Dungeon Fantasy Nordlond #17: “You Ain’t Behind A Plow…”

by mshrm

In which our heroes decide that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Reactions, good and bad, to honest (if not ethical) employment and strict discipline. Explanations of the exotic customs of far-off lands, leading only to more questions. Heraldry, uniforms, and promotions. Camp life. Much and more concerning strange bedfellows – of all sorts.

Spoiler Warning: The campaign (which started here) is set in NordlondGaming Ballistic‘s Norse-themed campaign setting. This session’s events came mostly from The Dragons of Rosgarth.

Who’s Who

PCs

  • Dara Zivri, Demon-blooded Druid. Will tell the party to eat their vegetables.
  • Esen, Human Mentalist. AFK
  • Ilmarë “Ray” Kem, Elf Cleric. Will work casual miracles to get this party started.
  • Orvynth the Clanless, Dragon-Blooded Knight. Will tell the party to tighten it up, they’re bouncing.
  • Slingshot, Human Scout. AFK
  • The Kid, Nymph Bard. Will give all kinds of creatures feelings that they’ve never felt before…

What Happened

When we last saw our heroes, they were concealed just behind the ridgeline overlooking Castle Rosgarth. The castle itself stood several miles off. Arrayed before the castle were three distinct encampments, forming an army of dragonkin, irzhajotunn, and bandits that was at least a thousand strong.

Realizing that a frontal assault would be folly, our heroes settled in to observe and gather intelligence. The henchmen and horses retired to a more distant site, where they would be better concealed. Most of the PCs stayed in the forward camp, keeping watch on the castle and army. The first night, they didn’t light a fire, for fear of being observed, and so spent the night uncomfortable and shivering.

Early the next morning, though, someone stumbled into their cunningly-concealed observation post! It was a demon-blooded woman wearing a full skirt and no cold weather gear, an ensemble more suitable to a tavern back in Nordvorn than a frost-covered hillside, several days’ hike from the nearest human settlement of any size. She introduced herself as Dara Zivri, keeper of a remote inn. When asked how she came to be here, she told her tale.

Dara had been a happy homemaker, raised her children, and sent them out into the world. With an empty nest, she and her husband had opened an inn. (One with a truly remarkable garden, she added. They really should come see the garden when they had a chance.) Then, one day, her husband had left and not returned. Dara was certain that he had run off with That Barmaid. So, she resolved to track them down and give That Barmaid a piece of her mind. She locked up the inn, and went on the hunt.

After that… things became a little hazy, she talked to a few plants, got off the main road, and had been wandering the forest for a few days, until she ran into the party. This raised a few eyebrows, since the last few days had been below freezing, and Dara didn’t seem at all equipped for conditions.

As the conversation went on, occasionally interrupted by Dara’s asides telling one party member or another to wear warm clothes, eat their vegetables, and so forth, our heroes’ initial estimation of the newcomer changed. At first, they took her for a lost innkeeper, disoriented and possibly a bit balmy. Then, they came to realize, when she said that she talked to her plants and encouraged them to grow, she meant that she talked to her plants and made them grow. Dara certainly did keep an inn, and she may or may not be somewhat delusional, but she was also a druid, and worthy of respect.

Having heard Dara’s story, the party took her in. Orvynth, in particular, declared, “She seems trustworthy. I think we should accept her into the group immediately and not even consider mugging her.” They pointed out the army that she had been about to walk into. Noting the clear-cut forest surrounding the camp and the pollution around the smaller keep, Dara was eager to give the people in charge a good scolding.

So, our heroes’ newfound friend joined them in observing the army. They saw many different patrols coming and going, including lizardfolk mounted on the great flying beasts that they had seen in the forest. It seemed that the patrols came from all segments of the army, but just like the camps within the greater army, they didn’t much mingle: dragonkin patrolled and camped with dragonkin, irzhajotunn with irzhajotunn in an organized and disciplined fashion, and bandits with bandits. Occasionally the lizardfolk would be accompanied by other, larger dragonkin who travelled in pairs; their scales were black, but between the scales glowed as if their innards were made from white-hot iron. Those creatures’ appearance was distinctive enough to remind The Kid of a story, identifying them as scalekin serving a dragon famous for haunting a far-off swamp, a dragon known for dabbling in demonology.

