Friday, April 12, 2019

Helgacon 12 - The Peach Orchard

Friday night brought the opening of Helgacon proper, and I ran the first of my full scale games, the second set in my new feudal Japanese Labyrinth Lord/Oriental Adventures milieu.
Here's the whole razzle dazzle. I like to really put on a grand show for convention games.
Every thousand years, in the remote, fortified mountain monastery known as Momotakara, a certain blessed peach tree brings forth a single, magically supercharged fruit that is capable of working great wonders in the lives of those who partake of it. If only it had appeared a year ago, when the conquering forces of the Akai clan laid siege to the monastery and defeated the rebellious warrior monks who dwelt within, putting those who failed to escape to the sword. Shortly after their victory, the Akai army themselves fled the mountaintop fortress, sealing the heavy doors behind them in fear of the ingenious and deadly traps laid within' by the wily abbot, as well as the supernatural creatures said to dwell in the caves below. The players took on the roles of a ragtag band of outcasts and wanderers who'd joined together to find the Thousand Year Peach and transform their lives.

  I had twelve pre-generated player characters to choose from, ranging from samurai to kensai to wily spellcasters and ninja, with several hengeyokai shapeshifters as well as strange creatures such as tengu or kamejin. I had five excellent players, who chose the following heroes to make up their band of nakama.
L to R: Takenoko the kitsune hengeyokai kensai, Genzo the human shugenja, Shirokaze the human mahotsukai, Zenimon the human yakuza, and Hotaro the human kensai. 

My setting was based on two of Dyson Logos' wonderful maps: The Monastery of Electrum Flowers for the upper structure and The Travellers Caves for the underground caverns beneath. I keyed these up with lots of twists, traps, and encounters, and gave the players these two simplified maps as handouts. (I've learned from years of doing convention games that the sooner you get the players some basic knowledge of the stakes, setting, and layout, the easier it is to have a satisfying adventure in the allotted 4 hour timeslot. You don't have to spell everything out, just give 'em enough info to go on.)
(Actually, I didn't initially give them the cave map. I'd hidden it on the back of one of the paintings in the hall of paintings, but it was running toward the end of the session and once they got down into the caves it was easier to just hand them this than try to get them to map it. Caves are too non-euclidian for graph paper mapping, I've often found.)

I gave all the players a roll on a specially prepared rumor table. They gleaned these bits of info: 

Beware the wrath of the thunder god when invading the Monastery’s precincts, for he defends the sohei’s path. Bid him be still if you would pass safely. (This one didn't really figure in their explorations. It referred to a trapped hallway where a statue of Raijin would shoot a lightning bolt if they didn't say a password to deactivate it.)

A sacred scroll dedicated to the Goddess of War hangs among the Monastery’s collection of sumi-e. If a holy man or warrior reads what is inscribed on the back they can invoke the Goddess’ aid. 

There is a waterfall to the North of the Monastery. In a hollow behind it there is a secret door leading inside.  

Four sacred tablets, enchanted to summon and control mighty elemental forces, are hidden throughout the monastery. They are concealed among their elements.  

While the Akai claim to have sealed the doors of the Monastery, in truth they have converted it into a secret stronghold for their ninja assassins.  (This one was a false rumor, but they didn't know that.)

I gave the players a similar speech to the one I gave to my players for Red Petals on the Road, about what my expectations were for this game. I had laid out a setting and given them resources, and now it was up to them to decide what to do. Armed with their information from the rumor table, the players made their plan and set forth to infiltrate the monastery and retrieve the legendary peach. 

Acting on the rumor about a secret entry, they made their way around the north side of the monastery, where they found the waterfall as promised cascading down from a high cliff into a mountain stream. There was a hollow behind it that contained a stone lantern with a lock mechanism cleverly hidden inside. They opened the latch and discovered the secret door, which led them to the shaft of the monastery's well. There were cleverly hidden handholds leading up to the wellhead, and the shaft disappeared down into the darkness 50' below. (A fact the party rather stubbornly ignored later on when they figured out that to find the Peach they'd have to get into the caves below the monastery. But I'm getting ahead of myself. :-\) From above the tunnel was concealed by a trompe d'oiel that made it impossible to spot. 

