Under New Management

The Drow was silent. Three beasts stood upright in front of him, towering over his elven frame, but each keeping a respectful distance – as if a circle containing some unseen danger surrounded the place where their master’s boots met the cavern floor. The beasts wore bands and scraps of leather armour that crisscrossed the dirty brown fur of their bodies, and large, crude clubs of dark wood and iron hung from their belts. However, the Drow was not fooled by the clothes, or the weapons, or even by the fact that the bugbears were in thrall to coin and gemstones; these creatures were animals. Feral, brutal and, as it turns out, stupid.

The Drow raised a hand to his brow, a faintly pained expression on his face. ‘So, let’s go over this again. What happened at the manor?’

H’ruk, the largest of the three bugbears, looked left then right at his companions, then turned back to the Drow. ‘We ready told you. The New Man came.’ His tone was somewhere in between annoyance and confusion.

‘Yes, you did already tell me. But tell me again. And this time, don’t leave anything out.’

The beast shrugged, then noisily flopped down to the rough stone. The other two bugbears unceremoniously followed his lead, sitting down, stretching out. The dark elf remained on his feet, patiently waiting for the pointless and impotent show of defiance to complete. H’ruk took a bent goblin dagger from his side and started scratching idly at the rock.

After a moment, he cleared his throat and spat something thick and black into the remains of the fire. ‘We was in the cellar, having some fun with that Cragmaw runt…’

+ + + +

As the goblin’s head hit the flagstones, there was a noise like a pot breaking. Lo’Gak started laughing wildly, pulling the limp body up again. A gurgling sigh escaped the goblin’s lips, along with a few dark red bubbles.

H’ruk lifted his gaze briefly, then went back to twisting another iron spike into the head of his club. ‘If you kill the runt, then we got no slave, you idiot.’

Lo’Gak paused, and glanced over at Shragg, slumped on one of the bunks. ‘Do you want a slave, Shragg? H’ruk wants a slave.’

‘Can have one of the humans in the cells. The female. Or the little one.’

H’ruk interrupted. ‘No. The wizard decides that. We do what he says.’

‘He didn’t say we can’t,’ protested Shragg.

‘And he didn’t say we can. The wizard is paying.’

Lo’Gak waved a clawed finger back and forth. ‘No, no, the Black Spider is paying.’

‘Same thing. You wanna argue with the wizard about money? Or what he does with the ones in the cells? You do it on your own.’

There was a muffled crash from beyond the north door, then shouting.

‘They’re fighting again,’ observed Lo’Gak, then listened intently. Somebody was screaming. A man. He shook his head, dismissively. ‘Humans.’

Each returned to their previous efforts. H’ruk to his club. Lo’Gak to the unconscious goblin. Shragg to his half-slumber. After a minute or two, the noises from the room to the north ceased.

‘They drink and they fight. It’s what humans do,’ mused H’ruk, then after a moment added ‘and dwarves.’

There was a click and the north door swung smoothly open. H’ruk stood abruptly and Lo’Gak let go of the goblin, who crumpled to the floor, folding in places a humanoid shouldn’t fold.

The visitor stepped across the threshold and regarded them, coldly. He was broad-shouldered for an elf, strong looking rather than lithe and spindly. His scarlet cloak was stained and torn, but hung from his shoulders with the casual grace of lordly privilege. The elf’s leather bracers, shoulders and chest-piece were soaked with what must be blood – streaks of it were splattered up across his smooth chin and neck. His stance betrayed no injury – the blood was surely somebody else’s? Clutched in his right hand was a familiar staff of cut glass.

H’ruk’s fingers tightened around his club. ‘Who the hell are you?’

The elf sneered. ‘I’m here to replace Glasstaff.’ The word ‘replace’ was annunciated with a menace most often reserved for threats of war. ‘The Black Spider is most disappointed in your progress.’

Shragg slowly manoeuvred himself to a sitting position, exchanging glances with Lo’Gak. H’ruk puffed out his chest, but even though he was a head and a half taller than the visitor, he had the distinct impression that the elf was looking down at him.

‘Where’s the wizard? That’s his staff.’ H’ruk’s gestured at the ornate implement.

‘He is no longer is command of this operation.’ It was a statement of fact, uttered without emotion.

‘We weren’t told.’

‘The Black Spider does not have to explain himself to those in his charge. He deals with those that fail him more… directly. He is far from pleased with how things have unfolded, thus far.’ For half a second the elf smiled – a chilling, humourless smile. A glint of red danced in his eyes – perhaps from the torchlight, perhaps not.

