akillian's body.  Spurred to action, the party decided to try and jump the gap and see off the Redcaps that killed Akillian.  Everyone made the jump safely, except for Caitlin, who stumbled as she leaped then failed her save to grab the ledge and fell into the pit.  The remaining party members heard her screams fade into the distance over many long seconds.

The party elected to take the lift down to the third level, circumventing the second level entirely, and get closer to their goal: the necromancer, Sothiss.  For the first time, there were no hostile forces assembled to contest their landing, and they were able to make their way into the third level without incident.  After battling some gargoyles and mutated Redcaps, the party came upon a lone human monk battling four ghouls.  They lent a hand to a fellow human and together they defeated the ghouls.  The monk, Valkryss, was the sole surviving member of another adventuring party that was exploring the Crater of Murias.  They had been captured and taken before Sothiss, who killed Valkryss's friends to use in necromantic experiments, while Valkryss he saved for the entertainment of his pets.

I mourn the loss of Akillian.  He was a dagger-throwing prodigy with an unorthodox but pragmatic sense of strategy and I'll always love that he convinced the party to smear themselves with Warg poop.  In death he serves as a valuable object lesson: never explore dungeons on your own.