Ropes of Lightning

NOTE: This post is inspired by This Reddit Post and as such, the idea is entirely credited to u/LeastCoordinatedJedi and his kid.

Captain’s Log of the Vessel Wayward Cloud. Date unknown.

Note about time and date: Date is unknown due to total lack of celestial objects. I do not know if the stars or sun and moon are even present, as candles don’t even shed light here – they are only a dim point in the shape of a flame – though the air itself seems to be giving off some unnatural light. It confuses me when I try to think about it, and gives me a headache. It has probably been about 3 weeks since our vessel was lifted off the waves.

Note about our ship: I would call our ship a Galleon, so we thought ourselves quite safe in these waters (what with a full compliment of crew to fight pirates or monsters). but we lost a mast, multiple spars, and many sails, so we are rigged almost like a schooner at this point. I do believe now that we will not be returning to port for repairs.

Enough about the ship. It’s no longer in the waves. This story is being entered in the ships logs and my personal diary in hopes that my logs will find their way back to civilized lands where monsters do not roam about uncontested. I hope that either a college of sorcery will be made aware that one of their member are attacking ships off the coast, or that the powers of the empire will be alerted and focused on those that have so treacherously preyed upon ships in the region.

We begin with the child that we found on flotsam – the partial wreckage of at least 2 ships. He had quite the story to tell, and I didn’t believe him, until I saw it for myself.

We found young J-dai (he insisted with the enthusiasm that only 5-year olds can generate that his name was spelled exactly this way) clinging to flotsam of a merchant ship that was obviously attacked by pirates. Pretty ballsy of the pirates – this was an important shipping corridor, so the imperial patrol and even privateers like us were often found in these waters, and no-one takes kindly to black flags. We found him among the wreckage of 2 other ships, and he claimed that a third had been lifted to the sky. At first, we thought that J-dai was only mistaken as not nearly enough wreckage was available to be from 3 different ships, but then we found separate main masts still connected to badly bent straps and bolts that could only have been ripped apart from below the deck of 3 different ships.

The crew felt that we should have left with haste, but I disregarded their protests as silly superstition and thought that staying would be a good way to increase the reputation of professional privateers on these waters. I decided to look for further survivors to return to their loved ones and perhaps cargo that I might return to their rightful companies (and of course, claim for myself if no company brand was found). To my great shame, I led my poor crew and my beloved ship to cursed clouds of demon light and no lands, and I fell in to this trap while selfishly trying to improve the lot of privateer captains. If only we could have sunken under the waves with the first blast.

We found scattered foodstuffs and a few bales of cotton (details in the clerks log). All the other cargo seems to have been sunk or taken by the attackers. We found no other survivors, and we found no dead bodies. It was almost as if someone had scoured the sea for men, living and dead, and plucked them up with no regard for the other valuables in the salt. This was odd, as almost anyone attacking a ship will take whatever food they can find to bolster their own stores, and we found many barrels of brandy, apples, wheat, and other food.

The boy told me a quick version of his story while recovering with some hot food and a little wine in the captain’s cabin, and told a long version of his story later to some sympathetic sailors before we were attacked. I was not present for the long version, but here is my best recollection of his short version:

First off, I can tell is that he has no idea why they were on a ship. I did my best not to allow him to think that I thought his story was preposterous – young minds are very imaginative, but they often have the seed of truth to their stories. I realized quickly that I would not know where he embellished his imagination, but it turns out to be far less than I initially thought.

In his abbreviated version, he tells me that his father was a merchant company’s ship captain and there being 2 other ships with him was quite notable – the little boy was very proud of his father for the promotion (his story kept changing the particular rank – captain, admiral, mate, etc.). It seems they had outrun a storm for nearly 2 days in the straights at the nearby islands and the crew was totally exhausted, so they dropped anchor to let the entire crew rest and eat well for a morning.

J-Dai says that when the sailors were getting ready to be under way, the cries went up that the storm had caught up to them again and the whole crew began desperately trying to get farther away from the rocky shore – the boy was very insistent that earlier there had been an argument between senior staff that they were too close to some rocks and “150 paces is too close after that storm” –  and there was great confusion about which way to go. The boy said that a great wind came up as a dark cloud overtook them, and “a huge red frog fell out of the sky – a frog sailor with black pants, standing on two legs.” When the frog-sailor fell on his ship, it cracked the planks near the main mast. He watched as this invader then tied “a piece of lightning” to the mast, which was suddenly met by the sky as well – with a “big giant noise” – lightning came down from the newly formed clouds to join the piece tied to the mast, and while he was watching this from the captain’s cabin, he heard more noises and saw the other ships suffer a similar fate.

