Monday, February 2, 2015

Idalium Game 10: The Musings of Professor Zinn

Session date: Monday, January 26, 2015
Game date: Saturday, January 26, 208

Tod P. Quasit, Jr., Fighter 2, hp 14, xp 2350/4000
Tyrriel, Elf 1, hp 3, xp 2181/4000
Gulleck Stonefoot, Dwarf 1, hp 3, xp 1084/2200
Caryatid, Magic-user 1, hp 4, xp 2135/2500
Vito Aneti, Thief 2, hp 10, xp 1457/2400

Brother Jibber, Cleric 1, hp 5, xp 827/1500
Wilhelm, Magic-user 1, hp 4, xp 1060/2500
Twiffle, Elf 1, hp 1, xp 1060/4000
Ylil, Thief 1, hp 3, xp 668/1200
Sprat, Thief 1, hp 3, xp 238/1200

After missing a week due to multiple players with winter colds, we got the full crew together for another delve into the buried city of Idalium. But before descending into the dark again, the party was keen to find out what they could about the white crystalline powder they had obtained from the orcs last session. Ylil (aka Paul) had spent a few weeks running a gambling ring for the thieves' guild a while ago, so Caryatid sent him over to the pawn shop that served as a front for the thieves' guild's offices. After exchanging some pleasantries with the shopkeeper, Blaggo, Ylil asked if he knew anything about the powder. "Naw, usually when we buy something like that, the dealer tells us what it is. Maybe you should find one of those bookworm types, you know, a sage..."

Regrouping at the Rusty Lantern tavern, the group asked Ralph, the tavern owner, if he could refer any sages. Ralph pointed them to the advertisement that had been posted for a few weeks, from a Professor R. Zinn, who was offering payment in return for historical documents and records from Ancient Idalium. Ralph told them the professor was eccentric, but known to be a scholar of all sorts of esoteric knowledge. There was an address on the advertisement: #5 on the Street of Steps.

On the west bank of the river that runs through Idalium, a steep hill rises, and clinging to the hillside are the houses and shops that make up "The Steps". Over two hundred years ago, this neighborhood was a center for the immigrants who followed the monotheistic worship of the All Pervading Light. After the city of Idalium catastrophically fell, this neighborhood was spared the worst of the damage, being across the river from the city proper and at somewhat higher elevation. The Steps thus became the base from which the new city of Idalium was reestablished, and is now one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. But being so old and disconnected from the city proper by the river and the awkward topography, it now lays mostly forgotten and ignored, a neighborhood of low rents now home to artists, students, eccentrics, and others who prefer to live on the fringes of society.

The party walked through the streets of Idalium, through the working-class neighborhoods near the Rusty Lantern and into the even grittier district along the water's edge. Warehouses and factories crowded the shore, frequently shadowing out the sunlight. Many foul varieties of stench filled the air from the smelteries, tanneries, and other industrial sites that made use of the river. They came to the river bank and crossed the ponderous stone bridge that spanned the wide river. Ahead of them they could see the buildings of the Steps rising up on the hill. At the top of the hill, an ivy-covered stone wall encircled the neighborhood, older and more crumbling than the city walls that protected the city on the eastern side of the river.

They passed more dark stone warehouses and factories, and then narrow cobbled streets led them to a small market square. They paused a moment to get their bearings, and then began their climb up the Street of Steps itself. This was the steepest and one of the oldest streets in the city, and clearly showed the wear and tear of the centuries. The paving was irregular - sometimes slabs of stone, sometimes cobblestones, sometimes patches of bare earth where grayish plants attempted to gain a foothold. In places there were flights of poorly-maintained steps, and in other places there were simply old ropes strung through iron loops embedded into the buildings along one side.

The houses, tall and peak-roofed, were uniformly old and rickety, leaning alarmingly backwards, forwards, and sideways. At times, an opposite pair of houses leaned towards each other, almost meeting like an arch over the street, and there were even places where the residents had cobbled together makeshift bridges between the upper stories of these houses.

Finally, the party pulled themselves to the top of the hill, almost to the crumbling stone wall. They turned to look back down upon the entire city of Idalium, and from their height they could see beyond the walls on the opposite side of the city, and to the south, the shipyards and harbors lining the bay where the river opened out into the Great Sea itself.

Their destination, #5, was the third house from the top of the street, but taller than its neighbors, and indeed, set at the summit of the hill its five stories made it the highest point in the entire city. It was even more rickety than many of the houses they had passed, and it seemed as if each story tilted unsettlingly in a different direction.

There was a labelled panel of bell ropes next to the door, and the group found and pulled the rope labeled "5-B: Prof. R. Zinn". After a few minutes the sounds of bolts being drawn came from the door, and the door was pulled open by a youth of perhaps 14 or 15 years, who asked how he could help the adventurers. They asked if Professor Zinn was available, that they had a question for him, and the boy said that the professor's usual consultation fee started at 500 silver shekels. After they assented to this fee, the boy led them into the house, and up many flights of narrow, creaking stairs until they reached the top floor of the house. He led them through a cluttered living area and into a room full of shelves containing a very eclectic assortment of books, scrolls, maps, and artifacts: odd statuettes and carvings, strange skulls, etc. At a large desk in front of a window overlooking the city sat an old man, bald on top with wild tufts of white hair above his ears.

"Professor," said the youth, "these people are here to see you." "Ah, thank you, Peter. How may I be of service to you all?" After paying the professor his consulting fee, the group showed him the pouch of white powder and told him they had taken it from some orcs in the old city. The professor sniffed carefully at the powder and then licked his finger, dabbed it in the powder, and touched it to his tongue. He spat it out almost immediately. "Oh, it's bitter, isn't it?" Several of the adventurers exchanged looks. The professor consulted some of the books on nearby shelves, and told them that the powder was known as "rage dust". He told them that although no one truly knew what the orcs were or where they came from, his theory was that they were once human beings like themselves, that had lost themselves in the underworld, becoming creatures of pure passion and violent lust. The rage dust was the means by which the orc leaders kept their underlings enthralled. If one were to take a pinch of the dust, like a snuff, it would infuse them with a fierce bloodlust, temporarily boosting their combat prowess, but he warned them against using such aids.

The group left a sample of the rage dust with the professor for further research, and Tod retained the bulk of it in its pouch (for, uh, further research?). The professor reiterated his offer to purchase any legal records and documents from the old city. The professor's apprentice, Peter, led them down the steep narrow staircases, and the party retraced their steps back down the hill, across the bridge over the river, and back onto familiar ground. Their experiences in the Steps felt slightly surreal and dreamlike now that they were back on flat streets amid buildings that were square and level.

Those who are well-read in D&D's literary foundations may recognize the source for a lot of the imagery of the Street of Steps. (The title of this blog entry is a big hint.) I was greatly inspired and "borrowed" liberally from H.P. Lovecraft's The Music of Erich Zann. His evocative description of the Rue d'Auseil has haunted me since I first read the story, and I borrowed many of his words directly for my narration of the ascent up the Street of Steps. It was very effective for me as a DM - the images were clear and vivid in my mind - and I hope that my narration to the players managed to convey those images.

So, after this extended roleplaying vignette, we had about half of the session left, so back into the dungeon they went. "No faffing around this time!" declared Vito's player. They headed back towards the avenue of temples, but taking an alternate route in hopes of avoiding the tight squeeze through the rat tunnels. They followed a back alley south, and opened a door that led into a sort of robing room, with rotting tattered robes hanging from pegs on the walls. Tyrriel took a few minutes to look over the walls and discovered a hidden door - not a secret door, exactly, but a portion of wall that pulled open, with no trim or jamb to mark it as a door.

