Monday, March 28, 2016

Pathfinder Run #3: A Tale of Two Islands

The threat of invasion from an undersea army has loomed over our campaign since before I joined the group. However, as sometimes happens, the person who was running that plotline has gone on indefinite leave, and we haven't decided whether to wait or to have another DM take it over. (It's been long enough that we've averted a second unrelated war in the meantime.)

I ran my third scenario in December. Its main elements were a long-missing sorcerer, a maze, a warren of giant communist rabbits, and a phantasmagoric chameleon-dragon.

Easter Island:

The party learns via magic that someone called William the Sorcerer has information about the undersea army and needs rescuing from an island to the east. The island is a seven mile oval, reputedly uninhabited because of giraffe-sized Easter Birds. Rocks litter its coast at random 4 to 16 foot intervals, starting at the water's edge and going about half a mile inland. They range from head-size to boulder-size and are covered with spiral maze designs. These stones distort all manner of pathfinding. Anyone trying to pass over, under or between the stones is subject to vertigo and a complete inability to find their way:
  • medium-easy roll to back out quickly, where failure means meandering aimlessly for an hour before exiting near where they entered;
  • hard roll to avoid nausea, where extreme failure includes fainting;
  • hard roll to identify the effect of the stones as being maze-like;
  • and a barely impossible roll to pass through freely. 
Twenty or so Easter Bird ghosts stalk freely and unaffectedly there, pecking in shallow pools and marshy ground among the stones. They ignore the PCs as long as the PCs stay out of striking distance.

Their corpses can be found at an enormous barbecue and omelette-fest on a hill about an hour's travel beyond the stones. A ruined palace comes into view soon after, accompanied by the sounds of a low/mid-level sorcerer keeping minions of the undersea army at bay. (The minions arrived via underwater tunnel.)

William doesn't realize he's on an island--he entered a maze in another part of the world and unknowingly passed through extra-planar space before exiting the labyrinth hidden under this palace. (Medium roll to find the entrance again; hard roll to loot a minotaur statue engraved with a Maze spell-scroll.) He has been gone for seven years and wants to go home.

Coney Island:

William owns a small river island which supplies rabbit meat to a major city upriver. However, he's been gone so long that the the Town Fathers have declared him dead and begun a lottery to prospect for new ownership.

The island is completely encircled by deep water and a tall wooden fence adequate for keeping out gawkers and bottom-level adventurers. A sliding gate--operated from the inside--opens to a tiled bay for receiving shallow boats. An adjoining cargo area (weathered and unused) and a receiving office are enclosed by more fence. The rest of the island is an idyllic park where normal meat rabbits roam abundant and free.

At the center of the island is a wide gravy moat, kept in motion by a waterfall (gravy fall) and submerged pumps. It encloses a ring of buildings and exposed machinery, obviously involved in processing and packaging meat. The inner shore also includes an active cargo area with paddleboat, even though the moat is circular and has no obvious outlets. A central tower rises about ten feet higher than the roof of the ring.

The Rabbits:

When a party of lottery winners ferry up to the gate, their bickering wakes a great purple ball which careens out of the receiving office. At the gate it pops up into a 4-foot-tall rabbit on stilts, wearing a purple cloak and hat like William's. (Plus an amulet enchanted to make the wearer feel taller.) This is the only rabbit who even sort of understands the Common Language, and gladly leads a tour of the grounds.

The 4-foot rabbits are such bold, psychedelic colors that everything around them seems gray and drab in comparison. PCs suffer a distraction penalty to any activity while such a rabbit is in view. Additionally, spells cast near them spread beyond the caster's intended target.

These rabbits came into existence in William's absence, grew up on the island without contact from any other intelligent life, and have changed things to suit themselves (turning the moat to gravy, excavating the stairs, etc). Unbeknownst to the townfolk, they've been carrying on processing normal rabbits into rabbit meat and shipping it upriver. They have no concept of ownership, and accept casualties as an unremarkable and unconcerning part of workaday life. A team of them, tending the wall of machinery, make constant rabbit noises and occasionally thump their feet in unison. (It's a work song about the virtues of industriousness and hard work.)

