DM Screen 32 – Once More, With Fearing

This was, by far, the most difficult and time-consuming arc to plan out. Giving the PCs the ability to jump at will between two different “versions” of the world meant coming up with twice as many types of enemies. Additionally, I allowed them to find the gemstone much earlier in this arc than in previous ones, meaning that they very well could have just made a run for the extraction point only a couple of episodes in. Finally, after building up Phyrexia as an immense threat for the campaign leading up to this, I felt a lot of pressure to really sell how impossibly dangerous this plane was without making the entire story arc a depressing slog.

I’m fairly happy with the way all that turned out in the end, although it meant a lot more planning on my part. You’ll see that, starting a couple sessions in, these notes tend to have a great deal of material in them that I never even touched during the actual League episode. I hope you enjoy!

You’ve all had some time after your return from the Mushroom Kingdom. What have each of you been up to?

Mordin: Mordin has been hard at work on his long-term project of developing a cure for the Phyrexian infection. It’s been a difficult project, even for you: one of the big issues is that the best and most significant sample of Phyrexianized tissue you have came from the raptor Lace. This presents all sorts of problems—you have no way of knowing if the Phyrexian plague would affect mammals in the same way, not to mention that Stitch’s symbiote may have affected the spread of the infection in unique and unforeseen ways. Despite these difficulties, after a great many hours of work and countless tests and trials, you have what you believe to be a working prototype of something that could serve as a cure for the Phyrexian plague.

The biggest issue at this point is that the tissue you have came from the side of Lace’s torso, meaning that you haven’t been able to meaningfully examine what effect, if any, the Phyrexian plague would have on a subject’s psychology—you’ve seen that the virus effectively reprograms a creature’s thought patterns, so while your cure has a good chance of removing the physical manifestations of infection, you doubt that it would be able to undo the brainwashing effects and return the subject to its original mindset, at least without more experimentation and testing.

I wanted to give Mordin a chance to show off his science skills and establish any sorts of projects he might be working on, but also I knew that the specific nature of the Phyrexian cure would be important a few episodes from now, so I started scattering in this information ahead of time.

Nico: At some point while the party is in Castle Grayskull, Flemeth will attempt to speak to Nico. It can happen virtually anywhere, although either Nico’s room or Flemeth’s throne room would make the most sense.

“So, word around the castle is that you managed to use the Tome of Eternal Darkness to banish some sort of Great Old something-or-other.”

“You are becoming quite a proficient mage. I daresay those who knew you back in your old world would barely recognize the witch you have become, and are continuing to become.”

“I am curious, though: the Tome offers spells of binding as well as banishing. Surely you knew this. Why did you decide to cast the Great Old One’s power aside? With such ancient and eldritch might you could have made your enemies quake with fear before you.”

“That book I gave you is full of dark magic. Many would say it is full of evil magic, but they would be wrong. No magic is inherently good nor evil, it is only ever made so by those who use it. But do not be fooled into thinking that evil is only ever brought about by evil intentions. A great many well-meaning mages have brought about acts of great wickedness and destruction because they incorrectly believed themselves capable of wielding a power that they could not. I believe that, had you attempted to bind the creature you saw on that plane, you would have found that your reach far exceeded your grasp, and you would have been consumed, if not by the creature directly, then by your own dark impulses let loose like a storm within you. The trial before you, and the one you have been undertaking since the day you first opened the Tome, is to discover the limits of your abilities—not just your power, but your control. But remember that no limit is ever set in stone—there may come a day when, should you encounter Dread Cthulhu again out in the multiverse, you could make him kneel before you without fear of losing yourself.”
“Think of the good that such power could bring about. Think of the many lives you could change for the better with a creature such as that brought to heel. That is what the small-minded multitudes will never understand: they caution of the price to pay when we dabble in the arts that we do, without ever acknowledging the price paid when those like us refuse to use every resource available to us.”

With Luna serving as a conscience of sorts for Nico, I figured I’d use Flemeth to embody the more morally ambiguous perspective of witchcraft.

Luna:

Bob had told me ahead of time that she planned to return Skeletor’s Havoc Staff to him, so I knew this scene was coming as I prepared for this session.

