Reign of Winter: The Bard and the Dragon

So I felt this needed to be posted while it’s still relatively fresh in my mind. As some of you might remember, the only game I’m playing in instead of running right now (well, until the Numenera game starts up again) is a Pathfinder campaign, Reign of Winter, run by my sometimes co-blogger Professor Jimbles. It’s a campaign that explores a number of themes, with the earliest one introduced being Russian folklore, including Baba Yaga, her dancing hut and her three riders; household spirits like the Domovoi; Winter Witches; cruel fae and never-ending magical winters. The folklore theme looks to be continuing through the whole campaign, but I know that later on additional elements of plane hopping and so on will be added (book 5 is called Rasputin Must Die! and features a WWII scene on the front cover… looking forward to that).

Anyway, when it came time to roll up a character for this game, I went with something I haven’t done in a very long time, and went Bard. Initially I made a Soundstriker archetype Bard, but after a rather heated discussion thread started on the Paizo messageboards between players and the developers regarding changes to the class, and there was no confirmation about the ruling for a long time (in fact, there still hasn’t been official errata released), I spoke to Jimbles and asked if I could re-roll as a Thundercaller, as it had a similar flavour to what I wanted from my Soundstriker anyway. Now, for those of you not familiar the various classes of D&D 3.5/Pathfinder, I’ll explain.

Bards are what’s generally refered to as a Support class, as opposed to a Martial (fighters, barbarians etc.), or Full Caster (wizards, witches, sorcerers, clerics and druids). There are other types of classes, but those are the big three. There are different types of Support classes. For example, Clerics are healers/buffers mixed with physical combat ability, who also make excellent utility spellcasters due to the versatility of their spell list and the fact that they’re also Full Casters. Bards on the other hand are what is generally called a Skill Monkey/Party Face. They get large numbers of skill points each level, and have features built into their progression that makes them obscenely effective at certain skills, along with limited arcane spells to allow them to create illusions, deal some damage, and heal as well as being utility casters. For example, Bardic Knowledge allows them to get bonuses on all Knowledge skills (extremely useful for identifying creatures and learning more about the adventure at key points), and Versatile Performance allows them to replace certain skills with their Perform skills, which is why there is a running joke about him singing to sense if people are lying to him or to bluff them in turn. He also dances to make acrobatics checks, which suits how I picture him, as a man who’s never still and always looking like he’ll break into a song and dance at any time. Additionally, Bards also buff the party by using their Bardic Performance skill. The main one is Inspire Courage, which improves the chance that allies have to hit the enemy, and the damage that they deal. As I took the Thundercaller archetype, I swapped out a couple of other types of Bardic Performance to give him the ability to create bursts of sonic damage with his voice (think Skyrim) and, later on, to call lightning down to strike his foes. So when it comes to combat, Xargin is very definitely a stand back and support the heavy hitters kind of character. Doesn’t deal a lot of damage himself, just picks away and helps where he can. No, out of combat is where he shines, with ridiculous bonuses to Knowledge and negotiation skills (Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate and Sense Motive) and more than respectable abilities to find and disable traps etc.

I named him Xargin Swift, and gave him a back-story involving repeated encounters with a Grave Knight who for some reason spared him after killing his family, leaving him to recover from the fire that scarred his face and took his parents. The Grave Knight continued to appear from time to time, sometimes threatening, other times almost seeming to care for the young performer. This left him somewhat unhinged, and he’s now somewhat paranoid and convinced that a horde of angels share his mind and speak to him. He may even be partially right, because somewhere in his family history is some kind of Azata (celestial beings who value beauty, grace and the arts above all else), which has resulted in his having an unnatural talent with every sort of performance you can think of. He trusts his travelling companions as much as he can, but is still wary as the angels often tell him contradictory information. He wear’s jesters motley at all times (he even modified his armour to resemble it), and is usually found sitting in random locations singing in random languages and playing whatever instrument he’s decided to summon at that point.

