Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Game Session 2013/03/03

Sophie O'Griffin, human, the leader and ringmaster. Played by Echo.
Esmond Gellert, human, trick-shot archer and dog trainer. Played by Mike.
Ganz, elf, stage magician and wizard. Played by Jessica.
Quexechetl, lizard man, strongman and wrestler. Played by Karl.
Talman, half-elf, acrobat. Played by Joe.
Fiorio, human, a peasant with a knack for playing to the crowd that the circus picked up along the way. Played as an NPC.

June 26, 850

When we last saw our adventurers, they had just chased an ogre into the ruined dwarven city and killed it, mainly with Esmond's bow and Talman's spear. Quexechetl had taken two good, strong blows form the ogre. He declined a healing potion, but he sat down and let Sophie bandage his wounds.

Just seconds later, some of the knights and men-at-arms from the castle caught up with the circus. Looking at the huge, bloody mess of the ogre's corpse and the mostly untouched circus performers, they clamored for an account of the fight. Sophie spoke up first, saying that the ogre was already badly wounded when they found it, no doubt from the fighting in the castle and the fall from the tower after it bashed through the wall. The others agreed, the ogre was nearly dead when they found it, and it had expired while they were trying to get their over-eager lizardman away from it.

"It kind of just fell on my spear."
Joe (Talman)

Soon after this, King Miklo himself, in the company of Count Anelmo and some of the other nobility arrived, saying they had heard that an ogre had been killed. Count Anelmo was most impressed, remarking that yesterday they didn't even know what to do with a wounded goblin, and today they had defeated an ogre. No doubt the next day, they would slay dragons.

One of the king's men, someone the performers didn't recognize, complained that the circus was acting out of place to take glory from the fighting men, but the king stifled this complaint, since he didn't like any criticism of "his circus."[1] The king and his attendants then left for the castle.

That evening, most of the army camped outside the castle, since the courtyard wasn't that large, and the Circus Sophia put on a show. Esmond didn't do very well with the dog act, but the rest of the performers did well enough, although Quexechetl was still a bit slow.

June 27, 850

Alarm! Alarm! The circus folk woke up at dawn to the news that a horde of orcs was approaching. Camp became a chaos as everyone rushed to pack up and shelter inside the ancient dwarven castle. Quexechetl and Fiorio tried to get the tent down as quickly as they could, but Quexechetl must have been suffering from the previous day's fight, because he made a mess of the job. Esmond and Sophie tried to help, but just got in the way and made matters worse. By the time they got things straightened out, they were nearly the last people to make it into the castle's very crowded courtyard, and they had to park the wagon quite close to the gatehouse, which didn't even have a gate.

Once inside, they climbed up the stairs to the top of the wall, trying to get close to the king, because Sophie was worried about an assassination attempt in the chaos of battle. From this height, they could see the entirety of the castle. It was mostly intact, but there were a few breaches in the walls. Esmond noticed that the circus wagon, along with a few others, had been overturned and used to block the gatehouse entry to the courtyard.

Soon the orcs marched into view, shouting, chanting, banging on drums, and waving weapons. They brought no siege equipment with them, not even ladders to try to scale the walls. Seeing this, most of the defenders left and went to reinforce the breaches, leaving only the archers and the king's party atop the walls. A group of mounted knights dragged the wagons out of the way and sallied out to harass the orcs.

When the orcs decided they had enough numbers, they charged and tried to overrun the breaches. Quexechetl went down to take part in the hand-to-hand fighting, while shot orc after orc with this bow. Talman and Fiorio stayed with Sophie, who kept an eye on the king. Ganz improvised an explosive fireball spell, which dispatched a knot of orcs. After that, he joined in keeping an eye on the king. He noticed Archmagus Tor of the Lodean court casting protective spells on King Miklo, while Count Anelmo commanded the battle. Lord Fels led his men in hand-to-hand fighting in the courtyard.