They become distressed when prevented from doing their work. As distress continues, they begin to hallucinate a fifteen foot lizard, which manifests physically after a few minutes. Other things which cause distress:
  • thinking about the lizard;
  • seeing outsiders try to approach The Pit (where they live);
  • hearing strange noises while on guard duty.
They know the lizard attacks when they think too hard about it, but they don't understand the phenomenon and they're desperate to not talk about it. Except when it's actually manifest, but then they're too panicked to say or hear anything productive.

The Phantasmagoric Chameleon-Dragon:

A fifteen-foot chameleon with a thirty-foot tongue (medium-hard roll to see the tongue grab something). It can perfectly camouflage itself to its surroundings, and has the breath weapon (and some other tricks) of a random dragon type. Someone bitten by the chameleon may lose the ability to feel a certain emotion (which one depends on the dragon type). It can jump over 100 feet.

The chameleon can change dragon types once per turn. Each type is healed by the energy listed above it, and weak to the energy type two up from it. The chameleon always changes types so as to be healed by whatever energy last attacked it.

When "killed" it disintegrates into a cloud of prismatic dust, which quickly vanishes.

The Pit:

The center of William's compound used to consist of open ground with a twenty-foot tower in the center, and a walled staircase spiraling down to a chamber below ground.

It is now a giant pit 200 feet across and 450 feet deep, with burrows, gardens, cages and dumbwaiters dug into its walls. The central tower now stretches from the original tower down 400 feet, with the original stairway spiraling open around its outside. A stream of gravy spouts across from the meatworks to the tower, and another stream spouts from the tower back to the meatworks (where it feeds into the waterfall/gravyfall).

All doors and windows of the original tower have been bricked up and replaced with arrow slits. Both of these original floors have six trigger-happy rabbits keeping watch for the lizard. They work in pairs to fire cartoonishly big longbows.

Anyone setting foot on the stairs outside is in for two surprises. First, the stream of gravy has deceptively worn the stairs into a greased slide. Second, once you descend below ground level, gravity reverses. A person who loses their footing may find themselves bobbing helplessly in the air. (A film of suspended gravy droplets forms an almost invisible plane where reversed gravity meets normal gravity across the top of the pit.)

Gravity inside the tower remains normal. The walls are original construction, being part of the original walled stairway, but the center was dirt and fill that the rabbits dug out and rebuilt as rooms. Ladders, short stairs and half levels lead to rooms of crude and uneven construction:
  • a third guardroom; 
  • a kitchen/supply room; 
  • a tiled room which can be filled with boiling gravy after the rabbits close a submarine-style hatch in the floor; 
  • a room with furnace and pipes for the above room, plus basin under the hatch to funnel boiling gravy away; 
  • a room barricaded with metal pipes and blades, with gaps only big enough for a flattened rabbit to squeeze through, and guarded by half a dozen rabbits armed with spears;
And then fifty more rooms.

The chamber at the bottom has a doorway open to the outside. A person who forgets that gravity is reversed outside, and tries to step out to the foot of the spiral stairway, will (hard roll to avoid) fall up to the underside of the spiral stairs above--which is also a slide greased by gravy flowing up it. Someone falling from here may get launched into the gravy moat outside. (The rabbits set up temporary ziplines here while changing shifts. There is no door. Blocking this doorway long enough would eventually suffocate the tower.)

There's a second doorway too. This one has a much-decayed "Hold Portal" spell, and empty slots which look like they would exactly fit the tour guide's stilts (which are actually immovable rods). Magic resin (can be substituted for any gemstones consumed by a spell) has built up around the edges of the door, which is slightly ajar; extra-planar energy of a type which matches the rabbits' psychedelia emanates from behind the door, as does the weird gravity outside.

William wants the door shut.

Looking outside, there's another fifty feet between this chamber and the bottom of the pit. The tower is not connected to the walls or floor of the pit in anyway. Over four hundred feet of stone tower are supported solely by the energy seeping from behind that door.

How did it play out?

Easter Island:

I added Easter Island at the last minute to transition away from the prior DM's port city, and to tug at a couple of unrelated plot-threads. That worked out okay. One player was happy that I actually gave him info for casting a "talk to god" spell. Guess that's not common?

A recent issue of Berserk inspired the stonefield maze. I think it frustrated the players that I designed it without any particular solution in mind, without any real moving parts, and that obvious solutions weren't working; I remember they didn't like how "teleport" deposited them partway through the maze. I figured they'd do something with the ghost birds, but they ended up stepping into astral space to map out a safe path.