We cut now to another part of Eternia, to Snake Mountain, a towering rocky fortress in the shape of a coiled snake, with a river of lava flowing from between its open jaws. Within this fortress is a room featuring a dramatic throne made of bones, and seated in this throne is Skeletor, once known as the most feared villain on the planet, now finding himself alone in Snake Mountain. He slumps to one side in his throne, head resting in one hand, as he drums the fingers of his other hand on the arm of his throne.

I didn’t have any specific scenes planned out ahead of time for Stitch and Dante, so I just let them set the scenes for themselves and improvised off of what they gave me. Then we moved on to the main plot.

Eventually, the group will, of course, be called into a meeting with the leaders of the League. They enter their usual meeting room, complete with long stone table and uncomfortable stone chairs, and find it a bit more crowded than usual: in addition to Buffy and Doc Brown, a number of the League’s magic-users are present, including Zelda, Titania, Elphaba, and Geralt. On the table between them are the three round colored gems you’ve retrieved so far, and Zelda seems to be just now finishing up a spell that she’s casting on a small disc about the same size and shape as a pocket watch.

Once everyone has sat down, Buffy steps forward. “Guys, we’re getting so close to actually doing this. We have three of the gems mentioned in the planeswalker tome—just two more to go and we’ll have the means to defeat Phyrexia once and for all.” She pauses slightly, then turns toward the assembled magic-users. “Um, how are we coming along on that front, by the way? Any luck figuring out exactly what those things do or how to activate them?”

“Not… exactly,” replies Zelda.

Geralt scoffs. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that these three gems may be the least magical objects in the multiverse. They’re not responding to any of our divinations at all, and most of the spells we attempt on them do little or nothing at all.”

Elphaba leans forward, her elbows on the table. “Some of us think that may actually be a defense mechanism of the gems themselves—whoever created them wouldn’t have wanted the Phyrexians to be able to find and destroy them, so they likely were made to resist most varieties of magic.”

Buffy nods. “Well, it’s all we have to go on right now, so we’ll have to keep looking for the other gems, at least for the time being.” She then turns to your group. “Which brings us to our meeting today. Doc?”

Doc Brown stands up. “After doing some research into the planeswalker tome, we believe we have discovered the plane with one of the two remaining gems. That’s… the good news. The bad news is, the plane in question was absorbed into Phyrexia a few years ago.

“As you might imagine, we have a number of cells that go into Phyrexia fairly regularly to gather information, rescue prisoners, and perform acts of sabotage, and as far as they can tell, there’s been no word of the Phyrexians finding a mysterious gem of some kind—we can’t be certain, of course, but as far as we can tell, the gem is in Phyrexia but hasn’t been discovered by the Phyrexians yet. We’ll need you to go in and find it.”

The heroes can ask questions at this point. If they ask about how they’ll track down the gem in the vast plane of Phyrexia, Zelda will hold up the pocket watch-sized object she’s been focused on since they entered. The casing of the object is gold and filigreed, while the part that would be the face of the watch is instead a light blue oval with a rectangular blue jewel in the center. The whole thing hangs from a looped cord like a necklace. “You can use this to find the gem,” she says. “The gems can’t be located by traditional divination magic, but we’ve managed to enchant this magic compass so that it’ll pick up on objects with an unusually low magical field. A way of looking for the absence, if you will.” Have the players decide at this point who will be taking the compass.

One of the cells currently deployed in Phyrexia will be meeting up with the heroes on the other side of the extraction point. Once the PCs are ready, they can head to the departures room of Grayskull, activate the DDC, and jump to Phyrexia.

Castle Grayskull vanishes around you, instantly replaced by a different world. Before you can even look around, the first and most immediate thing that registers is the sensation of falling. Wind howls around your ears as you plummet with increasing speed downward. You catch a glimpse of a sickly gray-yellow sky above and a city of glistening black metal and stone below, but the city below is coming closer at a terrifyingly fast rate. What do you do?

The heroes can make any actions they’d like to in order to avoid splattering on the streets below. Continue once that has been resolved.

