As some of you know, next week (May 14th 2014) my newest book goes on sale. Tomorrow there will be a sneak preview on my personal blog, but I decided to treat you wonderful folks who read PCS to a day early peek. Here is the first chapter from NPCs, available on e-book and print next week. Enjoy!
“Your party finally makes it into town sometime past midnight. The streets are vacant, save for the occasional guard making rounds, and the only light seems to be emanating from the local tavern.” Russell took care describing the sleepy hamlet of Maplebark, determined to get all of the details just right.
“About freaking time,” Mitch grumbled. “That took forever.”
“I told you, I want to do more realism in our games. That includes dealing with physical travel time,” Russell said, letting out a heavy sigh.
“Whatever; I say we hit the tavern. Boys?” Mitch asked.
“Hells yeah,” Glenn echoed.
“I’m in,” Terry agreed.
“I’m not sure if paladins are supposed to drink,” Tim said quietly.
“Oh, would you relax? The oath of purity isn’t that big of a deal. Besides, you’re a level one character. If your god abandons you, then just re-roll,” Mitch said. “We’re going to the bar.”
“Fine,” Russell said. “Roll me Vision checks.”
“How does that work again?” Tim flipped through the character sheet in front of him, trying to make sense of the various numbers. This was his first time playing Spells, Swords, & Stealth, a tabletop RPG, and there was a lot to remember.
“You roll the die, in this case a D-Twenty, and add your skill bonus. For you, that bonus should be four.” Having helped make Tim’s character, Russell was quite familiar with Tim’s skills and stats. It was the duty of every Game Master, or GM as they were informally called, to help the new players get acclimated to the system. “If you roll a twenty, that’s an automatic success and you pull off whatever you’re trying. If you get a one, that’s a critical failure and you screw it up, no matter what your bonus is. Those rules also apply when you’re trying to attack someone, only the repercussions are worse. You have to re-roll on a one, and if it’s not above five, then you hurt yourself. If you ever get three ones in a row, your character has failed so badly they accidently kill themselves.”
“We can do that?” Tim’s already pale face seemed to lose a few shades.
“Unbunch your panties, it almost never happens,” Mitch said. “That’s as rare as getting three twenties in a row, which auto-kills your opponent. Now, hurry up and roll; my character’s got a thirst only ale can slake.”
Once the dice were thrown and the results had been tabulated, Russell described the scene that met their characters’ eyes. “You see two humans sitting at the bar—one, a man who appears to be a local guard, and the other, a woman dressed in slightly more noble clothing. Drinking alone at a table in the back is a shadowy figure, small and crooked. You notice him glance at each of you carefully as you walk in.”
“Yeah, he better be scared,” Terry declared.
“Right. Sure. Anyway, tending the bar is a half-orc. Once you’ve all entered, he cocks an eyebrow,” Russell said.
“Oh, he is so trying to start something.” Glenn almost giggled. “Destructive wizard time.”
“No way, he hasn’t provoked us. Can I roll a Read Motive?” Tim asked. He’d finally found the page with his various abilities and was anxious to be of use.
“Sure,” Russell told him. Tim’s roll was sufficient, so Russell explained the gesture. “You understand this is his way of inquiring what you all want to order.”
“Oh,” Tim said. “I step up to the bar and say ‘A round of mead for myself and all my friends’, then put a silver piece on the bar.”
“He gives you back several coppers as change, along with four mead-filled, metal mugs.”
“Damn paladin, stopping us from fighting the bartender,” Glenn grumbled.
“I know. I wanted to loot all of his cash. But at least Tim’s drinking with us,” Terry pointed out.
“Oh, crap! I forgot.” Tim cringed. “Is it rude not to drink something I ordered from him?”
“Who cares? He’s just an NPC,” Mitch said. He turned to Tim, who had already halfway opened his mouth to ask a question. “That means Non-Player Character, someone who doesn’t matter. They’re background scenery, like the buildings and trees. But you’re still drinking the damn mead. Bad enough we have a paladin in the party. If you’re a fucking buzzkill too, then we’ll stab you in your sleep.”
