Shadow Over Alfheim Pt 16b: The Zombraire’s Estate

Once the party had been pointed in the direction of their adventure hook, they went to the farmlands west of the fort, the last place anyone had seen a zombie cow.  These monsters seemed to be originating from the direction of Sigyfel’s Tomb, but the Cleric, the only member who had been on that first adventure, knew that the tomb was small and not the source of the troubles.  Outside the tomb, the fighter discovered some “not quite leather” that had torn off one of the zombie cows on a trail nearby.  The party followed the gory trail of blood, fur and hoof prints through the scrublands and beyond into the wooded swamps.

The party heard a distant groaning “moo” in the distance.  The goblin thief climbed a tree and was able to spot an undead bovine staggering awkwardly and bumping into trees.  The party set upon it and quickly dispatched it, though they were a bit surprised by how much punishment it could take.  They continued on in the direction it had come from until the trees gave way to a clearing with an obvious and large graveyard between them and the wall of surrounding the estate.

Rather than poking around in the graveyard, or even going around the wall to the south gate, the party -starting with the goblin thief- decided to scale the wall.  This was an interesting choice, because it allowed me to show the party the entire layout of the estate (NW: barn, SW: undead chicken coop, NE: manor house, SE: undead garden) and gave the party a lot of options to try to launch a surprise attack.  What they ended up doing resulted in a ridiculous cascading encounter which everyone agreed was pretty epic.

The party saw the 7 zombie elves (4 women, 1 man, 2 children) working in the garden just south of the manor house; instead of jumping into the fray, they leapt from the wall onto the roof of the manor house.  Given that the roof was in somewhat bad shape, I kept making rolls to see if anyone fell through, but no one did.  The party unsuccessfully tried to ambush the family of zombies, never quite sure whether they should stay on the roof or climb down and fight.  The zombies seemed remarkably tough because I didn’t bother to tell the players that arrows did minimum damage and blunt did half.  The cleric tried and successfully turned 3 of them, but the other 4 ran into the manor.

(By this point, everyone realized that they’d forgotten to do anything with the lead-entombed crown; it was determined that the mage was still carrying it in his knapsack.)

I gave the party a few moment to figure out what they wanted to do before a wraith rose up from the roof to attack the players who weren’t on the ground.  The party managed to kill the wraith, largely thanks to the new fighter, but not before the mage and thief got energy drained.  I haven’t quite settled on how I’m going to handle it, but I’m thinking of an XP deficit, rather than an out and out loss of level.  I think my players are more scared not knowing.  “The wraith strikes you.  You feel sad.”  “What happens?” “All of the joy in life has left you.  You feel as though all you’ve been doing is meaningless.  The treasures seek are worthless and those which you’ve found, you know you’ll never get to sell, and even if you do, what will it even matter?”

Meanwhile, the remaining zombie elf women are hacking the cleric up.  The mage holds up his bleeding body with a floating disc while the fighter cuts through the zombies, but he doesn’t realize he’s offering the cleric up on a plate.  Of course, all the commotion has alerted the Zombraire; half a dozen of his pet stirges crash through the thatched roofing as they soar into the sky.  That’s when the mage makes one of the best uses of Sleep I’ve ever seen: “How high up are the Stirges?” “About 150 feet in the air or so.” “What’s the range on Sleep?” “Let me check…  240 feet.”  “I cast sleep on the Stirges!”  Everyone dives out of the way as stirges go splat around them, careening into the undead plants.  A purple bolt is fired from a window in the tower, striking the goblin thief as the party finishes slaughtering the zombies (who had been dealing wicked damage in rolled plain sight).

“Well, you’re surrounded by death: dead elves, dead stirges, undead plants, a million flies and the stench is unbearable.  What do you do?”

Go into the manor, of course!

