Monday, March 14, 2011

The Thoughtful Stone

This is a prose-i-fied summary of a Dungeons and Dragons one-shot I recently ran. The players are now insisting that I turn it into a full-fledged campaign. Either way, I clearly got carried away with the summary, so I figured I should go ahead and post it somewhere. This being my blog and all, it was a natural choice. Note that Arcturus was an NPC, while Artemisia, Nikita, Feomus, and Daria were all PCs.

Arcturus didn't know what he should expect to happen, or to have happened, as the case may be. Even to someone like him, who'd dedicated years to studying the metaphysical relationship between the planes and the flow of time, parsing the tense of events in a situation like this was a headache. It didn't really matter though, because he had plenty of rules of thumb to go by, among them "Don't do anything you can get others to do for you," "Never pet a burning dog," and "When you don't know what to expect, expect nothing."
He knew that just moments earlier there had been a great ruckus, as the continuum engineers ran about checking calculations and the Archmage stood watch over the ritual being peformed, but all of the commotion seemed far away to him now. He had plane shifted before, and he almost always compared the experience to falling through the floor, but this was different; he felt a strange sort of resistance, as if he were falling through the ceiling in spite of gravity pulling him downward. Then all at once, the feeling stopped, the sky looked blue, and gravity was winning again. He managed a startled yelp before the deep thump of his head hitting the ground.
The three traveling women weren't sure what to do about the be-robed man who had fallen out of the sky. Artemisia, in her collected fashion, was simply continuing to stare at him as though she hadn't decided what he was yet. Next to her, the lithe elf Daria was excitedly discussing aspects of his appearance, and speculating on topics of conversation once he awoke. Meanwhile, Nikita, who was already small and hard to see, had instinctively gone invisible at the sound of something unexpected, and was just started to lower her guard as it became clear that the fellow was both unconscious and unaccompanied. She was the first to suggest a course of action.
“Should we tie him up?”
The trio quickly agreed that this was a wise course of action, no matter what it was they intended to do with him later. Shortly after the tying was complete, the man awoke and, being startled himself by his immediate predicament, teleported himself 100' away and outside of the influence of the rope. Once he was sure that he wasn't about to be abducted, he approached the women again and introduced himself as Arcturus, the wizard, before asking the question on his mind that burned the most feverishly:
“What year is it?”
“Year?” replied Daria, “Why it's year 58 in the reign of King Obamus, of course.”
“Then there's still...time.” It occurred to Arcturus that he'd been waiting his entire life to deliver that line. It's not every day that one's dream of becoming a time-traveler becomes reality, though it is at least two, nonconsecutive days if you're traveling any significant temporal distance.
“Time enough for what?” asked Artemisia, clearly suspicious of Arcturus.
“Time enough to save the future.” Arcturus had been practicing this speech. “I have come from a time several hundred years hence. It is a time of wondrous magics, but also of ghastly horrors. There is a being, whom we refer to as the Golem King, made entirely of stone but imbued with intelligence and magical ability. The Golem King is himself capable of creating animated constructs, and has built an army of resilient, mindless warriors with which he is wreaking havoc among the civilized races. The Golem King was born in this time, in this very week, and I have come to stop the ritual birthing the monstrosity from taking place. Will you help me to save us all from a terror we never knew was coming for us?”
The three adventurers stood dumbfounded for a moment, until Nikita, from a direction that wasn't immediately clear, spoke up, “This is bullshit, he's probably lying.”
Arcturus seemed prepared for incredulity, “You can see the forge where the creature is being constructed yourselves. It is the forge of Lludwig, the gnome artisan, in the city of Cuthbert some 50 miles north of here. I can bring us there if you're willing to help me get inside.”
“Why can't you just take care of it yourself?” asked Artemisia.
“Because there is a special ward on the forge,” Arcturus answered. “Lludwig's work is so well known that he has even been commissioned by being from other planes from time-to-time, but having drawn the attention of outsiders has made him particularly wary of their interference, so he has a magic barrier set up to prevent entrance from outsiders. It is a fortunate side effect for him that this barrier also prevents time-travelers from entering.”
