Monday, April 25, 2016

The Slow-Time Dungeon on Urutsk


In the morning, after the rain and the night spent with their unnerving visitor, Anjalik seem desultory, and smoked heavily as she, Slunk, and Merope continued walking toward the Trade Tower. Slunk claimed to recognize the smoke as being popular with the local halfling population near his village, and he and Merope contemplated the weird world they found themselves on, while Anjalik rambled, “I'm not a good person. I've killed people. I've eaten people. Nah, I'm just foolin' with you, you guys are great!” Merope thought that Anjalik was suffering from the effects of her drugs and the influence of the cannibal hunter from the night before, but Slunk remained convinced ever after that their companion was a literal man-eater.

The walk that day was uneventful, and eventually the group found a decent place to make a campsite. They were in a small clearing dotted with ruins, though only a foot or so wall remained to show the outlines of where the buildings had been. After making camp, Anjalik announced “I'm gonna smoke a bowl. You two take care of yourselves.” Slunk and Merope decided to search the grounds for any evidence of nature of the ruins, and instead found a trapdoor that opened to a staircase leading underground. The pair called out to announce their plan to Anjalik, then headed down into the ruined basement.

Underground, they found themselves immediately at a crossroads, with two large identical hallways branching off away from the stairs. One side looked odd to Slunk's elf vision, so he threw a pebble down the hall, or tried to at least. The pebble crossed the threshold to the hall, and then froze in midair. Looking closely, Slunk and Merope saw that it was still moving, just very, very slowly. Slunk theorized that the hall led to a kind of “slow-time dungeon” that might hold treasures from before whatever disaster had befallen Urutsk. Without meaning to, Slunk had moved too close the threshold and crossed over. Merope saw her comrade suddenly freeze in place. Fearing there was no way to rescue him from the outside, she crossed over as well.

Merope and Slunk agreed that they should try to spend as little time as possible in the slow-time area, and that they should start their explorations by ensuring they had a path back across to the normal-time side of the threshold. Slunk first tried tossing the stone back across, but it bounced off the air as though it had struck a wall. He next tried pushing his hand though, and felt terrible friction. He theorized that the air particles on the other side of the threshold were moving so fast relative to him that they seemed both to create a barrier and to be super-heated. Although he expected it to hurt, he thought the solution was to get a running start and jump through as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, when he tried, he caught fire and ended up suspended in mid-air above the threshold. Merope quickly dragged her friend back into the slow-time side, rolled him on the floor to extinguish the flames, and tried to awaken him. She saw that he'd stopped breathing, and immediately administered all the aid she knew. Slunk survived his brush with death and awoke feeling temporarily feeble and in need of a night's sleep.

By this time, Merope had become not just a fighter, but an arcane knight, with an elemental bloodline of frost. She cast a shielding spell on herself and started to cross the threshold. This seemed to protect her from the friction, although the world looked weird and shimmery as she stood in the junction between the two time zones, and she thought she saw ghostly monkey fetuses floating at the periphery of her vision. She stepped back from the threshold to rejoin Slunk, unable to maintain the spell any longer or to cast it again until she'd rested. The pair slept fitfully that night, imagining what must be happening in the world overhead. The imagined Anjalik waking to find them gone, and continuing on without them. They imagined the centuries or millennia that must be passing as they slept, and feared that they'd become lost again, unable to return to a world they were just starting to know.

In the morning, with Slunk recovered from his injuries, and with the opportunity to return safely seemingly already foreclosed to them, the pair set forth to explore the slow-time dungeon.


Slunk and Merope made their way out of the stonework foyer to the slow-time dungeon and into a hallway with finished walls and floors. Not fully understanding what they were seeing, they theorized that they were inside a starship which had landed (or perhaps crashed) on the surface of Urutsk and was then covered over by dirt and debris. They theorized as well that the time dilation effect might be some kind of security mechanism activated during a boarding party, and that the people onboard the ship might believe themselves to be mid-emergency. They tried asking Slunk's electronic familiar, Clippy, but she reported a massive clock-discrepancy between herself and the local computers that made it impossible to synch up properly.

