Reposted from my G+
My last night of GMing this year was my grand experiment with running one-shots, a skill I’ve always struggled with. It was also a test of my abilities to run in a public space, with new role-players and ostensibly strangers, and given a hard time limit — 4 hours. Four strikes out of my comfort zone already, but that didn’t matter because I was armed with John Aegard‘s Dragonslaying on a Timetable!
Much of the game was informed by my sister’s early choice to play a Druid. When sheets went around, she knew precisely what to reach for, and her co-conspirator (they had planned this for a week!) took Ranger. The Bard and the Wizard angled their concepts to match my sister’s, so immediately the game became one centred around naturalism and the tenuous balance of the world.
Stacey Lichnock played Thistle, Halfling Druid.
Rachel Teng played Wellby, Halfling Ranger.
Mahar Mangahas played Aeaea, Elf Bard.
and Jay Mata played Vorador, Human Wizard.
The setting was generated first by asking each about their peoples. The halflings established themselves as part of a nomadic culture that only set roots as a form of retirement. Thistle is an outlier because of her tie to the land as a Druid. The elves, long ago, were forced to default on the mortgage on their homeland and initially went on a diaspora to earn enough coin to purchase it back; however, after several thousand years as merchants, the elves discovered it was more fun to spend money, and so they never reclaimed their homeland due to a lack of thriftiness. Humans, the closest allies of the Dwarves, are on the cusp of an industrial age and were beginning to eschew magic in favour of technological marvels that anyone could use. Kingdoms were also falling out of style, and so nations became corporations instead, seeking greater profit and gains at the expense of the world.
Thistle laid down the Ancient Forest, her former home, which was burned down in a great calamity (of which she was the sole survivor). The bard said that the forest gets razed every 100 years or so by dragons, but I interjected that this time broke that pattern — the world was out of balance, after all. Wellby escaped the calamity by being somewhere else, doing his job and guiding people through great wilderness spaces such as the Shifting Sands. He’s a whiz at the Shifting Sands, in fact! The halflings also establish that Quarrytown, an industrial human hub, is next to their forest. The bard remembers it as a quant hamlet in her “youth,” and is surprised now to find it so developed. In Quarrytown, the wizard teaches and studies at the Alabaster Academy, one of the last hipster holdouts of magic; they actually view themselves as stubborn hipsters as well, as they’ve been casting magic since before it was fashionable to view it as retro. As the scholar of the group, Vorador also sometimes contracts the party to go out to dangerous places, such as “Meat’s Nest,” a livestock range used by orc tribes to breed their exceedingly dangerous Murder Cows; even orcs don’t want to live there.
The situation at hand is that the world is out of balance, and they are researching why. The druid has some roasted acorns from her forest that she’s trying to revive. The bard, whose speciality is the bestiary of the world, has heard that bathing the acorns in the blood of a Chimera-Hydra will do the trick; she’s also heard that Alicorns, flying unicorns, have the ability to remove magical corruption from the land. Unfortunately, they also are rumoured to restore youth to those who eat their meat, and were chased far from civilised lands. The ranger believes some were sighted somewhere in the Shifting Sands, so the wizard brings the party together for a meeting with the Dean of the Alabaster Academy to begin the mission.
Leaving the manicured lawns of the Academy and traversing the narrow alleys of the dense worker long houses surrounding Quarrytown, the party bumps into a group of teamsters wearing strange equipment strapped to their backs. Claiming to represent the interest of House Boris, the thugs bar the street and tell Vorador and his company that it’d be better for them to “return to yer Acadewhatsit and stay there, eh.” Aeaea makes protest while Vorador fidgets about “not wanting to make trouble.” Negotiations, which weren’t going that well anyway, broke down when the elf pulls out her short sword to make a point — one of the goons panics and accidentally fires his pistol, and the explosion signals several thugs to take to the sky as the metal boxes on their back spring out to reveal wings. The head thug, Voraxe, bullrushes Vorador, who panics and turns invisible in the tackle. Overzealously, Wellby sticks his spear into Voraxe… and punctures the burly man’s lung. The goons panic and flee; the party panics and hides the body and quickly, very quickly, hustles their way elsewhere before the local guards can make an appearance.
Presented with three possible paths — one cutting through Quarrytown-proper, one hurrying along the Industrial Highway, and one taking chances in Meat’s Nest, the party inexplicably chose to go through the hunting range of Meat’s Nest, a decision they questioned immediately upon entering the corrupted blood-soaked mudflats. When the bard cheerfully informed everyone that it was the most dangerous time of year — mating season (murder cows will mate with ANYTHING) — the party was even more convinced that this was a poor idea, and annoyed that the elf chose only the final moment to say anything at all. They scout carefully forward, but rather than murder cows, they find statues of murder cows littered around. At the end of the day, not wishing to risk a chance encounter in the fields, the group blundered into a nest of cockatrice — losing the ranger’s wolf and Vorador’s hand to petrification. They regroup, and a ritual makes the Ranger immune to petrification, but accidentally sees the Bard possessed by a rage-fueled murder cow. They truss up the foaming Bard to a tree and make a return to the cave to retrieve cockatrice eggs, which are known to reverse the effects of petrification. Not wanting to slay the cockatrice, whose petrification of the murder cows is actually helping lessen the corruption of Meat’s Nest, they hatch a plan. Antagonising the cockatrice, Wellby draws them out of the cave while Thistle and Vorador sneak in to get only a couple of eggs. At camp, they apply the egg whites on Wellby’s wolf, which keeps a permanent coat of rockfur, effectively evolving it into a rockwolf.
