Thursday, February 24, 2011

Scenes from the Panopticon

Since the girls and I have seen very little RPG action of late, I thought I'd share just a little slice of what's going on in my adult Pathfinder game. Just a little sample to show the flavor. For those of you who may be players in this campaign, no worries...this is just the session 6 recap. No spoilers here. Also, nothing really "adult" happens in this sample, so for those of you with kids it should be safe for anyone old enough to read it themselves.

The Characters (in order of appearance, i.e., who joined the group first):
  • DM: Me.
  • Klafrin: Human rogue lvl 5, wizard lvl 1. Thinks of himself as a "treasure hunter." Played by Adam, a coworker.
  • Yorick: Human fighter lvl 6. Enjoys hitting things with his magic sword and hammer. Has a minor in engineering. Played by Chris, a friend through Adam.
  • Hackel: Saurian monk lvl 6. Saurians are lizard-like men. As for monk, think kung fu monk, not monastery monk. He is played by Jeff, a former coworker.
  • Alexandra: Human druid lvl 6. Tuning in to the rhythms of the setting's exotic subterranean life to everyone's advantage. Played by Chris' wife Sara.
  • Sandwina: Elf sorceress lvl 6. She has been trapped for five centuries in this hellish prison they're exploring, and wants only to leave at the earliest possible opportunity. She has been driven slightly mad, and changes her name each session. Played by Adam's wife Kristi.

They're deep in a forbidding forest wilderness where some believe that elves once had a proud civilization. This civilization, and indeed the elves themselves, are now the stuff of legend, like our Atlantis, thought to be nothing more than myth. Klafrin and Yorick discovered a map, though, purporting to show the way to the lost elven city of NimoriƩl. Off they went to find it, and learned along the way that all the faerie-type creatures (fey), magical beasts, and even elves have been transformed by a magical, non-fatal disease into twisted, mutated, and sadistic fiends.

They were having trouble making it to the city when a pseudodragon offered them a quest: to seek the Horn of Orox in the ancient elf prison known as The Neen. The pseudodragon said that her master could use the horn to cure the disease. The prison, an underground panopticon, was used by the elves back in the days when they were harshly ruled by a tyrant queen. Its purpose was to house political prisoners, study unusual fiends, or quarantine demonic beings whose deaths would cause more problems than their imprisonment. It was also used to house dangerous magical artifacts and devices which were deemed by the elves in their ancient wisdom to be too dangerous or wild to let fall into the wrong hands. The prison was distasteful to the graceful race of elves, but after the queen's reign ended, they were stuck with it.

The adventurers (now joined by Hackel and Alexandra) accepted the quest without knowing the situation inside the panopticon. With directions to the secret entrance and a grim key, they gained access to the complex and began their quest. Along the way they rescued the elfin sorceress, a former prison guard who had been captured and was about to be punished for crossing the Neen's hateful warden. Over the years she had managed to not catch the disease which had run rampant through the dungeon, evilly twisting most everyone else inside. Now free from captivity, she reluctantly joined them in their cause.

We are six sessions into the panopticon adventure (not counting the sessions that took place in the forest while they searched for the lost city). We are about to begin the seventh session. Each session has run between two and a half and three hours, so between fifteen and eighteen hours total playing time has elapsed, while 72 hours of in-game time has elapsed. They are running out of food, though the sorceress can easily train them how to survive on rats, giant spiders, and other vermin.

The following is a recap of the sixth session that I wrote for the players. It describes exactly what transpired, though it is written in narrative format. It treats the adventure as a story, and excludes out-of-game activities and conversations between the DM and the players. Careful reading, though, may reveal "in" jokes between myself and the players.

Note: I can't possibly go into full detail about where they are and what has transpired before, so a few terms and ideas might not make much sense. I can, however, offer a brief description of the dungeon's structure. The panopticon is divided into three main areas: the guards' area, the artifacts area, and the prisoner detention area. The three sections line a circular perimeter, and are separated by a lake. Rising from the center of the lake is a watchtower. The characters have explored the guards' area and have just entered the artifacts area.

It is always very dark, cool, and humid in the panopticon. Screams, moans, and other unpleasant noises originating from remote areas within the structure are frequently heard.