After this, his story gets even more confused, as the melee was joined in full – with apparently more monsters coming down the lightning to join the red frog sailor. He doesn’t know when the masts were torn from their bolts, but his father threw him on a mast as it fell over, apparently to simply get his child off the doomed ship. The boy hid, terrified, under the sail on a spar and he heard a lot of things happening in the water, and then the sound like a waterfall – he peeked out at that point and saw the noise was from water falling off the hull of the last remaining ship being lifted by “ropes of lightning twisted into a braid” into a “great purple hole in the clouds” – and he saw a stone castle through the hole as well, swearing that a witch was watching the whole encounter while standing on the water. The witch apparently walked up in to the cloud as it was disappearing. He waited more than a day on the now-calm seas before we showed up.

Once his story was over, I let the senior crew know that we may have a pirate on our hands, and they may have a renegade sorcerer with them. I feel that I took warnings from young J-dai’s story, but while correct, they were insufficient. Looking back, I was very prideful in thinking that our ship was impervious to a sorcerer-pirate. Even with a battle-tested crew, I should have taken the warning an weighed anchor immediately.

The boy ate voraciously – I did not doubt the time frames that he told us. After a few more hours of scouring the wreckage for salvage (it helped that the sea was very calm – more like a fishing-pond) I began to get uneasy after finding the third ship’s mast – an experienced sailor could tell in only a few moments how many ships the discarded sails were from.

And then it happened. A shadow came over the waters, further out to sea than ourselves. Cast by a great purple cloud, it was boiling and moving and glowing with an energy that is foreign to my eyes. This witch-cloud was growing and moving quickly from the sea towards shore, but it never got to the shore – it found my ship and stayed over it, blocking the sun from our search – making it almost like twilight, it was so wide. Cast by a great roiling purple cloud, I began to give the boy’s story more credence – this must be the work of some powerful magic-user, as it could not be a typical storm. I immediately gave the order go regather the men from the boats in the water – we either needed them for the fight, or we needed the boats to flee upon.

As the first men got up from the sea to the main deck, I heard a sound that was loud like a clap of nearby cannon fire, but distant and rolling like thunder. The men were armed with saber, hook, and crossbow, and to their credit not a single one turned to give me shame for staying in those haunted waters – they each took up their battle positions and got the last of the men from the boats. We all stood ready, weapons in hand, for a few very long minutes.

Almost I ordered the anchor weighed or perhaps even the ship abandoned – but before the orders were given, the sound of some kind of foreign drum rolled over us. At the same moment, and the whole crew and I were enraptured as we saw a hole begin to open – a great circle whose edge was naught but roiling storm cloud and small splinters of lightning. The noise happened again and again, and I realized that the portal was opening ever-wider with each strike of the distant drumhead. And as we watched the spectacle, the true horror of what we were seeing came upon us. In the distance through that portal, we saw a great palace upon a hill of rock and boulders.

There was something not right about the way that we were looking at it. Almost like we were above it, but also like the front gates, all the pillars around the outside, and the roof were connected by a single acute angle instead of many obtuse ones. Perhaps it is best to describe it like we were within a trick mirror that was pointed at the fortress? Bah! I consider myself a man of letters but cannot fathom the words that should successfully describe how the hill and fortress were oriented to us.

The building glowed with sickly inner light and my mate held a spyglass and yelled that there were great crystals on all the ramparts, attended by some kind of monster, and that the sounds were made by these crystals.

As he watched, he reported with shock that creatures were climbing these magical devices by the dozen, and these stood waiting, looking to our ship, and then with a terrified scream he said that they were being launched off of the crystals toward us. I told the mate to keep his gaze upon the first ones that went in this way, and tell us when they would land on us. In a quick whisper he related “Only a few moments! At least a dozen in the first volley!” was his report, and then dropping the spyglass he roared “BLADES READY!”

Just as he said this, there were the sounds that no sailor ever wants to hear – the cracking and splintering of the planks of the deck. As the splinters settled, we were able to see it clearly – a monster that was in the general shape of a giant man – all the sailors were too stunned to rush initially, so it stood up from it’s landing crouch while we took in what we were seeing.