The first wave of orcs failed in their attack, there was a lull, and then another wave charged. This pattern continued for most of the day, and the defenders were never in serious danger. In the mid-afternoon, the remaining orcs retreated to the north, leaving a couple thousand dead behind them.

Casualties among the king's army were much lighter. After the fighting, Sophie tended to the wounded as best she could, and tried to get a sense of the army's opinion of the orcs' attack. Everyone agreed that it wasn't typical of orcs to attack a well-defended position like that. The majority opinion was that orcs are just stupid, and there's no explaining what they do. But some of the wiser and more experienced among the army supposed that maybe the castle was important to the orcs' prestige, or that the attack was a result of political competition among the orcish tribe, or that the orcs were simply overpopulated that year. In the end, no one had a good explanation for what seemed like a suicidal attack.

The performers did their best to gather their belongings, which had been spilled out of the wagon and mostly left in a pile, and bedded down for the night.

June 28, 850

After sleeping in their armor and keeping an alert watch, the next morning, the army broke camp and marched north, pursing the orcs. Around noon, they came to a convergence of three valleys and faced the choice of a path to the northeast or one to the west-northwest. As the members of the circus were wondering which way they would go, a hush fell over the army. Everyone's attention was drawn to the west, where the faraway but distinct silhouette of a dragon could be seen lazily circling in the air. It lingered in view for no more than half a minute, and when it passed behind a mountain, everyone remembered to breathe again.

The Circus Sophia was too far from the front of the army to tell who made the decision about which way to go, or what motivated them, but soon the army began marching again, and not in the direction of the dragon.

June 29, 850

The next day's travel brought the army to a narrow but steep ravine. On the far side, after a few hundred yards of grass and scrub, the trees came together into a proper forest. The king's engineers prepared to lay a bridge over the ravine so the wagons could cross, and a vanguard of knights rode forward to guard the opposite side.

When the vanguard came within arrow's flight of the trees, hundreds of orcs emerged from the cover and shot at them. Not knowing how many more were concealed in the forest, the knights withdrew back to the ravine. The engineers, worried about the security of the bridgehead, settled in for a long argument about how best to handle the task of getting the army to the other side.

In the afternoon, after most people had decided to begin setting up camp, a servant approached Ganz, and relayed a request for his presence by his grace the Archmagus Tor [2]. Ganz, of course, said he would be happy to oblige the Archmage, and followed the servant to a large and finely decorated tent.

Inside the Archmage welcomed his colleage, as he called Ganz, and pointed out a certain ruined tower on a ridge a couple miles away, on the near side of the ravine. The Archmage explained that this was an ancient wizard's tower, and he had heard from veterans of previous campaigns against the orcs that there were magical glyphs engraved in the stones there. The Archmage had wanted to investigate this for himself, but since the orcs might attack at any moment, he was required to stay and protect the king. Would Ganz be willing, with his circus friends as protection, to to climb up to the tower and make a sketch of the glyphs? It would be a long climb and there wouldn't be much light left when he got there, but an overnight stay should be safe, since the orcs were very superstitious about magic and avoided the tower.

Ganz said he would be happy to. He took his leave of the Archmage and returned to the circus wagon. Everyone wanted to go, but Sophie thought Fiorio should stay with the wagon and mind their belongings. The performers packed for an overnight stay and set out.

The climb was steep, and the sun was much lower in the sky when they neared the tower. In its ruined state, it was little more than a low circular wall with a pile of rubble surrounding it. Esmond kept a sharp eye out for trouble, and Ganz cast a Sense Foes spell, but no one saw any signs of danger.

There was, indeed, a belt of glyphs carved into the stone in a belt around the outside of the tower, a little above waist height. There were a few gaps where stones had fallen away, but it was mostly intact. Ganz set about copying them down on paper, while the others looked around for fallen stones with glyphs on them. Esmond discovered a stairway leading downward just inside the ruined walls, blocked by rubble. They decided to leave it unexcavated for now.