Session 6 Recap

The party awoke feeling refreshed. After morning victuals they came out of the little golem nook they were sleeping in to examine the remains of the violently exploding bridge golem that they had destroyed the night before. In its cracked cranium casing they found a small black object made of an unknown substance, with a thin metal wire protruding from it, and a blinking red light. Yorick reviewed the blueprints they had found on the first day in the dungeon and, using his engineering training, determined that the object was an element foreign to the design of the golem.
Before continuing on, Sandwina, the elfin sorceress with the identity crisis, cast spells to provide herself with a magical armor-like protection and strengthen her companions for the trials to come. Then they packed up their things, Hackel folded up his invisible tent, and they began their exploration.
They were on the south ledge of the artifacts area. A huge, natural column of stone separated them from the rest of the area, and a tunnel burrowed through the rock. They passed through single-file and came to an 8’ wide stone ledge that curved gently to the left, counter-clockwise. It was a sheer drop-off on either side of the walkway, about 150' above the lake they knew was down there but could not see. On their right they also saw a huge circular tower with no windows, seemingly wedged into the cavern rock. It was connected to their narrow walkway by a thin bridge. Below that bridge they could make out two similar spans below it, connecting walkways beneath them to the same tower. They would eventually go on to find two more identical towers with similar bridges connecting them to the trio of central, arcing walkways.
While walking toward the first bridge, they noticed a loud disturbance above them. Darkmantles were trying to harass them again, but a huge swarm of bats was driving them away. This piqued Alexandra's interest and she used her power to speak with a few of the bats, who gave her a cryptic message: “It’s time for a change.” The druid sensed that something was off, though, and suspected that some external force was driving the bats, and perhaps even speaking to her through them with the intention of misleading her.
The adventurers continued on, approaching and walking across the first bridge until they arrived at the door to the tower. The door had been smashed open, despite being made of iron. They entered the doorway single file, went down a short corridor, and came to a circular room. The room featured an empty stand in its center, with something like real sunlight shining upon it from above, while all else remained in shadow. By applying the light of the lantern, and with aid from magic light from Alexandra, they discerned that the floor was criscrossed with dozens of narrow channels. A few humanoid bodies in deep decay lay about in neatly carved pieces around the floor near the light. Some rats scurried off due to the intrusion, but Yorick lured one back with the magical indigestible cheese. He snagged the rat and tossed it into the light, at which point blades came up through the channels in the floor. Yorick and Hackel, the only two who had entered the room, just barely dodged the blades and scrambled safely back into the corridor.
From across the way Klafrin’s keen eyes detected something not quite right with the far wall. Deeming the edges of the room to be safe (since it was interference with the light that set off the blades), they went around and discovered a secret door to some stairs that led below to a room used to maintain and set the trap above. Klafrin disabled the trap, and they returned upstairs to inspect the room more closely. Morlock parts were what Sandwina determined the mess to be, but nobody seemed eager to chow down, perhaps because the remains were two days old and morning rations were still fresh in their bellies. The pattern of dust on the empty stand suggested that something had once been there, perhaps in the last few days.
They left that grim scene and proceded to the bridge leading to the second tower. Here they found the door whole and secure, with two indentations for Palms of Trust, one on either side of the door, and a pale white gem above the frame. Sandwina also noticed the symbol of the watchtower etched on the wall and cast a message spell to speak with the person in the tower going by the name of Rixin. Rixin informed them that he could see their position from their light, told them to stand by, and the white gem started to shine. Hackel and Yorick applied the elf palms as required, and the door opened. They went inside single file, the fighter and the monk leading the way.
They came to another circular room, and detected the faint odor of pepper, or perhaps pineapple. This room had a high, sharp-domed ceiling. A small but sturdy golden stand was bolted to the floor. This stand sprouted three claws which held in place a marbled green egg the size of a watermelon. In all the stand and egg rose to a height of only two and a half feet. Forming a 10’ perimeter around the egg was a clear glass wall approximately four feet high.
When Yorick moved forward to investigate, he stepped into a reverse gravity field that extended almost to the room’s edge, and he plummeted to the ceiling 40’ above. While trying to rise to take inventory of his injuries, two panels opened mid-way up the walls, and water started gushing in, falling up to the ceiling, and threatening to drown Yorick. Klafrin, secured by rope to the others, attempted a daring jump-slide through the reverse gravity field to catch hold of the glass barrier. He failed in his attempt to grab hold. This led to his Plan B, which was to repel down(up) to rescue his friend, which he did. Down below, the party stared up in wonderment at the pretty water filling the ceiling dome.
Back on the true floor, and despite the ringing in his ears from the nasty spill he had taken, Yorick had a sudden brain storm. He secured one end of the rope to himself and the other to Hackel, and walked around the perimeter, avoiding the anti-gravity zone, until he reached the opposite side, so that the rope was pulled taut across the room over the egg. Klafrin secured himself to the rope via his belt and climbed into the reverse gravity field. Then, dangling up, he tried to secure the egg, but started coughing up mucous and blood from some toxic gas within the glass enclosure. Hackel deduced that the gas must be lighter than air (since it was keeping below the glass in the reverse gravity area), and that by breaking the glass the gas would spread out harmlessly at the level of their feet. Four arrows from Sandwina proved the point, for she managed to break the glass and Klafrin proceeded to snag the egg unharmed, though it had been held quite securely by its stand.
Another secret door led them below the room to a contraption used to convert two different types of liquids (contained in a collection of vials) into the toxic gas above. Klafrin disabled the device and they stowed the 5 vials of each liquid into their bag of holding. Then it was off to the third tower.
Like the first of the three doors, this one had also been destroyed. The room inside turned out to be a trap that had already been sprung, so to speak. A pair of spring-loaded wall sections were pressed together in the center of the room, their huge spring coils still extended from the side walls. A rotting foot was sticking out from between the two wall sections. The party found the secret passage to the trap mechanisms and operated a crank to reload one of the wall panels, then later disabled it so that the pressure plate they found between the walls would not trigger the trap. The wall sections now separated, they determined that the victim had been another morlock. Just beyond the trap they found a statue of a headless bust, the pattern of dust on which suggested that maybe there had recently been a medallion on it, but not anymore.