The party makes it into the great hall just as the Zombraire has made his way down from the tower.  He was going to blast the party with an illusionary fireball cast from his wand of illusions, but everyone made their saves.  “He waves the wand at you…  And seems incredibly surprised that nothing seems to have happened.”  Having taken a hit, the Zombraire tried to make a run for it.  The fighter caught him before he could get very far or cast more spells, cutting him down on the stairs of his tower.  If he could’ve gotten his mirror image off, things might have been very different.

The party was now free to search the manor, found some swag, and burned some rot-grubs off the goblin thief.  Though Richmond is under some suspicion and the party clearly isn’t going to give him the crown right away if at all, I was happy that the party discussed which items he might be interested in.  We finally called it a night because I warned that any further exploration of the Estate would probably lead to an encounter almost as big as the last one.

So, thoughts on the Zombraire’s Estate module!

This is one of the mini modules from BFRPG’s free Adventure Anthology 1.  Though it’s been teased at for some time, I didn’t ever know when I was going to get to finally run it.  I hadn’t looked at this module in two months and still managed to run it by the seat of my pants and everyone had a great time.  That alone is a sign of a quality supplement for a DM.  I screwed up the placement of two rooms (transposing the bedroom with the kitchen) in the manor and as such lost a minor set-piece encounter that would’ve ended with the cleric turning the skeleton maids to dust the first round, but I’m okay with that.  The wand of illusions is going to introduce some fun chaos to my game, but will be balanced by the fact that damn near everything has been undead.

So long as I can answer “why would the elves have an undead farm?” sufficiently with “because they’re terrible and evil”, ZE fits nicely into the Alfheim setting.

After Maze of Nuromen, this has probably been one of my favorite modules to run, even if I only get two sessions out of it.  Depending on how you let things play out, there could be anywhere from as many as a dozen encounters to two or three monstrous battles.  I don’t know how things will turn out with the barn, the zombie chickens, and the rats in the graveyard, but I think my players would concur that a fight against several zombies, stirges, a wraith and an elven zombie wizard was sufficiently awesome.

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Siege of Alfort (Morgansfort): Tower Defense Style – Prep Work Part 4, Factions for Flavor

This is going to be a briefer post than the others, largely because it does not involve number crunching. In fact, the purpose of this portion of the prep work is to reduce the amount of number crunching.

The battle and conflict as it’s statted out and scripted in the previous posts does not reflect the battle as a whole. While the 200+ Hit Dice of evil elven undead represents a formidable force more than capable of overwhelming the PCs and the fortress’s defenses, it doesn’t connote that “army” feel. It’s not big enough. Now, admittedly, this is going to be window-dressing, but it will certainly help the battle feel bigger.

Other factions –
Imperial expeditionary force – I’m not sure what all will have happened between the time I am writing this and when the encounter will happen, but one possibility is that Portsdam is destroyed by an earthquake. Whether that happens or things have just been so bad in the colony that word has gotten back to the empire, let’s say that an expeditionary force has landed north of Alfort and is on its way. Maybe 2000 strong, this force, while small will certainly distract a chunk of the Elf King’s undead army, preventing it from bearing its full brunt against the fort. If the PCs haven’t cleared out the Zombraire’s estate module, this force will probably be ambushed from west and arrive significantly weakened and unprepared to stand against Caelden’s army.

Eastern Goblin Coalition – The Southeast and Northeast goblin tribes have formed a military alliance. They understand that a limited human presence in Alfheim is preferable to the land being awash with undead elves. Sometime between now and when the battle is run, the PCs will be presented with a chance to dislodge the Northwest goblin tribe from the Old Island Fortress (if the PCs don’t go along with it, the goblins will later take this on their own). The Old Island Fortress will be used as a staging ground for the eastern goblin tribes to lend their support against Caelden’s army.