“You know that would lead to an alignment shift, Mitch,” Russell warned him.
“Whatever, it’s not like alignment affects my stats,” Mitch countered. “Okay, boys, hoist them mugs. To the quest!”
“To the quest!” echoed the other three players.
“So, you all toasted with your mead, does that mean you all drink?” Russell asked.
“Duh,” Mitch said. “I drain my mug in one sip.”
“The rest of you ingest alcohol too, I assume?” Russell kept probing.
“Sure,” Terry confirmed.
“Yup,” Glenn added.
“Against my better judgment, yes, I take a deep draw from the mug,” Tim sighed.
“You should trust your judgment more, Tim,” Russell said. Behind his screen, he rolled several dice. After what seemed like a very long amount of time rolling given the fact that nothing had been done other than drink, Russell looked back up at the group. “So, let’s recap for a moment. Does everyone remember when I warned you this whole week that the new module I bought was going to be more realistic, and that meant accounting for weight and food and the like?”
The other players nodded, confused looks spreading across their faces.
“And do you remember how no one bought rations or water when making their characters, so you all wound up starving in the forest earlier?”
“Until yours truly stepped in and found us some food,” Mitch declared.
“You found mushrooms. And you found them when you rolled a critical failure. Didn’t you think that was mildly odd?” Russell asked.
“Whatever, it’s just a Foraging check. Barbarians are made for ass-kicking, not flower picking,” Mitch said.
“Right, but then you brought the mushrooms back to camp and made a soup that everyone ate. That was about four hours ago, in game time, giving the mushrooms ample time to digest and enter your system—a system you just introduced alcohol into.”
“You have a point here?” Mitch asked.
In response, Russell pulled one of his books from behind the screen. It was the module he’d referenced—a pre-made campaign that saved a Game Master from having to create every detail in the imaginary world and instead, handed him one ready to use. The book was already turned to a page with a picture of a mushroom and several paragraphs about said fungi. Russell handed the book to Mitch. “Read the third paragraph.”
“The Drunken Devil is a nickname assigned to this mushroom because of its peculiar effects. It is easily recognized by anyone with the Naturalist skill, and is therefore avoided due to its danger. While The Drunken Devil usually only causes sickness and vomiting six hours after ingestion, if at any point in the twenty-four hours following ingestion the character consumes alcohol, it reacts with the mushroom, causing severe damage and often . . . death,” Mitch said, his voice trailing off near the end.
“Do we get saves?” Glenn asked hopefully.
“I had you make them when you ate the soup. You all failed. And given the damage I just rolled, I’m afraid all of your characters’ heads slump over, slamming into the table,” Russell said.
“So . . . we’re dead?” Tim asked.
“Yes, you are. Consider this an object lesson in listening when I give you fair warnings about changing up the game style. This is also why I had you make backup characters. I figured you guys might blunder into something like this.”
There was the sound of shuffling paper as his players produced new character sheets, tossing away the old ones and leaving them forgotten. To others, though, the deaths of those four characters were anything but forgettable.
* * *
“Damn, Grumph, you slipping whiskey into the mead again?” Gabrielle asked as the four strangers dropped their mugs and collapsed onto the table.
“No,” Grumph replied, his half-orc voice like two stones scraping together.
“Then I guess these boys just can’t hold their mead,” Eric ventured, adjusting his armor for the umpteenth time that night and taking another sip of ale. Russell hadn’t mentioned it, but both Eric and Gabrielle were good-looking humans, with Gabrielle more of a classic, blonde beauty, and Eric dark-haired with vibrant eyes. The next voice to speak most certainly did not emanate from an attractive being, though. Not even by gnome standards.
“I suppose the proper procedure here is to loot their purses and dump them outside,” the shadowy-looking gnome said, working his way across the bar. Thistle’s black clothes didn’t quite conceal the crooks in his bones or the strange gait with which he moved.