Artemisia still wasn't convinced. “But then why come to THIS time, when you could have come to a time when he wasn't so well protected?”
“The workings of time are very...unintuitive. Explaining it in a way you would understand would take far longer than we have. Just...believe me, this is how it has to happen – it can't be any other way.” There was clearly something Arcturus wasn't explaining about the situation, but it wasn't going to be pried out of him easily.
“So what's in it for us?” piped up Daria. “I mean the future's great and all, I'm sure, but that sounds far away and we have stuff to do – I was hoping to do some shopping later.”
Arcturus hesitated slightly. He hadn't anticipated that saving the future would be insufficient motivation for them. “You won't go unrewarded...the forge is full of valuable artifacts and rare minerals that I'm sure can help finance whatever other projects you're engaged in.”
“I don't know.” Daria was beginning to look disinterested. “It sounds like a lot of work.”
Arcturus wasn't ready to let the situation slip out of his control this easily. “You need to do this, you simply must.” His eyes had focused on her, and then widened at that final word.
Daria felt a chill run down her spine, and then her mind felt tight, as though there was another person trying to fit in her head. This second person brought a powerful motivation with them – a quest to travel north and prevent the birth of the Golem King. Being a bard, she knew enough about arcane magic to recognize what was happening – it was a geas enchantment. “You bastard...very well, we'll help, but as soon as we've taken care of this golem-wha-cha-ma-callit, we're done. You go back to the future and we get on with our lives.”
“As long as there's enough money in it, let's go.” Nikita had apparently become visible again, but was now standing behind Arcturus.
“But we could still use slightly more firepower,” said the wizard as he pulled out a bronze whistle. When he blew into it, however, it made no sound.
Far to the west, in the city of Calais, Feomus heard one of his least favorite sounds. It was a high-pitched whistle, of a kind that humans couldn't hear, but which he could. He snarled slightly, and considered resisting the compulsion to answer, which he knew he could. There were, however, no great opportunities for valor here, and it was valor he needed in order to join the elite ranks of Hound Archon Heroes. He focused on the image of the wizard that appeared with the sound, and after blinking his eyes, the wizard was before him.
Artemisia wasn't used to people teleporting into her presence, much less twice in the same day, much less when neither of them was native to their plane (and time). Yet before her, in a flash, appeared a humanoid with the head of a dog and plate armor, which visible contained a muscular figure.
Arcturus went on to explain to the hound archon, Feomus, that great glory could be won on their noble quest by saving the future. The wizard must have understood the way archons think, because he emphasized choice words, such as “chaos”, that caused the hound's eyes to fill with sudden passion. He whole-heartedly agreed to aid them, and the party proceeded to teleport near to the city of Cuthbert.
Once there, the party ran across elven outriders, apparently patrolling the highway, and managed to convince them that they had legitimate business in the area, even after Daria began a story about being on a “shopping trip.” It seemed that the party would have to do even more talking at the gates of the city, so most of its members decided to obviate the need for conversation by turning invisible, or, in Artemisia's case, by transforming into a common bird and flying over the city walls unharrassed. Feomus simply strolled up to the gate, however, and declared himself, apparently with enough conviction for the guards to let him pass.
Inside the city, the party split up to search for information about the forge. The city was populated primarily by dwarves and gnomes, most of whom worshipped St. Cuthbert, the patron deity of the city. They learned that Lludwig has an apprentice, Korloff, who is a deurgar. This fact by itself gains him notoriety among many of the townsfolk, who are distrustful of so-called dark dwarves. A cleric of St. Cuthbert even claimed to have once spotted an item with the markings of the evil god of forbidden knowledge, Vecna, on Korloff's person, and yet the dark dwarf had broken no laws in his time in the city, and had done nothing to explicitly prove the suspicions of the city he dwelt in. This did not prevent the populous from spreading various rumors about his plotting to murder and replace Lludwig, or to sabotage his forge.
