Friday, June 19, 2020

Part 11: Everyone Likes The Water Temple, Right?

A few days after the absolute mess that was the last session, word had gotten around about the party's exploits as well as their current goals in the Shenzhou region. While the arrests of the local crime syndicate upset some people (namely the hopeless gambling addicts of the region), their positive reputation allowed them to have a greater glimpse into local rumors, chief among them being that an old Tortle had been making his way to a place known locally as The Temple By The Sea. About a half day's journey south from the city they had landed at, the Temple By The Sea was a shrine to a dragon known as the Qingtong Long, supposedly a coastal guardian.

Deciding that that lead was as good as any, and warned that, because of rough terrain, they'd have to make the journey on foot, they left the ship under the watch of Bubbles' goblin entourage and set out. The cliffside road that they took wound between the coast and, when adequate land was available, farm plots.

After a brief interlude of hiking through the nice, coastal summer weather, the temple came into view. A stone staircase cut into the cliffside descended to the temple's compound which was comprised of a number of buildings, presumably living quarters for the monks, educational facilities, and such, with a large building in the center as the primary place of worship.

As the group got closer to the main building, they heard shouting coming from within.

"You're Chen's pet, you must know how to get into the inner sanctum!"

A string of insults from a female voice followed.

At the sound of possible danger, the party quickly, but quietly made their way into the building, trying to assess the situation and get the drop on those who might be out to hurt Yesmae's master Don Chen. Which turned out to be two bandits, and Master Chen's pet? A talking cat, like Jangle.

Upon seeing another talking cat, something snapped in Bubbles, and...well...

Nah I'm just kidding. Not that Bubbles didn't want to, but Savin, knowing exactly what Bubbles was going to do before he asked, in all seriousness, "Can I shoot it?" gave Bubbles the look.

The look, of course, that needs no introduction or clarification. The look that parent and child alike recognize that can be a message as simple as, "No," yet as complex as, "I know what you're thinking, and if you do, I am going to make the rest of your now very short life still seem everlastingly too long because of how painful it's about to get."

While this exchange was going on, Jangle ambled out of cover to attempt to flirt with the cat/distract the bandits? I'll be honest none of us know what he was doing here. Anyway, while he continued meowing (not even speaking common, meowing) to the new cat, the rest of the party discussed the best approach. Savin decided to cast Hold Person on the bandits, paralyzing them long enough to figure out what they were doing there.

The bandits, seeing that they were hopelessly outnumbered once their paralysis ended, stammered about how they were chasing after Chen because of a bounty placed on his head, how their leader had followed him into the inner sanctum of the temple before the door closed, and how the cat supposedly knew how to open the gate.

"I don't know what you're talking about!" the cat shouted. "I'm watching the doors, yes, but I don't know how to open it any more than you do!"

Savin smirked. "Well, it happens that we're here for the same thing."

One of the bandits blinked. "Y'mean you guys are after the bounty too?"

"No, not the bounty, just Chen. In fact, we can take this from here. You two better leave. Now."

I had Savin roll for Intimidation, but I may as well not have because really, the bandits had no reason to think that they stood anything remotely resembling a chance. Anyway, they quickly made themselves scarce, and Savin started talking to the cat while Bubbles wandered around the inside of the building to figure out a) where the door even was, and b) how to open it.

While Bubbles examined the room, Savin addressed the cat. "Why is Chen here?"

"He came to commune with the Qingtong Long, to ask its protection against the empire."

"And what is the Qingtong Long?"

She nodded at the statue in the center of the room.

The room was large and round, with a large statue of a bronze serpentine dragon in the center surrounded by benches, with a dais in front and a large tapestry of a koi beneath a waterfall behind the statue. Anyone familiar with the Japanese folk tale can figure out where this is going, but the hint was:

"Once the dragon is born, the way shall appear."

Once the hint on the dais was read, the cat spoke up, "Oh, that's what those idiots couldn't figure out? That's easy! It's in reference to an old story of a koi fish that swam up a waterfall to become a dragon!" And indeed, upon closer investigation, the koi on the tapestry could be moved. As the koi slid to the top of the waterfall, a click was heard as something snapped into place, activating a series of mechanisms that moved the wall the tapestry hung on to the side, revealing the entrance to a spiral staircase descending into the darkness.

The party agreed that, with little time to lose, they should make their way in. While descending the staircase, Savin asked the cat her name.

"My name? Oh, it's Mei-mei. It's a pun. It means 'little sister', but mei is also the pronunciation for the word for beautiful. I don't remember which one Master Chen used for my name."

Suddenly, memories flooded back to Yesmae. "Oh! I remember when you were a kitten! I didn't realize you could talk!"