H’ruk relaxed his grasp on the club. The Black Spider’s agents were not chosen for their good temperament or diplomacy. Offending this one would not go unpunished.

‘Now, where is the dwarf? The prospector.’ The elf’s question was sharp, pointed.

‘They took him to the mine, to Wave Echo Cave.’

‘That is… unfortunate.’ The elf tapped the glass staff on the stone, considering this new information. ‘I’ll have to go there. The cave – how do I get there?’

Lo’Gak had nervously hauled the goblin to its feet, holding him upright like a puppet, in case damaging one’s slave was looked upon unfavourably. ‘But… but… he said we can’t tell nobody!’

‘I don’t have time for that. The Black Spider is expecting me to speak to the dwarf.’

H’ruk nodded, ‘Gak is right. The Spider would have us killed us if we spoke to anyone about the mine. You can ask him yourself if you don’t believe us.’

‘Hmm. And where’s the Spider, now?’

Shragg piped up from his bunk, ‘At the Castle. At Cragmaw Castle.’ His voice was a nervous whisper at odds with his bestial appearance.

‘Okay. And where do I find this place?’ The elf sounded exasperated.

‘You don’t know where Cragmaw is, either?’ This was starting to make less sense to H’ruk. Why didn’t the elf know about Cragmaw?’

‘The Black Spider has brought me in from another operation to fix the mess being made of this one.’ Exasperation was turning to anger. ‘Now. Stop. Wasting. My. Time.’

H’ruk swallowed. ‘Neverwinter. South east of Helm’s Hold and north of Stone Shard. Old human place.’

The elf cocked his head to one side, thinking. ‘South east of… yes, I know it. Of course. The keep at Brugwood.’ He gazed around the room one final time. ‘Await instructions. The Black Spider has a new task for you.’ And with that he span and strode from the room, slamming the door shut behind him. The Manor was suddenly silent.

Lo’Gak let the goblin fall to the floor again. ‘Are we, um…’ the bugbear looked at his companions, warily. ‘Are we in trouble?’

+ + + +

‘So then you found the door was locked, and after you broke it down, you discovered that the Redbrands were all dead and the prisoners were gone. And this ‘agent’ of mine – he was nowhere to be found?’

H’ruk began to feel a growing sense of discomfort. ‘They weren’t all dead. Some of them ran off into the hills.’

‘And the elf?’

‘I don’t… I don’t know. He went to Cragmaw, I reckon.’

‘I see. Well, the elf was right about one thing. I am most disappointed with how this has turned out.’ As the Drow spoke, large dark shapes began to move out of the shadows and up onto the cavern’s fire-lit ceiling.

H’ruk spluttered, ‘We weren’t told about all this. We want more gold…’ but as he rose, something wet and tendrilous fell upon him, gagging his mouth, choking him, pinning his arms to his sides. The other bugbears shouted out – deep guttural cries, that ended abruptly as the sharp, smothering shadows descended.

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The Happy Heart, no longer

The adventurers, and the once-famous ranger Johari, have returned to the village of Frickley as giant-conquering, local heros. Most of the village has converged on The Happy Heart inn to celebrate the end of a fearful time and drink to those that delivered them from the threat. Innkeeper Ludlow Elber and his sister are doing their best to keep the ale flowing (and copper coming). Even if you discount the men and one woman who strode back into town carrying the ears and hands of two ferocious hill giants, the evening has been full of surprises.

Several strangers have picked tonight to become patrons of this out-of-the-way tavern. A grey-haired man in chainmail with a somewhat martial bearing, and a young, mace-carrying acolyte – his wrists bound in red cord – have made themselves at home over in one corner. The older man has been generous with coin, but have kept themselves to themselves throughout the twilight hours. Though, Ludlow swears he saw them talking to the Giant Slayers on their return. Another pair of travellers arrived when the night was in full swing – a portly and wealthy-looking farmer from Triboar way, accompanied by a beautiful red-haired woman with a grubby face that one would assume is his daughter. At least, he is chastising her as one would an unruly child, apologising each time she bursts loudly into song.

Most unusually, shortly after the hero’s arrived, a wild boar of enormous proportions charged down from the upstairs rooms, breaking the bannister and splintering one half of the front door. It appears to have then dug up Old Jack’s snowblossom patch and turned the horse trough on its side, before disappearing into the night. Nobody is sure how the beast got upstairs, but Murt the cooper reckons that the cross-looking elf with the quarterstaff might be a wizard, and when strange stuff happens around wizards you’re best just accepting it and not asking any questions that might get you turned into a river pebble or thrown into the sky.

