The Journal of Konus of Knosa
JOURNAL OF KONUS OF KNOSA
"Mistrust of orc-kind runs deep, especially in the old races"
We make a strange procession in the morning light as we ride uphill towards the peak and the giant’s home. It was a bit of a challenge to secure a few wraps of rope around the magically imprisoned giant but now he is pulled along behind Valinor’s mount skimming along the ground, seemingly weightless for all his bulk. The rest of his clan is waiting as we approach the clearing that marks their camp. The she-giant approaches with a pair of ornate and hefty golden chalices to exchange for our captive. While I secure the ransom on our pack horse, Valinor assures the anxious clan that their chieftain's predicament will dissolve once we have put some distance between us and there is no sign of treachery. They take the mage at his word and we turn our horses towards the valley below and the road that leads to Heep.
The path is easy and direct on this side of the hills and by midday we have reached the main road and, with the town only a few hours away, have a leisurely lunch. The clearing we chose gives us a good view of the road and we notice a few wagons and small groups travel past. No obvious haste or large contingent of guards so I feel that in spite of the excitement the militant dwarves have stirred, there is no open warfare. While finishing the last of our hard cheese and bread I ask Valinor when he plans to release the giant from his magics. An uneasy look crosses his face and he quietly tells me that he cannot undo the spell from afar and that it may take quite a while to dissipate on its own. I am glad this is the mage’s handiwork but I know that a band of giants bent on revenge are unlikely to be too discriminating in their carnage. At least they will be easy to see coming.
A few wagons are queued at the gates as we approach Heep. Preparations are made as we wait our turn to be questioned by the guard. I stow my sword on a pack horse, remove my helm and don a floppy woven straw hat. Valinor snickers at my “rustic'' look, which suits me, since I prefer the flamboyant half-elf and regal cleric to draw onlooker’s eyes away from the bulky half breed that towers over them. With a few deft adjustments Dominia now appears as a lean human youth, her elven features hidden like her ears under her cap. Beldain and Daneel move to the background with the druid’s face betraying little concern with the flow of events around him.
As we wait in the shade I take stock of the town. There are large timber gates anchored into a small stonework tower with a solid timber fence that seems to encircle much of the town proper. Several guardsmen mill about asking the business of travelers and inquire about the contents of their wagons. The captain of the watch and his lieutenant wear a uniform as do some of the others. The remainder carry simple arms and wear civilian garb, obvious militia recruited to bolster ranks in time of trouble. When our turn comes to meet the guards, Draper positions himself at the front of the group and takes care to uncover the majestic heraldry that adorns his shield, breastplate and the fine cloth of his traveling cloak. An iron fist covered in a velvet glove is the holy symbol of Etha and it abounds over Draper in depictions large and small. Even if the symbol is unfamiliar, the message is clear: “I am a well-funded emissary and my time is valuable.” He answers the guards questions promptly and explains that we have business with a prominent resident and asks for directions to the finest inn with just a hint of impatience. This is a practiced persona and our cleric wears it well. By sitting tall in the saddle he forces the guard to approach as an inferior but by flashing a bright smile and slipping him a few coins the interaction ends to everyone’s satisfaction.
A short ride brings us to a plain but well-maintained establishment marked by a large carved wooden figure of a shapely female, The Wistful Maid. Beldain and I bring the mounts round to the large stable attached to the rear while Valinor and Draper secure some rooms taking the unobtrusive Daneel and Dominia with them. The rhythmic clang of a hammer draws Beldain and I to the smithy near the yards where a soot covered dwarf pounds a glowing red ingot. As we approach he returns the iron to the forge and turns to face us, openly appraising us and looking none too happy with his assessment. I greet him and ask about having some horses reshod before we leave town. He pointedly ignores me and asks Beldain what he can do for him, and after some bluster, agrees to tend to our mounts. As a parting comment, he warns Beldain to be careful of the company he keeps because some breeds are little more than animals. I hold my tongue but not my laughter as a stray spark lands in his beard and quickly begins to smolder while he frantically tries to brush it free.
Walking back to the inn, it is clear that Beldain is troubled by the dwarf’s disrespect and seems disappointed in my lack of response. In my younger days I too took affront to stranger’s judgements and dismissals. Mistrust of orc-kind runs deep, especially in the old races. And not without reason, to be fair. Of course, the fact that I never knew my parents or had any cause to honor them means nothing. Their stigma is all that is seen. I finally learned that no matter how many mouths I shut or bodies I broke, the suspicion remains. Instead, I work to use the assumptions to my advantage. I appear dull and soon people speak freely in my presence, doubting I can comprehend. I move quickly to perform menial tasks and am judged servile and without a will of my own. I dress in a simple, sturdy fashion with a fit designed to downplay my size, armor and status. If they could speak, scores of ghosts would warn against underestimating my worth. Ethans endure.
We settle into two adjoining rooms with a door connecting them. An ideal arrangement that allows ease of counsel and mutual protection. With success comes wealth and the need to protect it. Accordingly, our baggage is carefully stacked in one corner over which our mages cast spells of detection and alarm. It is quite useful to have forces of magic keeping watch over prized possessions. Before we make our way to the common room for a meal, Draper traces his holy symbol in a complex pattern in front of both doors, a ward that will strike anyone who attempts to enter without uttering the key phrase.
