BAPTISM OF F… FIRST FLIGHT
1st Godsday, Planting, Common Year 595
Aloys, cleverly leaning against a tree to disguise his silhouette in the dim light of dawn, watched intently through the morning mists the small track leading to the Urnst trail and beyond that, to Diamond Lake. Barnaby was late. Behind him, Matthew and Kalen chatted carelessly in the open, not far from the ruins of the mining office where they were all supposed to meet.
To kill time, he recalled with glee the events of the previous day, which - he was now certain of it - would mark a major turning point in his life. At first, that day had been as dull and boring as usual: at the express request of his father, the Chief Cartographer of Diamond Lake, who had left for a week along with a militia patrol to perform field surveys, he was on duty in the Office of Land Registry and had to duplicate some of the maps in his custody, a painstakingly delicate task. He had barely begun to start to browbeat himself into beginning his work, when fate knocked at his door in the person of a somber-looking individual clad in red robes and wearing a black goatee, who presented himself as "Khellek of Greyhawk" and asked to peruse detailed maps of the area.
His attention was particularly focused on a small scale map indicating mine shafts and abandoned cairns, that Aloys had himself crafted using older cards during his apprenticeship. Feverishly looking over a small leather-bound notebook whose pages were covered with tight writings and small sketches, Khellek seemed to be looking for something specific and failing to find it. Aloys distinctly heard him complaining to himself, mumbling that "this fool (probably the book’s author) didn’t mention any crossing of the lake”.
After nearly an hour of fruitless searching, Khellek resigned himself (reluctantly) to ask for the help of a complete stranger, and asked Aloys bluntly if there was in the immediate vicinity of Diamond Lake “a cairn known for making strange sounds”.
In a flash, Aloys understood that the Mage was looking for the Whispering Cairn, an ancient burial mound that had served as a secret hideout to the youths gang he had belonged to as a youngster. Actually, it didn’t appear on the map made available to the public, since Aloys had himself deliberately failed to include it, in a as infantile than romantic attempt to preserve the secret of its location. With irrefutable logic, he also came to the conclusion that, because a true adventurer was looking for it, the Whispering Cairn had to contain a treasure...
Fortunately, Khellek took his silence as a sign of deep reflection, allowing Aloys to improvise a wild story about the Stirges’ Cairn, another tumulus located far away on the other side of the lake, ensuring him that “some people said that sometimes it makes whistling or wailing sounds”. Aloys assumed that sending the Mage there would buy him some time... Khellek seemed satisfied with these explanations and took leave.
The remainder of the day was one long, painful, foot-stomping wait. In the evening, taking just enough time to ask Matthew to follow him, Aloys rushed to the Emporium to join Barnaby, eager to tell his friends the whole story. However, he preferred not to mention the misleading nature of the map consulted by Khellek and the little falsehood uttered to send him away, unwilling to risk hurting the feelings of his friend Matthew, who as an aspiring Paladin of Heironeous was often quite rigid on moral issues.
In turn, Barnaby mentioned that a huge and muscular blonde man, carrying a two-handed sword strapped on his back and wearing around his waist the belt of a Champion of the Games of Greyhawk, had spent the afternoon at the Emporium gulping down tankards of mead and shouting to whoever would hear him out that his name was Auric, that he was the most powerful warrior of the country, and that "he and his friend Khellek, a real smart guy, would become rich real quick", until that a man dressed in a wizard robe sporting a small goatee came by and managed somehow to silence him with a single withering look before taking him to "join Tirra”.
The three fellows agreed on the need to seize the opportunity that presented itself to them, some of them for the sake of adventure, others for a chance for glory. However, Aloys insisted on the need to expand their small group by asking as many Mages as possible to join them. According to his extensive knowledge of heroic tales and minstrels songs, no group of adventurers worthy of the name could be complete without at least a Mage.
They parted after a rendezvous had been set the next day at dawn in the ruins of an abandoned mine office, located an hour's walk east of Diamond Lake.
After a quick detour by Allustan’s place to invite his apprentice Kalen the Blue to join the expedition, Aloys spent his evening preparing the equipment essential to any self-respecting adventurer, patiently assembled over the years in anticipation of the great day: a ten feet pole, a lantern, a coil of rope... not to mention the carefully packed bottle of alchemist’s fire “uncle” Merris had offered him in case of an unlucky encounter with a troll, and the bronze dagger he intended to use against rust monsters.
I am currently DMing an AoW campaign, and "the Whispering Cairn" is well underway. If all goes according to plan (Mwahahahaha !), we should start "Three Faces of Evil" at the end of this year.