Artemisia spent this time in rat form, acquainting herself with local rats and learning of the passages they take to enter the forge. After completing their information gathering, the party slept and prepared in the morning to enter the forge. Artemisia was to enter in her rat form and find a way to the room where the ward was maintained, while the rest of the party parlayed their way through the front gate. Unfortunately, Feomus would also be repelled by the ward against outsiders (being from the outer plane of lawful good, himself), but Arcturus insisted the archon would stand a better chance at being able to will himself across the barrier than he himself would. The wizard advised them on spells that would aid in fighting golems, and provided Nikita with a wand of golem strike, which she could use to deliver critical blows to constructs such as golems. He also gave the party several potions, including a potion that would dimensionally anchor Feomus, assisting him in entering the forge but preventing him from using his teleportation ability.
So prepared, the party set out. As they expected, there were guards present at the entrance to the forge that weren't prepared to let outsiders in. Feomus appeared in dog form, as Daria's pet, and Nikita was able to go unnoticed, but the bard was still conspicuous on her own. When the forge watch proved unmoved (and indeed, put on alert) by her requests to enter, she began fiddling a tune that each person present felt they could almost, but not quite, identify and recall. The guards became dumbfounded and stared in fascination. Having their attention, Daria gave the leader of the forge watch a suggestion, as bards are wont to do, to lead her into the forge. Feomus was, however, physically incapable of passing the threshold into the forge, and remained outside, in dog form, under watch from the guards.
Meanwhile, Artemisia had already entered the forge and reassumed her human form. She spoke directly to her staff, “Lead me to the focus of the ward,” and struck the ground with it authoritatively. A circle of druidic runes formed underneath the staff and then a glowing arrow appeared on the ground beneath her, leading her to a magic door. The staff then wrote out for her the password needed to open the magically locked door. Inside, she saw an obelisk surrounded by four small altars, each inscribed in a different language, each inscribed in a different language with seasonal words. She decided to try invoking the elements associated with each season, creating or drawing out sample of each element and placing them with the corresponding season.
Daria was led by her unwitting gnomish guide directly to Korloff's room, where the dark dwarf was perusing a large tome, which he quickly shut upon the arrival of his visitors.
“Why do you intrude upon my studies, Glim? And who is this?” Korloff did not seem to be in nearly as cheery a mood as Glim.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but this lady asked for a tour of the forge, so I'm walking her around now.”
Korloff glanced at Daria, then back at the gnome, and smirked slightly. “Very well, Glim, I'll take it from here, go return to your post.” As Daria's guide turned and left, Korloff turned his attention back to her. “Enchant much?”
Daria really wasn't hoping to end up here quite so immediately, accompanied only by an invisible halfling. “I'd heard so much about the amazing work you were doing here, I just had to come see it myself, whatever the means!”
“Unfortunately for you, unlike the ruly mob of guards you encountered at the front door, I am not a complete idiot.” Korloff snarled slightly as he spoke. Daria could tell immediately that he wasn't the type to throw wild parties. “So what is it you're actually doing here?”
“I'm here precisely because you're not an idiot, in fact.” Daria was thinking only slightly faster than she was speaking at this point, and the extra processing time was currently be spent trying to decide whether or not to adjust her clothing to reveal slightly more cleavage. “I know that Lludwig's not the real master in this forge. You're the one creating the real masterpieces behind the scenes and I wanted to...get closer to someone with so much skill.”
Korloff's expression revealed a hint of anger, but nothing else. “And from whom exactly have you heard this? It can't be from those idiot guards, they know nothing of the work I do. Who told you this?”
Well, deurgar weren't really Daria's type, and apparently the feeling was mutual. She was a little flabbergasted at this point. “Oh, you the pub.”
Korloff's scowl deepened, which Daria hadn't previously thought possible. “I don't have time for this. Fortunately, this is perfect timing, because a new tour guide has arrived for you.”
