[Campaign Journal] Sword, Sorcery and Rayguns #04

by Kalman Farago
Wherein a mighty thing is slain and surprising events unfold

After returning to the White Sage’s lair, we rest a night and prepare to move out again. Since the past has become very hot for us, we decide to proceed along the main courtyard and check out some areas to the east and north, while hopefully catching a glimpse of the supposedly invulnerable bronze colossus guarding a conspicuous doorway along the west edge of the yard.

The first doorway leads into an area directly to the north of the segment where we can get into the past; it’s also pretty close to the magical axe that can kill the Minotaur. A scary flight of stairs leading up, decorated by shadowy black figures on the wall that disappear when light falls on them. We’re stopped by a shade, a guardian who warns us that we’re drawing near the Judge of the Dead — a good thing, as we want to talk to it anyway. We follow the corridor, finding a dead garden — strangely indoors, a door which we ignore as it seemingly leads back into the area stuck in the past, and a metal door held closed by some tremendous force, decorated with the image of a man holding a bull’s head — maybe we can pass through here once we’ve slain the Minotaur. We come to a small, walled-off garden right at the east edge of the palace complex, but it looks ominous — the dragon is marked as living somewhere very near on our map, and this place has no roof. Zaxtaros the thief scouts ahead into the garden, and his sharp ears pick up some deep rumbling… he turns, runs out of the garden, and we close the door, but nothing seems to be coming. We explore on, finding in the next room the way to the magical axe, protected by a barrier of solid light that throws back the coin we chucked at it. This seems to be a dead end for now: there’s another door here as well, but it’s been warped by some tremendous force and we cannot get it open. Reluctant to turn around, we fire a raygun at the energy barrier to no effect, then I borrow Licar’s gun and fire it at the warped metal door… and roll a 20 on a “12 or higher” ruling to break it down! The door is blown backwards, and we cautiously peer into the room beyond, seeing a large mass of charred corpses — animals, beast, monsters. A door leads on from here, but in the next second we hear something from beyond that door… perhaps the breathing of something BIG — it must be the dragon! The Red Sage is still brewing the fire resistance potions for us, and we don’t feel like fighting the thing on its own turf, so we turn and run. (Someone: “I pick up the door and place it back.” Laughter, yeah, that will stop a dragon.)

We rush back to the main courtyard, and the doorway would be too narrow for a dragon. We wait for a few minutes, but there seems to be no bulky shape approaching through the corridors or the sky. The dragon was not interested in us enough. We continue exploring north along the east wall and enter the next door. A small entrance chamber leading deeper into the complex. As we examine our surroundings and debate our next move, the door on the far side flies open, and we’re attacked by maybe about a dozen Tragoi — ram-headed, polearms-wielding beastmen! Gaining surprise, they swarm us in the small chamber. As Zaxtaros the thief and Gwyddion try to stave off them off and Xulunder protects his wizard master, Tyraxus casts an Ice Storm — a spell he hasn’t had a chance to try out yet. Aiming it perfectly, he catches the bulk of the beasts without hitting us, and the magic proves powerful indeed, slaying most of them immediately. Panicked, their aft ranks flee, pushing some obstacle against the door so we cannot chase them deeper into the palace. The remaining ones are rapidly cut down by blades and a Sleep spell.