The party also saw several more “recruitment” instances, where bandits were escorted out of the woods, interrogated, and either taken into camp or massacred on the spot. In time, they determined that the interrogation was performed by one of the irzhajotunn sergeants, accompanied by a humanoid figure, carrying swords, covered entirely by a long robe and wide, conical straw hat, and escorted by a large gang of miscellaneous soldiers.

Orvynth’s military experience provided some useful insight into the army’s activities. They didn’t appear to be preparing to march any time soon. This was a disappointment, as our heroes had speculated that they might be able to gain access to the castle once the army mobilized.

That night, Dara used her druidic powers to create a mystic mist around the observation site. Thus secured, our heroes risked a small fire, and spent the night more comfortably than before. Dara also located some wild yams and cooked dinner, with Ray providing supplemental spices through divine magic. (Up until now, the party had relied more on Create Food, wild berries, and charred meat than the Cooking skill.)

Meanwhile, when not observing the army’s comings and goings, the magically-adept members of the party had been examining the bronze torcs that they had previously captured from members of the army. The torcs were obviously magically, but the nature of that magic remained obscure. Despite their enchantments, they appeared to be cheap, stamped-out costume jewelry. Experiments determined that they were no more rugged than their appearance indicated, at the cost of a few torcs melted by sunbolts or mangled by main strength.

Finally, The Kid declared an end to patience. “I’m putting one on,” he announced. “Be ready to grab me if I try anything.” Once everyone was in position, The Kid put one on his arm. He felt a distinct shiver go through him, but that was all. Could he take it off, now? Yes, it came off with another shiver but no special difficulty. Maybe the curse took a while to take effect? Or maybe it only controlled the wearer’s mind when commands were given? Best to leave it on for a while and see what happened. Maybe The Kid would feel the urge to join the nightly procession and speech-giving that they had seen happen in the irzhajotunn camp every night.

Under the watchful eyes of his comrades, The Kid puttered around the camp with the torc on his arm for the rest of the day and through the night, with no ill effects.

Our heroes huddled up to discuss options again. They wanted into the castle, of course, which meant they had to get through the hostile army camp. Days before, when they had realized they weren’t going to be able to fight their way in, they had only come up with one other option: “We’re going to have to [woo] our way inside.” Now, they saw some new options. They could step out into the open, wait to be interrogated, and volunteer to join the army. Alternatively, they could “harvest” enough bronze torcs to outfit the entire party with one, and claim to have already joined.

If there’s one thing that our heroes enjoying doing, it’s setting an ambush. They made their arrangements, then waited for one of the regular patrols to come nearby.

As it happened, that patrol was a group of gangaedla, lesser lizardfolk, mounted on raptors, like those that had tried to pull a clever ruse on our heroes in the forest. Ray caught their eye, wiggled her hips at them, and dove into the bushes. The lizardfolk moved to pursue.

When Dara had arrived, the party’s camp and observation post was in a sunken bit of land just behind the top of the hill, fairly well concealed by bushes and undergrowth. She had improved this by casting mystic mist over the whole area just inside those concealing bushes, which affected anyone coming in from outside. Thus, when the lizardmen rode into the bushes, they quickly came face-to-face with a wall of uncanny fog that obscured all vision.

Most of the lizardfolk turned to look at one of their number, who sniffed, snarled, and urged them all forward. With a shrug, the others advanced. Inside the mist, Orvynth pointed to the one who had just revealed himself to be the leader.

Once inside the mist, the lizardfolk rapidly lost their way and each other. Dara tangled the lizardfolk leader’s mount in grass and brush, keeping the leader out of the way, while the rest of the party played a deadly game of hide-and-seek with the lizardfolk. Since the lizards couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of them and couldn’t navigate at all, it was a “fish in a barrel” situation. Shortly, Orvynth was hauling away bodies while the others interrogated their prisoner.

Initially, communication was difficult. Then Ray performed a miracle and gave the lizardfolk leader the gift of tongues. The Kid cuddled up close to the restrained lizard, who started having feelings that it wasn’t prepared to deal with. The two kept it befuddled and took turns asking it questions.

The conversation was round-about, but they established a few facts. The lizard knew that it served in the army of Maendrath, and was very enthusiastic about it – “Maendrath is great! Maendrath is invincible! With Maendrath at our head we shall be unstoppable and eat much human flesh!” – but it wasn’t really clear on exactly who or what Maendrath actually was. These lizardfolk were originally built by the dragons as servants and arrow-fodder, and they are strongly inclined to trust the word of more-powerful dragonkin. In this case, this lizard had heard the good news of Maendrath from one of those infernally-powered scalekin, and took it to heart. Of course, this lizard was not so mighty as to serve Maendrath directly; it answered to Ksarr, chieftain of the gangaedla.

Once our heroes felt that they had gathered all the information they were going to from this source, The Kid led Dara in one direction, explaining that Orvynth was going to send the creature to go live on a farm… a nice farm, where it could chase chickens… while Orvynth led the gangaedla in the opposite direction and, once out of sight, snapped its neck.

Gangaedla torcs served well enough for human wearers, and so our heroes disguised themselves as members of the army. They left a note for Slingshot and Esen, who were presumably visiting the other camp at the time, and set out to approach the castle from a different direction.

It was a long walk to the edge of camp. Their presence was obviously noted, but their torcs were enough to avoid serious scrutiny. At one point, The Kid caught a glimpse of a halfling leaving one of the small bandit camps, coming into sight for a moment as they came up and over the surrounding ring of heaped dirt. They seemed hauntingly familiar, but The Kid wasn’t able to place them.

As they drew close to the bandit camp, The Kid looked for banners or other signs of friendlies; after all, this party is on friendly terms with at least one large bandit clan. It looked like this part of the army was made of smaller gangs of bandits, each group keeping its own camp and maintaining its own defenses. Perhaps one of those groups were folks they knew.

As it happened, The Kid spotted something better than expected.

“My old friends, returned from patrol!” a voice cried out, from atop the earthen embankment surrounding one of the small bandit camps. The Kid recognized Eldgrimur Lightfingers, a fellow bard who had been declared an outlaw a few years back for thievery. They didn’t know each other, but they knew of each other. “Come, friends, join us for our evening meat!” He strummed a few inviting notes on a miniature lute.

At The Kid’s nod, our heroes turned to join Eldgrimur, who greeted them warmly. As they approached the ditch and embankment, Eldgrimur deftly sent a boy from inside the camp running past the party, so that it would appear to the casual observer that they had dispatched a messenger from among their number. “To make your report,” he replied to The Kid’s questioning glance, “since I know you haven’t been around this camp, so I know you must be fool enough to be trying to sneak inside, when anyone can see the smart thing to do would be sneak out.”

Seeing that Eldgrimur was adding an improvement to their deception, our heroes decided to take him into their confidence, at least enough to admit that they were infiltrators and no friend of Maendrath. He answered their questions: No, he and his people weren’t particularly loyal to Maendrath’s cause, but they preferred joining the army to immediate execution, so they had taken the torc. They were trained hard during the day and otherwise ignored, so long as they kept to themselves. At least the food was plentiful.

Eldgrimur didn’t know much about the army’s strategy, just that they would someday be given the order, and would then march on Nordvorn, where the bandits would be expected to lead the first attack on the city.

When asked how to get inside the castle, he expressed doubts about the good sense of wanting to go there, then admitted that the only way he knew to get into and out of the castle was by serving guard duty. Bandits didn’t get assigned guard duty, though. To get that job, one would need to get promoted.

“Promoted, you say?” Eldgrimur pointed out a big barbarian in a neighboring camp, who wore a braided rope on one shoulder. He took the challenge and got promoted, so he gets assigned duties beyond just training and absorbing abuse from the irzhajotunn sergeants.

“Challenge? What kind of challenge?” Eldgrimur pointed out the stone keep with the chimneys. That’s where the dokkalfs stay, he said. They have bodyguards, big trolls that they’ve done… things… to. When you take the challenge, they put you up against those beasts. That’s all he knew. Once they told him that, he had quit asking questions.

Had Eldgrimur ever seen Maendrath, or any of the leaders of the army? No, not with his own eyes. The top brass didn’t spend much time down in the bandit camp. Did the name Elunad mean anything to him? He thought that he might have heard the name around, but that was all.

Our heroes spent the night with Eldgrimur’s band. Ray turned several buckets of water into wine to go with dinner. This drew the attention of Bjarni, a flamboyant swashbuckler and leader of another bandit band, who invited himself to the party. (“Eldgrimur, old man, what are you doing with so much contraband? Would be a shame if someone found out. Best let me help you get rid of the evidence.”) It was clear from the reactions of Eldgrimur’s people that Bjarni wasn’t as popular as he thought he was, but no one wanted to get on his bad side. After a few drinks, he began toasting the upcoming fall of Nordvorn and all the loot they would gather when it fell.

Early the next morning, an irzhajotunn sergeant came to march Eldgrimur’s band to the parade ground, where they would be trained. As anticipated, the sergeant asked, “Are there any worms who dare to take the challenge and seek to improve their station?”

Orvynth stepped forward. “I’ll take that challenge.”

The Kid stepped forward. “I stand with my comrade, through thick and thin – I’ll face the challenge at their side!” He turned to look at Ray and Dara.

Ray and Dara stepped back and cheered. “Yay, Orvynth! Go, The Kid! You can do it!” They tried to get the wave going with the watching bandits.

What they did not do is step forward to join the fight. So, Orvynth and The Kid faced a pair of stothtrolls – trolls who had been charred and warped by magical experiments. Ray surreptitiously cast spells of strength and protection on Orvynth and The Kid while shaking their hands before the clash.

At the sergeant’s whistle, the trolls bounded forward. One engaged Orvynth, while the other swung wide to tackle The Kid. The Kid sang a verse of his hit song, “Blaadao’s Lament”, and used the dirge to lay a bardic curse on the trolls, weakening their arms and slowing their fists.

Even so cursed, they were formidable opponents. Orvynth’s opponent knocked the Law Giver from his grasp, forcing him to draw his backup shortsword. He wounded it sorely, then fell back to regroup with The Kid. The troll used that respite to pick up the holy sword, taunt Orvynth, and stick the sword into its belt. This drew the dragon-blooded’s ire.

Meanwhile, The Kid had been delaying and confounding the other troll, acrobatically leaping about to stay ahead of its razor-sharp claws and using bardic mind control magic to make it trip over its own feet. The irzhajotunn sergeant did not appreciate these tactics, and unfurled his whip to “encourage” The Kid to display more aggression. The Kid remarked that flirting wasn’t going to help his concentration.

Reasoning that trolls are weak against fire, Orvynth unleashed their fiery breath on the troll holding the Law Giver, but to no effect. “Ah, good, troll cold!” it remarked, raising its arms to make sure to get the flame into all those hard-to-reach crevices.

Inspired by the gout of flame, The Kid threw back his cloak, finally revealing the specially-enchanted codpiece that he had made some time ago. It was styled in the form of a dragon, with ruby eyes. The Kid activated the enchantment of the codpiece; the dragon animated, throwing its jaws wide, and breathed its own stream of fiery breath!

Sadly, to no more effect than Orvynth’s attempt. It seems that these trolls, at least, no longer fear fire.

Just before the sergeant blew the time-out whistle, Orvynth’s enraged shortsword attack hacked off the head off the stothtroll, finally dropping the beast to the ground. The sergeants declared that the dragon-blooded had earned a rope and promoted them on the spot. The nearby irzhajotunn congratulated Orvynth, and pointed out that they could move out of the bandit camp into the dragonkin camp. Orvynth declined, claiming to prefer the company of their present party.

While this was happening, the rest of the party observed the beheaded stothtroll’s body shiver, rise to its knees, and start casting about for its own severed head. When it found the head, it screwed it back onto its neck, stood up, and shambled over to join the other stothtrolls. They berated and insulted it. “You got your head cut off,” they said. “Wimp. Like some kind of elf or something. Gonna bleed on us?”

After training, they were marched back to their camp and released. Again, Ray performed a miracle and provided wine. Dara applied her practical kitchen witchery and turned their rough provisions into a worthwhile meal. Eldgrimur approached The Kid, saying he had a visitor who was interested in having dinner with him: Hildur Spear-Cutter, one of the other bandit chieftains, and someone sympathetic to the cause.

While initially (and uncharacteristically) reluctant to meet her, Dara and Ray talked him into it, in the name of diplomacy and networking. Hildur turned out to be a strong warrior clad in barbaric leathers. The two hit it off over dinner. She explained that she had once been an adventurer like him, but her downfall had not been an arrow to the knee, but gambling debts. She owed money to a man who was known to be cruel to his thralls, so rather than become one of those thralls, she had turned outlaw. Like Eldgrimur and the others, she wasn’t eager to assault Nordvorn. If there were a way to escape the army alive, she would want to return to civilization, pay off her debts, and return to Nordlond society. The Kid agreed, if they found a way to make an escape, she would be part of it.