Daria heard deep, thudding footsteps as a stone golem turned the corner and approached Korloff's room. This is not my finest moment, she thought, as Korloff barked an order to the golem in a language she didn't understand. She was escorted by the massive creature directly to a small, dark cell, whose door locked itself when it shut.
Artemisia's solution seemed to be working, for the obelisk had opened and revealed a diamond pulsating with magical energy. The diamond was, however, surrounded by a small field of force, and slots accompanied by even more unreadable runes appeared on the obelisk beneath it. This was a bit much for her to solve entirely on her own, and she was getting worried by the fact that she hadn't yet seen any of her companions. She sent her snow owl, Jareth, to find Feomus and the others and lead them to her location.
The owl found a passage to the open easily enough in a forge that constantly billows smoke, and quickly found the hound archon on a leash near the entrance to the forge. Feomus understood the meaning of the owl's appearance, and decided that it was time for him to enter the forge, barrier or no. He morphed back into his more impressive humanoid form, and drank the potion Arcturus had given him to anchor him in the material plane.
“Whoa! The dog just became a Halt!” The guards were confused and disturbed by this development.
“I am the archon Feomus, and I am bound to do the will of the Platinum Dragon within this forge. If you waylay me I will strike you down.” Feomus' voice boomed with authority and the very air around him seemed to be charged with his righteousness. Half of the forge watch faltered at the sight, and slowly stepped back, unwilling to take on such a creature. The other half ran toward him, weapons drawn.
Feomus drew his greatsword without hesitation, and with a word of celestial, it wreathed itself in flames. He charged into the midsts of the forge watch, unwary of being surrounded, and with one perfectly aimed swing drove his sword straight through one dwarvish fighter and into the next one beside him. The gnomes and dwarves rapidly counterattacked, but their blows tended to deflect off of his armor, and he waded through the remaining guards while suffering only bruises and minor cuts.
The guards who were already shaken by the sight of a hound archon all but fled entirely after seeing the demise of their peers, and Feomus approached the entrance to the forge with the owl Jareth leading him onward. He found himself now able to cross the threshold of the building, but doing so still filled him with a sense of nausea and weariness. He kept his pace, eager to lower the ward.
Daria was practicing her very best pouting face at the door to her cell when the lock popped open, almost as if in sympathy for her plight. She had a much better theory about the open door, however. “You were always good with locks, Nikita. Do you know where the others are?”
A disembodied voice next to her said, “Isn't that them, coming now?”
Daria turned to see a hound archon and snow owl heading down the corridor in their direction. “How wonderful for you to join us. Now, Jareth, which way is Artemisia?”
The owl lead them to a door inscribed with various runes, and hooted. As the party members approached it, Artemisia spoke the password from within and the door opened.
“Oh good, you all made it,” said Artemisia. “So far, I've managed to pass the first part of the puzzle protecting the ward, which has revealed a gem that I assume powers it, but I can't make sense of this second half of the puzzle.”
“Puzzles are overrated anyway,” responded Daria, who made a perfectly unnecessary gesture of rolling up her sleeves before casting dispel magic. The force field around the diamond dissipated, and Feomus reached in and pulled out the gem, causing the feeling of weariness in him to lift.
A few seconds later, Arcturus appeared amidst them in a flash of light. “Excellent,” began the wizard, “now we can proceed to-”
BAM. The door to their room crumpled under the fist of a stone golem. In the plane of meta-gaming, icosahedrons rolled across a table, determining the initiative of each party member.
Nikita reached for her wand of golem strike and Daria for her fiddle, beginning a familiar and inspiring tune. Arcturus and Artemisia each cast the spells they had specially prepared for the golem. Arcturus' spell was intended to cure an afflicted ally of petrification, but seemed to soften the stone the golem was constructed of, while Artemisia's spell would normally transmute unworked stone into mud, and here made the golem's joints thick, slowing its movement and making it clumsier. Feomus charged with the same ferocity as he had against the guards, placing himself between the golem and his allies and driving his blade into his foe. Unlike the dwarves' axes, however, the golem's fist struck the archon soundly, causing him to reel from the blow.
