Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Chapter 17 - The Galumphing Oaf

wherein Baba Yaga's servitors complete the second task she set out for them...

The three companions camp in a protected place near the south banks of the Vydra. Chonkorchuk has had it with roughing it under the early winter sky, and as the winds begin to blow overnight, he manages to catch cold. Plamen, younger and more compact, is better at resisting the elements, but also sleeps more alertly. He is awakened before dawn by the sounds of a very large person foraging not 100 feet away from the campsite. From what it mutters to itself in a foreign tongue, Plamen gathers that it has discovered the carcass of a boar that starved or froze to death nearby, and it seems to be salvaging pieces of meat.
Annar - any relation to Dubynia?
Plamen quietly approaches and addresses the creature. He introduces himself as Annar, and says that he has come from far away in search of Druvvaldis, and asks whether Plamen knows him. Plamen bids him to wait, while he awakens his companions. With Druvvaldis’ assent, he reveals that Druvvaldis is with him, and that Annar’s search is at an end. Annar drags the boar carcass over to the fire, where Plamen shares some of his magical berries with him. Annar looks twice his size. He is a volot, from a family of nomadic giant riders, which came from the steppe at the invitation of the Grand Prince of Galinda to help build his cavalry. While in the prince’s service, he had occasion to visit the island where Druvvaldis’ ancestral shrine stood. There, after falling asleep, he was contacted by the spirit of the thunderlord Perkons, who told him to seek out Druvvaldis – the last survivor of the devastation wreaked by the Knights of Ritterheim, and the scion of a priestly family. So Annar has been traveling east, and seeking Druvvaldis and followers of the old gods ever since. Chonkorchuk tells him that he is also one of these, and that his mistress, Baba Yaga, has promised that the Old Gods will soon return. After they complete the tasks set out by her, they will be admitted to Baba Yaga’s realm. But first, them must deal with a group of smugglers who, he says, have stolen one of Baba Yaga’s servants. Annar is asked to join the group so that he may help it complete its mission (and they his), and the volot accepts.
The following morning, the four adventurers cross the Vydra, and proceed to search for the smuggler’s cabin, which they have never seen directly. Making their way north, they eventually discover a hedge that familiar spirits indicate surrounds a small cabin. No one is outside, but a smoking chimney indicates that the cabin is occupied. Attempts to sense magical auras reveals that there are two sources of transmutative magic inside (likely indicating a pair of shapeshifters). Chonkorchuk becomes invisible, and finds the narrow entrance through the hedge on the eastern side. Meanwhile, the rest set up on the north side. Druvvaldis hands Annar his scythe, and the volot prepares to mow down the hedge in case of an assault.
The hermit alerts the residents to his presence. A pair of shutters opens, and an arrow flies at Chonkorchuk despite his precautions. He takes cover behind the porch, and addresses the people inside, indicating that he is aware of Vasya Toptygin’s presence, and demanding they release him back into the service of Baba Yaga, from whom he was stolen. His threats and offer of cooperation to locate Lionia gets him admitted inside, but his interlocutor – Radei Lopukh – the leader of the smugglers – says that since Lionia defrauded them, they have nothing to lose, and believe that Chonkorchuk’s companions are in possession of a treasure. He offers Chonkorchuk a chance to convince Vasya, but warns that it won’t be easy.
Vasya Toptygin performs a bear's service for his companions
The cabin is messy, and currently inhabited by nine rough-edged smugglers, some similar to the ones the party defeated in the woods over a week ago, some looking more dangerous, and better-armed. Lying on the stove against the wall opposite the doorway is a large, one-handed man, who matches Vasya’s description. He seems considerably less cowed by the invisible visitor than Radei – his nominal leader. In response to Chonkorchuk’s entreaties and threats, he indicates that he has no interest in returning to do menial labor for Baba Yaga, and would rather stay on as the smuggler’s underling. When Chonkorchuk persists in haranguing him, Vasya insults the hermit, accusing him of being a beggar with nothing to offer, who comes without gifts, and is so worthless and poor he is even afraid to show his face. He recites the insult as a rhyme, which is actually quite hurtful.