Northwest Goblin tribe – I’ve retconned my setting a bit to eliminate Orcs as an indigenous people of Alfheim; while Orcs are there, they’re mostly imperial mercenaries (note to self, the imperial expeditionary force should be comprised largely of Orcs). That said, I’m rewriting Starisel’s dungeon to be inhabited by goblins (with Orc stats) instead of the orc tribe. These will be part of the same tribe who were trying to take over Malek (the Nameless Dungeon) until they were slaughtered by undead. If the PCs can reconcile with these goblins (successfully run Cave of the Unknown), there is a good chance that they might be willing to commit to fight against Caelden.

So we’ve got a Battle of Five Armies, here, a perfect climactic fight for the campaign.

To incentivise the players to gather these allies, I might even take away the last two waves via some sort of plot-flash.

Siege of Alfort (Morgansfort): Tower Defense Style – Prep Work Part 3, Enemy Combatants

So, this part is going to take some tweaking, and maybe even some test runs, so these numbers are far from final.

Let’s have a run-down of the various undead we have to work with:

Skeletons 1 HD 20′
Zombies 2HD 40′
Ghoul 2HD* 30′ (paralysis)
Wight 3HD* 30′ (Level Drain)
Wraith 4HD** 40’/ (Level Drain)
Mummy 5+1HD* 20′ (disease)
Spectre 6HD** 50’/100′ (Level Drain x 2)
Vampire 9HD** 40’/60′

The bulk of the monsters are going to be skeletons & zombies, low hit dice monsters who should probably be ignored, if possible, in favor of the bigger baddies coming through. So, let’s come up with some ground-rules for how each of these monsters operates:

Skeletons – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense and ‘go away’.

Zombies – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense and ‘go away’.

Ghouls – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense and ‘go away’ so long as there are at least 3 HD of defense present; otherwise, remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present and continue along path.

Wights – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present. When no defenders are present, continues along path.

Wraiths – move by flight through walls & buildings towards currently targeted zone. Remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present. When no defenders are present, continues along path. Once, Nuromen may use “Sleep” to allow the elimination of 2d4 HD of defenders.

Mummies – move along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present. When no defenders are present, continues along path.

Spectres – Considering their special ability of creating new spectres, I’m highly considering omitting these guys. We’ll see. moves by flight to towers, eliminating tower & rampart defenders. Remove 1 HD of defense per round until no defense is present. After reaching zone 6, will enter the chapel.

Vampire – moves along the scripted path. Remove 1 HD of defense per round, though continues along path without stopping.

Here’s a sample elven army.

60 skeletons
30 zombies
15 ghouls (accursed elves)
5 wights (undead elf knights)
4 Wraiths + Nuromen (undead elf mages)
4 Mummies (undead elf clerics)
2 Spectres (undead elven princes)
1 Vampire (Caelden, lord of elves)

Wave 1
10 skeletons
10 zombies

This wave might even be completely turned.

Wave 2
10 skeletons
5 zombies
5 ghouls

Some of this wave might be turned; I expect this to be the first wave to do some damage in zone 1.

Wave 3
10 zombies
5 ghouls
1 wight

This is something of a wakeup call with the wight. If the heroes are fighting from the walls, it should be apparent that someone is going to have to go down and deal with it.

wave 4
5 zombies
5 ghouls
2 wights

Things being in earnest now. Clerics within the castle will likely have run out of turning, and the wight’s level drain could be a serious problem.

wave 5
10 skeletons
2 wights
Nuromen

Boss wave. While the skeletons just march onto reduce various zone HD, Nuromen will be casting spells and with the two wights who accompany him, he’ll be pretty tough, even with his limited HP.

Wave 6
10 skeletons
2 wraiths

Consider this a sequel to wave 5, but at least these wraiths aren’t casters.

Wave 6
5 skeletons
1 wraith
1 mummy

The mummy is going to slowly tank his way through the defenses.

Wave 7
1 wraith
2 mummies

Ditto.

Wave 8
10 skeletons
1 Mummy

Consider this wave a reprieve?

wave 9
5 skeletons
2 Spectres

If things aren’t already really bad, this may be the end of things. The heroes might seriously consider running at this point.

