Chopkil jolted awake. Duk and Muk were still asleep on the ground next to him, but the house and yard was gone, replaced with shadows and swirling white mist that formed strange patterns in the darkness.
Chopkil spun around and instinctively lashed out, his fist passing through nothing but empty air.
No, not quite empty. The mist seemed to be sliding around something solid, the shape of a man, visible only by the emptiness in the drifting fog.
A voice spoke from the void. “You have been most entertaining.”
Chopkil tentatively poked at the emptiness, but his finger found nothing to connect with.
“I admit in the past I’ve played games, setting shipwrecked survivors to amusing tasks to help me pass my time on this island. Barbarians are endlessly entertaining, but they always seem to break rule number one. It is not wise to harass the people who keep me fed. In the past I’ve been more than willing to sacrifice a playing piece to keep the peace, but the days are slipping away. I am now called to a higher purpose and without all my remaining pieces I risk losing the game.”
Chopkil warily circled the silhouette. It was hard to tell, but he was pretty sure the shape was turning to watch him. It continued to talk.
“Please don’t think badly of me for having to punish you and I truly swear I am being quite lenient. This is simply a demonstration of my power and will serve as a reminder should you think about misbehaving in the future. You can use that stolen restoration potion on yourself, but if you want your horde back you’ll have to apologize to Vasu. Once you’re back in a more… reasonable shape, check your supplies. I’ve left you a little something as a gesture of good faith.”
The shape stepped forward through the mist and grabbed the piece of driftwood hanging from Chopkil’s neck.
“A talisman of Newt Warding. How quaint. Pity I haven’t signed it.”
Chopkil slept through the rest of the night and woke cold and damp in a green forest next to two dragons as large as horses. He kicked at them and to his surprise discovered he had four legs. He looked around for his restoration potion, seeing it looming above the horizon like a mountain. He crawled over to the bottle and scrambled up it, pleased at how good he was at climbing now. Opening the bottle proved to be troublesome, but no match for a fearsome barbarian and after several attempts he managed to get a good bite on the cork and pull it out. He squeezed inside and found himself sprawled on his back, in his normal shape, with a thousand bottle shards winking at him from the grass.
He searched around the yard until he found newt Duk and newt Muk, had a good laugh at how silly they looked and put them in a pocket.
Hearing voices, He wandered around to the front of the house. An old man with a sword sheathed at his hip was talking to the elf. Chopkil eyed the old man. He might have been a warrior once, but was now overweight and didn’t look like he’d used that sword in ages. He would be easily defeated if it came to a fight.
The old man shot a look over at Chopkil, who pretended not to notice. “The wizard has apparently taken steps to ensure your barbarian friend won’t be any more trouble, but people are still upset. It’s my job to keep the peace around here so I need all of you on your best behavior.”
Chopkil was already bored. His gaze wandered over the other houses on the street and he thought about how much he’d enjoy pillaging them. He wasn’t going to mess with a wizard though, so he satisfied himself with kicking at the grass and imagining how much nicer everything would look on fire.
Then he remembered the wizard had said he’d left a present. Chopkil searched through his pack and found a mug he couldn’t remember stealing. When he pulled it out the mug began to fill with beer. He quickly drank it and watched as it refilled. Weak beer, but better than nothing.
A bunch of boring stuff happened and Chopkil started paying attention again only when the group left the village. He followed, guessing they were going to visit the wizard.
The road circled around a lake before rising steeply up a ridge, eventually turning into a series of switchbacks. One of the switchbacks ran along a stone wall with an orchard beyond. The elf scrambled up the wall and picked some apples, tossing them down to the group. Chopkil took one and broke off little pieces, surreptitiously slipping them into his pockets for Duk and Muk.
There was an old man in a wide-brimmed hat, sitting on a bench at the entrance to the orchard. He nodded to the group and the elf went to talk to him.
“Don’t see many strangers on the island, but there was a bad storm two days ago. You all wash up here?” The old man asked, not getting up.
“Yes,” said the elf. “We’re going to meet with the wizard who lives up here. Do you know him?”
“I’ve seen him around the island, but can’t say we’re friends. He mostly keeps to himself. You’re heading the right way, just a little ways further up this road. I wonder if I might trouble you for an apple before you go though. I’ve had my eye on that big one, just inside the wall, but it’s a little too high up for me to reach.”
“Of course,” said the elf. He moved through the gate and into the orchard. Chopkil stared after him and wondered if the beer was starting to affect him. He’d thought the tree was just inside the gate, but the elf was still walking and didn’t seem to be any closer it.
The elf spun around, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said the old man.
“You’re doing something,” said the elf, walking back out of the orchard. Without moving the tree suddenly seemed much closer. “Why can’t I reach the trees?”
“A big strong lad like you?” said the old man with an infuriating smile. “I didn’t think it’d be a problem.”
Chopkil watched as the others debated the strange phenomenon which also appeared to be preventing anyone from going further up the path. Chopkil tried this himself and had the weird experience of walking while not covering any distance. He stepped back to the group and waited for something to happen. He made a point of not understanding wizard magic and knew it was best to just ignore it until things went back to normal.