"At the time, I couldn't. Just, at one point, something happened, and suddenly I was able to communicate."

For whatever reason, Jangle decided to try to keep up the facade, meowing at Mei-mei, "Wow, the fact that you can talk to the people is really nice. You must be really smart!"

Mei-mei, confused, responded, "I mean, it's not that special. Also you seem to communicate with them just fine."

"Oh that? They're just my people. They take care of my bed and my litterbox. They feed me. It's pretty great."

Naturally, this was the first I, as the Dungeon Master, had heard of this, so I asked the players if that was at all accurate. And was greeted with a chorus of, "No," topped off with Bubbles' player adding in, "He's an intelligent creature. He can do it himself!"

Jangle's player then retorted, "But she doesn't know that!"

Once the party reached the bottom of the staircase, they found a doorway leading into a tunnel. After solving the problem of vision in the dark, the party proceeded in. A little ways in, the tunnel turned to the left at 90 degrees, with a corpse stapled to the wall with arrows.

Naturally, this put the party on edge, especially after the party examined the corpse, realizing that it was dressed in a similar manner to the bandits on the surface.

Mei-mei shuddered. "I was afraid of this. You know how dragons are rumored to keep treasure? Well, as a means of protecting the inner sanctum from thieves, certain measures needed to be put in place. We must proceed carefully."

Jangle, wasting no time, began feeling the floor for pressure plates, quickly mapping out a path for Mei-mei (or as he kept calling her, Moo-moo). Of course, she wasted no time explaining to the rest of the party, who was able to slip by the trap unscathed.

Further into the tunnel, the party came to a T-intersection. To the right was an opening into a large square chamber with a single treasure chest in the center. To the left, a staircase going further down.

Naturally, upon hearing of a treasure chest, Savin and his player both responded. "Yep, we're going downstairs." Clearly, both Savin and his player are familiar with the concept of Schmuck Bait. Basically, in a dangerous place, do not trust the lone chest.

The players immediately assumed mimic. But on the of chance it was legit, Jangle wandered into the room and started tapping at the chest to see what it felt like. Naturally, I explained that it felt normal. Like wood. Nothing nefarious.

This got Bubbles' attention, and he pulled out some tools to try to open the chest. I had Bubbles make a roll to unlock the chest, and it sprung open, revealing...nothing.

Bubbles muttered a curse under his breath, thinking that someone got to the treasure before him. This was before he and Jangle heard a ticking noise that, after ten seconds, stopped, after which the floor opened beneath them into an empty pit that quickly started filling with water. Jangle quickly scampered along the wall to safety in the hallway outside, while Bubbles quickly downed a potion of flying that he had brewed that morning, allowing him to levitate in place as the floor replaced itself.

It was then that, out of spite, Bubbles pulled out a pen and a piece of paper, scribbling out a lewd doodle and, while floating off the floor to avoid the trap again, opened the chest and dropped the doodle in. I'm not going to say what the doodle was. You can probably guess it in three tries.

Anyway, the party continued down the other hallway to the stairway, which led into another room with a puzzle. I screwed this up so I'm just going to say the party figured it out, which opened the the door as well as the wall on the opposite side of the room, letting out any water in the trap (I had to make a plan in case someone got caught in the trap, so that someone might be able to save them).

The door led into a large, surprisingly bright chamber with a tree in the center. Basically, like the Dark Link room in the Ocarina of Time Water Temple.

And fight it was. For in the center of the room, sitting against the tree, was an old, emaciated monk. As the party entered the room, the door behind them slid shut, and the monk awoke from his meditation. He greeted the party, stating that he was to serve as the interim test, extending his hands out to indicate the walls at the side of the room, where multiple more undead monks walked out and took fighting stances.

The fight went by relatively quickly (I consider this the miniboss room), creating a place for the party to rest before continuing on into the temple, but not before Yesmae picked up a nice new quarterstaff stamped with the Shenzhou word for "master", and this is where we called the session, with the rest of the dungeon to be completed next time.

Friday, June 5, 2020

On Being Religious in a Chaotic World

A few days ago I saw a post on Twitter made by someone on a Discord server I'm on, talking about how difficult it is becoming to believe in God as of late, when so much injustice is going on in the world. The person said it's hard to believe that a loving God would allow things to get this way, and it's really gotten me reflecting. I don't know this person personally, nor do I know his history with religion, but I know my own. It's not a secret (not a very well kept one anyway) that I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and though I was baptized at the age of 8, meaning I technically always was one, I didn't really have much involvement with the church or religion in general until I was a teenager. At this point it's been about 13 years since I started going to church. I served a mission for the church. I went to a church-owned university. I got married in the Portland Temple. In fact, the only reason I haven't gone lately is because I literally can't because of COVID (though that may change shortly maybe?) Suffice it to say, while it wasn't always this way, religion is an extremely important part of my life, so I find it worth analyzing just how it is I manage to stay religious in spite of it all.

