Hermit and an Azath- A Malazan inspired D&D game
I has been a long time since I've had the time to write anything here, I've been working hard in my new job as a Lecturer in games design as their art specialist at a local college. And yes, I have run game for my students, and yes, I it is great fun persuading the library to buy D&D books as official course materials.
My Malazan Book of the Fallen inspired Dungeons and Dragons game has been continuing as well, with lots of new art drawn and, stories told, and many, many deaths. (It wouldn't be Malazan inspired if there were not a lot of deaths).
For this section I would like to discuss a particular problem I was having, well two actually, which solved each other.
One, a player character had just died, who was my lynch pin to getting my players to travel to a modified version of the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. But, how to make players want to go there?
I had a new player joining the game, who wanted to play a Meckros (Dwarf re-skin) Sea-turtle totem Barbarian with the Hermit background. This background gives a player a special "discovery" feature which it leaves to you and the DM to determine. Found in the Player Handbook it can be the biggest bane to a DM or the greatest gift.
"It might be a great truth about the cosmos, the deities, the powerful beings of the outer planes, or the forces of nature. It could be a site that no one else has ever seen." [PHB page 134].
The player wanted to have some monsteras emergence that at some point in the future he would need to counter, and that he had gone adventuring in order to gather allies to defeat this problem.
But this was not enough, just linking him back to a quest? I give lots of players connections to plot hooks. I make quite a lot of use of peoples background features as well and I did not want his to feel just a one-and-done. I felt this was a great opportunity to introduce some of the uniquely Malazan aspects of this campaign. The Azath.
Azath houses are these strange buildings that most people try to ignore. They look like a cottage with a walled garden and a small tower. But also, the trees in the garden eat people, or if you are immortal, drag you beneath the ground. They are guarded by ancient super monsters, the house wont let you in unless 'reasons' and both the basement and the tower hold portals to just about anywhere.
I worked very hard on this map, as I always do, to follow as closely as possible to the descriptions given in the books.
So, strengths and weaknesses of the letting the players go into an Azath house.
Strengths, are that it is dam cool and something they wont find in thier other D&D games. These are houses where the stones are made from wood, the whole thing is almsot a living tree and it has a fireplace that leads directly to the Warren of fire. It has the potential to let them travel to a lot of places around the world, both to other houses, and into other planes of existence. They can interact with a recurring NPC and they have a 'home base.'
Weaknesses, they have a home base in a set location, which makes them disinclined to go to other places and ties the Hermits background feature to a single location. They can conversely travel anywhere dam it, and how am I as a DM meant to plan for that? They have a super old/powerful NPC who could potentially tell them anything they need to know. How does this actually fit with what the player wanted, and the Hidden Shrine I have planned? How to I keep it their feature, not a feature that everyone can use?
This is how I fixed these problems while keeping the good stuff.
Tied to a single location.
The house can not move, but perhaps the entrance can? I give the player a device, one that they found at the site of the Hidden Shrine. He spent his hermitage looking after the site, and slowly figuring out how it works. This device, he discovers, predicts the locations and times of some sort of event. He does not know what. Several have happened, but they were far away. The closest one to yet happen will be, you guessed it far to the north, close to the place where I want him to meet the players who have just escaped Capustan during the siege (don't ask).
This device (created by Icarium no less), when he gets closer with the party, is able to predict and exact day and location, so I was able to move it based on where they go. They then found a shimmering patch of air. After a lot of experimentation, (and a message from me), the player went into a rage and attacked it with his axe. Splitting the air, the players now find a wooden door, damp with moisture.
The house stays in one place, but I can move the door. I can give the player the next three door locations and times. The door will appear somewhere for a set number of days that they can predict roughly, and then will be 'nowhere' for several more days.
Keeping it uniquely theirs.
Only they can open the door. All the other players tried the latch, until finally the Hermit did and 'click' the door opens. Any player can open the door from the inside, but if everyone leaves for a mission, it is only the hermit that can let them back in. This way, if the player dies, the house goes with them, and the player feels always valued for thier background feature.
The cool factor and Malzan mystery.
How to make this house cool, more than just a Tardis (as my players came to call it). Also, am I not still tying my players to a location somewhat, because the house on the other side of that door is still located somewhere isnt it?
The thing is, an Azath house does not need to be anywhere sensible does it?
So why not on the bottom of the ocean?
Deep down, where there is no sunlight and the pressure will crush your body, there is a little cottage.
This results in extra mystery and a real decision if the players want to use the travel the house offers, as they can be trapped in the house for days or even weeks at a time before the back door leads somewhere else. Resulting in either down time, or exploring the houses other methods of transport.
Brilliantly my players looked out the windows to the darkness and 'snow' covered garden and simply said "well, nothing interesting there" and never opened the front door. It wasn't until we had a Tiste Andii player with the Superior Darkvision range who spotted at the edge of their range, that they got interested. Seven sessions after first entering the house.