Tables to seat us all are pushed together in a corner behind the swing of the main door no doubt arranged at some expense. It is our intention to downplay our presence while staying close enough to observe and overhear the other patrons. It is a prosperous crowd of what I judge to be merchants and landlords accompanied by their lackeys. The door to the kitchen area hardly rests on its hinges as servers carry trays of victuals in a steady stream. Close by, a well-attended standing counter is ruled by a woman of remarkable stature. She is tall, wide and loud with a barely contained bosom that is the size and shape of a pair of yearling pigs. This is no “maid” nor is she “wistful” but I have little doubt that she is the mistress of the inn.
Snippets of overheard conversation reveal some concern about the dwarf’s incursions but the majority see this as an opportunity for profit. Valinor flashes a ready smile and some silver at the serving women, an effort to gain a source of gossip with a valuable core and perhaps a moment’s lusty companionship. Draper makes a stately approach to the lady of the house and compliments her on her ensemble, our rooms, the food and drink, finally concluding with, from what I can hear, the grain of the wood in the counter top. From another this patter would sound ludicrous but he is rewarded with a satisfied smile. After he calls for a round of drinks for patrons at the counter the smiles beam from all quarters. Dominia, who still plays the youth, lingers barely noticed at our cleric’s side. At one point she bends to pick up something dropped by a careless patron who is happy to have it returned. Or so he thinks. I have no doubt that she has plied her considerable dexterity and cunning to gather some parchment that will make interesting reading later. No need to relieve anyone of their purse or jewelry this early in the evening.
As she returns to our table, Dominia uncharacteristically stumbles into the harried master of the inn who steadies her with a firm hand. In this opportune moment she requests a private room for later this evening and he barks out “impossible” in response. And then it happens; a small gesture, a barely perceptible shimmer in the thick tavern air and suddenly he gives her a conspiratorial wink and assures her it will all be made so, just give him the word. Magic is cheating, but it can be very effective. Our elven charmer bades Beldain and I accompany her to the street where knots of people make their way before dusk. She informs us that she will contact Ranon, our would-be patron, and return to meet us in three hours time. Turning away, she joins the thin crowd on the cobble street and in two paces I can no longer pick out her form. I cannot say if she melded into the shadows, changed her appearance or simply vanished. All three effects are within her skill set with one no more likely than the other. I sense that young Beldain is beginning to get the measure of mistress Dominia.
Player characters often fall into defined roles in combat, which is mostly dictated by their character builds. For non-combat encounters, the roles characters fill are often dictated by a character's skills. AD&D 2nd edition had dozens of non-weapon proficiencies skills that gave vast options for players to specialize their characters. Haggling, diplomacy, etiquette, forgery, fast-talking, observation, reading lips, street sense, trailing: these were all skills a character could specialize in. Managing all these specializations could get pretty cumbersome at times. When a player wants to use a specialized skill in 5e, a GM can easily adjust. If you can, select the most relevant ability and match it to one of the character's known skills. Next, set the DC (usually between 10-20). Then all that’s left is for the player to roll a skill check. DMs need to make these adjustments on the fly (that’s what we do), but it is a quick and workable method for allowing a player to use a specialized skill-type that’s outside the broad categories of 5e skills.
When players enter a town as part of their mission, there is almost always people or information they are looking for. Such is the case when Konus and company came to the village of Heep looking to meet a contact named Rannon. They didn’t know much about the place, so each character fell into their typical role for checking things out. Konus observed the defensive and offensive capabilities of the town, Valinor magically eavesdropped or influenced to gather information, Domina pilfered items, surveilled places and located people, Daneel scouted the outdoors environs in animal form, and Draper used coin and perfect etiquette to impress and influence. I like my players to roleplay these interactive encounters, and by asking the right questions, they usually get the info they need. If they make successful skill checks along the way, they often get more detailed information in the process.
When my players engage NPCs, I ask them to describe or roleplay their intended interactions before I ask them for any skill checks. If a skill check is needed, I apply a modifier based on how well or poorly their plan or roleplaying interaction plays out. That way a poor skill check dice roll won’t completely ruin an excellent roleplaying interaction. In 5e I represent this by awarding advantage, disadvantage, or sometimes a small modifier to a skill check roll. Once a player knows they can receive a skill check bonus for clever thinking or good roleplaying, they usually become better interactive players.
My NPC’s also tend to fall into roles, and both important information and minor gossip can usually be found from some of them. Players have a good idea of who to ask specific questions to. They understand that innkeepers usually know where services or people can be found, laborers know things about the coarser side of society, merchants have knowledge of the surrounding region, and that guards know about dangers and threats in the area. I keep a small list of things that a non-essential NPC might know, possess, or say if interacted with. These are often only gossipy things, but they can breathe life into a NPC. If a player acts on any of this information, I let them go with it, even if the information was never needed or meant to be followed. Playing through these minor diversions gives players a sense of control of their world, keeps them inquisitive, and makes for fun improvisational moments.
The inn is a great place for the GM to stir things up. It is well known that adventurers carry large amounts of valuables and local thieves watch for overburdened travellers looking to secure a room for the night. Unsecured rooms make an easy target for thievery because adventurers are often distracted by food, drink and entertainment in the common room. I only consider this tactic when I need to lighten the party of a specific possession and I prepare in advance since it can lead to an entire game session. Get ready for many interesting scenarios once players discover they have been robbed and scramble to find the thieves. Once a burglary strikes a party, they learn how to defend against it in the future–as noted in Konus’ journal–by using protective spells to secure their possessions. Sometimes these spells are not available, and a character is assigned guard duty of the party’s treasures. This presents another opportunity for the GM to create an exciting one-on-one encounter when a burglar creeps into a room guarded by a player. Let the fun begin!
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The Craft Guild
The Journal of Konus of Knosa