At this point the party started asking some hard questions about the presence of morlocks in this area of the panopticon. Their understanding, based on Sandwina’s long history in the guards’ area, was that the morlocks were only to be found in the detention area. The elf, still in contact with Rixin, asked him if he knew anything about it, but he professed ignorance on the subject, and in fact seemed quite surprised to hear the news himself.
The party continued to the northern end of the long arc, passing through another natural stone barrier via a tunnel, and reached the ledge marking the end of the artifacts area, and the northernmost point of the prison (the top of the circle, twelve o'clock). Across the divide they could now make out the beginning of the detention area. On their side of the chasm was a stairwell going down. Behind them was a golem’s nook, although this one was empty. They descended to the second level. On their way down they felt as though they were being watched, but no one could pinpoint any cause for this feeling.
On the second level they observed that the stairwell continued to the third level. They also found a golem nook like the one above, with a clockwork bridge golem standing ready for orders from the tower, and a tunnel leading to another long, arced walkway. They went through the tunnel. The walkway was much like the one on the floor above, except this one had periodic columns arching up to support the top level walkway above them. The level two walkway bowed around the support columns, revealing the entire structure to be center supported. This architectural approach was deemed to be questionable by the adventurers, and the merits of side-support versus central support were broached, but this conversational diversion did not change their situation. They proceeded to the bridge connecting to the first tower, which was now on their left.
The door was closed and locked, with the key mechanism following the two-palm-one-gem pattern, this time with a red gem. Rixin in his tower did his part, the party did theirs, and the door opened.
The room inside appeared to be nothing more than a square chamber with an 8” wide, 3’ high stand in the center, atop which sat a beautiful brass bottle. The druid was suspicious and took a close look at the floor, and determined that the floor itself was an illusion. Beneath the illusion the real floor was 10’ down and lined with dozens of huge, deadly spikes. Hoping the bottle weighed less than 5 lbs, the sorceress used her mage hand spell to magically draw the brass bottle to herself. She was successful, but as soon as the bottle left the platform, the spiked floor rushed upward past the level of the party and smashed into the ceiling above, seemingly trapping the bottle between the spikes and the ceiling. The elf had not lost her concentration, however, so she was able to continue moving the bottle with her spell. It took awhile, since she could no longer see it, but eventually she worked it free. They all took their turns examining the bottle. Though they detected potent magic associated with it, they could not determine the bottle’s function.
Like in the other rooms, they found a secret chamber for managing the trap floor mechanics. The crank was way too heavy for them to turn, but since they had already gotten what they came for – whatever it was – they left the trap mechanism alone.
And so on they went to the next tower. Before they entered this one, they noted unusually high bat swarm activity going on, with three bats in close proximity. Alexandra was determined to get the facts from these critters, so she attempted to use her powers to dominate them, or at least overcome the dominion that someone – or some thing – seemed to have over them. The struggle was too much for the little bats, and they died, but not before one of them screeched, “It’s a trap!” And then, “He wants it!”
This door marked the third entrance that had been smashed to bits, so gaining access was a cinch, and once more they filed in. This room had an awful stench. It was another round chamber, and the characters found themselves standing on a ledge above a pit filled with a putrid stew of acid and filth. Unlike the other plundered rooms, this one still had its booty. In the center a circular dais rose from the stew, and a stand on top of the dais featured a most unusual device: a black cylinder made of an unknown substance, with a profusion of eight moderately rigid wires radiating in random directions from it, each ending in tiny cylinders. Meanwhile a glass sphere, filled with liquid in which floated a humanoid-sized brain, hung by a chain from the ceiling above the black gizmo.
The gods watched the scene anxiously, hoping one of the questers would attempt the 12’ leap to the dais, only to slam into an invisible wall set between the ledge and the platform. Alas, such hilarious entertainment would not ensue. Hackel decided he would throw a candle at the gizmo to see what happened. He was delayed slightly in executing this plan when he was unable to locate his candles (his magic tent had struck again!). Lacking candles, he elected instead to toss silver pieces, and in so doing he discovered the presence of the unseen barrier. And became four silver pieces poorer.
After lengthy consideration, Alexandra drew forth a magical mist which revealed the outline of this invisible barrier. The barrier turned out to be semi-circular in shape, neither completely encircling the dais, nor extending all the way to the ceiling. Meanwhile, a secret passageway (surprise!) was found that circled around the outside of the room to a flanking position. In a room at this position they found a contraption featuring a set of 11 poisoned darts aimed through small holes into the trap room and directly at the bizarre gizmo. Anyone who moved the gizmo would be shot. Klafrin took a few of the darts for himself, and activated the trap to fire the remaining ones at the mysterious device. The darts bounced harmlessly off the gizmo. The party became frustrated and wondered aloud what sort of twisted trapmaker would create a trap for which not even he had a solution. They had fallen victim to the age-old fallacy common among such delvers: namely, that they were the center of the universe and the world around them had been made exclusively for their amusement, and with only their own unique set of capabilities in mind. Maybe - just maybe! - the trapmaker had been able to fly? Perhaps they weren’t meant to have this strange, other-worldly device, right? But such a thought would never occur to such as their kind. That is neither here nor there, of course, for they were bound and determined to have their way, as is their wont. Again, it was Alexandra who delivered them from the precipice of madness, this time with an entanglement spell…on the ceiling!
Vines and roots spontaneously sprang forth from the room’s ceiling, and Klafrin climbed up and over the invisible barrier to get at the gizmo. The gods, still bummed about not being able to see someone’s face smeared against the unseen surface while slumping into the goo, totally forgot to make Klafrin suffer nausea from the fumes from the acidic mess borne of five centuries of fiend-spewed waste collected from chamber pots around the panopticon and magically transdumped into this very room. It was just as well, though: Klafrin certainly had his hands full as it was, even without puking all over the place.

