Thursday, April 17, 2014

Let's Rock The Star Cairns and other Misadventures Part 2: Hurry Up and Do Nothing

After giving us a short background for the adventure we enter into the Recent Events phase of the module. Like most published adventures I've read over the years this one suffers from the flunky syndrome. 
. . . Jallarzi Sallavarian of the Circle of Eight has recently discovered omens that predict imminent doom for Greyhawk. Among the more mundane omens are an increase in the number of derro sightings in the Abbor-Alz, and the uppermost sail of the mysterious Doomgrinder approaching the zenith by another degree. Other signs indicate that one of the ancient cairns known as the Star Cairns may be the key to averting the doom. The Eight have warned the city about the possible doom (and its possible prevention); they urge adventurous souls to scour the Abbor-Alz for anything that might be the key to saving the city . . . (Reynolds, pg. 2)
This first paragraph is a prime example of the sort of foolishness that made me hate the Forgotten Realms and has me agitated two pages in. Instead of telling us that a low level mage - someone who is essentially powerless to do anything about the oncoming doom - is prophesying the utter destruction of Greyhawk we're told that a member of the Circle of Eight is sounding the gong; only they're not going to do a thing. For my non-Greyhawk readers let me put that a different way. The Circle of Eight finding out that Greyhawk is about to be destroyed and doing nothing is the equivalent of the Justice League finding out that Las Vegas is about to be destroyed and sending Aquaman to take care of it. 

This is how I picture Jallarzi Sallavarian (source)

When I run this module I'm utterly abandoning this connection with Jallarzi Sallavarian as the discoverer of the upcoming cluster. It makes far more sense to have a scribe or local eccentric that the players have made a connection with to discover the troubles than to have one of the planet's most powerful magi. That doesn't mean that I'm not going to bring her in later in the adventure. The players will need someone to confide in and they need someone who will be able to help funnel them resources during key times. 

The next portion of the module deals with establishing the power groups in each of the cairns and foreshadowing a possible war between a group of bandits and a beholder; because if you're a group of bandits the first thing you think about doing is killing a damned beholder. I realize that this background conflict is designed to provide a greater depth to the module and to create a sense of verisimilitude in the world but it makes about as much sense as having the Circle of Eight knowing about a major threat to the world and deciding to do nothing about it.

 The Rumor Mill
Bandits with magic weapons and humanoid allies have been attacking caravans and travelers near Hardby; sometimes the bandits just take the cargo and let the caravaneers go on their way, sometimes the travelers are dragged away; other caravans have simply disappeared completely. (Reynolds, pg. 3)
This first rumor has been used so many times that I think people forget that it occasionally has to make sense. How would we know that the travelers are dragged away? Are their survivors? Or are there witnesses? And if their are witnesses, why isn't anyone actively trying to stop it?

Remember, at this point in the actual module the Circle of Eight and presumably the Lord Mayor of Greyhawk knows about the portents of doom. Yet that isn't even the biggest concern in this regard. The powerful Merchant's Guild has to know about these events and I can't imagine a scenario where these guys are willing to let people mess with their money. Instead I'm seeing armed caravans and trapped caravans heading down that path looking for a fight. I'm seeing big named adventurers and people just starting out heading out looking to earn some serious coin and to put some bad men in the ground. This isn't a rumor, this is a god damned gold mine.
A necromancer has broken into one of the Star Cairns and plans to use the dead buried there to start an undead army in order to sack the city. (Reynolds, pg. 3)
If I drop this rumor then you can damned well bet that every temple and church for a hundred miles is going to be talking about this. Every passing conversation will have someone talking about the son of a bitch raising the dead in the cairns - and there will be blood. Oh, glorious fountains of blood as every fanatic on the continent moves south in a holy crusade against that necromancer whether or not he's even there.
Stone statues of animals and humanoids have been found in the southern Abbor-Alz; a medusa or basilisk is suspected to have moved into the area. (Reynolds, pg. 3)
So far this is the only rumor that doesn't require me to beat the bushes. Essentially it's a meaningless rumor that might have some rich merchant concerned enough to hire a group to clear the area out. Not very inspiring. Though I wonder if one of the best ways to spring a major adventure on everyone is through this path?
A dozen rampaging golems have attacked Hardby, sent by a vengeful wizard living near the desert; Greyhawk is his or her next target. (Reynolds, pg. 3)

Unless the Golems look like this I'm not getting excited. (source)
While this has the same sort of appeal that the medusa has as far as an adventure hook go it seems more like something that the guard should take care of than something my group of adventures should really be involved in. After all, the better part of valor is discretion . . .

Greysmere is A dwarven stronghold at the tip of Cold Wash Lake, South of the Mistmarsh, South East of Greyhawk City and West of the Abbor-Alz Mountain (map originally drawn by Darlene)
A beholder attacked Greysmere and was last seen heading north. (Reynolds, pg. 3)
That's good information to know. 

It's also the sort of information that would send every party I've ever been a part of, or Dungeon Mastered for, in the opposite direction. In fact I ran this rumor by one of my players and he said, "Beholders are the sort of thing you survive when you run across, not something you go out looking to fuck with."
 Lizardmen in the Mistmarsh have been seen patrolling the borders of the swamp. (Reynolds, pg. 3)
This is the sort of thing that isn't going to even phase my players. That means this rumor is useless for me. 
The Rhennee have started to drop pearls and jewelry into the Nyr Dyv, suspecting doom will come from the depths of the lake. (Reynolds, pg. 3)
Now we're fucking talking. 

This is the sort of rumor that sends chills down the spines of my players and gets them racing off for a source. You can kill all the babies you want; burn down entire villages in front of them; they'll pass on by without so much as a second look. But you start throwing treasure into a bottomless lake and they'll get to the bottom of it before you can say, "How much is this pearl worth?"

Dropping Adventure Hooks

The next section we're going to cover is the Adventure Hooks. Reynolds does a really neat thing where he provides the Dungeon Master with three levels of hooks (low, medium, and high difficulty). They range from the mild bandit attack to a direct confrontation with the Beholder. Each hook is only a line or two so there's a lot of room for the Dungeon Master to take off and do his own thing. Personally, though, I'm more likely to use that first rumor and let the players push themselves into the adventure as they seek easy money. 

Next time we'll be looking Common Features of the Cairns, The Rune Pairs, and Encounters in the Abbor-Alz Mountains. See you then!

Works Cited

Reynolds, Sean K. "The Star Cairns." TSR, Inc. 1998: 2, 3.


  1. When I ran the module back in the day, I also ignored the portents of doom stuff. And I hated trying to pronounce Jallarzi's name.

    I put the PCs in Hardby and let them follow up the rumors. I ran the "Star Cairns" as sort of a Sandbox." They even took a side-trek to the Ghost Tower of Inverness.


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