Ganz finished his transcription a little before sundown, and though he wasn't very familiar with dwarven schools of magic, he came to the conclusion that they were some sort of protection signs. He finished off by casting an illusion of the scene of the whole ruin, with all the glyphs in place, in order to fix it in his memory.

The circus then settled down for the night, with Sophie assigned the first watch, Esmond the second, and Talman the third. Quexechetl was already asleep. Esmond passed the magical pendant he usually wears to Sophie, to let her see in the dark.

Toward the end of Sophie's watch, after the moon had set, she saw, down in the valley, another army of orcs marching toward the camp! They marched silently and slowly, with none of the drumming and chanting that usually announced their presence. She woke up the others, and though they couldn't see, she explained that the orcs had doubled back behind the king's army, and were making a nighttime attack on their rear!

With the camp a couple hours away by foot and all the orcs about, Ganz felt that only way to warn the army was with magic. He considered teleporting Sophie back, but decided that was too risky. Better would be if he flew there himself. He cast a spell, transformed himself into a foxhawk [3], and took off.

Almost immediately, he saw that a group of orcs had departed from the main horde and were climbing the ridge toward the tower. There were a couple dozen, at least. He circled back to the tower, landed, and yipping and pointing with a paw, got Sophie to take another look down the slope. This time, she saw the orcs that were climbing toward them, and warned the others to prepare to defend the tower.

Ganz took off again and flew to the army's camp. He landed just outside the lines, then dismissed his spell and returned to the form of an elf. He found a sentry and warned him about the approaching orcs, then ran off to the Archmage's tent and repeated his warning. The message delivered, he snuck out into the darkness at the edge of camp, cast his transformation spell once more, and flew back to the tower.

As he approached, he saw that he had undercounted the orcs. There must have been at least sixty of them, and though their climb was slow, they would reach the tower before long. He landed, transformed back into an elf, and updated the others on the enemy numbers.

Talman thought they might do best to flee, since the orcs probably didn't even know they were there, weren't coming for a fight, and wouldn't miss them if they left. The others thought it would be too dangerous to leave a defensible position with that many orcs roaming around. They decided to stay, and thought this might be a good time to clear away the rubble and see where those stairs led.

While Quexechetl stood guard, Esmond and Talman started clearing. It was tough going, and they hadn't made much progress when the orcs came within arrow range. The climbed slowly, looking tired. Quexechetl and Esmond traded places, and Esmond took the amulet of night seeing back from Sophie. He drew his bow and carefully watched the orcs. Ganz cast a Light spell, and began concentrating to send it down the slope to light up the orcs.

When they got to withing fifty yards, Esmond shot. His arrow thudded home into the chest of one of the advancing orcs. The orcs kept coming, silently. Esmond drew again, aimed, and loosed another arrow. He hit the same orc again. The orc didn't so much as cry out, and kept coming.

Esmond drew another arrow, and this time as he aimed, he saw that the orc he had just shot twice wasn't the only one with arrows in him. As they got nearer, he could see, plain as day in the darkenss by the virtue of his magical amulet, that the orcs were all dead. And yet still they marched forward.

Me: Yes, it turns out that they are zombie orcs. Or, "zorcs," if you will....
Karl: I will not.

He shot a third arrow, trying to hit the orc squarely in the forehead, but his shot missed. He dropped the bow, drew out his shortsword and buckler, and prepared to hold the gap in the wall that faced the orcs. Talman backed him up with his spear. Sophie said a quick prayer to Wen, god of the underworld, climbed up on the wall, and readied her bow. Ganz did his best to help Quexechetl with the digging.

The first of the dead orcs reached the tower. Esmond stood at the gap in the wall. Two of them closed with him and attacked with axes. One missed, and he deflected the other with his buckler.

Esmond struck back, slashing the orc across the throat with his sword. Behind him, Talman stabbed with his spear, but failed to connect. More dead orcs stumbled toward Sophie, where she perched atop the wall, and the two that faced Esmond attacked again. One of them connected, severely wounding him and nearly knocking him down.