At this, Nikita became visible again, at the same moment as she unleashed the first in a small barrage of arrows that buried themselves in the golem's chest. Daria's melody shifted into tones that sounded too deep to come from the instrument she held, and the air around her began heating up. With one dramatic pull of her bow across the strings, flames burst forth from in front of her instrument, and seemed to dance around Feomus, barely singing him as they lit up the stone creature in front of him. The golem clambered further into the room to continue its assault in spite of its condition, and Artemisia stepped forward to finish it. She began running, and mid-stride assumed the form of a mighty charging bison, crashing into the weakened golem and breaking it clearly in half. The stone moved no further.
The party collected itself and Arcturus led them to the room where Lludwig was constructing his deadly masterpiece.
“How dare you interfere! This golem is the pinnacle of my career and you've corrupted the enchantments on the stone with Cuthbert only knows what rubbish!” Lludwig stood in the midst of an enormous inscribed circle cut into the stone floor as he chastised his apprentice.
“Corrupted?” Korloff stood between two flesh golems that he had brought into his master's chamber. “You couldn't have gotten this far with your own techniques, and now that they're inconvenient for you, you call mine a corruption of 'your' work. This is hypocrisy of the highest order.”
It was at this moment that a band of adventurer's entered the vast chamber. Before them stood two golem-crafters, and powerful spellcasters in their own right, bickering amongst spindling columns reaching 50 feet or more into the air. As their eyes adjusted to the lighting of the room, they started to register, one by one, the object behind the two artisans, towering over the room. It was a stone golem of incredible proportions and covered in intricately carved filigree, seated as if upon a throne. Even seated, it rose nearly twice as tall as the stone golem the party had just defeated, and the entire room was filled with its ominous presence.
“And just who are you all? Does no respect privacy in my workplace?” Lludwig had turned his attention to the party.
“We are here,” replied Arcturus, “to prevent you from making a colossal mistake. This creature that you intend to animate represents a greater threat than you know. I have seen a future where it brings down entire nations and spreads an unrelenting chaos everywhere it treads.”
“My creation isn't capable of such destructive behavior as you ascribe to it!” shrieked the master artisan. “If it's capable of any maliciousness, it could only be because of the interference of this traitorous deurgar!” Lludwig pointed an accusing finger at Korloff.
“This gnome before you is a fraud,” retorted Korloff. “This 'master artisan' can carve stone and make it move, but he has no will to create a truly great work, and now he seeks to take credit for a masterpiece he could not have created himself. This is not merely a weapon or tool, and it won't be infused with a banal mind. This creature that I am bringing into being will change the world forever.”
Feomus raised his voice. “Master Lludwig, if it really is the interference of Korloff that is corrupting your creation, then let us destroy the tainted creation, and you can begin anew on a masterpiece that you can truly call your own.”
“Begin anew?” Lludwig seemed disgusted by the idea. “This nascent creature before you represent decades of my life, my sweat, my very being. I won't let anyone touch it!”
With this, Lludwig waved his hand before him and a massive wall of stone appeared between him and the others, stretching from one end of the chamber to the other. Before Korloff had a chance to respond Daria targeted him with a spell of domination, commanding him to help them destroy the great stone golem. Korloff's face expressed horror at the thought of destroying the golem, but he turned to obey her nonetheless. Artemisia directed her magic at the stone of the wall, and opened a small passage in it just large enough for her to squeeze through, and she and several of her allies began heading toward the opening. Meanwhile, Feomus cried to the air “Come, Falcor!” and a young bronze dragon teleported into the room with him, allowing him to mount quickly before flying over the stone wall. Meanwhile, Nikita ran directly toward and then up the stone wall as if it were merely a slanted surface and not perfectly vertical.