Several attempts were made to shoot the apple with a rope tied to an arrow, but whenever an apple was hit by an arrow it exploded. However, since arrows reached the apples just fine, the dragonborn tried backing up to the apple, without looking. This seemed to bypass whatever strange magical effect was over the orchard and the apple was delivered to the old man, who took a big bite.
“You going to let us through now?” asked the elf.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
The charm on the path was indeed gone and the group continued up the road. There were the remains of old stone pillars lining the switchbacks now. While they didn’t look particularly valuable, Chopkil kept his hopes up. After all, you never knew what treasure might be left behind in ruins.
A little while later they ran into the same old man, on another bench next to an old well.
“You again?” asked Glyn, glancing farther up the path. “Are we stuck here, too?”
“No need to be rude. I was just wondering if you could give me a drink.”
The bear glanced at the well. “I have a water flask in my bag. I don’t suppose you’d accept that?”
The old man shrugged, “That’d do fine.”
The bear handed over the water and the old man took a drink and thanked her.
A little awkwardly the group moved on. Chopkil glanced behind as they turned the next switchback and caught the old man watching them. He was pretty sure it was the wizard, but he didn’t say anything. He was on his best behavior and didn’t want to anger the wizard by ruining his disguise.
Once on top of the bluff the road leveled out. Off to the right were the ruins of an old amphitheater and other buildings scattered along the hill. Up ahead was a small chapel of some sort, in the same style as the buildings down below, but in excellent condition. Inside was a very lifelike statue of a man, dressed in funny clothes. He was holding a chest that was overflowing with gold. Chopkil tried to pry one of the gold pieces from the statue, but it didn’t budge. They were made of stone anyway.
The path continued on past the buildings, leading up to the highest point of the bluff where a single building sat. The house was nice and looked like it would have lots of valuables inside, but Chopkil had been expecting a wizard to have a stone tower, not this country mansion.
The elf knocked on the door, but received no response. Chopkil wandered further up the path and found a large circle of stone, perhaps 60 feet across, lying in the grass. The tiefling and the dragonborn were discussing the symbols carved in the stone, trying to figure out what they did.
Chopkil knew. They did wizard things.
There was a small shed next to the stone circle and Chopkil could hear a strange humming noise coming from inside. The elf’s friend seemed interested in the noise as well and was working at the lock, trying to get the door open. With a surreptitious glance around Chopkil joined him. Angry wizards were one thing, but he wasn’t going to miss out if the whole group decided to do some pillaging.
The interior of the shed turned out to be a disappointment however, just more wizard stuff, some sort of wooden machine all made up of whirling, clanking wheels. He thought for an excited moment that there was gold spinning around the machinery, but after a moment realized it was just gold colored light. More wizard tricks.
The tiefling had joined them and he seemed very interested in the light. After a close examination he went outside and picked a blade of grass. He brought it inside and passed the leaf through one of the threads of light.
The light broke with a crack of magic. The bonds holding the machinery together were broken. Wood struts snapped and spinning wheels were thrown violently across the shed, splinters flying in all directions.
There was silence in the shed except for the sound of a wooden wheel slowly spinning to a stop.
“Well… time to go,” said the human.
They all dashed from the shed, but the instant they were outside they saw a tall figure in a long, billowing cloak striding up the path towards the house. He was a man of indeterminable age. He looked at once old and young, but moved with a spry, if solemn energy. He didn’t say anything as he walked through the group, stepped into the shed and silently gazed at the wreckage. Without saying a word he walked back through the group and checked that the door to his house was still locked before turning around.
Chopkil was trying to see if the man’s silhouette looked at all familiar. If he imagined the man surrounded by white swirling mist he could definitely see some similarities.
“Well?” asked the wizard.
“We were told to meet with you,” said the elf.
“Were you also told to break into my shed and destroy my property?”
The group was silent.
“I don’t suppose I’m lucky enough to find that one of you happens to be carrying a priceless object that might provide me with some small compensation for the loss of years of work?
The wizard glared at every one of them. Then spoke carefully, making sure there was no room for argument. “The next ship will not be arriving for a month. In that time you will work for me. I now must spend my time repairing the damage you have done to my machine, but I do not want my research in other areas to be interrupted. You will be given tasks and if you accomplish them to my liking I MAY let you leave when the ship arrives.”
“Were you that old man on the road?” asked the bear.
The wizard turned his gaze upon the bear, seeming to not believe what he had just heard.
“What was that machine?” the bear asked, seeming oblivious to her danger.
The day darkened as the sky above the island began furiously brewing storm clouds.
The elf stepped forward quickly, “What task do you wish us to do?”
The wizard pulled his gaze away from the bear, though the clouds above them still boiled.
“There is a temple on the bluff across the bay. It contains an ancient library that is not totally devoid of value. There is a tome of ancient creatures there that you will retrieve for me. I understand my village is currently playing host to a researcher who is studying the temple. If you are lucky, perhaps he has already retrieved this book for you. Otherwise he may be of some help.”
“What is the book for?” asked the incorrigible bear. There was a rumble of thunder from above them.
