The dragon gets what the dragon wants

On the weekend, the group I was playing with screwed up our GM’s adventure from the very first scene, and from that point on he spent the entire session inventing new characters, story lines and encounters as we stumbled from misunderstanding to misunderstanding, culminating in the three-way stand off depicted above. We asked our GM afterwards, and as far as we know the adventure was supposed to involve us killing a black dragon, then a necromancer reanimating that dragon, us killing the undead dragon, then us tracking down and killing the necromancer. Fairly standard stuff, and the adventure opened with the dragon attacking our tavern, so we could have set off down that path straight away.

Unfortunately, we assumed – I think, fairly – that the dragon was too tough for us and that the only option was to negotiate with it. So we went and chatted, and the GM let us. What followed was a train wreck, that was rescued at every turn by our GM laying on an increasingly complex and entertaining adventure. Instead of three straight fights and treasure, we instead agreed to find a lich for the dragon; agreed to find the lich for a wizard called Magister Tiana who we thought was an enemy of the dragon; went to meet a dubious infernal contact of mine, who thought letting the lich go would be a good idea; investigated a crematorium; watched an auction where all the bidders were goth halflings; fought and killed the lich; made a lich compass; lost the lich to Magister Tiana; investigated the lich’s hotel room, where we thought we found evidence of a third force looking for the lich (probably the thieves’ guild); met the wizard that the lich was chasing, a chap called Malachy who was on the lam from the Wizard’s Guild; arranged a meeting between Malachy, Tiana and the Dragon thinking that there would be a three-way stand-off; fought the lich again; fought Malachy as he did a runner; and got a ride on a dragon to meet the heads of the Wizard’s Guild.

As far as I know none of these events were meant to happen. A few aspects of the adventure that were particularly entertaining:

  • The town itself: we were in a town called Red Lanterns, that is built on the back of a behemoth tortoise. The town comes alive at night when the tortoise sleeps and sleeps during the day when the tortoise walks; this tortoise is one of 10 such beasts treading a steady path in a circle around the continent, and its pelagic nature makes it a haven for renegades – it has no laws. We didn’t bother finding any of this out when we visited the town.
  • The goth halfling auction: In this town the bodies of the deceased are cremated, and then their ashes are auctioned off to the highest bidder – our GM told us he got the idea from Star Trek Deep Space 9[1]. We naturally assumed the lich was after something in the ashes, and so we went to watch an auction and see if he was present. On the day we visited, a halfling was being auctioned off and two factions in his family were involved in a bidding war that was causing some deep tension. All of them were, of course, dressed in black, and the entire audience of bidders were halflings, bidding for the ashes of their own uncle. This scene cracks me up every time I think of it. It was interrupted by the lich outbidding all attendant halflings, who responded to his intrusion by attempting to shoot him, at which point he turned into a swarm of cockroaches and ran, with us chasing.
  • Magister Tiana and the dragon: so we first offered to find the lich for the dragon if he would leave the town alone, and he agreed. Then within a few hours a wizard, Magister Tiana, visited us and told us that she was mates with the dragon. We didn’t believe her because she didn’t tell us she knew we had arranged a deal with the dragon, and in fact we were able to cut another deal with her to get the lich for her, with a bonus if we found out who he was working for. Why would she do this if she was an ally of the dragon that had already got us working for free? I’m not sure why the GM did this, or why we cut a deal with a rival of a dragon (thinking about this for even a moment, it’s really not a good idea to double cross people with this kind of power), but he did and we did, and thus the flavour of the adventure turned into one of those “everyone’s out to get Wally, let’s get him first” type stories. They always end well!
  • The fugitive wizard: after we had killed the lich and lost his body (aren’t we smart!) we searched his spellbook and found notes in it indicating that he was chasing some guy called Malachy, who was hiding in the local wizard academy. We found him, and discovered that he was on the run from the wizard’s guild due to an “accident” in which he accidentally crashed one of their sky castles. He was on the run from the lich after a confrontation in which he somehow permanently destroyed the lich’s eye and one hand. When he found out Tiana was in town  he got all scared and started thinking of running, but somehow we convinced him to meet Tiana and hand himself in.
  • The final stand off: we arranged the final stand-off thinking that Tiana and the Dragon would turn up separately, see each other and toast one another, and we would hand Malachy to the winner and loot the loser[2] – we remained convinced she’d lied to us right up until the point that she rode in on his back, carrying the lich’s head. Thus we found ourselves in the situation depicted above, with her and Malachy having a robust chat under the watchful eye of the dragon. Things went pear-shaped because Tiana had brought the lich’s head with her, and it got loose and started trying to waste everyone so that it could catch Malachy – apparently he was quite the prize. We, naturally, sided with the dragon, and then Malachy did a runner while dragon, Tiana and lich were engaged in fearsome battle. We caught Malachy and dragged him back, and that was that.

