Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Helgacon 12 - Red Petals on the Road

The first game I ran was on Thursday evening. It was a spinoff from one of my other offerings, using a subset of the characters I'd prepared for it.

I've been running an Arabian Nights themed game for several years, which I decided to put on the shelf for a while last year. So this year I embarked on a journey to the Far East, exploring adventures in a setting influenced by the sengoku period of feudal Japan, with a strong fantasy element of yokai and magic. The system I was using was my usual Labyrinth Lord, with a hearty injection from 1985's classic D&D supplement Oriental Adventures, which I've owned since it came out, and was one of the first game settings I'd ever run D&D in, back in my college days in the early 90's.

I had four excellent players, who chose the following characters:
L to R: Mikei the neko hengeyokai ninja, Takenoko the kitsune hengeyokai kensai, Genzo the human Shugenja, and Hoshi the young, idealistic human samurai.
The armies of the aggressive Akai clan were massing on the borders of the province ruled by the Kobai clan. In the interest of forming a defensive alliance with the neighboring Murasaki clan, who had heretofore remained carefully neutral, the daimyo of the Kobai dispatched his daughter Lady Sakura as an envoy to negotiate. To safeguard her travel, she went disguised as a merchant's daughter on a pilgrimage, with only two servants to assist her. The characters were recruited by the loyal Kon ninja clan to give her extra protection when passing through a village on the border between Kobai and Murasaki territory known to be crawling with vicious Akai ninja bent on kidnapping her to use as a hostage against her father.

Here is the village I mapped out. I printed out an 11X17 map and placed it on the table as the main game map. Behind the screen I had my own key showing where various ninja ambushes and other dangers awaited our travellers. Some of the houses and shops were loyal to Lord Kobai, others traitors and turncoats in league with the Akai. There were also places where they would be able to get resources or allies that would aid them on their journey.

I prepared this map as a handout to the players, to give them some idea of the features of the village. I started the session with a simple outline of what I was expecting from this game. (Which is an idea I got from a Wandering DMs' video on the subject of convention games from a couple weeks ago.)

Long story short, I gave them a goal, made them aware of their resources, and laid out a setting. It was up to them to figure out how to get Lady Sakura safely from their secret meeting place in the hills above the village to the potter's house on the other side of the river. So the group put their heads together and started building a plan.

The party decided to keep a relatively low profile, and so decided to take the less travelled road past the woods and rice fields to the south rather than traverse the commercial street with its inns and shops. The two shapeshifting hengeyokai took on their animal forms and scouted a little ways ahead, with the agreed upon signal of rolling on their backs as if taking a dust bath if they spotted trouble. Young Hoshi trailed behind Lady Sakura and her servants and priest Genzo, acting as if he were merely traveling in the same direction as the others.

Trotting along the treeline our sly shapeshifters caught sight of someone lurking in the trees by the road across from a ruined, abandoned mansion on the outskirts of town. Sunlight glinted on blades, alerting Takenoko's keen vixen eyes to the presence of the enemy. She flopped on her back and started rolling around, giving the rest of the group enough warning that they were ready when a barrage of shuriken erupted from the trees and the battle was joined.

One luckless ninja rolled a 1, and was compelled to suffer the effects of my Dodecahedrons of Doom critical tables, falling indecorously out of the tree he'd been hiding in. Another unfortunate shinobi suddenly found himself with a bobtailed cat trying to claw his eyes out as Mikei attacked without bothering to shift forms. She was soon joined by Takenoko, who clamped on to the hapless ninja's ankle and started worrying it fiercely.

Hoshi charged forward, wielding his ancestral family blade, the Satori Ken. Every time he struck, a ninja fell dead. Priest Genzo held back and shielded the Lady, having received a slash across his forehead from a shuriken that had pierced his straw hat.

The surviving ninjas quickly fled, having been called to withdraw by a shadowy entity lurking within' the abandoned manor house across the road. As quickly as they'd appeared, they were gone.