“Thistle, you know I’m a guard. I can’t just let you loot drunk people randomly,” Eric sighed.
“What if I were to put them up in a room? Then removing their gold would simply be them paying for that service, and since they are not awake to haggle, they can hardly complain later if they feel it was a poor deal. Once services are rendered, there are no refunds.”
“I’m not sure …” Eric wavered.
“The other option is to toss them in the street, and you know how a vulnerable adventurer draws the monsters,” Thistle pointed out.
“Okay, okay, you win. Just gold, though. Stealing equipment would be going too far,” Eric warned.
“Aye, I am fully abreast of general propriety. Gabby, come give me a hand here,” Thistle called.
“Yeah, sure,” Gabrielle agreed. For the daughter of the local mayor, she was oddly undisturbed by carrying out acts less savory than a proper lady of society should be comfortable with, hence why she and Thistle had not quite a friendship, but at least a familiarity with one another.
Together, they went over to the party’s table and began removing the gold pouches from the fallen adventurers. Gabrielle was on the heavily-armored one when she smelled something familiar. It took her a moment to place, but as soon as it registered, she jerked back up to a full standing position and began backing away slowly.
“Shit,” Gabrielle swore.
“What’s wrong?” Eric asked her, rising to his own feet in concern.
“They’re dead,” Gabrielle said simply.
“What do you mean ‘dead’?” Eric asked.
“What do you think I mean? Dead, gone, no longer with us, passed on, moved on, bugbear food, are you getting this?”
“But, I mean, how? All they did was walk in and drink Grumph’s mead,” Eric said.
“Yes. That’s what killed them,” Gabrielle confirmed.
“WHAT!” Eric shakily drew his sword and turned around to face the half-orc that loomed at least a foot taller than his own thin form. “Grumph, why would you poison some innocent adventurers?”
“Way to go there, Lord Shaky of Valiantville, but that’s not what I meant,” Gabrielle clarified. “They ate Drunken Devil in the woods at some point and then had alcohol. That will kill most people quicker than an axe to the gut.”
“How can you be so sure?” Eric asked.
“The smell coming from their mouths. It’s very distinctive. It’s one of the deadly plants my parents had a tracker teach me about, since I end up kidnapped in the woods a lot. This was right near the top of the list; they showed me victims as well, so I would recognize the symptoms and scents in case it was ever slipped to me. It’s sickly-sweet and yeasty — the same smell coming from their open mouths right now,” Gabrielle explained.
“This is… this is bad,” Eric said, sheathing his sword. “I mean, this sure looks like Grumph poisoned them.”
“Oh, don’t be such a wench,” Gabrielle chastised him. “It’s not that big of a deal. We throw the corpses in the woods and let the monsters take care of the rest. Look at their equipment; these four are nobodies. No priest will be calling their spirits, or checking on why they died if they vanish. Easy fix.”
“Not quite, I’m afraid,” Thistle said, shambling over with a scroll in his hand. “I discovered something while scouring their belongings that complicates matters.”
“Great,” Eric said. “More trouble.”
“That’s putting it lightly. According to this writ, these four were on their way to the court in Solium to receive a quest from King Liadon himself,” Thistle said.
“Wait, so they were summoned to appear before the king in order to receive a quest?” Gabrielle asked.
“Correct, which means from the minute they received this scroll, they have technically been emissaries in the employ of The Mad King, the one who is known to burn whole villages at the slightest perceived offense,” Thistle confirmed.
“So, we have four corpses in royal employ, who are expected in court soon, and who, to an untrained or careless eye, it looks a lot like we’ve poisoned,” Eric said. “That about summing it up?”
“Perfectly so, though you could have mentioned that it isn’t just royal employ, but royal employ that loathes inconvenience and is more than happy to investigate the death of every person who has failed him in any way in hopes of exacting more torture on them, or at least on the people nearby their corpses,” Thistle added.
There was a moment of silence, and then the sound of a stony half-orc voice eloquently summarizing the situation in a single syllable: