In my eternal war of optimising time at the table compared to away from the table, I shall always lose, but hopefully take a few of the white-eyed dastards down with me. Many spoilers for Barkeep on the Borderlands, of course, and if you need to catch up on previous accounts:
We welcomed a new first-time role-player this session:
- Masie: Urchin Pack (5) and Retired Bankers
And our returning players:
- Marlarke Hatiarti (the Great): Repressed Psychic and Guild Criminal
- Geanne: Revolutionary Duellist and Reformed Gambler
- Rigella: Star Blessed and Parliamentary Candidate
- Gurney: Newspaper Intern and Beleaguered Bouncer, now inhabiting the meat-shell of a small black dragon
By chance, the curtains rose with the group being sat down to dine at the Royal Wine Cellar. Given the implication that donjon inmates shared the space with fee-paying patrons, we quickly caught on to Masie being incarcerated and seeking escape. An unnamed guard and his crime-sniffer dog Mr Scruffles (or somesuch frippery) assessed the group, and Marlarke narrowly escaped ejection with a bait-and-switch involving his Very Legitimate Law Degree and rushing off to the toilet. Masie invoked an established bond with the mutt, so it held back when her time came, and no one was of a mind to provoke the dragon in a trench coat. After sampling drinks and having a free cake dropped off (nail file included!), the party slipped off into the maze-like cellars below, seeking a way into the royal palace to speak with the dying monarch.
During their hunt they come upon a reverse pickpocket who leaves their pockets just that but heavier, and next a quasi-human lurking on the shadowed ceiling requesting to buy their "intellectual property" while a bony finger stroked their scalps. Unimpressed by his business acumen they moved on, running into the Heir himself, sitting alone in a high-backed plush chair getting sloshed on eye-wateringly expensive Tanar'ri Sangiovese. They handily trick him into gazing through the magic eye, swapping forms with a very drunk Geanne, and with a final glass the swapped prince blacks out. The Heir fortuitously had a list of the required ingredients for an antidote (feather of a phoenix, toenail of a giant, eye of a tiger, and blood of a unicorn) and a vial of the last he had recently obtained.
Rushing out to the palace basement they then order some guards to retrieve the drunk intruder who now looks like Geanne, cut their hand off and replace it with a crab claw, and take her to the Bar at the Beginning of the Universe as punishment. Clearly not the strangest order they have received from the Heir before, they readily oblige. Next they encounter a snooping journo for the Borderland Bugle, who leaves with wild and damning speculation against the Reformist party from "an unnamed source close to the matter." Technically true, Rigella points out. They find and enter the king's bedchamber and find him in a state of near-comatose hypoactivity. Realising they didn't actually have a clear plan now that hey saw he was in no state for idle conversation, they retreated quickly to Granny's Cottage.
Gurney, seemingly holding back until now, was finally overcome and brushed past the delectable wandering child outside the hut to Kool-Aid man his way through the sugar-coated window. He provokes the ogre bartender, blows are rapidly exchanged, and the ogre collapses back into the rows of bottles unconscious. Granny is rocking back and forth, stitching her "Crone, Sweet Crone" doily, and is not best pleased - demanding he takeover tending the bar before things turned nasty. Marlarke steals into the back room, and raids a cabinet of unlabelled potions (noting an I.O.U from the woodsmen for he "needed some longevity"). They get Granny to blab that a tiger might be found at Someone's Appartment, but probing for more was pushing their luck. They catch sight of the the garbage disposing gelatinous cube, a rowdy patron having their ears turned to those of a bat, and a petrified table of revellers before setting off as Gurney covers his tracks by whipping up a billboard of himself using the magic brush.
Returning to Off-Central Park, they find it has now been hastily re-branded and re-opened as Freeze-Ezy Peak. They hand out makeshift snow shoes to cross the still-melting ice-cream slurry and have small toboggan rides. A bear in want of his gruntle briefly accosts them, and they nary hesitate to rat him out when they next encounter a park ranger with a pump-action rifle looking for him. Time has hurried on, and they are all variously pickled, so hot meat skewers sound appealing, yet leave them just as empty inside. The park unicorn had over-indulged and looked sickly, but was contractually obliged to offer free rides to all those "pure of heart and innocent of flesh." Fortunately, it could therefore continue to lie down and regret its life choices, though they did astutely note a recent needle track mark upon its neck.
A quick jaunt to Someone's Apartment (quite a travel distance I now see - I think I mistook it for Three's Company at the time) and as they arrive a comical cascade of predator-prey relationships comes surging from the front door. Amongst the menagerie is a tiger, which Gurney pins down with the combination of his cat-like grace and hippo-like bulk. The party pause a moment, realising no-one was actually prepared to resect a live tiger's eyeball. "I've got some ribbon-cutting scissors" Rigella timidly interjects, and clearly the most suitable for the task, is pushed to the front. Hoping for the slim chance of a potion of sleep, they drop two mystery potions down the creature's gullet first: speak with plants, then cure wounds. As it protests the nearby greenery tries to restrain Rigella, but she overcomes them, and successfully snips the optic nerve and enucleates the tiger, replacing in the orbit the now-mundane eye.
We've hit home time, so the bell rings, curtains down. Next session is the parliamentary vote, and they players are cooking up various schemes to intercede, though to whose benefit remains open.
Going Off Script. The palace wine cellar was the first time play moved outside of a prepared area. I considered whipping out one of countless dungeon-crawl modules I have on my laptop, but thought better of it, as I know the campaign frame I had offered and the players accepted was for something different, and I didn't think they were really wanting to transition to that form of play. Hence I tried to present just enough scenes to make it feel like a journey, stocked with rolls on the local Side-Tracks table for things occurring surrounding the venue. They noted at the end that the thought-thief felt out of keeping tonally with everything else, but I didn't take that to be a bad thing (I love a bit of creepy suspense and surreal horror). Running into the Heir was prompted from the encounter table, but ended up being instrumental to getting them back on-track regarding the 'main' adventure (though they were and I know would still have a high old time skiving off for all 6 days of the festival).
Hold the Fighting. The combination of how the module is written, and how I am bringing it to the table, means there is very little physical violence. Even switching a character's stats for those of a black dragon (less ridiculous in an Oddlike, but still impressive) didn't upset the party balance in any appreciable way. Would more unprovoked hostilities make the game more enjoyable? Hard to say, as it would highlight some elements of the mechanics we have largely neglected, but take table time away from the firehose of zany situations and presenting the food and drinks menu at each new establishment, which seems to be the real game. There are certainly plenty of non-mortal stakes at play, so I don't find the experience toothless.