Here we levelled up and took our break. Almost everyone in the party took a move that helped them perceive/discern realities. Aeaea gained an ability that helped her transfer the rage of the murder cow partially possessing her onto others — It Goes To Eleven.
Finally at the Shifting Sands, they undergo a Perilous Journey through its treacherous terrain with the end goal of “sighting an Alicorn.” After a week of travel, with careful management of their rations, they make it to an ancient open-air temple to the winged goddess of magic in the middle of the desert. At the centre, a garden houses the frolicking Alicorns; surrounding the garden, a sunken ring houses a creature with a cacophonous, unnatural roar; camped outside of the ring are more representatives of House Boris. Thistle sneaks in as a mouse to overhear that the nobles are being kept from entering the garden by the beast in the pit — a Chimera-Hydra, the one she needs to restore her seeds! Meanwhile, some flying goons outside approach the party, and are cut down by an overeager Bard rallying the party. When the Wizard casts Speak to Dead, the dead goon cusses them out — they were only coming to greet them and ask for their aid! Oops. It makes approaching the camp later and offering their aid an impossible battle; the party is on their own.
Thistle tries to negotiate with the Alicorn instead, but the flighty creatures are so contented with their garden and “The Protector” that they have no interest in leaving. The Druid decides to check out the Protector, the Chimera-Hydra, on her own, and the great beast watches her, but makes no move until she, as an elk, rams at it with her antlers. A ram head retaliates with a headbutt that sends her flying, and chases her — toward the encampment of House Boris. The nobles, hearing and seeing the abomination long before it reaches their camp, take to the sky and try to fly into the Alicorn garden. Thistle becomes a bird and follows them, as does the Chimera-Hydra. The rest of the party rush to the garden also to defend the Alicorns, who are being slaughtered by the humans who have no interest in sharing their prize with anyone else. The Chimera-Hydra attacks everyone in the garden except for the Alicorn. One of the lion heads catches the Druid, shakes her, and kills her… she’s thrown near the edge of the ring, feeling the world ebb away. There, in the middle of the temple, she sees the Goddess of Magic, a bat-winged deity with six faces on her one head, but before the Goddess can speak, Thistle returns to the world of the living. Still, she connects the Goddess to the Chimera-Hydra. The Wizard, trying to lead the Alicorns away from the slaughter, creates an illusion of a Chimera-Hydra outside of the temple. Several Alicorn fly in that direction to safety. The Ranger and the Bard fight as best they can, but it is a losing battle. Aeaea is nearly caught in a gout of flame, but her Songbook ignites. She screams, and then calls out to the goddess, “Take my knowledge as my sacrifice!”
The garden, the centre of the temple, goes white. The Ranger and the Druid crawl out, but the Bard stays behind. Hexagons begin to form a shield around the white pillar of light — the Druid throws in one of her seeds, regenerating it. The Wizard, worried about the Alicorn now flying toward the phenomenon, stares at it before realising it to be a great fount of knowledge. He runs towards it, puts his hand to its side, and is infused with the knowledge of how magic, and balance, work in the world. The Bard is within, and when the light dissipates, Alicorns in flocks emerge and scatter in all directions. The Chimera-Hydra is gone, and the Bard, at the centre, has no memory, no possessing cow spirit, no knowledge — a complete sacrifice.
In the epilogues, the Druid returns to her home and plants her seed, beginning the revival of her forest. The Ranger stays with her to learn the forest again and to guide other nomadic halflings to it. The Druid trains those halflings in the way of druidic lore, teaching them to tend to the world. The Wizard continues teaching at the Academy, but makes more and more brave trips out into the world to gather data to prove what he now knows. He eventually makes Dean and is a prolific scholar and field researcher to the day he dies. The Bard lives on for many thousands of years after all others, never truly learning what happened to her at that temple, wandering the land and spreading magic to the far reaches of the world. Even as the world diversifies with industry and technology, magic never dies.
It took five hours to run the game, from character creation, game and adventure creation, to finish. One hour too long, but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, and I liked how it all tied together in the end and all the unusual choices that had to be made because of the monsters they needed to protect —such as the cockatrice— in the best interests of the world. The Chimera-Hydra as a guardian and symbol of the goddess, also, was an unexpected twist, even to me. In retrospect, I maybe should have asked the Bard that epic question, “So how do you survive this?” but I feel the sacrifice was her answer to that.
I still have to think further about if I can run this for a full group of strangers, but it was a positive experience. Getting closer, I guess?
Thanks John and all my players!