Immah Wel

Almost everyone got wounded in the skirmish, so Gwyddion sets about bandaging wounds and attending injuries. Alas, it didn’t occur to us to evacuate the area first… The sound of a horn is heard issuing from a doorway along the north wall of the courtyard, while simultaneously the obstacle beyond the east door is pushed aside — but luckily, Gwyddion had the foresight to jam his crowbar between the door rings, slowing down any aproach from there. Since there seems to be no actual attack from the north end of the courtyard, we leave the chamber and start heading back south towards the White Sage’s, while one of the wizards leaves a Flaming Sphere in the chamber’s doorway to slow down pursuit. A few steps outside, however, and a hail of arrows issues from the northern entrance, luckily failing to do much damage. Angry now, one of the wizards lets loose… “Screw this, I Fireball that doorway.” The dice roll, 9d6, and it comes up… almost all fours, fives or sixes: there are burning bits of flesh and hair thrown out into the courtyard from behind the doorway. “Does it also make a mushroom cloud?” I ask Melan, who sets about crossing out a distressingly long list of numbers in his notes. Seeing the destruction, Gwyddion recognises a change in the tide of battle. “We just killed half of them! Back to the eastern chamber and seize the initiative!” The others follow cue. The still-burning Flamming Sphere is rolled inwards through the chamber and into the corridor beyond, where another group of Tragoi was trying to think of a way of getting through it, along with two cyclopses in tow. The wizards lets loose, and a Lightning Bolt clears most of the corridor, with the cyclopes and a few stragglers fleeing in abject terror. Not wishing to stay here any longer than necessary, Gwyddion momentarily enters the site of the carnage to pick up his crowbar that was used to delay the enemy. As he reaches down for it, he hears a terrifying, mighty roar from nearby, just beyond an unopened door — and it doesn’t like the cyclopses. A quick question to the DM confirms that it comes from the south — the complex marked as the Minotaur’s! We’re wounded, low on the more powerful spells, and we still haven’t acquired the only weapon that can supposedly kill this monster — we run. We run all the way back to the White Sage who seems to be away with the cavemen gathering ingredients, set up a guard, and get to rest, hoping the beast doesn’t follow us.

Our hopes are vain, as only a few minutes pass before the same roar rends the air again. We enter the White Sage’s small forest, close the secret door from his hut, and hope he’ll be understanding when he finds his home trashed by the Minotaur. Zaxtaros looks for a good hiding spot close to the secret door, the others get a bit farther back, and Gwyddion rushed to the Red Sage’s mansion to ask for his help, but he’s not around, either, so he returns to his companions. Tense moments pass, and the secret door opens. The figure that emerges is huge, a pitch black bulk wielding a mighty axe, it’s great bovine head crowned by goring horns. It spots Zaxtaros’ hiding place and charges even as the thief fires his raygun at the beast. Hearing the shot, the rest of us surge forward in desparation to reach the melee the next round or so. The terrifying gore attack takes off a good half of the thief’s remaining hit points, and the open attack roll tells us the minotaur fights as an approximately 15th level creature — we have seen few comparable things until now, a Roc — and we killed it with a lucky shot, and maybe the fell demigod Uuaram, who destroyed one of us before succumbing in a tough and drawn-out hit-and-run battle. And neither of those were supposedly invulnerable to all but one weapon (which we didn’t possess). The rayguns and Lightning Bolts we use as we approach seem to do damage to it, but even if that’s not just an illusion, or if it isn’t regenerated, it can still easily kill some of us — or all, depending on how it goes. Even before we could get in close combat range, the Minotaur’s second attack sends Zaxtaros on the ground at -2 HP (and -5 is death in Sword and Magic), and the creature turns at us.

This is it. This is where we either perish, or we perform the impossible and kill the monster that cannot be killed with our weapons. As he rushes forward, Gwyddion sheathes his sword. Raising his gauntleted hand, he extends one finger towards the bull-man. “The Entomaar has come, and he sends you before the dark god Uthummaos!” — he intones while the others have no idea what’s happening. The Minotaur slows down and stops.. and makes a step, then another… then sways, and falls, twitching on the ground. Finger of Death and a missed saving throw, one of Uthummaos’s gifts to his champion after the sacrifice at the temple last session. Gwyddion steps up to it and sees that the wounds torn by laser beams and magic just a few seconds ago have already almost completely disappeared; and yet, the unslayable beast was slain. He hacks and hacks at the mighty neck with his magical sword, severing artery, crushing larynx and eventually breaking the spine and separating the head altogether. He’s about to burn the body with some lit oil to prevent any possible post-death regeneration, when a voice is heard from behind the trees. “Stop! Do not destroy the body!” And from the thick forest emerges a figure clad in black, his face covered by a mask: the Black Sage; and a few moments later, his two brothers…

“We need its blood! It was the blood of our distant brother that kept us separate for so long!”

Their “distant brother”? Uh-oh. The sages explain that they’re the descendants of the same ancient king who also begat the Minotaur Lord. This all sounds a bit incredulous, and the party is deep in weird territory now. As the sages prepare their reunification, Tyraxus Tharg shuffles up to the other party members and starts whispering with them. “Look, I have a very, very bad feeling about this; something’s very wrong here.” (It should be noted that Tyraxus’s player has been called aside for a few moments of private briefing by the DM before this; and the same would repeat several times for the rest of the adventure.) We don’t much convincing about the wrongness of this whole situation, but we’re not sure stopping the sages would be the right thing to do. For one, Gwyddion vividly remembers his god’s warning about the dangerous secret power hidden around Tyraxus (and after all, wasn’t it Tyraxus who was so strongly against going to the temple of Uthummaos where Gwyddion wanted to make his sacrifice?) — and since he’s already privately warned all the others about it, they probably have their own reservations.