Wave 10
Vampire

The vampire more or less makes a Beeline to the bank, the apartments, the chapel, then the keep. He’s got important things he wants in those places.
Goals:
Ultimately, the castle is meant to fall. The main goal the heroes should have is staying alive or maybe stopping Nuromen (wave 5). Anything after that point ought to be gravy, though they should probably try to either escape through the Chapel Tunnels, the Keep Tunnels or any other possible means.

On the off chance that 8 waves are defeated before the chapel falls, I would consider this a decisive “win” for fort, if it weren’t for those pesky spectres. While Caelden might ‘retreat’, there would be a ton of dead that would need quick sanctification or things could easily be worse than before, in which case, the fort falls anyway. If the heroes manage to somehow defeat all 10 waves, Caelden likely retreats to lick his wounds. In this final case, he’ll probably be treated like any other vampire and sent to his lair (I might stick him in the Gibbering Tower) to be hunted down.
Up next, I’ll detail the tactical scenario leading up to the siege.

Siege of Alfort (Morgansfort): Tower Defense Style – Prep Work Part 1, Statting Defenses

(Download Morgansfort to follow along.)

First of all, I need to figure out roughly what Alfort’s (Morgansfort’s) defenses are and translate that into numbers that can be used in a Tower Defense style scenario.

So, what I’ve done is figured out the total Hit Dice of the fort’s defenses. All told, there are 129 Hit Dice worth of garrison, 134 if we include the Baron/Castellan/Lord. This doesn’t mean there are 134 defenders (it’s actually closer to just over 100) who are in the garrison nor does it mean that there aren’t various level 1 and level 0 persons in the town who might be caught up in the fighting; this is just the number we’re going to use to determine the Keep’s “HP”, for lack of a better term.

One interesting difference between Morgansfort and the Keep on the Borderlands is that most of the guard are not specified to be carrying ranged weapons, though the notes indicate the presence of such weapons in 1, 2, 16, 17, and 22 (all various towers). Though there are none mentioned present in 19, the central tower, one should assume that anyone heading there will have passed someplace that they can grab a bow or something.

Rather than have a fixed HP for the Alfort/Morgansfort, various key points in the fort will have strength represented by the number of HD of garrison present; the fort will fall to the attacker in successive waves as the defenders lose ground. Each HD of monster (regardless of the damage they will have taken) will remove 1 point from a location’s defense.

Now, how to figure out where the defenders are? Well, the notes for Morgansfort explain that the main garrison force is comprised of 8 squads of 11 of the 88 footmen (these do not include the “Knights”, and all told account for 93 of the defense’s 134 hit dice). Now, the Knights will be around doing their own thing with other defenders OR it will be assumed that they’re among the defenders adding to the numbers of whatever location they are represented by; since none of these individuals have been characters in my campaign, it will be unnecessary to adjudicate their deaths, but if you’ve been running Morgansfort by the book, you might consider being more particular about who is where.

Since Morgansfort can really only be attacked from the south and the west, We can assume that 22 (North central tower), 17 (Northeast tower) and 16 (East central tower) will be relatively undefended unless the situation changes. Men in towers will get ranged attacks at attackers but not count towards the “HP” of a zone unless they get down.

So, let’s talk defense zones:

1-main gate
1a- behind main gate
2a- below tower 2
3a- in front of the stables
6-the Square is big enough I think it worth breaking down
6a- in front of the bank
6b- in front of the chapel
6c- in front of the inns
6d- in front of the warehouse
15a- the plaza south of the chapel
19a- the avenue between the central wall and south wall
20- the Green
25- the keep

That’s a lot of areas, but there are a lot of HD to be spread across it. Truth be told about 6, however, the spot in front of the bank, trader and herbalist’s is pretty do or die, so anyone defending the square would make this spot a priority; I’ll assume that if this area falls, there’s nothing but archers in the 16(East Tower) to keep baddies out of those buildings. 6 can be condensed, therefore, to some key strongpoints set up by the bank and in front of the street the Chapel is on.