Continuing down the hall, they found a branch that led to a strange room with dozens of ramps and walkways. They weren't sure what sort of room it was, but did find a security panel that Merope was able to open with a handprint. Inside the panel were new outfits that they put over their white coveralls: rubbery dark blue body suits that seemed to offer protection against fire. They each picked up a handheld fire-suppression device as well. Returning to the main hall, they found that it terminated in a room. Merope devised a plan to go in with their gas masks on, report a fire down the hall, then drop one of the gas-grenades they'd found on the big ship. She hoped that wearing the local armor and covering their faces would provide enough confusion to distract anyone they met long enough for the gas-grenade to go off, which would then provide either an even better distraction, or a major tactical advantage in a fight. (We later learned that this was not a ship, and that while the time dilation effect was a security measure, it wasn't activated as an immediate response to a bombardment or boarding party. As a result of this misunderstanding, the subterfuge element of Merope's plan was pretty much doomed from the outset.)

We all like to imagine that in times of stress or violence, we'd react like action heroes, moving gracefully and fearlessly into the fray, effortlessly doing what needs to be done. The reality is far different. One of my favorite aspects of low-level D&D is the way that it often resembles a comedy of errors, with every action the characters attempt going hilariously awry all at once. Low-level characters rarely act like action heroes, more often they act like Keystone Cops.

Merope and Slunk entered the room at the end of the hall together, gas masks hiding their faces, a grenade in Merope's hand. “We're under attack!” Merope shouted, “There's a fire in the engine room! We've got to get out!” The three occupants of the room didn't devolve into panicked fleeing though. Instead, their leader, a short-haired bulldog of a woman drew her weapon and pointed it at Merope. “Put the grenade down! Get down on the ground now!” Merope and Slunk exchanged glances, then attempted a coordinated maneuver to slide over and dive behind a countertop, using it as cover to open fire on their opponents. Instead, both of them failed to clear the counter, and both shots they fired missed entirely. They were quickly outmatched, and quickly surrendered. The leader of the dungeon residents instructed the other woman present to disarm Slunk and Merope and tie up their wrists. Slunk allowed himself to be captured, but Merope grabbed the woman, rolled them both onto the floor to use her captor as a human shield, and re-drew her weapon. The tough-nosed woman responded by shooting Slunk in the head, killing him.

Merope returned fire, clipping the leader's head, killing her as well. Merope rushed to Slunk, covering herself with her gun. She pulled two medical stimulants from her waist. “I've got medicine,” she said, “I'm going to save my friend, and we're going to go down the hall. You're not going to follow us. Let us leave, and I'll save your friend, too.” The two lackeys assented, and Merope injected first Slunk and then the slow-time leader, bringing them both back from the brink of death. She helped her friend limp out of the room, and good to their word, the dungeon residents didn't follow. Together, Slunk and Merope made their way back down the hall to the time-dilation barrier, and enacted their plan to escape.

Merope cast a shielding spell over the pair of them, and Slunk cast a spell to let them take a misty step across the veil. They passed through the barrier as though it weren't there, and made their way back to the surface. The world around them appeared strangely rainbow hued, and as they returned to the surface, they saw dozens, perhaps hundreds of ghostly monkey fetuses flying toward them. Merope pushed Slunk to the ground and threw her body over his to protect him, then tried the only thing she could think to return them to the safety of the real world, and let the shielding spell go. When she looked up, the sky was its normal color again, and nothing was chasing them. Anjalik looked over from where she'd been packing up the campsite. “Did you two spend the whole night down there? We're pretty close to the trading tower now. We should be there by this afternoon.” Merope thought of a story she'd heard of a man visited by ghosts who lived an entire extra lifetime in one evening. “All in one night!” she cried out, and wept. Merope and Slunk were both amazed to see Anjalik again, and neither could explain how the time-dilation effect had returned them to the same time they'd left.