The catch is that TFoE has probably the most feeble plot of all the modules of the campaign. So, why not skip it ? Because it's the first contact between the PCs and a mysterious conspiracy, and because the joining of Balakarde/Bucknard three soul shards much later would be less fun if the players can't realize that they did what the evil guys tried and could not...
I have read the classic threads on fixing TFoE (“two faces of evil: auuuugh”, etc.), and the main points of trouble are well known:
A. the layout of the dungeon;
I have some new ideas to submit to your sagacious criticism, before my players blow them out of the water during play. Please take into account that we play in Greyhawk, so world-dependant tips relating to Eberron or FR would be nice and fun to read, but not useful.
A - Layout:
TFoE as written: the dungeon is organized in three independant parts, accessible in any order (in theory; Hextor goes first most of the time). Hextor temple and Erythnul caves are fine, but Vecna hideout has this annoying maze…
Problem: most of the time, the PCs can’t handle all three parts in one go, and have to regroup. This layout can lead to the not-so-false impression that the bad guys are waiting twiddling their thumbs for the PCs.
Suggested solution: reorganizing the dungeon, so the access elevator leads to the temple of Hextor, which leads to the pool cavern, which gives access to both Vecna’s hideout (behind a secret door, it’s more Vecna’s style) and Erythnul’s caves. So the PCs would be able to cut the access to the exit, bottling up the bad guys; if their presence become known (if they wait waaay too long), they would have to repulse an assault. I get rid of the maze and of the kenkus in Vecna’s place, because my players would probably expect a Zagyg high priest (Greyhawk god of eccentricity and bad puns) on the other side: who else would think of building such a thing in a dungeon (security-wise, it seems inefficient and a complete waste of resources)?
B – The Ebon Triad:
TFoE as written: “the Ebon Triad seeks to create a fiendish Overgod combining the power of Erythnul, Hextor and Vecna” (TFoE, p17) and “is a fraud launched at the direction of Kyuss” (TFoE p18). It was founded in Alhaster by Lashonna and her avolakia masters (PoR) as a tool to fulfil one of the prophecies that should lead to the apotheosis of Kyuss, “the reunification of a tripartite spirit” (SoLS).
Problem: as Tenser/Manzorian says much later, the (re)unification of these three gods doesn’t make much sense in Greyhawk. Hextor and Erythnul belong to the oeridian pantheon; Vecna is an ascended lich, previously a flan archmage, who wasn’t a god, or even born, at the time of the last Kyuss resurgence. The reunification of Myrkul, Bane, and… (I forgot the third one) in FR is much neater. It seems that the Ebon Triad was shoehorned in the AoW campaign, just for the sake of creating an useless link with the Shackled City campaign (where the Ebon Triad featured prominently in only ONE module anyway). Only avolakias with a limited comprehension of the human religions involved could conceive such a harebrained scheme.
1. To explain why the avolakias even had the crazy idea of joining these cults/gods, you have to modify/clarify the prophecy. Maybe it’s something like “the evil pits will see the reunification of hate, rage and study”, which was misinterpreted as the unification of three evil gods from the Lower Planes with matching portfolios. Of course, you have to modify one of the Balakarde/Bucknard shards (the artistic one) to match the prophecy.
2. Scratch the Ebon Triad link. The Faceless One pretends to work for Vecna, but really is a Kyuss cultist (I intend to heavily modify his journal, and insert hints such as “the fools still believe I do the work of the Maimed One, and don’t suspect my true allegiance” and “I hope we will succeed where the Ebon Triad project failed”). This way, if the PCs do their homework, they will discover that the Ebon Triad is a fringe group aiming at unifying the churches of Hextor, Erythnul and Vecna, and will get the idea that they are against an unknown organization who created schisms within three evil cults at the same time, and tried to fuse them for an unknown reason (an attempt which obviously failed, but hint at powerful means and very long term planning). In the mind of the avolakias, the Ebon Triad project was meant to fulfil the prophecy by joining the three CHURCHES. Heh, it doesn’t hurt to try !
3. The black cathedral is supposed to be very ancient, from the days of Vecna’s empire (roughly a millennia ago). So be it, let’s say it’s a laboratory, with an ongoing and never finished ur-flan experiment (a prototype golem incubating in the dark pool, maturing slowly by leeching divine power). Let’s say that it was created by Vecna as a mortal (err… undead) lich, and is already infused with his essence. So you only have to add divine power from Hextor and from Erythnul to obtain a creature joining three gods matching the prophecy.