With promotion came privileges, and Orvynth was allowed to visit the irzhajotunn marketplace for an hour after sundown. Finding that one could bring a guest (or, more like, servant), Orvynth and Ray went window shopping. They noted that the irzhajotunn coming from their evening assembly were all carrying large, foreign silver coins. Native Nordlond coins were in evidence as well, but the bulk of the trade was done in these larger silver coins. They deduced that these must be the irzhajotunn’s native currency.

Later, the party asked Eldgrimur if there were anything more they could do for his people. He mentioned that better equipment wouldn’t be taken badly. Maendrath’s army didn’t issue good weapons to bandit rabble, so they would need to make do with what they could scrounge up, which wasn’t much. Remembering that their loot-laden ponies were carrying several suits of decent armor and some serviceable weapons, our heroes promised to return with better gear, just as soon as they had a chance to retrieve it.

The next couple of days fell into a routine.

As a warrior of note, Orvynth was given duties around camp, but being the newest such warrior, those duties tended towards the menial and unpleasant. Having been around this kind of thing in the past, they kept their head down and bided their time.

As for the others, they were marched to the parade ground in the early morning and put through hours of exhausting and humiliating training, being yelled at by irzhajotunn sergeants, climbing things, crawling through mud, marching in formation, and so forth. As one might expect from a band of individualistic murder-hobos, they began to chafe at this treatment.

After a couple of days, Orvynth was moving up in the world. They made a “friend”, Demaratus, one of the irzhajotunn sergeants. The two were assigned together, that morning, to the pre-dawn patrol of the perimeter. As they marched along the castle side of the camp, they observed an event next to the castle gates.

Just before sunrise, a whole group of the folks with the long robes and wide hats came out of the castle gate and gathered in a formation just inside the moat. In eerie unison, they saluted the sun with a complex dance. The dance involved many intricate steps, including drawing and re-sheathing their swords more than once. As they went through this performance, Orvynth was finally able to see the faces of the creatures themselves. They were some kind of bird-people, with black feathers and fierce eyes. When the dance concluded, they all dropped to the ground as one, where they sat with their hands on their knees, heads bowed as if in prayer or deep thought.

“What was that all about?” the dragon-blooded remarked.

“Got me,” Demaratus replied with a shrug. “But they do it every morning.”

Later that morning, Orvynth and Demaratus were on duty when the rest of the party were marched to the parade ground with Eldgrimur’s people. Fed up with this treatment, when the call came for volunteers to take the challenge and seek promotion, Dara spoke up. Quickly, Ray and The Kid stepped up to back her up. Orvynth tried to join them, but was told that once you’ve got your rope, you’re not allowed into the challenge any more. The dragon-blooded knight was forced to shout advice from the sidelines.

Again, Ray was able to get in a couple of buffing spells before the bout. As soon as the starting whistle sounded, though, the stothtrolls bounded across the field and were in among them. The three fought a defensive battle, keeping their guard up and retreating before the troll’s onslaught. The Kid laid the dirge on the trolls, weakening them. Dara summoned a cloud of magical pollen that sent one of the trolls into an attack of enhanced hay fever. Ray blasted one in the face with a sunbolt, wounded it, but not putting it down. Trying to get more room to maneuver, Dara moved away from the main melee, closely pursued by an angry, weeping, sneezing troll. It caught her with a claw, inflicting a major wound and putting her on the ground, struggling to remain conscious. The troll grinned in triumph, lifting its other clawed hand for the coup de grace…

On the sidelines, Damaratus leaned over to whispered to Orvynth: “Time’s up, you think?”

Quickly, the dragon-blooded gave a nod, and the irzhajotunn whistled the end of the match. Disappointed, the troll stayed its hand. Dazed, Dara watched blinking from the ground as the troll stepped over her and its shadow passed between her and the sun.

“Back for more training tomorrow, then?”

EXPERIENCE

The standard award for each member of the group was 5 points. They won a fight, learned a lot of useful information, infiltrated the camp, and managed to bring in a new PC without anyone getting slugged and robbed

Cool Point: Orvynth, for earning a promotion!

Boobie Point: Dara, for going to negative HP in her first session, in a fight that she instigated – and also to help her catch up with the group