After dusting themselves off and tending to the few light wounds they'd taken, the group moved on, making their way between the granary sheds where the local farmers counted and baled their koku of rice. Takenoko took on her hybrid form, allowing her to wield her magical naginata Koeda, and loped along a bit ahead of the party to scout the way.

Passing by the final granary shed, she was suddenly attacked by a large pack of rats that leaped upon her from the tall grass and bore her to the ground, scratching and biting. Overwhelmed, she didn't see a skulking obakenezu, a goblin rat in the uniform of an Akai ninja, scuttling forth to slay her with its bladed claws.

Fortunately, Mikei and Hoshi rushed to her aid, with the youthful samurai beheading the foul creature with his magic blade as the neko pounced upon one of the rats and killed it as cats have done to its kind since time immemorial. Without the evil will of the obakenezu to focus their frenzy, the remaining rats scattered as fox and cat snapped and clawed, and another vile ambush was defeated.

A bit more worse for wear this time, the party regrouped and prepared to move onward, when their collective ears perked up at the sound of a little boy calling to them from up the road.
The boy said that he was the grandson of the village elder, and that his grandpa would help them and tend their wounds if they followed him. The party agreed to follow him.

Once again, it was thanks to Takenoko's sharp eyes that they discovered something was amiss. She noticed the tip of a fox's tail peeking out from under the hem of the boy's kimono. Just as they reached the secluded grove of cherry trees between the elder's house and the local tea house, she leapt upon him and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, demanding that he reveal his true form.

This he did, transforming first into a male fox, and then into the richly robed kitsune sorceror Kuwadono, a notorious trickster and mercenary ally to the Akai.

A band of ninja emerged from the blossoming trees with their swords drawn, interposing themselves between the heroes and the hengeyokai wizard to protect him as he snatched up some dead leaves to set alight and use to cast a spell. The village elder, his daughter, and grandchild were shoved onto the back porch under the threatening blades of two more ninjas, demonstrating that they were hostages.
Without a second thought the group attacked, with Hoshi leaping bravely up to rescue the village elder and his family. Takenoko charged Kuwadono with her mystic naginata, while Genzo chanted a sutra of protection for his allies and shielded the Lady Sakura. Mikei crept through the brush, taking a moment to assume her hybrid form and crouching to spring when the moment was right. Hoshi felled one of the ninjas who held the elder's daughter at blade point, and prepared to fight the other.

Deciding that his Flaming Eyes spell was taking too long, Kuwadono instead conjured a pair of Flame Shuriken, hurling one at Genzo and blinding him whilst throwing the other behind him at Hoshi. As the magical missiles burst into clouds of noxious smoke, Mikei seized her moment and attacked, slashing at the kitsune sorceror from behind with a critical hit.

Her player rolled a 5 on the Critical Hit Success table. Humiliated! Kuwadono's ostentatious robes were slashed away from his scrawny fox body, leaving him ridiculously exposed as the jumped up varmint he was.

Demoralized, shamed, and in disarray, a gekkering Kuwadono ordered a retreat as he scampered away vowing vicious revenge on the heroes. The surviving ninjas cast their smoke grenades and vanished.

Profoundly grateful, the village elder invited the group inside, binding their wounds and bringing out a healing potion to cure their ailments. As his daughter served them tea, the venerable old man informed them of many interesting things.

He told them that if they went to his dear friend the sake brewer and told them of what they'd done for him, the brewer would give them a jug of his finest sake. This, he went on to say, could be traded to the boat builder by the river, so that they might secure a boat to make the crossing. (The party had decided that taking the bridge was just asking for another ninja ambush.) He also informed the group that if they wished to bolster their numbers, that there was a trustworthy ronin at the tea house next door who might be persuaded to join them if they bought him a meal.

Thanking the elder profusely, they set out to act on all of this valuable information. First, they went to the inn, and recruited the ronin Daisuke to their cause. Since he had been made a ronin by the Akai overthrowing his lord, he readily agreed to join them.

Their numbers bolstered, the party made their way to the sake brewer's, where the met the jovial proprietor seated on his porch sampling some of his wares.

As they were telling him the tale of their recent battles and the rescue of the village elder and his family, a furious Kuwadono reappeared, covering his shame with cloths disrepectfully stolen from a nearby Inari shrine and brandishing a magical jewel that summoned flame spirits to attack.

The sake brewer cried out in alarm that the bounding spheres of flame would set his whole establishment alight, so the heroes leapt to the attack. Takenoko slashed one into scattering flickers as Hoshi and Daisuke rushed around the back of the building to attack the enraged sorcerer from his flank. Mikei darted under the raised storage huts where the brewer kept his stock of rice and the jars of fermenting rice wine.

Kuwadono stopped half of the party with a Hypnotic Pattern spell, causing those who failed their save to stand transfixed by the swirling sparks he conjured in the air. Unfortunately for him, he had failed to ensnare his nemesis Mikei, who leapt from the shadows of the sheds and slid one of her tanto blades between his ribs, piercing his black heart. With a ragged shriek he dropped the magical jewel and his improvised coverings and staggered into the road, where he fell and lay still, just another dead animal by the roadside.

Takenoko the vixen finished off the last of his flame spirits, dispersing them with the blade of her naginata. They recovered the recently roadkilled sorceror's magic jewel, an extra bonus prize for their troubles.

The grateful brewer bestowed two jugs of sake on the party, as well as another healing potion and a Potion of Heroism. Thanking him, the group made their way to the boat builder's shed. As they approached, a final ambuscade of ninja leapt out from hidey holes concealed beneath straw mats covered in riverbank sand. Genzo cast a Hold Person spell, freezing many in their tracks, while his companions slew the rest with their deft bladework.

They proceeded to greet the boat maker, who had hidden inside the hull of one of his latest creations as the battle raged among the fishing boats beached beside his hut. He gladly traded them a vessel to cross the river for some of the sake brewer's fine sake.

And thus they got across the river, and made their way safely to the potter's house, where a palanquin from the Murasaki clan arrived to spirit a grateful Lady Sakura away as night fell. As the party stood out front of the potters, thinking upon the day's events, the shadowy figure that had called off the ninja in their first encounter appeared, a dark outline with gleaming eyes. It commended them on their bravery and skill, and acknowledged that they had won this battle. As it melted away into the darkness, its eyes flared. There would be another time, and they would be made to regret their interference. This was a promise from Yurei No Kage, the mistress of shadows.

Chalk one up for the good guys. Better luck next time, bad guys. :P

I'm totally thrilled with how well this session went, and as we wrapped up one of my players complimented me on the pacing, which was a HUGE relief because that was probably what I was most afraid of messing up. The village isn't huge, it's only 650' X 420', and a party moving at a good jog could cross it in a couple rounds, if nothing gets in their way. 

Therefore it was up to me to throw as many impediments in the party's way as I could. This I did, both working off the key but also moving things in their way, like Kuwadono disguising himself as the elder's grandson. This may seem obvious, but one of the bad DM impulses I usually have to fight to overcome is the urge to keep everything as written, rather than making my setting elements flexible. So I'm glad that I ignored that impulse and put ninjas wherever they suited the emerging narrative.

On the other side of that same coin, I'm particularly pleased with how free I was with the information the grateful village elder shared with the party. Another bad DM impulse I have is to be stingy with info. If I'd have held back on all the stuff the old man shared, then the adventure would have probably ground to a halt as the players lost momentum trying to figure out what they'd do next.

It might be okay to tease out info in a campaign game, but with a convention game, it's better to give the players as many actionable items they can sink their teeth into as possible. The village elder's house encounter was like the second stage of the session's plot rocket firing, carrying us to a satisfying conclusion.

So yeah, all told a great session and a wonderful kick off for Helgacon XII for yours truly.

Konbanwa! Kampai!

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