4. Theldrick is an outcast within his own church after a failed coup. He could be forced to cooperate in this vile ur-flan ritual by good old blackmail (a very vecnian modus operandi, by the way, reinforcing the illusion of a vecnian operation). Grallak Kur is quite primitive; he could have been tricked by false visions courtesy of the Faceless One’s avolakias masters. I know that ur-flan magic is supposed to be the n°1 item on any cleric hate list, but the (true) fact that they are cooperating in the creation of a powerful creature which, once awakened, will lay waste to Diamond-Lake will help to secure their cooperation and soothe any scruples they could have (helping in a good old slaughter for Erythnul, and most probably the annihilation of the Heironeans in the garrison for Hextor isn’t so bad).
C - The Faceless One:
TFoE as written: “his face is a blank, featureless slate, save for a short, sharp nose and a toothless mouth. (…) His frame is gaunt, almost fragile looking. His skin is as white as an albino’s”.
Problem: this guy has unique looks and could make an interesting villain, but is used as a two-round wonder. There is nothing about his origins, no useful hints or hooks to gain about him. He is just there to get pasted. Some people suggested to make him come back later in the campaign, possibly as a Kyuss knight. But it's quite artificial, just for the sake of a cameo appearance: why the bad guys would waste their time to recover the corpse of a 4th level loser? Just for fun and spite, to unnerve the PCs? Not really the style of inhuman, millennia old, schemers.
1. Why is he so defigured? I don't want to go with a lame and easy explanation such as "well, he had a alchemist grandfather, went to his place for a summer break when he was young, and had an unfortunate accident". I guess he really doesn't want to be recognized. But why going to such lenghts? Nobody in his right mind would stuff his head in a vat of acid just for the sake of anonymacy; a hat of disguise has more appeal. So I intend to make of him a simulacrum of an elven wizard (remember the gaunt frame, and the absence of all facial features, including…ears?). The base subject is one of Ellival Moonmeadow’s followers (more on this later); the simulacrum has been so disfigured to disguise his face (which could have been recognizes) AND his race to the casual observer (because if you see an elf in Diamond Lake, you instantly think “Moonmeadow estate”). It’s also a result of the torture/brainwashing process that made of him a fanatical follower of Kyuss; he is not dominated, because it could be detected/dispelled by Theldrick or maybe Grallak Kur if he was sufficiently subtle to think of such things. My thought is that he NEVER exit his hidey-hole, except at the appointed times for the ceremonies (of divine energy infusion). I give him a ring a sustenance, so he doesn’t starve to death inside. He get his instructions via Sending spells from the big boss (I add hints in his research notes, such as “The Master’s voice told me this… and that”). His simulacrum status has two big advantages. First, added security for the big boss: if the Faceless One is killed, he dissolves into a puddle of snow: no dead body to speak with. If he is captured, same thing, via a Dispel or a Fanatic Cultist’s Tatoo of Spontaneous Combustion™. Second, the PCs get again the nasty and delicious feeling of having big-league and unknown opponents (well, someone had to cast the simulacrum…). And they will cast a very suspicious glance on the frame on any wizard they cross (could HE be the original?)…
2. I borrow the idea of a link between the life forces of the clerics having contributed to the maturing of the Ebon Aspect, the Faceless One being the final trigger (or only one of them). Of course, only the Faceless One knows that, and say so in his notes… When the time is right (when the creature is mature and has optimal chances of animation) he intends to kill himself the clerics and end his life to fulfil the prophecy (what the creature does afterwards is irrelevant).
3. So we have a hidden laboratory, set up by Vecna himself a millennia ago (why here? Well, maybe the black pool is a minor vein of Oerthblood, like the one in Tenser/Menzacorian’s castle not so far away). I guess its location isn’t openly advertised, even among Vecna’s cult (which isn’t known for promoting the free flow of information), so learning its existence, its purpose and pinpointing it had to take a lot of time even with Divinations. And who is here in Diamond Lake for the longest time, and is known for his reclusiveness? Ellival Moonmeadow, a so-called noble elf from Celene whose presence in Diamond Lake, an ugly little town, is quite surprising. In truth, an avolakia “head of project”, sent here to discreetly further the goals of his divinity under an elven guise. Or maybe the location of the Dark cathedral is known to the avolakias for a long time, and he is here only to keep an eye on it (and had to intervene when Ragnolin Dourstone chose to mine directly above it); maybe the avolakias want to accomplish the prophecies in a particular order, as written for example, just to play safe, and had to wait for the accomplishment of the previous prophecy before attempting this one. So it’s true, as hinted in Diamond Lake backdrop, that he is here “on a temporary assignment, that the mine is an excuse for his presence in the region”. The first night following the death of the Faceless One and the rise of the Ebon Aspect (fulfilling the prophecy and closing his mission), he will torch his place and skip town, taking with him his elven thralls (which he will later release in the Cairn Hills, infested with slow worms to jump start the next prophecy; never waste a good thrall). That will leave the players wondering what is happening… until they cross an elven son of Kyuss on the road to Greyhawk City, in a few modules. It also permits a better link with HoHR: who is going to tell the Greyhawk cultists who interfered in the Diamond Lake plot, if there is no big boss escaping?