“Ethel, stop,” whispered the elf.
“You may go now,” said the wizard. He turned, unlocked his door and stepped inside, slamming it after him. Chopkil couldn’t say for certain, but he was pretty sure that the wizard winked at him just before he disappeared inside.
The group was left standing on the path.
“I guess we should go,” said the elf. “We’ve probably been as lucky as we could be under the circumstances. Ethel, what are you doing?”
The bear had moved to the corner of the wizard’s house and was using a paw to scratch a hole in the dirt next to the foundation. She ignored the elf and carefully buried the tin soldier she’d found in the tree the day before.
“What was that for?” asked the dragonborn.
Chopkil didn’t hear the bear’s answer. He was too focused on the enormous, winged shapes that had risen from the trees in the distance and were heading their direction.
“Griffons,” he growled to the others and sprinted down the hill, heading for the statue chapel they’d passed. You didn’t want to fight griffons in the open, get a roof over your head and make them come to you.
Chopkil reached the chapel just moments before the beasts. He saw two arrows and a blast of power fly overhead, but he only had eyes for the lead griffon. Half lion, half eagle, the beast dove down towards Chopkil, skimming the ground to get below the chapel roof.
Chopkil met the griffon with a swing of his axe, the blade digging deeply into the side of the beast as he was smashed out the back of the chapel, raking claws and a razor sharp beak ripping as his back and neck. He was oblivious to the pain, the rage he felt in battle numbing all feeling but the joy of battle.
The next few moments were a confusion of grass and sky as he and the beast rolled down the hill, fighting in a mad confusion of fist and claw. He heard the dwarf yell and felt a flash of resentment. This was his battle! He redoubled his efforts, biting, punching and chopping, chopping until he killed.
At long last the beast lay dead in the grass. It’s mate had been shot down as well, the arrows and demon magic from the tiefling proving too much for the creature.
Chopkil slammed his ax into the griffon one last time for good measure and stomped back to the shade of the chapel to take a break. The dwarf pulled a few feathers from the griffon and ran to catch up, having to jog to keep pace with Chopkil’s long stride. “Nice fighting!”
Chopkil grunted. Of course he’d fought well. He didn’t need some short, probably halfing, who hid inside suits of armor to tell him so.
Here are the two puzzles from this chapter and their solutions:
An Apple from the Orchard – The orchard recedes into the distance as you walk towards it through the gate. No matter how long you walk, you are only able to travel a few feet from your original position.
Solution – Walking backwards or closing your eyes will allow you to pass through the enchantment. The enchantment also does not affect physical objects, so trying to hook the apple or laying something along the path may work. It might also be possible to go over the wall and get around behind the enchantment.
A Drink from the Well – the water in the well recedes any time you try to lower something into the well. The water is magically held in place and if something is lowered far enough it will eventually fall out a hole at the bottom of the cliff and into the lake below.
Solution – The old man did not specifically ask for water from the well. Any water will do fine.
Puzzles are a great way to challenge your players in a way that isn’t combat or role-playing (although they can be mixed into both those things). However, I’ve noticed a couple common issues with puzzles in role-playing games. The first is that they can be extremely frustrating to the players and the second is that they often break immersion.
Frustration: Always remember that a puzzle is an obstacle for the players. A road clogged with fallen trees or a collapsed bridge across a deep ravine are both problems that require solutions, but the solution can be many different things. Riddles or mental puzzles however, often only have one solution.
You never want your players to feel stuck. A puzzle will grow increasingly frustrating the longer it takes to solve and players will begin to check out (think of Merry and Pippin skipping stones while waiting for Gandalf to open the entrance to Moria).
It’s always best to be open to multiple ways forward. If my players had attempted to get water out of the well and tried something cool I would have let that be the solution to the puzzle even though it’s not what I originally had in mind. If you keep your puzzles open ended then you can reward your players when they come up with a creative solution.
Immersion: This is a much bigger complaint I have about puzzles in role playing games. They have to make sense! If your necromancer has to get into his castle every day he’s not going to want to have to jump through a series of puzzle traps. Why would a tomb have puzzle traps? That’s essentially saying whatever dead noble is buried there is fine with clever people stealing his stuff.
Always have a good reason to use a puzzle and keep things practical. Perhaps the necromancer wants to challenge newcomers, weeding out the less powerful foes? Maybe the tomb is a gauntlet to test champions? This is exactly why my wizard put enchantments on the path, he wanted to test out the people marooned on his island (you’ll find out why later on).
Yes, the old man was Vlf the wizard in disguise. He uses the illusion of an old man whenever he wants to visit the village incognito. I originally wanted a way for the players to interact with the wizard without having to deal with an intimidating magic user, but my players were suspicious right away. It didn’t seem worth the trouble to keep the ruse going so I dropped this particular plot thread.
What I learned here is not to stake everything on your players not guessing a final twist, as you might be surprised what people pick up on, especially when it comes to NPCs. Betrayal is such a common trope at this point that it’s actually more surprising for a friendly NPC to turn out to be just a friendly NPC (spoiler: you’ll see how crazy this drives my players in Chapter 2).