As we deliberate but fail to reach an agreement — or even a coherent idea — on how to act, the sages get ready. The Black Sage dips his hands into the Minotaur’s blood which bursts into flames, and starts smearing some of it on his brothers’ faces. Their visage distorts and one exclaims “Brother, what are you doing to us?”

There’s something going wrong here. So far, the Black Sage had his face covered by a mask, and I get the dread feeling this thing before us might have been some monster who supplanted him. Always paranoid and quick to shoot, Zaxtaros announces: “I fire my raygun at the Black Sage” without a moment’s doubt, and Gwyddion follows suit. They both hit, and with two energy bolts doing 2d10 damage individually, we hit him for… six Hit Points. The Black Sage reacts in surprise, but the next moment the three figures meld together in a pillar of bright light, and we suddenly see a single brown-robed man where there were three. And in that very second, we plunge even deeper into “This Is All Wrong” territory.

Three Sages

“It’s too late now!” – comes a scream, and it’s coming from Xulunder Kham, Tyraxus’ loyal bodyguard (taken over by the DM without warning), who raises his raygun and shoots the brown-robed sage. What’s happening? Chaos erupts. Enraged at the attack, the sage slings spells at Xulunder, while the latter fires back, and the rest of us have no idea what to do. Invoking Uthummaos’ favour again, Gwyddion conjures into existence two formless shades of the dead, one near the sage, the other next to Xulunder (my planning having been to drain the strength of both of them until they’re paralyzed, buying us some time to figure out what to do — a great, and as it soon turned out, pointless expenditure of my favour with the god). As spells and bolts fly this way and that, Gwyddion shouts a ceasefire appeal to the brown sage, who seems to realise that Xulunder is the only one attacking him right now and agrees. We’re trying to knock out Xulunder, who’s obviously possessed by some force… but some people have strange ideas about knocking others out. Zaxtaros cocks his crossbow. Then he takes aim from cover, utilising his backstab ability for an extra 4d6 points of damage. Then he lets loose a bolt… covered in poison. It flies true, hits hard and Xulunder falls down, dead. Heated words are exchanged about whether “knock him out” is compatible with the concept of aiming for the heart, neck or eye with a poisoned crossbow bolt.

As tempers eventually start cooling down, we take stock of the rapidly changing situation. The Sage, now reunified, has only very vague memories of both the distant path and the recent events leading up to the moment — and doesn’t remember anything about the White and Red Sages’ surprise when the Black one initiated the merging. Might be just a side effect of the unification, or it might be a sign that my suspicions about something having gone very wrong here are not entirely unfounded, after all (and I know I’m probably giving Melan all sorts of ideas here that will come back to bite us in the arse in the future…). He says he plans on retiring for a while somewhere, but as a sign of his gratitude, he gives us a brief vision of the palace complex’s full map, and answers a few question about the layout. When Gwyddion asks about it, he says the magic axe destined to slay the Minotaur (and which Gwyddion really wanted to acquire) has very likely been snuffed out of existence the moment the creature died, since that axe and the Minotaur’s own (now in Gwyddion’s hands) cannot coexist. He also tells us the Minotaur’s axe has a powerful magic but also carries a curse (Gwyddion rapidly chucks it on the ground), and altogether it’s probably less powerful than the other one would have been. Oi vei. So much for a nice new magic weapon for Gwyddion. He decides to hang on to the cursed axe for the time being — just deposit it at our resting spot until we can identify its exact nature, when he’ll decide whether its powers are a good tradeoff for the curse. But knowing Melan, the curse is probably something that looks harmless at first and grows much more insidious later. We’ll see; at any rate, a powerful magical, if cursed, axe might be put to many good uses. The sage also tells us that the area guarded by the bronze golem is likely to hold the greatest treasures here, so that’s probably where we’re heading next. We also learn that the man in Khonón who charged us with bringing back the heads of the three Sages was the student of a great mage who probably still lives in a sunken tower somewhere in these seas, either SSW or WSW of here.