4. The Faceless One is supposed both having found the site of the Black cathedral two years ago (TFoE, p18) and having influenced the choice of the site of Dourstone mine forty years ago (DL backdrop p63). Well, one of the assumptions has to be false… Let’s say that Dourstone is under surveillance and/or sway of “Ellival”, and that the Faceless One was created, broken and conditioned until ready more or less two years ago, to serve as a front and manage the final part of the plan without endangering his avolakia master.
D – The Smenk connexion:
TFoE as written: “Allustan’s studies show that the worms might be somehow connected to an ancient temple hidden beneath the earth. According to his calculations, the temple is located below Dourstone’s mine. (…) Allustan suggests that the merchant Belabar Smenk could provide a useful gateway to Ragnolin’s mine”
That’s the most awful introduction I have ever read. Ever. Now the “secret temple” is such common knowledge that the local sage know of its existence and can pinpoint its location with accuracy. And how would he know that Belabar is looking for adventurers to infiltrate the place? Did he hire public criers? Heralds? With huge placards “In need of adventurers to infiltrate secretly one of my rival’s mine; not serious go away”? Scrap it, bury it, dance on his grave. The PCs just know (if they got Filge’s note or interrogated him) that something is amiss under Dourstone mine, and that Smenk knows it and has called in a "specialist" necromancer (I cut out the mention of “unkillable zombies in the hills”; it’s way too much, way too soon).
TFoE as written: “Ragnolin Dourstone came to Smenk with an offer of a secret alliance. Sages and mystics had set up shop in his mine, and he asked Smenk to run secret food shipments. Smenk agreed, but only if Dourstone let him visit the Black Cathedral”. He went a month ago, saw evil cultist, got threatened and snatched a green worm (WC p 40 and p46). “Belabar provides the cultists with food and supplies”, and then got greedy, sold them spoiled food and asked for bribes (TFoE, p20). The next day, “he woke up next to the severed head of his right hand man” (Mestal Fixx), maybe two weeks ago (idem, + AoW Overload p22).
Problem: this one fly like a lead dove. Why would the cultists need another mine owner to get supplies? Why would they choose Belabar, the most resourceful and less easily cowed of them all? I agree that Belabar would be overjoyed at the prospect of a secret alliance with Ragnolin; but why would he accept (or worse, request!) a secret meeting, alone, deep within his rival’s mine? A canny bastard like him would see the possibility of a setup; Ragnolin could have been secretly allied with his enemies, and it’s only the most obvious deception that comes to mind. I can accept that he didn’t he go straight for the authorities, when he felt overwhelmed, because he was then too deep in his shady deals with the cultists and had a lot to lose. But how did the Faceless One know that he wouldn’t do it, just after seeing evil cultists during his tour? Threatening him isn’t a sure thing; he isn’t exactly a sissy, and at the time he had NOT committed anything wrong (just selling supplies secretly to a rival; so what?) and could become the hero of the day by spilling his beans to the garrison, eliminating Ragnolin as a rival in the same stroke (the balance of power in TFoE as written is heavily in favour of the good guys, between the garrison, the Heironeous temple, and the St Cuthbertines who would join in the evil-bashing at the drop of a crumpled hat despite the bad feelings between the high priests).
1. Going to Belabar is a huge security breach for the avolakias, and I don’t like stupid mistakes made by supposedly intelligent villains. They wouldn’t do it just to get more supplies. After all, who is going to notice that Ragnolin order more that his (big) mine needs? No, they would only take this risk to get something that only Belabar could get them, with his contacts in the Thieves’ Guild. I am thinking about “necromantic reagents” (the sort that get harvested on unwilling subjects), courtesy of the Gravediggers Guild. You can add to that ordinary supplies, but it can’t suffice. I stick to the idea of Ragnolin pretending to lodge “scholars and sages” in his mine.
