The Girl and the Granite Throne: Prologue

The Girl and the Granite Throne TopbannerAlong a muddy road through the woodlands of Shieldhaven province trundled the black caravan. Three carriages pulled by six spindly horse-shaped figures shrouded in black cloth. Guiding the horses were human-shaped figures–no less spindly in their frame, and so buried beneath black robes that no other distinguishing feature between them could be found. The only sound as the caravan passed was the squeaking of the six axles, and slosh of hooves moving in and out of mud. Those who saw it pass thought it to be part of some funerary rite. A few even removed their hats and bowed their heads as the carriages passed, out of respect for the dead. In a manner of speaking they were correct to do so.

For I was very much dead.

As the last dim light illuminating the clouds faded into darkness, I flung open the door of my casket, and took a deep breath of air I no longer needed to function. I climbed out of my carriage and onto the roof to get a good look at our surroundings. I recognized them. The fishing village we were approaching was not far from the hidden mountain pass which would lead to my stronghold–the stronghold of Vecna’s power on the material plane. With my tireless skeletal minions marching ceaselessly, I would arrive long before I needed to sleep through another day. Long enough, in fact, that I had time to stop and satisfy my hungers here in this small, and delightfully defenseless village.

Instantly my form disintegrated, leaving behind a swarm of buzzing mosquitoes. As one, guided by my consciousness, the swarm moved into the air to grant a better view of the people below. There appeared to be an informal gathering in the center of town. Torches stuck in the ground, and bonfires over which food was being prepared provided light to the few dozen people sitting, talking, and drinking around tables. I eyed them one by one, wishing my form had lips I could lick in anticipation.

My gaze came to rest on a voluptuous young woman flirting with a boy about her age. I slid my many hundreds of eyes along her graceful curves slowly, savoring her casual sensuality. I would have lusted for her in life. I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but the ones I want to fuck always taste the sweetest.

Single minded, I guided the swarm in a steep descent towards my meal. As the flitting insects began to skirt in and out of her vision, she waved them away with her hand as though they were any other bug. As they grew in number she turned to look, and at the sight of the cloud of insects gathering behind her, she screamed in terror. That gave me more pleasure than a dozen such girls could have given me in life.

I wrapped her in my swarm before coalescing into my “natural” shape–the pinpricks my bugs had made in her neck widening to accommodate my teeth. She struggled valiantly, screaming curses and calling for her nearby friends and family. But my unnatural life had granted me unnatural strength. She would have had more success struggling free of iron manacles than against my grip. And by the time her form grew limp, and grey in my arms, her fleeing boy was only two dozen stumbling steps away.

Spitting the woman to the side like the shell of a nut, I leapt into the air, alighting three paces in front of the boy. I heard him fumble to a stop, and turned just in time to see the oaf fall on his ass. I scowled, and held out my hand to the side. From the darkness, a cloud of bats appeared, and flew around my hand in a frenzy. When they dispersed, I held a great sword. So large a dwarf would have needed two hands to wield it.

“Coward’s blood is too bitter.” I said, before bringing the sword down to cleave the boy through from shoulder to hip.

The group was fully alert now, some grabbing rocks and sticks, the slightly wiser among them grabbing the torches mounted in the ground. The wisest ran to the houses, calling the town to arms as if it would do them some good. I took a moment to look around. The young lady had done an admirable job satiating my hunger for blood, and her lover my lust for slaughter. But the night couldn’t end without causing someone a pain I knew would last long after I left.

Then I saw the woman with the baby, hiding beneath the table.

Moving at no great speed, I walked towards her. I opened fatal wounds in four brave–but foolish–attackers in the space it took to reach her, without breaking step. The mother locked eyes with me, and I could see the panic fill them as she realized I was coming for her. She tried to climb out from under the table to flee, but a kick from my boot sent the table spinning, and knocked her to the ground.

I knelt, ignoring several large rocks as they bounced off my back and head, and took hold of the baby’s leg. I held the child in front of me as I stood. It was a girl, couldn’t have been more than six months old. I grinned, baring my teeth at the mother. She stared at me from the ground, frozen in suspense and terror. She jumped with fright when, suddenly, I threw my great sword to the side, burring it hilt deep in a young woman charging me with a sword. Apparently they’d found some weapons, useless though they might be.