I had plans if that did not work to have a nock at the front door, only for them to open it and see a glowing blue light. Huge angler fish trying to lure out a player. I hope that a latter date I can drop a whale carcass down into the waters within view, to slowly be consumed by deep sea sharks and hagfish over several sessions.
A guardian who knows too much. "bargain with a Jaghut"
The Azath houses normally have a tenant, willing or otherwise, who acts as its guardian. They can never leave beyond the front gate of the garden and frankly the rest of the world is safer with them where they are.
I considered multiple option for what could be living there, but went for a Jaghut one of the iconic species of the Malazan books. Jaghut choose isolation over society, and tend to interact with characters in the books with grumpy dismissal. This means that she can be not very happy to have house guests, even though, as the house let them in, she can't throw them out. I chose a female character as most of the Jaghut we meet in the books are male.
Secondly, a character trait of the Jaghut. They like making deals and bargains. So my players might ask questions of the tenant, but they will mostly not answer. Until finally a player offers them something in exchange for the information. Then the bargaining begins. The more important the information my players ask for, the more than can be asked in return.
But what does a Jaghut want? Well, a bath for starters, a new skirt, a proper knife so she can cut her hair and perhaps a good meal after that. This give the players the chance to start small, and gives them visual clues as to what they might offer in a bargain to begin with.
So let me introduce you to Myrni, (named for a tribe with future plot hook potential). Long matted hair to cut. Bad body odour and a broken bathtub in the house, and even more smelly sarong made from an old sack. A bracelet made from teeth suggesting she might like jewellery (in fact belonging to her dead children, slain by Imass). The muscles of a warrior so that at some point I can ask for her to have armour and weapons.
You can find the art process here on a previous blog post.
Able to Travel Anywhere.
There are two methods of travel within an Azth house.
Up through the trapdoor in the tower, leading you into an infinite plane of tiles, which, when the house decides you have reached your destination, will drop you either in the middle of nowhere, or within another Azath house half way across the world.
Down, into the basement level where all the walls are roots and you are surrounded by large stone slabs which resemble the houses from the Deck of Dragons. These stone slabs lead to the warrens and if you go deeper, the Holds.
Both of these have thier own fixes, the first is obvious, when travelling through the tower, the house decides where you are needed. Which might be your intended destination, it might not be. This way I can have a 'prepared event' that will happen if the player spontaneously decide to travel that way, and then I have an other week to prep the intended destination of the players. GM's take note. When finding themselves up there, trapped on the infinite plane...they sat there for ages, parallelised, not know what to do. I was forced to throw in a random NPC also travelling through the house, creating my most loved and hated NPC to date.
"Fluffykins, DESTROYER OF WORLDS!" Is a Tybalt demon from the warren of shadow, who in game terms, is a Boggle re-skinned based on the amazing art done for the Fantastic Beasts film by Dan Barker. The boggles oily skin fits well with a hairless cat, and surprised one of my players who tried to grapple him. "I left the window open one time.....uhhg" Gothos, probably.
The second one, portals into the warrens, was a little harder. Firstly I kept the idea that the gates to the Holds are not visible to jsut anyone, they would be something I could reveal later, but for now I stuck with the warrens.
Second, I detoured from the book slightly. I made it such that each house, led to a specific point within a Warren, yet possessed a gate leading back from that fixed point, only visible to those who had used it.
This means players can enter the warrens, explore the imediat area and return, or choose to travel from the house to thier intended destination, using magic to open a portal back to thier own world when they get there. Third, I make the portals a mystery.
I drew each portal vague enough that the players wont instantly know where they lead, also, they don't know what they do at the start. When they touch the stone itself, they and everyone in the room at the time, is transported to that warren (ensuring I don't split the party).
From top left corner, proceeding clockwise:
Mockra- polished to a mirror shine
Warren of Jhess - why shouldn't she get her own warren? even if it is small and made from offcuts of everyone else's.
The Abyss - I had this blank stone hidden behind roots with a DC 18 perception check to spot it, keeping it out of anyone's passive range. Sadly the person to discover it was the ranger on his own with his pet.W ho touched it. So I sent everyone off while we RP'd his taking force and cold damage as he suffocated to death and tried to use his whip to get back to the tablet. In the end he shoved his own frozen pet away from him to get the momentum up, then rolled a 1 to grab hold of the door as he floated past.
Telas - drawing fire without using colour is hard.
When they arrive at thier destination, they find behind them a doorway back. And in front a realm of potability. As a Gm have an event prepared that can happen no matter which warren they enter. This will save your sanity rather than preping one for each.
Sadly where I am now in the game the hermit after several months of play, and completing his character goal has decided to retire that character for a new one. I'll write up some of the fun my plays had in the house at a latter point but I will leave you with this.
Don't have the players arrive at the house with 8 NPC's and 5 horses. They will cram them all in. This is what my map looked like AFTER the players had gone down into the basement. That is six more characters to fit in there.