We turn our attention to Xulunder, and after deliberation we have Licar bring him back to life with the recently acquired spell Oolar’s Time — the one the temple of Fedafuce gave us by way of sponsoring our expedition. Basically, this spell brings a dead man back to life, at least for a while — it has to be recast every nine days (Licar being a 9th level wizard). Upon being raised, Xulunder seems to be free of possession, but hardly remembers anything. After some more private conversation with the DM, Tyraxus tells us that he thinks he can identify the source of this strange calamity. For a long time, he’s been carrying an amulet with a spirit trapped in it, hoping to figure out a way to use it to gain even greater power. In fact, it was this spirit that advised him against the party going to the temple of Uthummaos, and now it looks like it was also responsible for Xulunder’s possession. But — says Tyraxus –, now he’ll throw the amulet in the sea, this being the only way he could get rid of it.

Then, as we talk to Xulunder about his memories, another piece of information troubles us. It turns out the last thing he remembers is the fight against the Red Sage’s skeletal dogs, several years ago. If that was the moment of his possession, then why was the spirit waiting this long to spring into action? Did it have a specific grudge against the sages, and why? Was it perhaps being controlled by the afore-mentioned wizard who tried to hire us to kill the Sages via a proxy? But then, Tyraxus has been carrying that amulet for a long time even before we came to this part of the world. Or maybe Xulunder was possessed not by the amulet’s spirit but some other entity, after all? Maybe the possession was planted by the Red Sage who wanted to act against his brothers for some reason? If they had some hidden rivalries, that would also cast new light on the Black Sages apparently surprising move with the Minotaur’s blood.

All questions we have no answers to, at least yet. And on such a mystery-filled note, we ended the session.

(Originally posted May 23, 2009.)

Referee’s notes (2011): This session introduced two new intelligent races to Fomalhaut, one inadvertently. It was clear in the setting guide that along with orcs, elves and halflings, dragons did not exist in the world. This does not mean all of the usual suspects were out, rather that they were only included if they could be made to fit the style of the setting. For example, Type VI demons, who originated as copies of Tolkien’s Balrog in Original D&D, were in because Journey to the City of the Gods gave them an entirely different, fitting aesthetic. Dragons never received that treatment, however, and the one that showed up in the Fomalhaut campaign did because… because I totally forgot about my own guidelines. Weirdly enough, it also feels odd in Mazes&Minotaurs, since you wouldn’t expect a dragon to feature in a minotaur maze, even one interpreted through the RPG lens. Who knows, it is possible the dragon really wanted to be there and nobody dared tell it it didn’t belong. The other race are tragoi (sing. tragos), who come from M&M, and are a great low-level humanoid race for a Greek-inspired campaign, right there along with gnolls — although not quite as rapacious, more “neutral” than “evil”.

The showdown with the Minotaur and the following events saw one of those typical resolutions in the Fomalhaut campaign. In the preceding sessions, the Minotaur was built up as a merciless and invincible antagonist, the characters encountered it due to a very unlucky random encounter roll, and it went down immediately after it blew its (incredibly impressive) saving throw against a bonus Finger of Death spell. End of the story. In a lot of campaigns, dramatic logic would dictate the Minotaur would only turn up after the party has already stood harrowing trials, gained the magical axe capable of slaying it, and entered its lair in the deepest mazes of the ruined city. It would probably have a layer of plot immunity to instakill spells. Here, things happened by chance, and got resolved by chance and a good dose of player desperation (although a barrage of shots from lasers could also have done the job, even if at a cost to party members). Was it devoid of drama? No. By its nature, the confrontation was sudden and dramatic: it did not offer the party a plot-based shield from suffering really unpleasant consequences (remember, there is a TPK, and there is a TPK against characters who have been around for years), nor an easy way out except perhaps to run like hell. When it happened, the accomplishment just as relevant… and with Gwyddion’s powers revealed and Xulunder Kham possessed by a powerful force, it raised more questions than it answered. When the players and the GM are on the same page, sandbox campaigns produce a lot of these moments. They do not always come with an announcement, and sometimes, they end in failure. But if they are handled well, they involve meaningful choices, and produce memorable, epic consequences. And what comes afterwards? As we shall see — hubrys.


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