The honest truth is the answer to that is rather anticlimactic, so if you find that unsatisfying, well, sorry, everyone else who has ever professed belief in a higher power, dating back thousands of years through human history, it's because I believe it to be true. More to the point, I want it to be true.

I realize how insane that sounds, but we're friends, so I can trust that you'll hear me out. The world we live in is a mess. It is a world of chaos. And, as anyone who has ever studied history can attest, it has always been a chaotic mess. People can be (and often are) awful to each other. People have been awful to each other since the beginning. Not only that, but people are extremely good at getting away with being awful to each other, on an individual level by being able to rationalize basically anything and on a societal level by exploiting loopholes (or creating them) to avoid having to take responsibility for their actions.

And this isn't a thing involving race, or politics, or religion, or nationality, or anything. People have always used whatever excuses they could to explain away their bad behavior, and I'm not convinced a world without those things would be any better because people would always find new ways to rationalize poor behavior. I do it. You do it. We all do it.

I suppose I want and need to believe that my religion is true because it adds some explanation to that which can't really be explained. It adds some logic to the illogical. It adds some order and meaning to the chaos.

It means that there's hope for the future. That, one day, at the end of all of this, there will be justice and mercy that cannot be disputed because it's meted out by the One that actually knows what He's talking about. That, though people may do bad things, most people are just decent people trying the best they can with the hand they've been dealt. That there's more to this life than coming here, suffering, ceasing to exist, and having the world just forget about you after a century or so.

I know that the logic isn't perfect, and I know this doesn't even come close to addressing the bad things that have been done in the name of God, on individual, family, or even societal levels, or the outright impossibility of even proving that God exists, but faith isn't logical. Faith isn't based on a perfect knowledge. As Ether 12:4 puts it, "...whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world..."

That's it right there. That's what gets me up in the morning. That's what makes me want to do what I can to help those around me be just a little better, just a little happier. The world has no end of problems, and they're not just going to go away because we want them to bad enough. Irrational fear and hatred are things that the world is just kind of stuck with, so instead of wasting my energy trying to fight it (usually just throwing gas on the fire if you ask me) I just want to do what I can to be kind to everyone around me. When I think about what Jesus would do, and what He might ask me to do, that's what keeps coming to mind.

So...that's it. I don't know if it's true. I'll likely never know if it's true. I don't know if one even can know if it's true without a shadow of a doubt until, after death, one stands face-to-face with Divinity. But I'm going to do it anyway. I don't gain anything if it's not true. But I gain everything if it is.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Part 10: Yikes. Just Yikes.

It feels like in every campaign there's at least one session where, in spite of the party's generally great planning and out-of-the-box thinking, the dice just aren't having it, and this last session is definitely one of those times. People could argue that I'm far too lenient of a DM, but the truth is I like to see my party succeed, and when they don't, I really feel for them. But alas, sometimes the dice just aren't interested in the wants of mere mortals such as ourselves, and again, this is one of those times.

So it turns out Somen's player's ship-out date was postponed, so he's still with us for the time-being, and the party spent some time considering how to go through with their plan of finding and recruiting Yesmae's old teacher Don Chen to their cause, after giving Tylhana instructions to try to recruit as many people as she could from the palace staff and noble families throughout the city.

Eventually it was determined that, since the party had recently come into ownership of a fancy new company, they were going to, essentially, use their rights as "merchants" to pass into the Western Confederation territory as a way of reestablishing contact with and introducing themselves to possible trade avenues. Yesmae remembered that Don Chen was originally from the Shenzhou region of the Western Confederation, so it would have to be through there that they would center their search.

So, after raiding the company's petty cash fund as a way of ensuring they had enough cash to make things work as well as possible, the party set off through relatively quiet, calm skies, sailing for a few days before coming upon a large fleet of Western Confederation ships (the water variety) off the coast of Wakoku (basically the not-Japan in my not-Asia). The party stopped to discuss what the fleet could possibly be doing and if there was a proper way to deal with it. For once, Somen did not just cast Clairvoyance to spy on the fleet. Instead, the party decided the best course of action would be to just change course, try to find a gap or an end to the fleet, and just go around.

I'll confess as the DM this provided an unintentional world-building moment, as I was pretty sure that, since they carried official documents and could even claim to be seeking asylum from a hostile government as political refugees, they'd allow themselves to be taken in by the fleet and once everything cleared up, they could proceed on their merry way.