It’s stance was like that of a great bear on two legs, but even less clear delineation between the skull and the muscles of the broad back, and no fur. It stood taller than any man I have ever seen – with sloped shoulders and great long arms. It stood on two legs and wore black pants. It’s head was low to it’s shoulders and wide, with eyes more on top than in front, and a great mouth that almost seemed to reach to the back to it’s shoulders. It was colored a deep crimson, mottled with large brick-red spots on it’s head and back. It was indeed exactly the beast from J-dai’s story – somewhat frog-shaped in the face and wearing black pants. The invader was even holding a short length of chain that glowed bright like a blue sun. As we watched, it held one end of the chain in it’s fist up to the mast; the way you might knock on a door while holding a tool in the same hand.

As he did this, the rest of the monsters were landing, also cracking boards with the force of impact. The noise shook us out of our astonishment and some men charged. The frog-men (who were made in various colors) had already rushed to defensive postures around this one, apparently so that he could finish his work.

I stayed back for a moment longer, in order to perhaps find an opportunity to get past the monster’s companions and engage with it more fully. The chain which initially appeared very short suddenly wrapped itself around the mast and the crimson beast let go, just as a great bolt of lightning streaked out of the sky with a huge thunder clap and joined the chain. All the men disengaged and took a few steps back. Unlike lightning, this thing maintained its presence – as soon as it hit it fell slack like a great rope made of vibrant blue-white light.

As I stood back, the other sailors and I realized that we were bested physically – the monsters didn’t seem interested in a fight and kept simply catching our arms as we swung blades and maces, and pushing us back as their companions continued their work with the chains and lightning – some of the other monsters that landed also had the glowing chains. We got a few good hits, but none that were mortal.

It was in that moment of tense, industrious calm that I realized the true horror of what was happening. The ropes of lightning were losing their slack – whatever great wheel that had these devices mounted to it is turning and tightening the ropes. We were being lifted to that infernal castle. The weight was being put on the masts and anything that looked like it could bear the load. There were at least a dozen points the ropes of lightning were connected.

Some of the points began to buckle – some were attached to rails, to spars, and some just to planks. The first of these to buckle shocked us out of our horror and I cried “Kill the invaders! Your life is in your hands!” and to my great pride, every single sailor rushed as one and we slew several of the frog-men in the initial rush. The invaders then began to take us seriously and truly fought back.

The larger invaders would cleave off a limb with a single swipe of their falchions, but we could not kill them without the concerted effort of a dozen of us. We could overwhelm a few more, but they only fought us until we could feel the ship -the entire ship- lifted from the water. We all felt it begin to spin, and the invaders immediately ran to the points where the ropes of lightning were attached, and they began to scramble up the blue lines. We got a few more of them, but our doom was sealed.

One by one, my sailors – my friends – turned from the spectacle above us to look to me for direction. When I realized they expected an order, I gave it. “Abandon ship. She’s been captured, but we need not be captured as well.” Several men went to the life-boats, but then one man just dove off the side. He fell up into the purple hole in the clouds. His confused yell turning to terrified screaming will haunt the rest of my short days. We watched him float up through the purple air, and fell past the hill that the palace is on, and then we heard it – a great cackling.

There was laughter coming from the sea.

There was a woman. A woman standing on the sea, apparently still casting a spell in a circle of torches that floated about her.

She was in thick, black robes. Her auburn hair was flat around her shoulders – no wind seemed to touch her. She was standing in a circle of torches that were arranged on the water below us. I do not know what magic she used to stand there, but considering the sight above us, it did not seem unfeasible. She did not seem young or beautiful, but she also did not seem old or ugly. But as we caught sight of her, we felt the power of her.

As we breached the purple cloud, she seemed to be finished, and ascended past us by walking on the air. A few of my men fired crossbows at her, and one even hit. She did not seem to notice that a bolt was pinning her robe to her ribs. We lost all spirit of violence at that.

We suffered from extreme horror then. We were being pulled from our native waters to be prisoners in a world where frogs command high magic and even geometry did not seem to make sense. We thought initially that we would be pulled to the rocks and dashed before the palace. But his was not so. We were merely tethered. The men waited in silent anticipation for hours.

And the terror passed.

Terror turned to boredom.