Beyond the door, she found a cramped space within some sort of metal structure. On the opposite wall, a pair of eyeholes looked out into a dark room full of pews. An odd metal funnel protruded below the peepholes. Tyrriel found another door on the side of the structure, which opened outwards into the room. She found that she had emerged from a bronze statue of a hideous demon, horned and with grotesque features. A pair of elaborately carved wooden doors exited to the east. Through those doors, the group saw a larger room full of pews, but also several skeletons lying on the floor. Luckily, Caryatid had the foresight to look up at the ceiling, where she saw two enormous spiders lurking silently. Each one was at least five feet in legspan. Vito nocked a bolt in his crossbow, but the party quickly decided it wasn't even worth the risk, and Tyrriel spoke the words of the all-important Sleep spell. The repulsive, bloated abdomens of the grotesque spiders sagged, and then they tumbled to the floor of the chapel. Gulleck darted out with his handaxe, and quickly severed the heads from the spiders' bodies. The group watched in distaste as the enormous legs twitched and slowly curled inwards.

Leaving this chapel, the party found themselves in the wide avenue of temples, and they could see the door to the temple of music up the avenue to their north. Beyond a very plain door along the avenue to the south, they found a temple decorated to look like a natural cavern on the inside. Frescoes showed blindfolded initiates kneeling and being baptised by the elders of the cult. Moving forward towards the front of the temple, their lamplight fell upon a large stone basin about the size of a bathtube, and lying in front of the basin were two giant gecko lizards, each about five feet long. They were sleeping for the moment. The group tried to creep up and investigate the basin without waking the lizards, but as they moved forward, the lizards blinked awake. Someone tossed a portion of iron rations at the lizards, and they ferociously tore into it, devouring the jerky and biscuits.

I'm not quite sure why they didn't just leave the creatures alone, but I think in the end Tod managed to persuade the party that he really wanted a pair of boots made from giant lizard leather. One of the lizards was killed by Vito's crossbow, and the other was put to sleep by Wilhelm's magic. With the lizards dispatched, the group investigated the basin. It was full of a dark, coppery smelling liquid. Frescoes above the basin showed a sequence of events. On the left panel, a naked man with leprous scabs covering his arms and chest lowered himself into the basin. In the middle panel, the man bathed in the liquid, underneath the image of the moon within a constellation of starts. In the right panel, the man emerged, his skin now unblemished and hale-looking.

"Watch out," said one of the players. "What if back then they used to read from right to left and this basin actually gives you leprosy?" I'm cultivating such paranoid players... I love it.

At the rear of the chapel, the group listened at a small door and heard indistinct voices that seemed to be speaking Common. Tod burst through the door, to find five scruffy looking men in leather armor. The men quickly drew their swords and one yelled nervously, "Back off! We're exploring here! Get outta here!" Completely high-strung and on edge. Gulleck deadpanned, "Want some wine?"

Snake-eyes on the reaction check. "That drunk dwarf is trying to bribe us! It's a trap! Kill 'em all!" The bandits charged, and Tod and Jibber met them in the doorway. Their swords clashed against plate mail and shield. Tyrriel drew forth a scroll of Sleep she had recently written, and soon the five bandits were lying on the floor. They turned out to be penniless except for a small leather pouch containing a small amount of off-white powder. (I hadn't planned that, but it seemed like a good explanation for why these guys were so instantly hostile.) The group left the bandits tied up.

The bandits had come from a door on the other side of this room, and beyond the door the party found a ladder leading through a hatch in the ceiling, and then up a wooden shaft with a ladder of metal staples. At the top, Ylil found a manhole cover, and when he opened it he emerged blinking in the light of the surface world, in a dingy back alley. I think everyone was quite pleased to have found another exit from the dungeon!

We were short on time, so the group quickly returned to the Rusty Lantern (by the usual route, choosing to leave the manhole exit for later), toting the two dead giant lizards along with them. I guess next week's session will be all about finding a cordwainer willing to work in exotic leathers.

Not a very lucrative session at all, but the dungeoneering portion was fairly short. The first half of the session was full of very atmospheric roleplaying that allowed me to introduce a whole new neighborhood of the city and an interesting NPC, both of which I'm sure will become recurring features in the campaign.

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