Instead, yeah, they found a gap in the fleet and just proceeded west like nothing was wrong, landing in the first major port they came across on the Shenzhou mainland to resupply and gather information from the townsfolk as best they could. Well, that's what Yesmae and Savin decided, anyway. Bubbles was going to wander into the seedy part of town to score some...shall we say...spice.

We'll start with Savin. During his brief run to secure provisions, he was able to suss out the local hangout spots for sailors and listen for some gossip. One particular merchant was able to explain that the heavy fleet presence is something that happens every few months as a show of force against possible hostilities from the Empire. "So, they're posturing?" Which, yeah. Kind of. I'm basing it off real military drills that are conducted regularly as a sort of flex against would-be hostiles. You can probably guess what contemporary event I'm using as inspiration. Basically every few months, the regional capital city of Wakoku is impossible to enter for merchants and travelers via the port due to these drills.

Is this something the party is likely to make use of in the future? Eh, probably not, but as much as I can I want the world to feel like it exists independently from the party, something I've struggled with in previous campaigns I've DMed. While it's true that the party's actions should make a difference in the way the world functions in a high fantasy, broad scope campaign, too often through a combination of dice rolls and lack of prep on my part, the party is the only group of people in the entire setting with an ounce of competence to their names.

Anyway, while Savin was learning about the recent political and militaristic issues the land had been dealing with, Yesmae opted to hit the local pubs and see what rumors she could eavesdrop on. Because if there's a group of people you want to learn about politics from, it's drunk people, right?

As expected, she was met with a glut of information to sift through and determine what was meaningful versus what was just the ramblings of drunken sailors and other townsfolk. The Empire's coming. No it's not. They're already here. No, you're crazy. Lizardfolk run the government. Maybe we should cut you off. Maybe we should cut YOU off.

Okay I'm exaggerating a bit, but the bottom line is the fact that people aren't exactly fond of the Empire at the moment, and, as would be expected, this is a recent problem. As in, the smallfolk of other nations feel betrayed by the sudden change in political climate and their allies' sudden heel-turn.

Bubbles, as it turns out, played his search for illicit materials extremely cool, saying nothing unnecessary to anyone and, despite being a Kenku, a rare find in these parts, managed to avoid attracting too much attention as he found a very literal spice trader. Plopping 50 gold pieces on the table, he requested as much as he would be able to buy with that amount, which was a lot (look, I don't know anything about drug dealing, okay? I mean I've watched Breaking Bad but that's it.) Pleased with his score, he quickly slid his stash into his Bag of Holding, along with the remainder of his money.

And in an alternate timeline, a young girl of about 14 attempts to lift some cash off of Bubbles, which Bubbles answers by gunning the poor girl down in the street, and the rest of the session plays out in a relatively boring manner (that or Bubbles spends the next hour in real time on the run from the law). But because the cash was in a Bag of Holding, I had to call an audible.

Though considering how things played out, this timeline might have been better for the party in the long run.

Anyway, back in the real version of this made-up fantasy land, elsewhere in town, Yesmae feels a small bump and sees out of the corner of her eye, a young girl sprinting away from her. Quickly putting two and two together, Yesmae sprinted after the would-be thief, chopping her in the back of the neck to disable her so she could get her stolen goods back and figure out what was happening.

Anyway, the freshly face-planted thief shouted, "Why'd you try to fracture my skull?! It's just a little cash!"

"Why did you try to steal from me?" Yesmae demanded, picking the girl up and looking her in the eyes, expecting to see a look of defiance matching the shouting, rather than the face of a desperate, young girl on the verge of tears. Taken aback by this reaction, Yesmae continued, "Wait, what's wrong? You can tell me."

"My parents owe this gang of bandits a debt and they're sick and can't pay up and the bandits demanded settlement now and if we can't they're gonna kill Minho and-" she stammered.

Author's note, yes I know Minho is a Korean name. My idea is that the alliance among the three large nations allowed for greater cultural movement within the alliance rather than the more homogeneous cultures we currently have in the real world, and while I'm well aware of the fairly stark language differences between the Korean and Japanese languages and the varies Chinese dialects (believe me, I've put in my study time between my mission, college, and just as a personal hobby) it's a fantasy world, don't think about it too much.

Yesmae took the girl in her arms, calmly saying, "It's all right, it's gonna be fine. Who is Minho? He's important to you, yes?"

"Yes," she continued to sob. "My best friend."

"Lover," the players muttered.