Initially, I kept the crew busy doing normal maintenance of the ship, and rigging her up as if we expected to be plopped back in the water any minute.   There are a dozen or so other ships that we have been able to signal with flags and with oil lamps, but we cannot get close enough for real exchange of information. The crew is doing their best to stay entertained, but music doesn’t seem to sound right, and both dice and cards seem silly when you will likely never see the use of money again.

So now we are waiting for the end. Some of my crewmates have hastened that for themselves – jumping off always seems to have them fall forever past the palace and the rocks. We do not know if they ever find a sea or land. Others tried to climb the ropes of lightning – but it feels to the touch like a greased pole of hot brass. The only distance you can go is determined by your initial jump, and you can’t hold on for long, anyways.

We are beginning to come to the end of our food stores.

Some crew have suggested a feast of the last of the rations, since there is no hope of rescue. Force the sea witch to deal with us or let us die.

In the end, I do think something will happen. As I write this, I see that one of our fellow tethered ships is throwing all it’s cargo over the side, and I can see the palace responding – the frog-men are launching again to them. Whether to deal with them properly as prisoners and feed them, or simply to slaughter them for wasting wealth I do not know, but it would certainly be better than this incessant waiting in the purple air.

Hags are the Masters of Madness – Idea Pile #1

This is the first in a new series of text posts. For now, I’m calling it the “idea pile”.

The controlling method to getting it here is:

I have an Idea->the idea is notable for some reason->I write out and edit->I post it here with appropriate tags

This particular idea came from while I was browsing reddit and came across this post by u/jpan616, Link to original post, and I just couldn’t stop writing about it. I even got reddit gold for it, so I guess it’s notable.

If you don’t want to get sucked in to reddit (and I don’t blame you for that), then here is the setup: The DM had set up a situation where the PCs needed help from a Hag (Hags are humanoid in shape but usually larger, with mysterious magical powers and a penchant for being awful, nasty, baby-eating monsters. Think Disney witches with warts and everything), who demanded in exchange that they truthfully tell her their greatest fears. Most of the PCs said things like “Spiders,” or “The dark.” But one clever player thought

“of course the DM is asking us to load his gun. I should declare something that he can’t actually use against me.”

And this player declared that his greatest fear was “Madness.” Which is honestly a legit fear that I can see people having. But it is really hard to actually use against a character. A clever bit of metagaming on the part of the player.

The time came for the Hag to request something of the PCs, and it was abhorrent to them. They refused, and they left. So the DM started to use the fears that they declared. The PC who had declared “madness” started to brag about how clever he was.

Here’s the thing. You want to avoid pissing off the DM. You can kill his monsters and the DM will be delighted. You can derail a plot, but a good DM will just use what you gave him to make the story deeper. You can have a total change of character, and the DM will just live with it. You can decide to take over the thieves guild instead of exterminating them. That is all 100% ok and if it pisses off the DM, then you have a sub-par DM.

In this case, the DM had set up a great way for the characters to flesh themselves out in a very real way, and this character basically slimed his way past the set-up, and then bragged about it. This is how you piss off a DM. It ruins a great mechanic, it makes the game world a little more card-board-cutout-ish, , on top of rewarding the player for doing all this. Above all, it challenges the DM. Gauntlet thrown.

The DM accepted the challenge and is ready to mess him up. The DM wanted to show how wrong he was. But he needed some help from the community to get good ideas and polish things up. Here is my response, edited for clarity, focus, formatting, and language.

If you really want to mess with him and the madness thing, and are willing to take an entire session basically focused on him, then get the rest of the group on board with a plan – talk to them outside of the session first, without notifying your victim.

Start by describing things to the group as really weird stuff. Nothing that will force a roll of anything. The rest of the party is just sort of going along with it, but it is absolutely out of character for either you as a DM or his companions. Start small. Tell him, like u/dramlingthedwarf mentioned elsewhere that “this looks suspicious” and “You are surprised that this long-time friend would talk this way” even though there are no weird things about what he’s saying. Half of his perception checks give him wrong (and weird) information.

It’s really important that the other PCs are going along with this.

Eventually: ramp it up (The other PCs will realize in-game what’s happening and start ignoring his “new quirks” – the players should have some whispered convos at the table, but never with your victim). The point of this stage is to make him a little confused and generally to feel uneasy.