Finding themselves in a well room where stacks of rotting firewood was stowed, they crept into the next room, which turned out to be the monastery's kitchen. Prodding among the kamado stoves and the rotting bales of rice hidden in the corner, the party disturbed a nest of hideous 5' long centipedes, which sprang forth to attack them. 

Hotaro chopped one to pieces while Shirokaze pinned one to the floor with one of his arrows. Takenoko rolled a critical fail and fell to the ground with a twisted ankle, with a vicious centipede bearing down on her with mandibles clacking. Thinking quickly, she opened her magic purse that could swallow up to 500 lbs. and sucked the horrible thing inside. The final one was slain and the party took stock, hoping that they'd not alerted any Akai ninja who might be lurking about. 

Taking a tentative foray down the hallway outside, they heard a commotion in the direction where their map said the monastery's famed peach orchard was. There was the sound of thrashing branches and a large booming voice lording over a gaggle of smaller, sniveling voices, all speaking in obake, the language of bakemono and oni. From what they could glean from Shirokaze's translations as the only one among them who could speak the language, it was a band of marauding yokai searching for the Thousand Year Peach. 

Seized by strategic inspiration, the wizard called out "We've found the peach!" in obake, hoping to lure the rival invaders into range so that they might be defeated in piecemeal, and it worked splendidly for them. A hush fell over the monstrous brigands in the orchard, and the booming voice commanded some scouts to go see who'd said they'd found the sought after treasure.The party braced themselves in the adjacent archways of the kitchen as a pair of obakenezu, horrible goblin rats, came loping down the corridor. A cowardly bunch of bakemono peeked out the window, waiting to see how their beastly comrades did. Takenoko held fast but got a sprained wrist for her troubles, as Hotaro was bowled over by the slavering spirit beast despite his magical Sandals of Steadiness. 

With a furious exchange of slashing blades and slavering bites, the obakenezu were slain, but the party had barely any time to catch their breath before the bakemono attacked. These too were dispatched with the two kensai's whirling katana and naginata. 

Hearing the death shreiks of his minions, the horrible oni Gongoro finally decided to see what was going on with his own three eyes, and so he came stomping around the corner at the far east end of the corridor with a crew of bakemono archers in tow. He bellowed threats and taunts as he came, but was knocked ingloriously on his behind when Shirokaze cast an Elemental Burst spell that hit the lumbering yokai right between the horns with an explosion of air. He fell back, smashing his smaller minions beneath him.

Seizing their opportunity, the party leaped to the attack. Zenimon slew several of the bakemono with a barrage of shuriken, while Takenoko and Hotaro strode forth and put an end to the oni with their flashing blades. In the melee Hotaro had slashed off one of the ogre's horns, which he kept as a trophy. The surviving bakemono of Gongoro's entourage, peering fearfully out the windows to the orchard, realized that their master was slain and fled screaming and scattered to the winds. 
Searching the bodies, they retrieved a gourd full of magic potion hanging from the oni's belt, and Shirokaze discovered a beautiful child's plaything, a silken temari ball doubtless stolen from a nursery tucked into one of the sleeves of the bakemono's filthy, ragged kimonos. 
The party then proceeded to search the orchard, finding the mess that the yokai had made knocking down branches, leaves, and fruit with long sticks. They'd piled the fallen peaches on moldering straw mats next to a stone bench beneath a particularly profound looking old tree, where the oni had been appraising the fruits and sorting out the ones that seemed magical. The Momotakara orchard had been reknowned for other sorts of magical peaches besides the legendary Thousand Year Peach. In a cracked porcelain bowl was a pile of rosy blushing peaches that were enchanted with healing magic, making them equal to a Potion of Healing if you ate one. The party divided these up among themselves. There was also a tree bearing fruit that would instantly destroy bakemono if it touched them, as evidenced by an exploded wretch whose remains lay at the tree's foot. (The players gave this one a wide berth, not knowing how specific its effects were.) 

Finally, there was a tree that at first glance seemed dead, with bare branches surrounded by a tenuous fog. Upon closer examination, led by the rotting straw ropes and sacred charms that hung around its trunk, they realized that what seemed like dead branches was in fact an upside down root system, and that this strange tree was quite alive. Surely its leaves, and its fruit, were below in the underground caves. They were getting closer to their main objective. 

Exploring further, they investigated the overgrown rock garden to the south end of the orchard. They discovered a couple of the large stones, laid out in the spiral patterns of carefully raked gravel, had been uprooted and taken. They reasoned that perhaps this was where one of the four elemental tablets they'd heard rumors about was hidden, and were proved right as they discovered a stone chest under one of the large boulders, which contained the tablet. 

Deciding to search for the abbot's quarters, they went back down the hall toward the kitchen. Beyond to the west they found the monastery's dining hall, where Zenimon accidentally knocked over long tabletops and trestles stacked against the back wall. The party held their breath, hoping no ninja had been alerted, then continued their search. 

They discovered rot and water damage coming from a swollen shut sliding door to the north that felt hot to the touch. Carefully shoving it open with the butt of Takenoko's naginata and Genzo's staff, they avoided a gout of scalding steam that billowed forth. 

Inside, they discovered a sweltering bath chamber. Everything inside was warped and melted by the heat and moisture. There were two pools to the east end of the room, one empty, and one occupied by a pool of water in which a bronze Daruma figure sat, glowing red with internally generated heat and boiling the water around it.

The figure was scalding hot, and damaged the party if they approached it. In one eye, the kanji for "heaven" had been painted. The other was blank. 

What proceeded here, if I may drop out of narrative into DM analysis, was one of those points where you present a puzzle to the players and they proceed to spiral into ever more elaborate blind alleys to solve it, completely mis-interpreting or ignoring the clues to the solution.

I'll bear more than a little responsibility for this, because they latched on to certain parts of my explanation of what a Daruma signified in Japanese culture and ran with it. I'd informed them that Daruma dolls were often used as good luck charms by people who wanted to complete a task. The person would paint in one of the figure's blank eyes at the start of their task, and then paint in the other when they'd finished it. This is what the party grabbed onto, convinced that they had to complete a task to solve the puzzle. I probably should have left all that "complete a task" stuff out, 'cos honestly all they had to do is write something in the other eye.

So they proceeded to laboriously fill up the other bath tub by drawing bucket after bucket of water from the well over a span of a couple in game hours. Hotaro stripped down and took a bath, which didn't really help, and he got kinda scalded while he was doing it due to being so close to the boiling daruma. 

What I'd failed to make clear to them was that the bronze Daruma's task was to heat the bathwater, and that since it had done that all they needed to do is write something to match "heaven". Since he was scalding hot, I was hoping that they'd take the hint and write "hell" in the other blank eye. Or they could wipe out the writing in the first eye, that would have shut him down too. (This was doubly frustrating as Genzo's player had blurted out that they should write "hell" in the other eye at the start of it all and nobody twigged to it. :-\)

Anyway, they eventually figured it out after eating up several minutes of game time. Happily, they were rewarded with the Fire Elemental tablet, which they discovered in a hidden compartment in the bronze figure's base. So all's well that eventually ends well.

Continuing their search, they decided to head southward toward the monks quarters on the west side of the monastery. They were nearly trapped by an insidious spell that caused the hallway to seem endless, forever extending ahead and behind them no matter how long or fast they walked. Shirokaze's player figured out the way to foil this spell, by not depending on vision. He backed toward the tablet inscribed with the spell and removed it without looking, freeing his comrades from its effects. They found the stricken corpses of some Akai ashigaru who'd failed to escape this trap. One had starved to death in one of the monks' cells. The other, who's hair had gone stark white, had been run thru by a blade of some sort as he cowered by a wall. The hole the blade had left was uncannily cold to the touch.


Proceeding further, they came to a darkened room that had been the monastery's meditation chamber. Inside, they were confronted with the terrifying specter of the Akai general who'd led the assault on the monastery, condemned in death to drive off any other interlopers. 