Chonkorchuk has had enough. He exits the cabin, and plunges it into darkness, signaling to his companions that it’s time to attack. Annar mows through the hedge, and is greeted by blind-fire from the cabin, though on account of his size, he still finds himself on the receiving end of darts and arrows. Behind him, Plamen sets the cabin on fire, while Druvvaldis summons forth a badger spirit to add ferocity to the outnumbered companions. Eventually, some of the smugglers manage to make their way out of the cabin, and attack the volot head on. They are no match for him, but harry him enough so that he soon decides to take cover in the darkness. Marshalling their forces for a last stand after getting out of the darkness, Radei and one of the other smugglers hit Chonkorchuk and Plamen, now exposed, with expert shots from around the corner of the hut. Then, Radei and Vasya, in the form of a bear-man, along with one other, charge the hermit and the healer, who are no longer protected by the volot. They manage to knock Chonkorchuk down, and to nearly upend Plamen as well. The outcome of the battle stands on the edge of a knife, but the fefila quickly revives Chonkorchuk, and Plamen is able to knock the bear out with his staff. The rest are dealt with quickly. Radei manages to flee, and another smuggler is brought down as he tries to do the same, while a third surrenders. The smuggler’s cabin, however, has caught fire…   

Friday, August 18, 2017

Chapter 16 - The Great Combinator

wherein the ice has broken, ladies and gentlemen of the jury...

Fearing pursuit by the villagers, Chonkorchuk races across the frozen Vydra, and into the woods. He knows these better than anyone, and hopes to make it to the burrow where he and his companions found signs of a bear being kept captive over a week ago. As he jogs northward through the woods, he is suddenly accosted by an interloper from behind. The man gives him a solid whack on the head with the hilt of his saber from behind, but the hermit is just able to turn away enough to avoid getting knocked out. The man is unfamiliar, but looks similar to the smugglers the band confronted in the woods near Yelizarov’s estate – probably a member of Lionia’s band, Chonkorchuk surmises. He turns himself invisible and attempts to get away – getting the coins to Baba Yaga is his top concern. But the ground is covered with snow, and he is easy to follow. His pursuer attempts to push him down to the ground, and to wrest the cauldron of treasure away from him, but Chonkorchuk manages to maintain his footing, and keeps moving away. The man seemingly gives up the chase, and Chonkorchuk arrives at the tree above the burrow. He climbs up a neighboring tree, covers himself with eaves, and watches the clearing.
Who is that masked man?
Within the hour, Druvvaldis arrives. He was not so lucky. He was set upon by the same man, who similarly clocked him from behind, and then finished him off when he tried to run. When he came to, the flaxen shirt in which he was carrying his share of the loot from the warren was gone, as were the man’s footprints – it is not clear where he went. His familiar, in raven form, was looking for the other companions, and returned to find him unconscious, and woke him.