I think this adventure is a credit to the GM. Every part of it was fabricated on the spot to help us continue charging around the town making mistakes, and although we were starting to suspect we’d cocked it up, at no point did he let on which bits were in the plan and which weren’t – we were convinced the halfling auction was in his original notes, for example. He was creative and energetic throughout the whole process, he managed to tie together disparate elements of the plot even as he was making them up on the spot, and somehow at the end everything was resolved neatly and clearly – all of this in the space of about 5 hours. I think this kind of creativity and flexibility is the mark of a good GM, especially when it’s in response to your having thrown all his preparation out the window from the first encounter. We didn’t intend any of this disruption, we just genuinely misinterpreted the purpose of that first battle – like most players, if he had said “guys, this adventure is meant to involve you fighting this dragon” we would have taken it on, but he didn’t, and so we did what comes naturally to a bunch of cowards, and supplicated the damn lizard. But he didn’t correct us, presumably having faith that he could somehow muddle up an adventure regardless, and that’s what happened. He told us later that he decided many of the plot elements based on our assumptions, so that we were driving the plot forward, which is also a very fine thing to do. The man was an improvisational genius.

If there is any lesson in this for better adventure planning, I guess it’s that you shouldn’t make an adventure’s entire plot hinge on players deciding to fight a dragon – many players assume dragons are too tough for them, and if the first encounter of the day is a dragon they will assume negotiation is the key. But it also shows that if you’re a good GM with a healthy attitude, even when your players completely cock up your plans from the very start, you can still make a great adventure. And our GM this day was not just a good GM – he was a great GM. This is GMing at its finest, in my opinion.

Finally, to top it all off, once we’d finished for the day we offered to do a test fight against the dragon, to see if our first decision was right. It was a close thing, but we killed it. So even our decision to negotiate was wrong!

fn1: And they say Star Trek never benefited humanity!

fn2: we were stupid and evil!

He went thattaway ...

During this weekend’s gaming session, we killed a lich. Good job! おつかれさま!Unfortunately, we didn’t know where our victim’s phylactery was, so we couldn’t actually eliminate the lich – we needed to find the phylactery, but the only way to do that was to let the lich reanimate its body and then follow him to his lair, kill him again and this time destroy his phylactery. All in a day’s work, etc. We had his body and disembodied head (gagged, of course) and we’d stuffed the head in a sack, then stuffed the sack in a barrel of water, then put a lid on the barrel, so we could make plans without fear of being overheard. So we hatched a scheme to follow the lich, but there was unfortunately a small hitch – we knew that this lich had the power to dissolve his body into a swarm of cockroaches and scuttle away to his dark and stinky home. We were in a city, where following a swarm of cockroaches is impossible. So, we designed a lich compass. This is how our plan worked:

  1. Carve a chunk of flesh from the lich’s body, near one of its injuries where it is unlikely to notice the piece is missing
  2. Put this chunk of flesh in a jar large enough for a cockroach to move around
  3. Take the body and the head to a park, build a fire large enough to make a lich think we’re trying to destroy its body, but not large enough to completely incinerate the body
  4. Chuck the lich on (and its head, of course)
  5. After about 10 minutes of watching, tell each other that the job is surely done, and walk away
  6. Hide
  7. Once the fire has died down, the lich body will slowly reanimate, and the lich will collect his head and go shambling, smokily, to his lair
  8. Follow him
  9. The big risk is that he will turn into a swarm of cockroaches. This is pretty likely, since his clothes will have been destroyed and he’s covered in burns – he probably wants to go home in a slightly less conspicuous form
  10. When he turns into cockroaches, pull out the jar
  11. All the cockroaches will be heading in the same direction – this means that the cockroaches in the jar will be trying to push through whatever side of the jar is closest to the lich’s path
  12. Follow the compass!