Gathering everyone on the airship, Yesmae quickly summarized all the information she'd been able to glean from the girl. In the real world, the other players were laughing about how pure and sincere Yesmae's player is considering how she trusted the poor girl without really digging deeper, but I allowed them to make insight checks to see if their characters could detect anything off. They couldn't, she was being sincere.

That being said, Somen wasn't convinced, opting in addition to cast a Detect Thoughts spell to read her mind and see if she was hiding anything significant. Which she was. Specifically that Minho was not this girl's lover, or even a person at all, but a small dog. This is something I revealed to Somen's player through a personal message since we've been playing over Discord, and his reaction was priceless.

I'll give him credit, though. Despite his rather large reaction, he kept quiet about this detail until the twist was guessed correctly by Savin's player via a snide quip, "I'll bet money we're saving this poor girl's pet dog or something."

Not like I didn't have to reveal that info shortly afterward anyway, as the party's plan would not have worked if they didn't know what they were about to be rescuing. And I gotta give credit. This is the fastest I've seen this group organize a heist in tabletop RPGs. Trust me. I've experienced Shadowrun sessions that lasted for hours before a single bullet was fired, as it took us that long to figure out how to pull off the mission in the most efficient way possible. Though considering my well-documented memory problems, maybe this doesn't reflect that well on me.

Yesmae and Jangle opted to try to sneak into the bandits' compound and scout out as much information as they could. Failing that, Savin would attempt to talk with them and try to negotiate with them. Failing that, Bubbles, Grula, and Somen would destroy the place.

And this is where the bad rolling really got out of hand. And when I say that, I mean what follows is a Rube Goldberg machine of misery.

Yesmae rolled a natural 1 on her Stealth check, providing a decent distraction for Jangle to wander into the compound to get up to his usual mischief, but unable to get by undetected herself. Upon being spotted, Savin revealed himself and attempted to clear up the situation by offering payment to settle up the girl's debts. The bandit leader pondered this, and stated that he'd go grab the dog.

He came back instead with three Bulettes, and the battle began. In short order, Savin winked at the rest of the party, casting Dimension Door to warp himself into the largest building in the compound, assuming that that would be where any captured beasts would be kept. Somen cast a Fireball, incinerating the bandit leader and damaging the three beasts, though one managed to dodge out of the way, mauling Yesmae in the process.

The other two Bulettes separated, one focusing attacks on Somen, the other chasing the girl. Bubbles, in an attempt to save the girl, started casting spells at the Bulette.

As the party continued to battle with the monsters, Savin quickly took stock of where he ended up, a large barn-like structure filled with caged animals and various creatures (that I totally didn't just make up on the fly to justify this gambling ring that gets away with stealing animals for ransom). Quickly formulating a plan, he quickly set about trying to find a way to open the cages, quickly finding a mechanism that would open all the doors (the session was running a little long and I had to be up early for work the next day so I didn't want to spend a turn on each cage once I saw where this was going).

I'll give credit to the party for not metagaming, because while Savin was trying to open the cages to create more havoc, Yesmae was trying to goad the Bulettes back into the cages to stop the mayhem by throwing a path of food rations in that direction. Which, to her credit, worked, as one of the Bulettes happily started eating the ration and found its way out of the fight. The other two were eventually wounded badly enough to want to get out of combat as well.

As this was going on, Jangle let himself into what appeared to be the quarters of the head bandit and set about to stealing everything, leading with the excuse that he was looking for a manifest of which animals belonged to whom (which he did find).

Finally, with the barn door open, Savin used the mechanism to open all the cages. Considering the immediate source of food, however, I suggested that they'd be eager enough to escape captivity that Savin would need to make an Acrobatics or Athletics check (player preference) to climb to safety in the equivalent to the hay loft.

He rolled a 1. I'm sure you can figure out what happens next.

Oh don't worry, he survived. Barely. Actually because of how the party split and the high Challenge Rating of the monsters, everybody got pretty beat up in this session. A fact that was about to get a lot worse as the animals were stampeding in the direction of the rest of the party.

Thinking quickly, Somen used one last spell slot to cast another Fireball spell. We all thought he was nuts at the suggestion, but he clarified that he wasn't aiming the spell at the animals, but to the side to redirect their energy elsewhere. If they had to destroy anything, let it be the camp itself.

The party quickly reconvened and escaped, Minho in tow, resolving that they were done picking up odd jobs for the time-being as this one was too dangerous with very little payoff besides what Jangle had to steal. Savin left an anonymous tip with the local militia, and Yesmae tried to find a nearby ASPCA representative, and that particular adventure came to an end.

Hopefully with their reputation built a bit in the area, the party would have less trouble looking for Don Chen.