Druvvaldis is uncertain why the man did not kill him, but he detected something familiar about his voice when he cursed after not being able to lay him out with a single blow from behind – he heard a lot of it until quite recently. Chonkorchuk is not surprised to hear that the likely assailant was Lionia – the double-cross appears entirely predictable to him. He is not sure why he did not try to kill Druvvaldis, but suspects that he has alerted his associates, and may be coming after the rest of the treasure, which he must secure at all costs.
Plamen arrives soon after. He still limps, and is unable to run – hence his late arrival. But he was spared the assault by the pursuer, for reasons that are not clear. He feeds some of his magic berries to Druvvaldis, who recovers somewhat from his assault. Since the trio fears the imminent arrival of the smuggler band, they take care to wipe away the tracks leading to the burrow. Druvvaldis creates a new set heading to the Rys’ River, and then the party secrets itself in the burrow.
At night, while Chonkorchuk keeps watch, the smugglers arrive. The companions’ efforts to conceal their location seem to have paid off. The hermit overhears them saying that Lionia surmised they went to the hermitage. They soon leave in that direction, apparently with harmful intentions.
The rest of the night passes without incident, and in the morning, the party heads off in search of Baba Yaga. In response to Druvvaldis’ query about how to find her, Chonkorchuk states that she usually finds them, and he is proven correct. Within two  hours after leaving the burrow, the lynx bounds up on them, though he is friendlier this time, and engages in a playful wrestling match with Plamen. His mistress appears soon after, as if from underground. She appears pleased enough with the takings brought by Chonkorchuk and Plamen, and mentions nothing about any particular amount she was expecting, though she dismissively rejects the copper pulo, and Chonkorchuk obligingly picks it out before turning over his camping cauldron full of only “pure treasure” to Baba Yaga, who demands to keep the cauldron as well. In response to queries about the nature of the treasure, she confirms that it was indeed stolen from her by Plamenka, who was able to capture it by enchanting the Kochmak warriors, and forcing them to fight one another (and to kill the villagers). She expresses satisfaction about the way she ended up (as a spirit bound to her warren for eternity), before she presses to find out when she is going to get the galumphing oaf and the young bride. The hermit promises both within the week.
What goodie did Baba Yaga get from her hamper?
The crone then turns to Druvvaldis, and demands to know who he is, as she has never before met him. Druvvaldis tells his tale – about his people who were slaughtered by the Ritterheim Knights, and about the spirits who led him to this place. Chonkorchuk recommends him as one who aided the group’s efforts in recovering the pure treasure, and Baba Yaga offers to aid him against his enemies in exchange for his help in securing the other things she wants, perhaps by brewing a potion. Druvvaldis asks for a potion of fire breathing, but Baba Yaga suggests something subtler that may discredit the Knights (who she apparently also dislikes) – a potion of diminution, for example. Chonkorchuk seconds her, but Druvvaldis is unconvinced. The hag suggests that a potion of fire breathing requires components – such as the special sacks of a fire-breathing serpent. Her supplicant Chonkorchuk waves that off as an impossible task – where would they find one? How would they defeat it? But Baba Yaga answers that one never knows when such a beast might be around, and then mysteriously recommends that the companions be sure to bathe themselves before confronting one. She then flips a curious slimy but fragrant block to Chonkorchuk, and, becoming two, walks away in opposite directions.

Having delivered the pure treasure, the trio discusses what to do next. In light of last night’s pursuers, the logical step is to track down the galumphing oaf. But where is he now being kept? Chonkorchuk surmises that the smugglers keeping him have left their hideout now that their cover is blown, though he does recall that Lionia paid off or sweet-talked Yelizarov into laying off, and that he also has a good relationship with Trofimov as well. In any case, looking in on the smuggler’s shack seems like the first order of business. The party crosses both frozen rivers, and, avoiding settlements, proceeds along the southern bank of the Vydra. They arrive to within a verst or so of the shack as the sun is setting. The companions set up camp, and Chonkorchuk sends forth the fefila, invisibly, to spy on the shack (and hopefully come back in one piece).
Before an hour has passed, the fefila returns. It relates to its master, telepathically, that the shack is indeed occupied, by men similar to the one who apparently attacked its master in the woods the previous day. There is a one-handed bear among them, but Lionia is not. In fact, the people there seemed to be very unhappy with Lionia. Chonkorchuk shares the information with his companions. Lionia has likely screwed his other associates as well. Druvvaldis wonders whether he might be at home, but Chonkorchuk opines that he is likely far away, probably going westward (where thehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostap_Bender 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

It Works Like A Charm

I was editing a hypnotism-type feature I designed for homebrew spellcasting class, when it struck me that I should probably insert a warning about what happens once this hypnotism wears off. The reason I thought I had to do this has to do with a rider added to the 5th edition D&D Charm spell - a very potent weapon for low-level magic-users in previous editions, but, in the view of many players, significantly weakened in the new ruleset.