Hotaro rose to the challenge and drew his woodcutter's blade, the Mokuzaiken, and stood in combat against the vengeful spirit, slashing its naginata's shaft in two. The yurei cast its bisected polearm aside and prepared to draw its sword. Knowing that there was no honor in a restless ghost, Shirokaze read the chant on the back of the Fire Elemental tablet, and summoned a mighty spirit of flames, which burned the Akai general's ghost away in its purifying fire and banished it from this world.

Searching the room after releasing the Flame Spirit and stamping out some of the fires it had left, they found two large, ornate gold incense burners on the meditation leader's platform. After a bit of fox mischief where Takenoko released the giant centipede at Zenimon, causing a bit of minor panic as they slew it before it poisoned him, they sucked the two censers into the purse where they could easily carry it off. 

Working from the map, they found their way to the hall where the monastery kept its trove of sumi-e paintings, seeking to find the scroll of the War Goddess. They found a hall that had been long ago drenched in blood, with a victim slashed to ribbons and dragged away, and the two stones missing from the rock garden laid against the door. The only painting not marred with old dried blood was a magnificent painting of a tiger. This they decided to give a wide berth, especially after figuring out that its eyes seemed to follow them. They found an separate alcove where the goddess scroll was hanging, and reverently plucked it from the wall and rolled it up, another trophy from their sortie, and then slipped out again. 

Remembering that their goal was to find the Thousand Year Peach, they did some figuring and some divining. Among Zenimon's many trademark coins, he had one that he could flip for a truthful yes/no answer 3 times a day. This they used to ascertain where the entrance to the underground caverns, which turned out to be a set of bronze doors decorated by carvings of tortoises in the northeast corner of the fortress. After failing to pick the bronze padlock, Hotaro chopped it off the door with his Kikorido woodcutter technique.

They proceeded past the door and were confronted with two animated wooden guardian figures that blocked their way. After a brief combat, and a haphazard stumble down the mossy stairs beyond, they were down in the deep mountain caves.

In the depths they discovered a stone turtle hung with sacred ropes and charms, with a flat spot atop its dome-like shell. Meditating atop it, Shirokaze heard whispering voices from the deep earth asking what offering he would leave. He carefully placed the temari ball and climbed down.

The group came to a crossroads, and here, the mahotsukai decided to cast his Smoky Form spell, turning himself into a figure of smoke so that he could safely scout ahead. He went down a tunnel to the southwest, where the party could faintly hear the sound of a woman singing and weeping. It was hung with large cobwebs and bones, and eventually he came to the lair of a huge spider who had been the source of the singing, which told him to go away, as it was seeking to lure something with warm blood to it.

The party instead decided to head to the tunnel to the south, which was full of fog that was suffused with a golden glow. There, they found a lush, pristine peach tree growing from the ceiling, its bright leaves floating on the calm surface of a shallow subterranean pool. Hanging about a man's height from the floor of the cave, perfect and jewel like, was the Thousand Year Peach.

Hotaro reverently stepped forward and grasped it, but no amount of pulling or twisting could get it loose. The party turned as a creature that seemed as if it had been worn into shape from the stone of the mountain stepped forth from one of the side caverns. It had the shell of a tortoise, and held the bright silken temari ball in its large, clawed hands. It smiled, and said "You must ask before you can pluck the sacred peach, mortals." With that it turned, and withdrew back into the deep caverns.

After a deep bow and a humble request, the fruit dropped effortlessly into the kensai's hands. And thus the brave nakama acquired the Thousand Year Peach, whose every morsel if eaten could bestow a Wish, and at whose center in place of a pit was a priceless emerald of wondrous size and clarity.

They had succeeded!


This was definitely a successful session all the way around. The players played smart and very in character. (The player who played Shirokaze spent the whole session with a plastic bowl on his head.☺) Aside from getting a little hung up on the bronze Daruma puzzle they made good tactical decisions and worked out things for themselves really well. 

I think the biggest tactical win was changing the context of the confrontation with the oni and his minions in the actual peach orchard. I'd intended it to be a big battleground, but by their subterfuge they siphoned off the bakemono and obakenezu so that they could be dealt with in piecemeal, and left the oni open to attack without his henchlings covering for him. 

So well done, players. I'm definitely looking forward to more adventures in this setting. 

Omedetou! Kampai!

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