So that leaves us with (no longer using the module key)
1 Main Gate
2 Behind the main Gate
3 Below tower 2
4 In front of the stables
5 In Front of the bank
6 In front of the Chapel
7 Beyond the Chapel
8 Between the Walls
9 The Green
10 The Keep

That’s still going to be a lot to defend. Let’s see if we can plug some numbers in.

“Zones”
1 Main Gate – 8
2 Behind Main Gate – 10
3 Below Tower 2 – 8
4 In Front of the Stables – 15
5 In Front of the Bank – 20
6 In front of the Chapel – 8
7 Beyond the Chapel – 10
8 Between the walls – 8
9 The Green – 10
10 The Keep – * We’ll come back to this.

That’s 97 HD worth of defenders. Part of this number assumes that defenders from the northern towers have descended the walls to join the fighting.

“Towers” (These WILL use the module key)
1 Main Gate – 4
Between 18 and 1 – 2
Between 1 and 2 – 2
2 – 4
16 – 4
18 – 4
Wall between 22 & 19 – 4
19 – 4

So, there’s 28 HD worth of firepower coming from the various towers. We’ll say that the remaining 9 HD consists of the Castellan and 4 personal guards remaining with everyone in the Keep, perhaps ushering them out of tunnels somewhere to safety.

Up next, I’ll write up a short script of how the scenario will play out, after which point I’ll try to figure out how many undead and in how many waves should they come.

Shadow Over Alfheim

So, the 3.5e Gestalt campaign seems to be sputtering out, giving me the opportunity to swoop in and run some B/X dungeon crawls. In honor and maybe memorium of the stalled Shadow Over Beryl campaign, I’m calling this Shadow Over Alfheim.

I’ve pretty much just dropped a handful of OSR dungeons in a custom setting loosely based on Morgansfort, which allows me use of some of those dungeons as well as all the others. I’m trying to prepare for anything I can, since I’d like to be able to sandbox it and keep it an ‘open’ campaign, so I’ve written up rumor cards, have a location flowchart, and a nice little intro blurb:

“Alfheim lays in ruins. The humans who live there now call it the Wilds. A few coastal towns and strongholds flourish, but the shadow of bygone ages lies over the land. Those who do not live behind walls still feel the menacing presence of lingering magics and the stench of death that wafts from the old places. The Elves of Alfheim were a foul and decadent lot by the end of their history. Too much dabbling in the black arts, orgiastic debaucheries, and worship of foul unearthly powers brought a swift and unpleasant end to their dark revelries. While semi-nomadic greenskins are known to inhabit the Wilds, occassionally claiming castles, caerns and crypts as their own, the men and women who eek out their existence from the land have found that it is easier to live with their demi-human neighbors than the ghosts of the past.

Doing various odd-jobs around Portsdam may have finally paid off. Kadesh Richmond, a person of some import has caught wind of your names and contacted you via his solicitor. While his affairs keep him largely occupied in the port city at the northern edge of the Wilds, he has business interests he wishes to develop in Alfort and is seeking agents who would be willing to participate in a profitable venture. The solicitor informs you that Kadesh will cover your expenses for food and equipment as well as grant you each a retainer stipend of 100 gold per month. All you need to do is accompany a few wagons with some cargo and capital from Portsdam south to Alfort. It’s just one week, and once you reach Alfort, you’ll be given apartments, paid for by your benefactor. Once things start to solidify in Alfort, there may be more work for you.”