Now that your life isn’t in immediate danger, you’re able to look around at your surroundings more carefully. You’ve been in cities that have been undergoing the process of Phyrexian conversion before, but this place you’re in now is by far the furthest along in the process you’ve seen. The buildings and many other structures have been turned to black metal, but it’s clear that more than just their material composition has changed—some have been transformed into twisting shapes that appear jagged and disturbingly organic, others have become towering and monolithic. A glistening substance partway between oil and tar drips in thick ropes from many surfaces and runs down the gutters of the street. The air here reeks of gasoline, and you can hear the constant sounds of different types of machinery drifting in from various nearby locations around you.

Shortly, the heroes will hear a voice call to them from nearby. If they are on the street, it will be from behind a structure built into the sidewalk, a device roughly the size of an outdoor shed, all black metal and curved edges, emitting a low thrumming noise. If they ended up somewhere other than the street, this device (or one of similar size) will be nearby and the voice will be coming from behind it.

Either way, the voice belongs to a towering figure in red, yellow, and orange power armor, with a lime-green visor: the League member Samus Aran. She is gesturing urgently for the heroes to join.

Once they have joined her, she says, “Glad to see you survived the trip. That extraction point used to be at the top of a building that we were using as a base, but a couple days ago the Phyrexians figured out what was going on and just blew the damn thing up. We barely made it out and only just now managed to set up a new hideout a few blocks from here.

“We heard you were supposed to be coming with something that’ll help us track down the next gem, right? Do you have it?”

Samus may ask a couple of questions about the magical compass, but isn’t so interested that she’ll allow them to hang out in the street for too long. She’ll explain, “Beatrix, Toothless, and Lucca are back at our hideout. Raistlinand I were positioned here to watch for your arrival. Raistlin’s somewhere down the street, so we should…” She stops as a sound like a flaming jet engine suddenly comes down from the gray sky above. She cranes her neck upward and seizes up as a distant glowing blue fireball is illuminated in her green visor. “No, please, please no…” she says, her voice suddenly small.

The blue fireball streaks through the sky, growing closer and closer with terrifying speed. It lands with an echoing crack at the far end of the street, sending up shockwaves and stray ripples of blue flame before flickering out. Standing in the shallow impact crater is a young woman with long black hair, wearing light black armor over a loose-fitting red outfit that somewhat suggests a Chinese design. She steps from the smoking crater and her eyes begin to scan over the surrounding area, heading toward you with an eager grin on her face.

“Hellooooooo,” she says. “Don’t be shy now, I just want to welcome you to the neighborhood. No use hiding, I know you’re here and I’ll find you eventually. Why don’t you come on out and introduce yourself. I’m sure we’ll be fast friends.”

Samus may mention that this newcomer is Azula, the Red Phyrexian Praetor. Samus believes that any attempt the heroes could make at taking her down is completely foolish, but worries about trying to run for it—it would mean abandoning their only point of cover for a hundred feet in any direction.

At some point, a whispery voice will call out from the other end of the street. “Looking for me?”

Azula turns to see a figure in black robes holding a crystal-topped staff about 50 feet behind her. “Well hello there!” she says. “And who might you be?”

“I am Raistlin Majere, Wizard of High Sorcery, Hero of the Lance, and Master of Past and Present. I have come to take this world apart piece by piece and have no qualms about starting with you.”

Azula throws her head back and cackles. “Oh, you are just ADORABLE. Honestly, I want to just put you in my pocket and carry you around like a little pet. Do you know what I am, little mortal? What I have become?”

Raistlin grips his staff in both hands as a half-dozen spells flicker around him. “I do not fear you. I have faced down gods and won.”

Azula shakes her head. “You know, saying you’ve beaten gods is a very empty and not particularly convincing argument. I don’t care how many small ‘gods’ you’ve faced down, wizard—let’s see how you do against a real force of power.”

At this point (or possibly sooner if it looks like one of the heroes plans to join in) Samus will say, “Raistlin is drawing her attention so we can escape. We have to get out of here—that compass you’re carrying is the only way we beat Phyrexia.”

And that’s where I left it. I figured there was a chance that the PCs might decide to fight Azula directly (as bad an idea as that would have been), so I wanted to leave things relatively open just in case. When we actually recorded, they decided to book it, so I narrated their perspective of the fierce but brief fight between Raistlin and Azula, concluding with a definitive Azula victory.

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