Korloff was the first to make it through the passage Artemisia had opened, and on the other side of the wall began mindlessly swinging his flail against the great stone form towering over the room, to little effect. Lludwig was accompanied by an iron golem on this side of the wall, and when Feomus and his dragon steed drew within range of it, the bronze dragon opened its mouth and breathed out an arc of lightning that struck the iron golem solidly, causing it to jerk and twitch in place. Arcturus appeared on the other side of the wall in a flash, right next to Lludwig in the middle of the circle. The two spellcasters immediately turned to threaten each other with their rods. Artemisia crossed the wall and summoned entangling plants to burst from the ground and hold down the iron golem that Feomus's dragon had struck.
When Daria crossed over and saw how ineffective he was being trying to destroy the golem, she redirected him to “Take down Lludwig.” She wasn't sure what she'd expected him to do in response to this, but it clearly wasn't what he did, which was to turn and incant in an infernal language. Arcturus saw Lludwig's face contort as it faced him, his skin break out into boils, and his eyes fill with darkness. The gnome fell to the ground crying out in agony, and in desperation he spoke a command word to activate the magic circle he was still in. Nikita finally reached the top of the wall, and from there fired a single arrow directly into Lludwig's head as he writhed on the floor, stopping his commotion suddenly.
Yet the magic circle was already active, and the runes upon it glowed and then aligned themselves around the only living creature left in the circle – Arcturus. The time-traveler had an expression of terrible realization on his face as he lifted his gaze to the great stone figure before him. “What have I done?” he whispered, as the golem king's eyes lit up, and the massive form slowly lifted itself from its seat. All eyes turned to the newly born creature of stone.
Feomus flew his steed toward the great golem and swung his blade, but it scraped awkwardly off of the stone, leaving only a scratch on its huge shoulder. Daria was the next to act on the golem king's birth, saying, “Well, so much for saving the future. I think I saw a treasure chest over here, though.” She ran toward the chest and opened it, finding within a wondrous rod, which she could immediately tell was filled with chaotic energies.
The golem king raised its right hand slowly, as if beckoning, and the three other golems in the room instantly appeared at its side. At this, Daria pulled out the rod she had discovered and waved it at the golem king, shouting, “Go go magic whatever this does!” A beam of energy shot out and struck the golem king, causing it moments later to grow even larger. This is not what Daria was hoping for.
Then, the golem king incanted in a language only Arcturus understood, and the room filled with a bluish light encircled the four golems. Arcturus gasped and immediately began himself gesturing and incanting, in an apparent attempt to counteract the golem king's spell, but he was too late – the golem king and its new minions disappeared a moment later.
There was silence for a moment, and Arcturus' head dropped. “What exactly just happened?” asked Artemisia.
Arcturus replied solemnly, “You asked before why I didn't return to a time when Lludwig was more vulnerable, and the true answer is because I knew I couldn't stop the golem king from being born no matter what time I returned to.”
“What!? You're going to just give up now?” Artemisia was angry. “Then why are we even here?!”
“What has been done cannot be undone. It's not a question of will or power, it is simply the nature of time. My purpose in coming here wasn't to prevent the golem king's birth, but to understand it – to learn how it is that the golem king came to possess the magical powers that its creator, Lludwig, did not command himself. The answer, I know realize, is because it did not acquire Lludwig's intellect and magical abilities, as the gnome had originally intended – it acquired mine.”
“So it's like a huge, nearly invincible version of you?” chimed in Daria. “I hate this thing already.”
“But where did it go, and why were so distraught over it?” ask Feomus.
“It is capable of all the magic I'm capable of, including taking advantage of the temporary rift in space time that was created for me to travel here. It used my ticket home to travel to the future in my place, and now I'm trapped in this time.”
“Well, on the plus side, that means we don't have to worry about it for a few hundred years, right?” Daria seemed quite pleased by this news. “So we'll take care of it later. In the meantime, I still really want to get some shopping down while we're in this town.”