Here are the rumor cards:

-Some Goblins would like to set up a toll along the road between Portsdam and Alfort as it passes through their territory.
-No One has heard anything from the Village of Gernauch for a month.
-There’s enough Elf magic lying around Alfheim to destroy the world twice-over.
-It’s not the Elves you need to worry about, it’s the Gremlins.
-Alfheim is crawling with undead; they have to come from somewhere.
-The Elves of Alfheim were a completely different race of beings altogether than the “Elves”(PC elves) from across the seas.
-There are no such thing as Elves.
-There are no such thing as Vampires.
-Dozens die every year trying to explore the old fort. While the city has not outlawed attempts to explore it, they strongly recommend against it.
-If Elves could be vampires, we might all be doomed.
-Merchants would like to see Alfort build a harbor to reduce the need for using roads through Goblin territory or pass too close to Elven ruins.
-Worshipping Dark Gods may have turned Sigyfel into a Lich. True or not, Farmers around Alfort shudder when they hear his name.
-There’s a beautiful sorceress named Merilla who has a tower in the Wilds, but no one has seen her in awhile.
-There was an Elven King named Calden who once may have controlled all of Alfheim, before even Laws End Fell into decadence. His wickedness may have started Alfheim on its self-destructive decline. His tomb is somewhere deep in the wilds, but no one is sure where.
-The old Elven Town of Laws End was destroyed and cursed in some sort of Cataclysm. Its lord, an elf-mage named Nuromen, was said to be exceptionally depraved.
-Stull is an unhappy place made worse by kids who obsess over the ancient Elves.
-Milk from Zombie cows can’t be good for you.
-All of the old Elves of Alfheim are dead. Too bad they don’t stay that way.
-Too many mages in the Wilds are obsessed with old Elven magic.
-Some Punk Kid has figured out how to become a Lich.
-Some tribes of Orcs have been known to be led by women.
-Things are so bad in the Wild that there are entire plantations of undead.
-Somewhere there’s an abandoned keep where lights are seen and a strange gibbering noise fills the valley at night.
-There’s a haunted tomb just Northwest of Alfort.

I’m also using Zenopus Archives’ Adventurer/class packs (or at least a variation on them) to help quickstart everyone’s characters.

A Post about the Future

Every so often one still comes across some post bemoaning the death of the OSR. They’ve slowed to a trickle by the end of this year, but every once in awhile some guy gets all weepy about the Grognardia archives or something.  Consider the Dyvers list, which shows that there are still hundreds of blogs out there. Sure, several of them may be “going dark”, but for every gaming blog that has died, there are dozens of others still going strong.

I think that people confusingly correlated the publication of clones to the community as a whole when they proclaimed the OSR is dead.

There IS a decline in the publication of new clones & “OSR Heartbreakers”. A big part of this is that there are already LOTS of good OSR Clones and OSR Retro systems out there already to choose from. I would not go so far as to say that the market is saturated, but between Basic Fantasy RPG, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Swords & Wizardry, Lamentations of the Flame Princes, Blueholme, ACKS, BBRPG, DCC and several other acronyms I’m forgetting, chances are most gamers are going to find what they like without having to go out of their way to write a new system. Add to that that Wizards finally reprinted darn near every edition that the OSR draws from, and you’ve got choices gallore! And I’m pretty sure that Pathfinder and the plethora of d20 stuff has the 3e crowd sufficiently covered until the end of days.

There has been some backlash caused by a number of kickstarter debacles, including games that funded but were never delivered and established gaming companies using it essentially as a pre-order system (which was NOT its original intent), but that doesn’t mean that there are suddenly less people out there gaming. Just less people taking a chance on developing new systems for which there is shrinking demand, simply because people don’t have time to run all the games they have, much less try out new ones.

So, where does the community go from here? Obviously, modules for existing systems will be where the bulk of creative energy will be directed. Most of these will not be so ambitious as to need kickstarter, but you’ll find some good ones out there hosted on blogs or at DriveThruRPG. Interestingly enough, 4e will be the final frontier for the OSR, as long as we’re talking about retro-clones. As Wizards drops support for the red-headed step-child of D&D, I predict that in 2014 we’re likely going to see some reimaginings of the 4e system.

Plus, all of the above assumes that gaming is limited to the D&D sphere, which it most certainly is not.