Slowly, deliberately, I drew Vecna’s dagger from its sheath at my hip. The pommel was shaped like a dismembered hand, clasping an eye. And from the eye shot the blade, a glare made of steel. The dagger is sacred to the followers of Vecna– intended for sacrifices offered by only Vecna’s highest ranking cleric on the material plane: myself.

I held the baby high then. I couldn’t see, but I was sure that the cattle surrounding me were lowering the weapons in fear of what they were about to behold. Slowly, I brought the tip of Vecna’s Glare to the baby girl’s left eye, not quite touching it yet. I wanted everyone to see this.

The crackle of the fires was the only sound in the terrified silence the moment before I plunged the dagger up to its hilt in the child’s eye. And for a moment after that, the silence continued, the villagers too shocked at first to respond. But shock quickly became rage. In the moment before they charged, I dropped the child, letting gravity pull it off the blade. Just as the first blade swung through my form, I became again a swarm of insects, flitting off into the darkness to rejoin my carriage for the ride home.

It wasn’t until months later that I would notice the tiniest of flecks of metal missing from the blade of Vecna’s Glare, and wonder where it had gone to.

To Battle!

Knights Engaged in Mounted Battle
The Battle of Bosworth by Graham Turner

Even after years of running D&D games of all shapes and sizes, I still run a dud from time to time. One such time was just a couple weeks ago, when I thought it would be great fun to give my players two days to direct some settlers in the construction of a town, which would then be attacked by Zombies. While I stand by the idea as a solid one, it played out poorly. Granted, most of the difficulty came from the fact that the game was played online, I think. But aside from that, I’m starting to find that I’m simply not very good at running combat encounters.

Given how central combat is to the Dungeons and Dragons & Pathfinder games, being bad at running it has made things difficult for me throughout my DMing career. In the last few days, as I’ve been reflecting on this fact, I’ve started to see that almost every combat I’ve ever run has taken place on an open field at noon on a Summer’s day. In light of that, I’ve made a concerted effort to think of things I could do which would make battle more entertaining for my players.

Without a doubt, the most important thing conclusion I’ve come to is that I need to make a concerted effort to make my environments more detailed and interesting. There’s almost never a reason for combat to take place in an environment which doesn’t provide some kind of interesting tactical options to the player. Even in the most plain environments imaginable (for example, a desert) there are things the GM should be aware of (such as the poor footing offered by sand, or the fact that visibility is limited due to the rise and fall of sand dunes.)

And really, how often is a desert, or a plane, or any other near-featureless environment going to be part of a game?

In a forest there should be trees for players to climb, or bash foes into. Now and again there should be cliffs or other falling hazards for players to beware of, and use to their advantage. In a city there could be anything from an entrance to a sewer to drop down into, to a criss-crossing web of clothes lines to climb up.

And if static parts of an environment can make things more interesting, certainly living elements can have the same effect. In the wilds, combat may take place in some beast’s hunting grounds, or even in a cave which a dire bear is about to return to. And while a noncombatant character is most likely going to try to stay out of the way of a dangerous wizard’s dual, when there are 100 onlookers gathering around the back-and-forth casting, there’s a good chance one of them will throw a rock at the caster they would prefer to see lose.

And speaking of thrown rocks, there are a multitude of situations where improvised weapons would be appropriate and flavorful. Not every hoodlum in a bar is wearing a short sword. Or hells, there could easily be cities with bans on weapons. The players could be forced to grab broken bottles themselves when faced with sword-wielding thieves. Or, away from civilization, one of the goblins they’re fighting might withdraw, only to appear on the ledge above 3 or 4 rounds later, pushing desperately on a large boulder.

Even if the players are fighting folks who do have weapons, they don’t always need to have them in hand. Giving the players a round to make use of the element of surprise while 30 goblin warriors all scramble for the weapons racks would allow the players to really feel like taking the enemy by surprise meant more than getting one standard or move action at the beginning of combat.

Weather and seasonal elements have also been severely underutilized in my games–and not just in combat. Snow leaves tracks and makes it difficult to move, while piles of leaves in the fall could hide traps to make up for the fact that the branches are too bare to hide stalking enemies. Torrents of wind and falling rain can disrupt spell casting, and darkness can offer partial concealment against ranged attacks.

I’d be interested to hear from anybody else who has ideas on what kind of extra environmental options GMs can make use of.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.