  • Mention that the water from that spring turns red and blood-like when he puts it in a vessel – and the other PCs just acknowledge what he’s saying and continue like it’s no big deal.
  • There is a swarm of demon rats (or whatever) that stops doing their rat-thing to just stare at him, and rushes away into other parts of the dungeon whenever he tries to fight/interact with them.
  • other things that you can think of – learn about the Mournland from Eberron for ideas.
  • Have him WASTE RESOURCES – time, potions, money, charges, spells, equipment, whatever – during this phase.

Then, make it REALLY weird (The other PCs during this phase are sort of pitying him, and trying to direct him to a temple, but he CANNOT know this – the player and the character alike have to think they still adventuring like normal). The point of this stage is to make him extremely uneasy and think that there is something big going on that he is not a part of.

Author’s note: normally I hate taking away the agency of a player, but this is temporary and he can still choose to act, so it gets a pass from me as long as the DM is considerate of this and keeps it controlled.

  • Have a defeated foe get up, take off his armor, and go shake his hand – while bleeding from the death-blows – and wander off naked in to the wilderness – Without saying anything to your victim – totally mute. The other players obviously notice, but don’t think it’s strange. (they see him still lying there, dead)
  • Have the rats rush away to another part of the same room, still staring – and then they are also in a corner in the next room. and the next. and the next. (the other PCs don’t see anything.)
  • The other Players should start passing notes. Make them gibberish and include “hag” and “madness” as the only actual words, just in case your victim intercepts one.
  • The players should whisper to each other at the table and then write things on the battle mat – once again gibberish that seems like real notes about the game but just do. not. make. any. sense. – whenever read by your poor tormented PC.
  • He shouldn’t be able to get anything productive done except by accident.

Finally, make everything turn in to the Hag. (The PCs should be quite urgent and impatient with his character during this one). The point of this phase is to get him to fight the other PCs.

Author’s note – Normally I would do everything that I can to prevent PC vs. PC fights. But the whole point of this fight is to make him unsure of himself and to get him healed.

  • When he shakes hands with anyone, describe the hand he holds to not match what he sees – describe the hand of a hag when he finally succeeds on the perception check (make it so he will fail a few first).
  • Eventually every single NPC keeps dropping the phrase “Hags are masters of madness” into every. single. convo. that he is a part of (or hears), and always out of context. i.e.:

victim: “Hey smith do you have XYZ type of magical sword?” smith: “well, hags are the masters of madness, but of course I have that sword!”)

  • Get the other PCs to start doing it as well, and treating it like a joke – even better if your vicitm thinks it’s some kind of inside joke that he doesn’t quite get and starts doing it, too. (“Come on, [victim], the hags are masters of madness and we have to keep moving. Right now.”)
  • The other PCs don’t explain themselves, and the NPCs look at him like he’s crazy (because he IS, capitol-C, C-C-Crazy) when he asks about it.
  • Eventually you call for a perception check from him and the healer (or whomever) in the group looks like the Hag with the PCs equipment hanging off of him as if they are ill-fitted to the form of the Hag.
  • If the previous point doesn’t get him to start fighting, then let him notice an invisible foe (a hallucination) right next to the healer, and have him make a perception check each round – success means that the ‘invisible foe’ is revealed for one turn as the Hag and she is standing over the Hag-looking PC menacingly and doing some spell on them. To your crazy victim, it is a real Hag to all investigation that keeps going invisible, and only responds to any speech from the victim by repeating “hags are the masters of madness”, and cackling- giving him a smack in the torso (roll an attack with +20 to hit) that knocks him prone.
  • Once he actually starts fighting, keep having the Hag go invisible, walk over to the other PCs, “finish the spell” and turn that PC hag-like as well. The idea is to get him to commit to a fight.

Once he starts physically fighting the otherwise non-violent NPCs or the PCs, have the hag-looking PCs actually fight (under control of the proper player) him until he’s unconscious. Outside of his madness, this is the players disabling him so that he can go get his brain checked out by a priest at the local temple.

After getting healed, (make this both available and cheap) he knows that he is crazy. Every major part of the session you make a ‘sanity’ roll for him and that determines whether his perception rolls will work properly – on a failed sanity roll his perception checks give him no useful information when he fails, and wrong information when he succeeds. He never gets a proper rest because of his nightmares – exhaustion rules apply. Continually failed checks makes the wrong perceptions deeper and more disturbing, but he is only ever one success away from proper perception, and it starts at low-level crazy at that point.

To emphasize how much he was wrong with the “well at least the hag doesn’t have anything on me!” bullshit, He keeps this sanity handicap until the issue with the Hag is resolved.