Collecting the gizmo* was easy; grabbing the brain was not so simple. Eventually he chipped away at the weak point where the glass connected to the chain, and managed to climb with the entire sphere back over the invisible barrier to the safety of the ledge. The brain-sphere was placed in the bag of holding with Hackel, while Klafrin bagged the gizmo, and they made good their exit.
They were on their way to the third and final tower of the second level when things took an ugly turn. First, an odd, star-shaped device with a sticky bottom landed in their midst. It opened up, and a dark gas started spewing from it. The party ran single file away from the gas in the direction they were already heading. The monk was the fastest and outpaced the others, clearing one of the supporting columns. He alone caught a glimpse of the attacker: a human-sized figure in dark garb, with a fleshy head. He didn’t really get a great look. Meanwhile, the figure had already tossed a second gas device between itself and the party, boxing them in between the expanding gas plumes. Hackel, Yorick, and Klafrin were suddenly assaulted by a hostile, alien presence in their minds, but only Klafrin succumbed to the onslaught. He became confused and lost his sense of perspective, believing himself to have instantly grown to huge proportions, so that he was forced to step gingerly to avoid crushing his companions.
Then, just as Hackel was wondering aloud how their accoster had managed to land a device opposite to them from the creature’s current location (since the center support column would have blocked it), a dire bat, big as an ox and bearing a passing resemblance to someone the elf may have once known, crashed in, knocked Klafrin from the ledge, caught him by his upper arms, and swept him away into the open expanse over the deep emptiness and the chill waters of the unseen lake far, far below.
This aerial attack was followed immediately by three swarms of bloodthirsty bats moving in and smothering the party with their tiny, relentless, blood-sucking little fangs. With thousands of bats swarming madly all around them, with dark gasses blinding and hemming them in, and with little margin for error on the narrow walkway high above the lake, their situation seemed quite precarious.
Will our heroes survive? Will they ever find the elusive Horn of Orox? Stay tuned!
* Picture of gizmo is from here.

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