Obviously this plan has a large number of flaws – I count 11 (anyone can follow a compass![1]). Our compass was based on two big assumptions:

  1. The lich doesn’t have a detailed knowledge of the location of every piece of his body, but the pieces are somehow spiritually connected
  2. When the lich casts a spell on himself, all parts of his body are affected

Obviously some GMs would take issue with these assumptions, but I don’t think they’re unreasonable. If the GM accepts this particular approach to Lich corporeality, then I think our compass should work. Also, perhaps, it would work on Vampires.

Unfortunately, we never got to test our assumptions because a crazy wizard teleported in, stole the lich’s head, and teleported out again. The GM then revealed that the lich can disconnect his soul from his body, leaving the body to rot, so all we ended up with was a jar full of rotting flesh. But I think if the wizard hadn’t appeared, we would have been good to go – he disconnected his body because he’d been teleported out, not because he knew we were hiding there.

Incidentally, when we killed the lich it made me aware of a problem that GMs face with these undying types of creatures, which is that the nature of their invulnerability is really hard to describe. Sure, we all know that you can’t kill a lich permanently, but of course if the players don’t have the phylactery they’ll do a damn good job of making the lich essentially eternally dead. Cut it into tiny pieces and feed them to fish in 7 oceans, burn the body and scatter it to the winds, etc. We were on a city that was on the back of a massive, slow-moving tortoise, and I recommended trying to find a way to feed the body into the tortoise – it wouldn’t be  dead but a thousand years of digestion would surely make the matter irrelevant. At this point the GM has to figure out a way to make the creature’s return plausible. Obviously it can be done but, particularly for things like trolls and the like that aren’t undead spirits in a temporary physical shell, it’s damn hard to explain. And in the case of liches, the Monster Manual seems to imply quite strongly that it’s their original body they’re in (the demi-lich is still tied to its body’s dust and skull) – so how exactly does it work for a lich?

This is further proof that as one advances in levels in D&D, it’s important to put points into your various lore skills. If one hasn’t read Mordenkainen’s seminal texts on undead corporeality, how will one know the best way to build a lich-compass?

fn1: Actually I’m pretty sure that there would be systems and/or GMs where a skill check would be required …

You kids get off my lawn!

Over the Easter weekend my blog was the victim of a Jesus-jacking. A blog post I wrote a year ago for Easter, What Kind of Undead was Jesus?, suddenly started attracting huge numbers of hits – from 0 on April 4th to 126 on April 8th and then back down to three (so far) today. All these hits were due to web searches on terms like “Jesus lich,” “Jesus is a lich,” and “Jesus was a lich.” I think it was also posted on facebook, plurk and twitter. This year there seems to be a meme going around about how Jesus was a lich – “happy lich Jesus day” and a hashtag to go with it. Somewhere in that my post got picked up and rebroadcast a little, especially on Facebook. It even made it to that sump of New Atheism, Pharyngula.

Anyway, I want to point out that I thought of this a year ago and I have the stats to prove it.

On a tangential note, what is wrong with you people? Somehow over the holiest weekend in Christendom, approximately 300 people felt the need to do a google search on whether or not Jesus was a lich. Don’t you people have something better to do? Like, I don’t know, go to Church? Or play computer games? Or watch a movie? Or have sex? Or go away on an Easter break? I’m guessing that there are about 1 billion people living in nominally christian societies on this earth, which means that something like 1 person in every 4 million people feels the need to find out whether a figure who is a prophet in two of the world’s biggest religions was a lich by googling it on a public holiday. I’ve been away from christendom for a while now, but surely Easter hasn’t become so boring that you have to google Jesus’s undead status? Get a life people! Or at least keep your google searches for a working day …