2. Letting Belabar in for a grand tour of the evil temple, including the secret laboratory, is an unbelievably stupid mistake from the Faceless One; nothing justify this risk. My players won’t swallow it. It would be more in style for Belabar to smell something fishy and get his info by sending Mestal sneaking around to try to dig up some dirt on Ragnolin. So Mestal was the one that got in (maybe stuffed in a supplies crate, greek style), snooped around invisibly and snatched a worm in his magic gloves, triggered some alarm and escaped narrowly. He put his gloves and a succinct report of his findings in a dropout for later recovery, and got tracked by magic and nailed by the big boss and his goons (“Ellival” and his olves, maybe the kenkus). They couldn’t locate or retrieve the green worm because it was at the time in an extradimensional space. It explains why Belabar knows that something is VERY wrong with Ragnolin mine, but can’t give to the PCs any accurate details on the place (if he had went there himself for a grand tour, as written, why not giving a map to the PCs?).
3. Which leads to a new problem: Belabar wouldn’t do anything blatantly illegal for Dourstone, and open himself to blackmail, without a strong incentive. Maybe the prospect of a secret alliance would suffice, but I don’t think so. We know that Smenk rised into power by taking over his rivals’ mines “by forcing them out of business” (DL backdrop, p57); in particular, he “bankrupted Garavinn Vest years ago” (WC p37). Well, let’s say that Smenk paid an overseer to engineer a timely cave-in to tip Garavinn over the financial edge, and then killed him off to cut out any loose thread, hiding away his body in the (closed) Deepspike mine. Let’s say that it didn’t escape the notice of “Ellival”, who recovered the head of the said body and Gentle Reposed it just in case. Then, years later, Ragnolin could have made to Smenk an offer that he couldn’t refuse, without showing him the head of course (just telling him the exact place, and inviting him to go check that the head is indeed missing). Smenk comply, but send Mestal in, etc. Smenk tell the PCs to recover the head, not some supply crates (who would deliver contraband in supply crates with his brand on them, anyway?). In this case, delivering Mestal’s head (jawless of course) to Smenk is both a threat and a reminder of the kind of blackmail material the cultists have on him. Then Smenk launch the rumor of Mestal’s long trip (AoW overload p22) to hide the fact that he lost his best agent.
4. What Smenk tell the PCs, and why don’t they go themselves to the authorities thereafter? Well, it depends on the dirt that Smenk has on them. Maybe breaking, entering and assault charges if the PCs were brutal in their dealings with Filge (technically, he didn’t break any Greyhawk law by practicing necromancy at home; nothing proves that he knew that the Land family bones were stolen. I know, it’s a bit farfetched, but that why you bribe judges. Remember who is the law in Diamond Lake: Sheriff Cubbin and Lanod Neff). Maybe he goes for the honest citizen angle, concerned by the “strange activity” he uncovered beneath Dourstone mine, but unable to go to the authorities because they have got his dear brother/nephew/best agent/whatever in hostage. Worse, he doesn’t know who is in the conspiracy (very true), so going to the Governor-Mayor or the garrison could doom the hostage; besides, before bothering a known and honoured citizen such as Ragnolin, the authorities would follow proper channels, dither, etc, giving the bad, bad dwarf time to hide his nefarious activities (true). He also tell them he was blackmailed into sending them “supplies” (sort of true, he just omit to tell the kind of supplies), and want them to rescue the hostage (good luck!) or recover his remains for raising (sob, sob, booo) for a handsome fee, of course. Remember that he doesn’t know if the cultists have got a skull, a rotten or a preserved head, so the risk of a PCs recognizing the overseer is acceptable from his point of view. The fact that the PCs are (supposedly) unable to cast Speak with dead is an added level of security.
Thanks in advance for your comments !
NdMJ: les notices biographiques ci-dessous ne contiennent que des éléments ouvertement connus, et sont susceptibles d'être mises à jour si de nouveaux éléments du passé de chacun des personnages venaient à être révélés au grand jour.
* Aloïs Cicaeda, Compagnon de la Guilde des Cartographes de la Cité de Greyhawk et aspirant aventurier
* Barnabé Bouillabise, hobniz natif d’Elmshire
* Hélebrank, Mage amnésique et va-nu-pieds
* Kalen le Bleu, Mage pédant
* Khalil ibn Ahmad, moine de Zuoken originaire du lointain et exotique Ponant
* Mathieu, aspirant Paladin d’Heironéous
I think I may have a problem with my subscriptions.
More precisely, I am an overseas customer and have bought two subscriptions : the first one for Pathfinder a month ago, and the second one for Gamemastery yesterday.
Here is the problem : my account says that Pathfinder will be sent to me on August, and that module W1 will be sent before that, at the end of July. I believed (maybe erroneously) that by subscribing to both of these offers, I would get a discount on handling and postal fees because both products would be sent in the same package…
Did I err, or is my account wrong?
I thank you in advance for correcting me, or for putting things right.