At the bar, Murt is debating with Dugan – a blacksmith known for exclaiming ‘let’s get this done!’, before not doing whatever ‘this’ is. As they converse, Ludlow is considering what to do with the six foot diameter gong of beaten copper that the adventurers have left partially blocking the kitchen hatch. 


Murt frowned, then took a slow sip from his flagon. ‘The Five Giant Cutters.’

‘Sounds agricultural.’ Dugan was wearing a similar expression of concentration.

‘Okay, The Five Giant Killers.’

‘Nah, sounds like the killers are huge. How about Death to Giants?’

‘Not very celebratory, is it? What about The Severed Giant Hand and Ear?’

Murt winced. ‘I wouldn’t eat there’.

They both stared into their respective drinks. Behind them, the raucous tavern was joining together in an old, rude Sword Coast shanty. Amongst the din, a young woman is singing a nonsensical song of her own; clear and sharp, and completely out of tune.

‘What did that bard say his name was?’

‘Which one is the bard?’

‘The one with the lute and the grin.’

Ludlow looked up from his efforts to shift the gong a few feet. ‘Argo. The bard’s name is Argo. He introduced himself twice.’

‘Looks heavy that, Ludlow,’ observed Dugan.

‘Yes.’ An involutary grunt. ‘Yes, it is.’

Murt sat upright suddenly. ‘Argo’s Giant Gong.’

Ludlow let the metal circle fall back against the wall with a sonorous clang. ‘No. No way. And I didn’t say I would definitely rename it, anyway.’

‘Well you wouldn’t have an inn if Johari and these fellows hadn’t sorted out those giants, would you?’ Dugan was now taking a slightly slurred paternal tone.

Murt nodded in agreement. ‘We’ve got to commemorate what they’ve done for us. Besides, it’s a better story.’

Ludlow, now pouring more ale for the pressing throng, raised an eyebrow. ‘Yep, three more, I know – uh, story?’

‘Travellers talk, don’t they? We could put Frickley on the map!’

‘Frickley is on the map.’

‘No, I mean this place, with its new name – it could be this busy every night!’

A look of horror crossed Ludlow’s face. ‘Every night?’

Dugan slammed his cup down on the bar, sloshing beer over his hand. ‘The Four and a Half Heroes.’

Murt didn’t look impressed. ‘Is that because one of them’s a gnome?’

‘Yeah, what’s wrong with that? It’s funny.’

‘That gnome just killed a bunch of giants. If I was going to poke fun at one of his kind, I probably wouldn’t start with him.’

‘Good point. Okay, The Five Men of Valour.’

Murt scoffed. ‘Johari’s a woman.’

‘She fights like a man. It’s a compliment.’

‘Yeah, of the sort that gets you decapitated.’

‘Another good point. Hmm… maybe we should ask one of them.’

‘Which one? The wiry one with the red hair is over there. He looks…’ Murt downed the last of his flagon, furtively glancing over his shoulder at the leather-clad stranger sitting on the staircase. ‘…dangerous.’

‘The elf seems friendly,’ mused Dugan. ‘In a murderous sort of way. Did you see the scar on his hand?’

‘No. No, I didn’t. I’d ask the little guy, but don’t want to wake up tomorrow with a curse. Or, not wake up tomorrow – with a curse.’

‘Can gnomes do that?’

‘Reckon that one could. Dark look in his eyes, and he’s got this weird looking gemstone on a chain round his neck.’

‘The bard then.’

‘Aye, the bard. Argo.’

‘With the lute.’

‘Aye.’

‘And the rapier.’

Dugan and Murt sat silently, contemplating their vessels, the noise of the other patrons continuing unabated.

After a few moments, Dugan looked across at his companion. ‘Another drink first, perhaps?’

‘Aye. Another drink.’ Murt nodded to the harried innkeeper and pushed the empty flagons forward. ‘Best not to crowd these giant slayer types.’

Keep your Fiends close

More than any other class, choosing a Warlock brings story. Of course, clerics, monks, paladins and druids all start with a purpose; a direction and a strong link to something bigger and pre-existing in the world (or an adjacent plane). And the intention of the character creation system in fifth edition is to give even the most straightforward of classes (hi, fighter!) the possibility of fleshing out into a person that’s wrapped up in history, intrigue and connection (hi, disgraced Iluskan noble, sentenced to death but now free with a new name, having earned her freedom as a gladiator, and now determined to get even with the powerful family that betrayed her!).