Aside from reducing the duration from several days (or even weeks, or more) to one hour, and changing the effect from having the affected creature do what you want (as long as it wasn't suicidal) to having it regard you merely as a "friendly acquaintance", the main change is that after the effect ends, "the creature knows it was charmed by you" (PHB, p. 221). Since the release of 5e, many pixels have been used to argue that the spell is essentially rendered useless by the last provision, apparently because the risk of being outed as a blackguard who practices mind control makes all your plans to gather information or practice sabotage in the shadows - presumably, the ends you had in mind when you tried to charm the creature - go up in smoke.

The conclusion that having the victim of the Charm know what you tried to do to it renders the spell useless is widely off the mark. Charm is only a 1st level spell, and even if the charmed creature now hates the charmer, as many assume, the spell is still quite useful - in the short term, it prevents bloodshed and saves lives (likely including those of the caster and the caster's companions). The fact that Charm is still a frequently-cast spell speaks to its continued utility.

Second, older versions of the spell did not stipulate that the target of the Charm would remain ignorant of what happened to her. There was no provision that mind-altering (much less memory-altering) effects would persist after the spell ceased functioning (though the much longer duration of the effect mitigated the impact of the victim's realization of what had happened). What 5e has done is to issue a clarification, not a change.

More substantively, precisely because the spell does not alter long-term memory, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the end of the spell effect allows the victim to know who the caster was if the victim does not possess any special insight regarding that fact. If you charm a goblin you've never met in a dungeon corridor, all the goblin knows is that some fat human in a green hat tried to charm him. He will not know the fat human's name, occupation, where he came from, etc. More importantly, if the same goblin is charmed by a person who gives a false name (someone else's name), by a person in disguise, or a caster concealing her identity with, say, a Disguise Self or Alter Self spell, he will not have any way of knowing that Ferdous Crugg the Fat Male Human in the Green Hat is really Lainel Coronnim, the Skinny Female Elf in a Kerchief. The more preparation you put in making your Charm work better, the better the long-term payoff will be when the spell ends.

Finally, and most importantly, the notion that as soon as the victim realizes she's been charmed, she calls 911, and the authorities put out an APB for the caster flies in the face of what we know about how abuse works. Certainly, casting a Charm on someone is intrusive, and a form of abuse. But like other abusers, the charming caster can make it abundantly clear before the spell wears off  (e.g. by using Intimidation, or perhaps another spell) that revealing any information about him and what he did will have very deleterious consequences. He knows where the victim lives, and has already demonstrated his arcane prowess by charming her.

Aside from being frightened into submission, the victim may simply feel too ashamed to tell anyone else what happened. Even if witnesses friendly to the victim were present during the charming, the victim may in fact attempt to blame himself for his behavior at the time. It's not that he was under the effect of a mind-controlling spell, it's just that he used bad judgment and made bad decisions and aided the enemy. His friends do not have any special out-of-game knowledge about whether their companion failed a Wisdom save or not.

Alternatively, instead of intimidating or shaming the victim, the caster can try to make the experience pleasurable. Here is this great wizard or sorcerer, and she wants to be my friend. She lavishes attention on me and treats me with respect when my so-called friends ignore me or make me the butt of their jokes. She gave me 10 gp, and promised to give me a magic item later. So what if she was using a spell? If she keeps treating me like this, she can Charm me any day of the week. Perhaps, depending on how he was treated, the victim develops feelings for the caster that last long after the spell has ended. Or if not feelings, then a Stockholm Syndrome-like understanding - sure, that bard who charmed me was Chaotic Evil, but he is just a product of his environment, and his party was actually fighting for a good cause.

There are many opportunities for strategizing and role-playing with this spell, and taking the time can really improve its functioning and add enjoyment to the game. And the same goes for my custom sorcerer's Heavy Gaze ability I was talking about at the start. I ended up inserting text into the description that said the victim becomes aware it was mind-controlled, but could be persuaded or intimidated to keep quiet about it.