Sunday, April 22, 2018

Rise of The Runelords Chapter One: Blood and Butterflies

Rise of the Runelords is one of Paizo's best-known adventure paths, and it was the first I actually played. Sadly, that first campaign fell apart, and I didn't get to finish with the initial group. Fortunately, years later, the DM got a new group together, and we have been blazing our way through this infamous tale of struggle and sacrifice. And though the game is not yet over at time of writing, I wanted to begin setting down the latest tale.

It is important to note that there are a number of characters involved in this tale, each with their own unique history and moments of stunning achievement. While I will attempt to give everyone their due, part of this focus will be on the more subtle aspects and transformations of one of this merry band. An outland stranger by the name of Zhakar Blackhand.

You can run as far as your legs will carry you, but a sword is a sword no matter its wants.

The Swallowtail Festival

The adventure begins in the town of Sandpoint, a noted spot along the Varisian coast. A few days north of Magnimar, the whole town is in the grip of the Swallowtail Festival. Dedicated to the unique butterflies considered a symbol of the goddess Desna, the festival is filled with fun and games. Bards play songs and tell stories, inns compete with mouth-watering viands, and merchants from a dozen walks of life are all set up to provide what the crowd needs.

Even among the odd and eclectic gathering, though, two outlanders stood out. One was a tall, broad-shouldered Kellid in well-worn hides. Beardless, though with enough scars to testify to his prowess in battle, he spoke the common tongue harshly, and haltingly. Thok, his name was, for the sound a perfect thrust or cast of a spear makes when it sinks into a mammoth's hide. Unusual as he was, though, it was his companion who drew even more strange looks. Though he wore common woolens, much patched with use, there was no missing the longsword he wore on his left hip, nor the soldier's baldric across his shoulders. Nor would anyone with eyes miss the heavy, black iron gauntlet that encased his right hand. Most unusual of all, though, was his face. There was no shortage of handsome men in Sandpoint, but he seemed less like a man than a figure from a story. He looked like someone who had been painted, and then stepped fully-formed from the artist's imagination. Zhakar was the name he gave, and though he spoke with more eloquence than his companion, his voice was exotically clipped, adding another layer of mystery as to who he was, and where he had come from.

They didn't blend all that well... even in a crowd like this.
The two men were moving among the stalls, exchanging pleasantries, pelts, and occasional bits of copper for drink, or a game. When Zhakar came to a young Varisian woman shuffling a harrow deck, though, he stopped. She smiled at him, and he offered his a silver piece for his fortune. The coin was thick, and blunt, with a face on it she didn't recognize. More strangely, though, was that the inside of Zhakar's gauntlet had a small lock on it, making it impossible to open for anyone who didn't have the key. Mirelinda took the coin, and with a deft turn of her hand, revealed Zhakar's fate.

The cards told a tale of a man who'd lost his home, of an ill omen in the form of a demon's red hand, and of a future filled with battle, and struggle. The smile that had been teasing around the corners of his mouth failed, and vanished. He thanked her, and moved on. Thok followed, speaking in the guttural, grumbling language of his homeland about the omens he had seen. Zhakar nodded, though kept his counsel to himself.

They were about to take their leave, when a local singer and storyteller struck up a tune on the stage. He played a set of fanfare, and the town's old priest Father Zanthus took the stage. He spoke to the hushed crowd of the importance of the day, of the blessings of Desna, and of the import of leaving one's cares behind. As he spoke, though, screams were heard in the distance. The smell of wood smoke rose, along with the howling war song of goblins.

Slaughter and Strife

Chaos broke out as the fang-mawed monsters rushed into the crowd, slashing and snarling at anything they could get their hands on. The revelers broke, screaming, each trying to flee the scene. Without hesitation, or even much concern, Thok unslung his longbow, nocked and arrow, and fired. The raider yipped, snarling at the wound in his shoulder. A moment later the singer on the stage had drawn a slender sword, and he ran the wounded creature through. Zordlan had called Sandpoint home for far too long to run off when something came to his doorstep looking for a fight, and as an elf he'd had a great deal of time to practice his cutting responses.

My knee... you little bastard!
Seeing resistance, the goblins rush toward the colorful wagons, only for Mirelinda to set the green-skinned butchers aflame. Hemmed in by a hunter, a sorceress, and a bravo, they seemed unsure what to do. Which was when Zhakar drew his steel, and cut the last raider he could see down.

Safe for the moment, the sound of screams pulled the four of them on. They drew people out of burning homes, turning aside raiders as they found them. Some goblins stood longer than others, but none had come prepared to deal with a real fight. That was when they heard the snarls of a massive goblin dog, and the barked orders of its rider. The captain, clearly the leader, stood with a handful of his men. Pinned behind a rain barrel was a young nobleman. He had a dagger in his hand, but clearly lacked the heart and skill to make good use of it. When the captain saw a band of bloodied warriors, he dismissed his spearman to deal with them.

That did not end well for the three warriors. Though they were skilled by goblin standards, and they did manage to draw blood from Mirelinda and Thok, they were no match for flying hammers of force, or the keen longspear that had taken down creatures a dozen times their size. Zordlan danced around the edge, interposing himself between the captain and the nobleman. He stabbed and slashed, buying time as Zhakar charged, and buried his longsword in the captain's neck. Black blood sprayed, and with his death the raiders' morale broke. Those who were left fled, leaving a trail of havoc in their wake.

The Stuff of Heroes...?

His life saved, Aldern Foxglove stumbled toward his rescuers, clasping hands and thanking them profusely. With enthusiasm, he drew them all toward the Rusty Dragon, where townsfolk who had seen their deeds cheered and clapped. Zordlan enjoyed the praise, telling and re-telling the tale of their bravery in the tavern. Mirelinda smiled, accepted the gifts she was given, and politely refused the advances that came her way. Thok nodded, telling the townsfolk it was nothing in his halting way. Zhakar seemed poised and polite, but there was something beneath the surface. A discomfort with so many people all wanting to shake his hand. When they were offered rooms in the inn for the night, free of charge for their bravery, he retired with good grace, and much speed.

It was certainly an event to be remembered, even with the blood and fire. Still, a good thing such capable heroes were on hand... hopefully they wouldn't be needed again.

For more on how these brave four (and their later fellows) saved Sandpoint, and eventually challenged the Runelords themselves, keep an eye out for future Table Talk installments. If you would like your own story featured on this section, feel free to send your own gaming stories along. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I work with other local gamers to put together skits, advice, and other videos. To keep up on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, your support is much appreciated!


  1. Love the description of Zhakar, quite mysterious with some major hooks for the GM later on.

  2. I need to know character classes and races. Don't leave me hanging!?

    1. I'm sure the classes and races will come clear, as time goes. You know one is an elf, and given that Varisian and Kellid are human ethnicities, that narrows them down. Zhakar... well, you'll have to stay tuned to find out precisely what he is.

  3. Just found this and I'm about to lap it up. I love after action reports and retellings, so thank you very much for the time and effort this took!