But Warlocks get a head start, and a certain inevitable influence on the direction of a campaign. As a DM, it’s very difficult to ignore that even a day one, level one group with a warlock, are shadowed by a vastly powerful extra-planar entity, its plans and designs entwined with theirs.

Or not? What if the deed – the mortal obligation in this pact – has already been done? That’s the case in my campaign. Lythrin, an outlander raised by elves in Neverwinter Wood, was persuaded to do something terrible in exchange for Power. But this ‘something’ was only a catalyst for a greater evil, a component of a ritual that has, perhaps, caused far greater harm. So, even though the pact and its intent are in the past, the stone dropped into the pond has made ripples that are still moving, bouncing back and forth, and changing the game world in unforeseen ways.

Either way, it brings us to motivation. An evil Warlock character, working consciously and nefariously for his dastardly patron is generally straightforward. A demonic patron from the Abyss could be particular so – your basic Demon being up for destruction, at varying levels of potency and sophistication. On the other hand (claw?), a Fiend from the Nine Hells desires power, and that potentially leads to more intrigue and subtlety. And a Great Old One’s machinations will likely be alien and unfathomable, but rarely leads to nice things happening to the good people of Faerûn.

But what about a Warlock that isn’t evil? What if they’re just a mortal at the wrong place at the wrong time, promised greatness, and now having to deal with the fallout? How would they feel about the creature they’ve done a deal with? And how would they like that relationship to proceed? The shadow hanging over them is not quite their friend, and not quite their enemy. So, what ya gonna do? Some options:

  1. Make your way in the world and hope this whole awkward, hellish matter goes away.
  2. Recognise that you are but a vessel for a vast and unholy darkness, and give yourself fully in service, and worship, to your patron.
  3. Delve into the mystery, the trickery, of your pact. Become a detective investigating a great crime, where the victim was you.
  4. Dedicate yourself to making amends for your transgression, striving against Evil in all its forms.
  5. Get payback. Seeking out the means to destroy the beast whose dark magic has part empowered you, part enslaved you.
  6. Severing the link. Is there a way out of this arrangement? What did the small print say? Maybe, just maybe…
  7. Something entirely unexpected.
  8. Two or more of the above.

As I said, a Warlock come preloaded with story. Which direction any particular campaign goes is obviously down to the particular Warlock and his fellow adventurers. It could become a memorable subplot. It could become the theme that frames the big story. Or it could be the main event.

Sooner or later, your pact is going to come back to haunt you.

In a good way.

On song

When asking the question of a Bard’s magic, you must understand the fundamentals.

A bard does not conjure up great feats of illusion from ancient tomes.

Nor does he plunder the netherworlds for pacts with great daemons and shower the earth with brimstone and fire.

These are the domains of the great wizards and warlocks. Their abilities seem limited only by their imagination and I know not how such immense power could be controlled.

A Bard’s strength comes from the music and the inner prose of a creatures soul.

To wield a Bard’s power is to attune to the very core of a man’s being. To understand his story so clearly that you could control his thoughts and his fears.

I have known a troubadour so great in his craft that he could sing the very life into the recently deceased.

Don’t underestimate the power of the song my boy, for it could raise the dead.

And remember it is always, absolutely, a matter of style.

Loric of Nightstone

As related to Argo Dragonverse. Words by DW.

The small matter of Giant’s Throne

The party arrive in a small village to the north east of Phandalin that’s got a hill giant problem. Daily visits. Threats. Little food left. Rumours of other nearby settlements suffering worse. The adventurers team up with septuagenarian ranger, Johari – a retired giantslayer, following up on an oath she made to the villagers, some 25 years ago.

Strangely, the hill giant – ‘King Bonecrusher’ – had installed itself in a cave that’s somehow significant to stone giants. And somehow found a way to open up a much larger complex (see below) that’s been more or less empty for centuries.

The additional areas to explore were not the only complications:

  • Goblins (there’s always goblins)
  • Intoxicating mushroom spores
  • Gargoyles; two of them made of crystal
  • A spurned offer of assistance from a dead elf (Lythrin’s hellish patron)
  • A vast statue of Annam, the All Father (creator of giants)
  • Bonecrusher, mid-worship, imploring the deity to ‘let him take his rightful place…’
  • A second (unexpected, furious, female) hill giant
  • Giant poisonous wolf spiders

Ranger Johari, elderly as she is, turns out to be fast, strong and lethal (once she got her breath and confidence back). But the considerably less experienced rogue, warlock, bard and wizard held their own.