"This would be a good time to find out that this is all a nightmare."
Mike (Esmond)

Quexechetl dug frantically at the rubble blocking the stairs, and cleared barely enough room to let an elf  squirm through, but not enough for himself. It seemed unlikely they would clear enough to get everyone underground before the orcs overwhelmed them. Ganz decided to take a long shot, and concentrated on the magical glyphs that he had studied so carefully, hoping to somehow activate them.

Sophie shot an arrow at one of the dead orcs, hitting it but not slowing it down. It stabbed twice at her with a spear, missing both times. Esmond, struggling to remain conscious, slashed again with his sword, then stepped back from the wall. Talman attacked with his spear again and missed.

Ganz, concentrating on the glyphs, thought that he had somehow connected with them. Sophie felt that her prayer had been answered, and hopped down from the wall. The dead orcs stumbled around outside, but made no attempt to enter through the gap in the wall. The circus performers were safe, but for how long?

Esmond quickly gulped a healing potion, while Quexechetl finished clearing the rubble from the stairs. As soon as there was enough room to crawl through, everyone hurried downstairs. They examined the small, round, vaulted room by the light of Sophie's lantern. There was a summoning circle of some sort on the floor, a table and chair against one wall, and a cabinet against another.

So, how did that go?

Things moved along more slowly that I would have liked. Everyone's attention kept wandering, including mine. It had been more than a month since our last game, because of one thing an another, and I think that may have been a part of the reason.

And, of course, things did not go as I had expected. When do they ever? I didn't expect JC to have Ganz fly off by himself to warn the army about the approaching orcs, but that was fine. I thought the group made a mistake by not clearing the stairs and investigating under the tower when they first got there. On the other hand, JC caught me totally off guard by having Ganz attempt to activate the glyphs. I just threw in "they're protection wards" off the cuff.

Ganz has a Thaumatology of 14, so I added up some penalties and bonuses in my head and came up with 7 for him to activate the glyphs. Then I remembered Sophie's brief prayer to Wen, so I bumped it up to 8. JC used Luck to make three rolls, and the third and best was an 8. So they were just barely saved, by virtue of that prayer. I think the current situation made for a very good stopping point.

One thing I think I need to manage better is my way of describing what's going on in the world. In order to make it seem like this story unfolds in a real place, I try to describe what's going on all around the party -- what the army is doing, how the orcs act, what a dragon flying in the distance looks like, and so on. But while I'm doing that, I'm not asking the players what their characters are doing. In the current situation, where they're following an army and have to go where it goes, it feels like I'm spending too much time on things they have no control over. I need to work on compressing that description and getting on the good parts where they get to decide to do something.

[1] The Circus Sophia performed at the king's coronation feast, along with various other entertainers. In a strange mixup, a second circus, also named the Circus Sophia, was likewise scheduled to perform. The assembled nobles thought this was improper, and formed the general opinion that the two circuses should compete for the right to use the name. Our heros won, narrowly but convincingly, and afterward the court awarded the Circus Sophia a royal charter entitling them to call themselves "Entertainers to HIs Majesty King Miklo." Queen Luccola even gave them a banner embroidered with this slogan.

[2] The circus has met the Archmage once before, in the aftermath of the strange plot by an alchemist to  kidnap the king's cousins and use them in a ritual to do...something. The Archmage led the investigation to find out who else was involved, and eventually the Dean of the Royal College of Alchemists was arrested. The Archmage is also a member of the Lodean regency council, along with four other people. I'm not sure any of the players remembers this.

[3] A foxhawk is just what it sound like --  a hybrid with the body of a fox, but with a hawk's wings and forefeet. They have normal coloration for a red fox, but with a line of feathers along the spine and banded coloration on the belly, white and red or red-brown. The circus encountered these creatures when they met the reclusive alchemist Fiuzo Panzal. He had made several, and they had escaped from their pens. After the circus recaptured them for him, Ganz decided he liked them enough to want to be one, at least temporarily, and improvised a transformation spell.

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