Definitely a Celtic fan…

From amongst the classical typology, of course. In life Jesus was clearly a powerful cleric, capable at the very least of Create Food and Water, Dismissal, and Water Walk, as well as the various Cure and Remove Curse spells. We see no evidence of his having used the reverse forms of these spells – except perhaps in throwing the money lenders from the temple, which may have been simply mundane combat – but he must clearly have been an evil cleric, because he came back from the dead under his own magical powers, and the various guidebooks make it clear that this is something only ever done by evil clerics. He also appears to have come back in a form possessed of its previous memories and with a strong will, which rules out the possibility that he was just a restless spirit (reasonable to wonder, given the nature of his death). At the very least he was possessed of a vengeful will, but more likely he planned his return from the dead in some way.

So considering this, he must have been either a Wight, Vampire or Lich. But I’m pretty confident from the descriptions of his actions after his reanimation that he ventured out during the day, which rules out Vampirism. I’m not clear on whether Wights have a problem with sunlight, and the only extant description of a Wight – from Tolkien’s work, which addresses a time that I think predates christianity – isn’t clear on the matter as far as I can remember. But anyway, Wights don’t usually retain magical powers, and also we have no evidence that Undead Jesus could do level drains, and he did seem to at least retain possession of the Geas spell[1]. So, I’m thinking he must have been a lich.

This is bad news for the world, but it does explain how christendom spread so quickly after his reanimation. It might also explain some of the subsequent troubles between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Clearly the elder figures of Judaism in that time were wizards of various kinds, and probably wanted rid of this troublesome lich; while I don’t think it’s a stretch to presume that Islam’s founder was some form of Arabian paladin (as well as a social reformer), so he would also have had problems with liches. Though his disputes with the elder figures of Judaism suggests he may have had a problem with magic-users too, so maybe he was a form of Barbarian[2].

So perhaps the great historical movements of the early christian era need to be viewed in terms of questing adventurers in classic classes, rather than this silly stuff about social-cultural movements etc. You heard it here first.

Now, the obvious result of this lich operating behind the veil of chrstianity is his influence on the popes. As time passed he would surely have crumbled to demi-lich status, and been interred somewhere in the vatican, from where he would control the various popes in a vice-like grip. Maybe even Avignon’s anti-pope represented a genuine clerical reaction against him? The problem of course with killing a lich is to find its phylactery, which I think many would construe as being the Turin shroud; but we’ve seen this is a fake, so what else could it be? My suspicion is that Jesus is a cunning old lich, and has disguised his phylactery in the form of the piss-christ. He knows that the greatest enemies of christendom are the liberal-arts media, so of course he has disguised his phylactery in a form that they will defend to the death.

Truly, 2000 year old Undead minds are devious.

Note that this theory isn’t without its detractors. Some experts believe that the Pope is a devil, possibly even Satan himself, exerting his will on earth through the powerful focal point of Scottish soccer. Despite the obvious improvements that the campaign against the Pope’s influence have brought to the Scottish game, I don’t think there is any evidence to support claims that Jesus, the Pope or any of the other elders of any of the main churches of Europe or the Middle East are Infernal Outsiders. Though I grant you the possibility that Tony Blair is.

In any case, the best solution is clearly to take off and nuke the entire site (the Vatican, and Scotland) from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure…

fn1: Or is it Quest? I always confuse which one is a clerical spell. But maybe Jesus was a cleric/magic-user. He seems to have had access to a lot of enchantment-type magic that is more traditionally seen amongst wizards…

fn2: I think the Barbarian character class is an interestingly misnamed one, because the word in western history implies a savage or wilderness-oriented figure, but the character class actually allows a much broader range of characters than this. For example, the bedouin or the tribesmen of Afghanistan during the era of the crusades could probably be construed as “barbarians” under the character class system, but I think they actually had quite a sophisticated written culture, and at least in Afghanistan they had cities, armies, orchards, etc. … see Flashman for descriptions of the palaces and cultural practices of Afghanistan in, e.g. the 19th century for an example of “enlightened” “barbarians”.