The actual rescue was a pushover. Sometimes it's satisfying to come across things you can completely overpower. But, especially combined with the unexpectedly difficult puzzle up front, I think it made for a weird place to stop the session.

Coney Island:

Unfortunately, the mission I gave the players was "rescue the lost traveler and deliver him to the next DM's jungle staging area." To give them a reason to take him home first, I said he needed to recover research materials; which was alright, but ideally I'd have come up with something that involved dealing with the NPCs more. In retrospect I should've just made him stubborn about wanting to go home plus slippery enough to escape the party, or moved his home closer to the jungle staging area, or both.

I expected them to fly over to the island at night, before anyone else visited the island. Which they did. I did not expect them to counterfeit lottery tickets or (since one PC was a bureaucrat in the city upriver) threaten to end supply contracts, which they also did.

I really did not expect them to be so bewildered by the gravy moat. They wanted to investigate the pumps, which produce a strong undertow, which leads to mechanical separators which extract meat and gristle for turning into sausages; luckily, they did not discover any of this first hand, due mainly to the fact that "water breathing" does not allow one to breathe gravy.

They landed atop the central tower without (if I remember correctly) discovering anything except that the area was covered in gravy. They breached it and fought down the first two or three rooms; then something heavy hit the outside of the tower, and a rabbit got slurped out blink-and-you-miss-it fast, followed by a deadly crunch, each round for a few rounds.

The chameleon made a great bogeyman and a mediocre boss, mostly because one of the PCs was himself about equal to a dragon; it's bite was supposed to also inflict penalties on saves, but that didn't much come into play due to the aforementioned PC monopolizing its attention. The obvious solution, I only realized afterwards, would have been to have a team of two chameleons.

This combat happened after they exited the bottom of the tower, and otherwise was great. A slippery, vertical battlefield where only half the PCs can fly.

The PCs had a general "detect books" spell (the town was far enough away to prevent false positives), so it didn't matter where I put William's books, and I didn't make the tower collapse on top of them--I don't remember if that's because they didn't close the door all the way, or if the game was running late and I didn't want to deal with it, or if it seemed like too much of a dick move for the campaign, or what. They did end up chasing down the tour guide, to get his stilts; he tried running away by immovable-rodding across the open air of the pit.

I didn't have anything planned for the Plane Behind the Door. If pressed, I was going to try to do an Alice-in-Wonderland thing where I caricaturized all the Pathfinder mechanics which don't make sense to me. (Ironically, I may not know Pathfinder well enough to do that.)

Things they missed by not going on the tour:
  • a suspicious person approaching beforehand and offering to pay a large bounty for "the rabbit king;"
  • someone on the tour falling into the gravy moat and getting sucked into the machinery;
  • a vertical test garden, with herbs and vegetables growing out of a dirt wall;
  • eternal carrots, which the guide takes back after a minute; someone still chewing bloats up into a giant orange carrot, and gets taken away to some other room away from the tour;
  • a special lamp which, when shined at a rabbit so as to project a large shadow on a screen, makes the rabbit blur out to match their projection; someone on the tour tries it and is also turned into a giant rabbit, and then (again) taken away to some other room away from the tour; 
  • break for lunch made from giant carrot, giant rabbit, and suspicious gravy; also, one of the contestants tries to poison another; 
  • a ride-along as the paddleboat delivers a shipment; the boat is propelled as much by eerie chanting as anything else, and fearsome mass hallucinations obscure the part where it leaves the moat and joins the river.
I don't think the players connected Coney Island with Willy Wonka, Oompa Loompas etc. until I mentioned it afterwards. (They did say the rabbits seemed like the ones from Watership Down, though, so I guess I should read Watership Down.)


  1. Sounds pretty cool. The eggs are a strange inclusion, but the open-ended challenge is interesting.

    I get the general Easter and Willy Wonka themes, but I don't get the gravy. Is gravy associated with rabbits on other parts of the world?

    Also, I do recommend Watership Down.

    1. I figure if there's a mess of people going to the trouble of killing and eating all those birds, some of them would wander across the nests too.

      The gravy started out as an analogue for Willy Wonka's chocolate river, but it makes for a convenient hazard, so I extended it to other spots too. No other thematic associations that I'm aware of, though it did help highlight the weird physics and rabbity jury-rigging of the location.