True to Anjalik's word, by mid-afternoon, they reached a clearing dominated by an enormous structure. It looked like a steep terraced hill, or an overgrown ziggurat. It looked like it had around 20 levels, and each one was crowded with people, market stalls, and bustling commerce. As they approached, they saw that the ground level was dominated by heaps of garbage and heavily mutated people. Anjalik referred to them as “the trashy people,” and suggested that they'd be able to sell their Sensorium on 14 at least.

Unfortunately, they were quickly accosted by a pair of toughs who seemed to know Anjalik. They demanded that she repay a debt she owed them. Anjalik showed them the Sensorium the group was about to sell and convinced the two mercenaries to accept her share of the sale. The toughs initially tried to demand the entire Sensorium, but Slunk improved their negotiating position by conjuring an illusion of spiders and bats pouring from his cuffs. The pair of bravos agreed to Anjalik's proposition, and Anjalik herself was delighted by the trick. The enlarged group took to the stairs that spiraled around the structure and began climbing up. On the stairs, Slunk suggested to Merope that they repay Anjalik for her help by crafting a magical bracelet to create a similar illusion, and Merope agreed to split the cost with him out of their proceeds from the sale.

As they passed the sixth level, they noticed a great commotion going on in the market around them. The first part of the bazaar was nearly empty, then they saw a mob running away, and then a man with a glowing sword that seemed about to burst with power shouting “Everybody get back! It's gonna go off!” By the time they got to the seventh level, Merope had decided to try to help with the situation downstairs. She believed that the man had accidentally come into possession of a cursed sword, and that it was laying waste to the tower against his will. (Nope! Wrong again!) She asked Slunk to use his skills as a charlatan to negotiate a good price for the Sensorium on her behalf, and to start on the bracelet as soon as he had the funds.

Slunk, Anjalik, and her creditors continued up to 14, where the first salesman to inspect their goods concluded that it was the finest Sensorium the tower had ever seen, and that it needed to go up to 17. He spoke to some guards and got them an escort. In comparison to the slum-like conditions on the ground, 17 was a veritable bastion of luxury, with all the market stalls well-appointed and everyone healthy and well-dressed. The road-weary travelers got a lot of sideways glances from the locals, but found an electronics dealer willing to appraise the device. He made an offer that was several thousand higher than even Anjalik had expected. She managed to renegotiate on the fly. “It's four shares now. My friends get two, I get one, and you two get the other. It's still more than I owe you.” A menacing look from Slunk that intimated the return of his illusions helped to seal the deal, and the bravos left with Anjalik's debt repaid. Anjalik offered to lead Slunk on to a nearby space-port, the largest settlement in the area, and he agreed. The two went back downstairs, intending to pick up Merope on their way to the ground level.

As this was going on, Merope had returned to 6 and gone looking for the man with the sword. While trying to find someone who knew which way he'd gone, she found a group of people who looked like they were either so gothic they were actually undead, or like the Addam's Family if they were not merely ghoul-ish but literally ghouls. They pointed Merope in the correct direction, and pressed a bag of gemstones into her hands, saying they were hers if she killed him. Merope's plan had been to free the man from his curse, not kill him, but she acknowledged that he might die in the attempt, and reluctantly accepted their payment. Following after the man, Merope caught up to him in an alley.

“That's quite a sword,” she told him.
“It's my heroic burden.”
“Where did you pick up that burden?”
“It was a gift from my patron. I'm using it to bring justice to the tower.”

By this point, Merope was getting second thoughts. Whoever this man was, he didn't seem like the unwilling victim of a cursed weapon, and further conversation reinforced her impression that he did not seem amenable to surrendering the weapon to her. Around that time, the gothic ghouls were approaching from behind Merope. The man drew his sword and it started powering up again, and the two factions prepared to face off. Merope left the scene, dropping the bag of gems at the feet of her erstwhile patrons, and headed back to the central square to meet up with Slunk and Anjalik.