Tuesday, July 17, 2012

S2E6: The Fish and the Rose

I have a lot of gaps to fill in from the last post to this one, but it was a busier year than I'd anticipated. My yearly scholarship was replaced by a T.A. position, so in addition to my full time teaching, I got the honour of marking for one hundred students that weren't mine. That's over now, and I'm well on my way to being finished with my doctorate. The dissertation is handed in, and I'm just waiting on revisions from advisors. I don't teach in the summer, so I've got some time for writing about the game. Hopefully, I'll stay on track this time.

"Season 2" of Freeport opened in the exotic locale of Katapesh, before shifting back to seedy Freeport, where the city is recovering from the end of Season 1. In S2E5, the adventurers discovered there was a new game in town, an upstart crime lord who calls himself "The Ragman." This episode picks up a few months later, in Spring. The entire adventure is based entirely on "The Fish and the Rose" by the brilliant Christina Stiles, one of my fave Pathfinder writers. It's from urban adventure anthology, Streets of Zobeck, which is easily the best collection of gritty urban adventures I've come across for the Pathfinder system. It's up for an Ennie this year. I had to make only minor modifications to fit it into my Freeport campaign. Most of the adventures in Streets of Zobeck would be relatively easy to fit into another campaign, though if you're not running anything right now, I'd recommend grabbing all the Midgard stuff and running your campaign in that world. The Midgard stuff is all pretty top notch.

Hutch stands on the front step of Strebeck's Ale House and Inn, watching the setting sun of an early Spring evening. It is March. There have been no other attacks since the bombing of the Sea Lord's Palace, and Freeport, aside from the presence of the clockwork soldiers, seems to be settling back into its usual rhythms. The position of Sea Lord remains vacant, the Council seemingly set back by the terrorist attack on the palace. The "Ragman" has become yesterday's news.

A messenger boy comes running up to Hutch, thrusts an envelope at him, then stands, expectantly. "You need to read it before I can go," he says. Hutch turns the envelope over in his hands, reading his name written in a shaky scrawl. He opens the envelope and, unfolding the note inside, reads these words. There is an image of a fish and a rose, a facsimile rendering of a painting. Underneath the painting are the following words:

"I would like this painting very much. Would you and your Ghosts be so kind as to procure it for me? If so, simply tell the boy yes or no. If you say no, you will have missed an opportunity to spit in the face of one of your enemies, Torsten Roth. If you say yes, you will receive 1000 Lords as advance payment, along with a map of the Sewers near the Merchant District, leading directly to Torsten Roth's underground vault. When the job is completed and I have the painting, you will receive another 5000 Lords. - Your friend, RAGMAI"

"The Fish and the Rose is a garish, 6-foot by 5-foot painting of…a fish and a rose. The fish, a silver flounder, rests in the center of a solid black velvet background; the deep-red rose curls behind the fish, with the rose’s large flower resting at the painting’s upper left corner. A heavy golden frame encases the painting and cannot be removed." (Streets of Zobeck)

My players are learning, slow but sure, that they should take the hook when I throw it to them. Sometimes though, they're over cautious, and this was one of those games. Rather than take the map and get into the sewers, they decided to scope out Torsten Roth's abode from street level first. This ran me completely off my notes, which I was semi-prepared for. I started using Evernote, an organizing software, to dump all my notes in. Johhn Four recommends that DMs either use a binder or software, but not both, since this slows play down when you switch back and forth between media. In the past month, I've discovered the truth of this. The downside is that I've slid into railroad mode, where those improv moments are a bit more difficult to slide into than they used to be. I've got the whole game in this file, dammit!

So when my group split up to check things out in smaller parties, I was thrown more than I usually am. I was ready for Mokey to go see his long-time girlfriend, Sophie, since the facsimile of the Fish and Rose painting had been rendered by her. Sophie says she drew the facsimile of the Fish and the Rose while she was taking classes at the University. The facsimile was purchased a month ago by the largest half orc Sophie has ever seen. She recalls him being very well spoken and well-dressed. Jeff had a very high roll for Diplomacy with Sophie, so he stayed longer than gathering information required (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, bom-chicka-wah).

Hutch and his brother Harlo (think Michael Clarke Duncan, but much meaner), and their new companion, the shady merchant Keegan (a monstrously overweight man) decided to scope out Torsten Roth's estate from the ground. There have been a number of changes since the last time the Ghosts broke in: a higher containment wall along with numerous guard towers and vigilant security. Despite what I felt was a clear "you can't go in this way," statement, the characters were persevering. In an attempt to get them off the street, I had a washer-woman/servant exit the estate and head to the market. Instead of all three going along, Hutch dispatched Harlo to follow her. Harlo is a bad man. Mikey has made this clear in his character descriptions. Harlo is the sort of character I imagined having a full roster of when we started the Freeport campaign. My players have all, by inches and increments, reverted to their default neutral good positions. Harlo on the other hand, is the last person you want to have interrogating a low-caste servant. When she wouldn't give him what he was asking for, he resorted to violence. I couldn't have the washer-woman reveal how to get in to Roth's estate from ground level, since I had no intel on this whatsoever. I'd have been throwing out hours of prep to improv the scenario, which would have ended with a TPK. In hindsight, maybe I should have let them all walk straight into the meat grinder. Instead, I tried to bail them out, and had a slightly epic fail.

I introduced a dynamic duo that has been hiding in the shadows since this post. Think Batman and Robin in a medieval setting: this was based upon the NPC Blackjack from The Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path, but expanded to have a sidekick. These two descended from the rooftops to thwart Harlo from visiting further violence upon the servant woman(It should be noted that Mikey finds playing Harlo rather distasteful but is committed to playing the bastard like a bastard. This is not wish-fulfillment gaming for him, but rather, building our story in more gritty ways). So now Harlo, a major bruiser, goes toe-to-toe with two mysterious vigilantes. Again, Mikey didn't take the DM hint to "run away," so I had to keep raising the bar in the fight until it nearly resulted in a kill. Less merciful DMs are reading this and thinking, "WTF? Just kill your PCs off already!" Instead, Harlo was washed out of the dark alley he was doing his interrogation in and out into the busy street. I had to go to meta-gaming at this point and tell Mikey to get Harlo the hell out of there. I basically had to say, "YOU GUYS ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY." This was a fail on my PCs part, to be sure, but also for me as a DM.

Hindsight being what it is, I'd have gone this route instead: I'd have allowed Harlo to interrogate the washer woman, had her tell them the way in, and then killed them all. It might have accelerated the cashflow to buy enough licenses of HeroLab for the whole group (most of the players find PC creation a bit tedious). Next time, no mercy. This is the real problem with longtime Christians playing RPGs. It isn't that we get demon-possessed. It's that we model our God complexes on Jesus instead of Thor and Odin.

Cut to Gar, who paid a visit to Lexie, the courtesan he rescued last game during the Succession Riots. This burgeoning romance began awkwardly, since Gar had been magically disguised as Delinda Knorbertaal when he rescued Lexie. Since Lexie is bisexual, she was willing to bestow her "appreciation for the rescue" on Delinda. Gar, realizing this, began a game of having "Delinda" in the shop, only to leave coldly, spurning Lexie's advances, to be replaced by the far more charming Gar. The romance took months to blossom, but now that it has, Gar and Lexie are forming a romance, slowly and in Gar's awkward, chaste fashion.

Mokey met up with Percival (the proper pirate, Blaine's alternate character) to reconnoiter the area of the sewers the group was to use as their approach to Torsten Roth's house. Finally, I was back on track with the notes from "The Fish and the Rose." I made some minor changes to Scaler's Alley from the original adventure, since it is above ground in the Midgard setting. I placed it underground to cut out a second encounter from the adventure and speed the game up. Mokey recalled with a Knowledge Local check that Scaler's Alley is covered in mist. He also recalled stories from the time in the orphanage of a sewer dragon named Scaler. It was a bogey-man tale, meant to frighten children into good behavior. Mokey put the two together, and began wondering if there wasn't some truth to the story.

The two men entered the sewers, and following the map, cautiously approached the area called Scaler's Alley, where they were able to sneak in far enough to see that there were several goblin slingers acting as guards to the alley. Unable to safely proceed further, they retreated and were spotted. None of the sling attacks did significant damage, and Mokey and Percival escaped unscathed.

The players regrouped and made a plan of entering Scaler's Alley. Using his familiar, Gar was able to see farther up the passage to assess Scaler's abode. The party made short work of the goblin slingers, but when they entered the area known as Scaler's abode, Scaler attacked: Scaler is a half-serpent-man/half-dragon, a potent combination of magic and melee. He is a "run away!" villain, a concept I am also trying to get my characters to better comprehend. Not everything needs to be battled. Sometimes, discretion really is the better part of valor. Luckily, the group chose diplomacy after Scaler demonstrated his abilities by wounding the nigh-impervious Gar. Diplomacy with Scaler resulted in the group being allowed to pass further into the tunnels that lead to Roth's vaults.

The game ended as the group reached a chasm stretching 200 feet across this end of the passage. It abuts the wall leading to Lord Roth’s vault, leaving no ledge at all on the other side; just a sheer drop. The chasm does not appear on the map Ragman provided.

We only got through half of the planned adventure, but I was suitably reminded of several things.
1. I need to be smarter when my players take detours. Proaction, not reaction, is the best policy.
2. I need to be brave enough to kill my players when they don't take the hooks. This is a lesson better learned when a character is level 3, but level 7 will have to suffice. ;)

Next week, I'll start updating the backlog of adventures I didn't get a chance to post about, starting with "Looking for a Handout."