Play of the game: either Goldmund shattering a crystal gargoyle’s skull with an expert shortbow shot into its snapping jaws, or Argo temporarily incapacitating Bonecrusher with a hurled glass sphere of Ether (despite almost knocking out Johari and Lythrin, too).

Eventually, the adventurers exit carrying arm loads of loot – mainly offerings to the All Father. Goldmund turns down his share. His upbringing has taught him that stealing from a god is a huge (giant) ‘no’. As they leave, they walk into four more giants – this time of the Stone variety. What has brought them here? Perhaps they have returned to reclaim their holy place? They ignore the party (‘the surface world is but a dream’) and seal the cave up behind them. Leaving the adventurers to return to the village as giant slaying heroes.

How many giants did they kill anyway? Two? Four? I heard it was ten…

giantsthrone-parchment

Note: The original base of the layout was found here – one of many great maps by draughtsman Kevin Campbell. I just added/removed a few rooms (and some mushrooms). The story was a very heavily customised version of Giantslayer by Richard Jansen-Parkes and M.T. Black.

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Bard magic: songs of not quite sorcery

bard
This came out of a discussion with one of my players about what bard spellcasting should actually feel like. It’s not about incantations, and conjuring up luminous arcane energies. And equally, it gets quite flat if it becomes ‘I sing my invisibility song’. The following examples all happen to be second level spells, as the conversation started around which ones he should choose.

Argo fingers swipe across the strings of his lute, and as a low, powerful sound emanates, he cups his hands in front of his mouth, his voice completing the chord, then rising sharply in pitch and volume. As it hits its crescendo he thrusts his hands forward, and a deafening explosion detonates at the far side of the hall. (Shatter)

The bard furrows his brow in concentration, his mouth slightly open as a deep, steady note begins in his throat. He places his hand on the unconscious gnome’s shoulder, and wills the magic to reverberate down his arm and into his prone companion. The vibrations pulse through his stricken body, obliterating the darkness in his veins. The fever abruptly ceases, and the gnome’s eyes flicker open. (Lesser Restoration)

Argo steps forward, his eyes meeting those of the guard captain. Into the quiet night air he sings one, two then three strange, mellifluous words from a long forgotten language. As he does so, he plucks the lute, precisely, discordantly. The captain feels the disharmony in his very bones and tries to reach for his sword – but he is too late. His muscles are frozen. (Hold person)

Watching the faces of the crowd, Argo begins the ballad softly. Disinterest quickly becomes intrigue, and he feels the emotions of his audience shift. Focusing on the grey-garbed merchant in the corner, he lets himself go deeper. There is no intrigue here, no pleasure, just… anxiety. And those surface thoughts come like whispers: ‘Where is she? Why is she late? There’ll be hell to pay if she isn’t dealt with by midnight’ – he glances at his blade as these thoughts play through his mind. And with that, the assassin is revealed. (Detect Thoughts)

So, anyway, there’s this gnome…

And thus begun an attempt to keep a blog that chronicles a D&D campaign; weaving its path through the 5th Edition Starter Set, one or two main Forgotten Realms published adventures, a smattering of DM’s Guild material and a ton of my own writing (and the occasional map).

I’m Simon, the DM. The ‘heroes’ of our story are:

Felrick, a gnome wizard and apprentice to the powerful and eccentric illusionist, Magister Knotwhistle. He hails from the settlement of Hammersong in the southern foothills of Mount Hotenow, but he now finds himself turfed out of his mentor’s tower, to further his education in the field.

Lythrin is a warlock of elven origin. After making a cryptic and fiery pact with a Fiend of the Nine Hells, he’s on the road looking for answers and trouble – and finding mainly the latter, thanks to his reluctance to ever back down. Ever.

Goldmund, a rogue raised in a Neverwinter temple, is defined by unexpected contradictions. Devout in his beliefs; no faith in authority. Cares deeply about his fellow man; has a knack for murder.

Argo, the Waterdhavian bard has epic songs to sing and great tales to tell. The great heroes of his verse are, well, him and anybody else lucky enough to join his adventure. Fame, fortune and danger beckon, as do fine wines and the other pleasures of the senses.

These four find themselves far from their homes, near Phandalin in the Sword Mountains. It’s a frontier town, with more going on than you might expect. The dwarven prospector they set out to meet, Gundren Rockseeker, has been abducted by goblins, and a violent gang – the Redbrands – are in control of the town. Then there’s this bounty – a hill giant is menacing a nearby village. The money is good, so why not deal with this side-problem first? I mean, it’s one giant. How hard can it be?