The adventure so far had led Xargin and his friends from the pleasant village of Helgen, in the warm southern lands of Taldor, through a portal that had begun to create an unnatural area of snow and cold in the middle of summer, to the frozen northern realm of Irrisen, kingdom of the Winter Witches. They had destroyed the portal, freed the town of Waldsby (a town remarkably similar to Helgen due to lying directly north of it on a ley line) from the Witch’s Guard controlling it, and sent many, many converted brigands, cut throats, and hell, just about anyone Xargin could sweet talk or intimidate into listening to him to join the ever-growing community of Helgen. You’d be surprised how many people took him up on the offer, though maybe not when you realise that the other option he provided was that of a rapier through the eye if they turned down the chance to reform. This had been a non-stop source of amusement/exasperation for Jimbles as he ran the game, as I tended to find unorthodox ways to end encounters non-lethally (or at least not lethally for all participants) and then spend time “getting to know” the prisoners, culminating in them making the trek to Helgen… I’d even convinced whole squads of guards from the north to try and make a new life there. My personal favourite tactic so far had been to summon a lute, at which point Xargin started dancing and singing his way up to a trio of surprised looking bandits, distracting them with his rambling while the party got in position to subdue them.

Which leads me to the point of this story. Why you should never underestimate the power of a well-built Face/Skill Monkey. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the tale of…

The Bard and the Dragon; or, Never Underestimate a Silver-Tongued Charmer

The dreaded White Dragon! He of Frosty Breath, Wicked Claw, and Little Intellect...

The dreaded White Dragon! He of Frosty Breath, Wicked Claw, and Little Intellect…

So in the session prior to the one where this tale takes place, we had finally reached the capital city of Irrisen, Whitethrone. We were there to steal back the Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga, as we had been charged by her Black Rider to find and free her so that the plotting of the current queen of the witches would be stopped. Not long after entering the city, we had encountered a type of guard known as a Mirror Man, who look like nothing so much as a dead man with a mirror for a face… one of them was about to locate us when I put what I refer to now as Operation Madman into play. A quick plan was made to meet the party at the home of the forger we were looking for, at which point I dropped off the roof we were hiding on, tumbled straight past the Mirror Man, and proceeded to lead him on a merry chase through the city while singing, telling jokes to random passers-by, and reciting poetry. After slipping away and meeting with the party, we got the papers we needed and met with the local resistance, which is where that session ended.

The next week, we picked up right where we left off, at the resistance base. Their leader advised that the task of getting into the Dancing Hut would be made easier if we were to help them start the uprising by removing the threat of the white dragon that ruled over a prison where enemies of the witches were kept, which doubled as a garrison of ice troll soldiers. Once this threat was removed, the Iron Guard who remained loyal to Baba Yaga rather than her traitorous daughter the queen would be able to begin their revolution. So off we went.

After a discussion of tactics, it was decided that the best way to get in would be to go in disguise. So using the natural talents of the shapeshifting Druid, and my disguise skill, we managed to dress as specific nobles who were unlikely to be questioned. I think at this stage, Jimbles was still expecting us to just use the disguise to get into the prison, then start fighting our way through from the lower levels all the way up to the dragon’s lair in the top of the clock tower. He was quickly disabused of this notion, when we walked straight in, realised that there were trolls everyone on the ground floor, and just walked past them (using the bluff skill to look like we were meant to be there) and right up the stairs until we got to the dragon. Again, at this stage, I suspect Jimbles was expecting a fight. But I decided to see if I could talk with the dragon first, knowing that white dragons are the least intelligent and easiest to trick out of all of the varieties of true dragons. The initial plan was just to distract it while the rest of the party got ready to fight, but I started rolling obscenely well on my bluff and diplomacy checks to flatter and ingratiate myself with the stupid bastard by offering to be his personal minstrel, and I was beginning to wonder how far I could run with it. A little probing got the dragon to admit that part of his job was to prevent insurrection and open revolt, so after a quick bit of discussion with the rest of the players, I started trying to convince the dragon that here was a country on the other side of the world that was plotting against the queen… roll on the stupidly good bluff rolls again, and terrible sense motive rolls on the part of the dragon. Within ten minutes, I’d convinced it that it had to fly to this country right away and deal with the rebellion before it was too late. The dragon placed one of the party members (who was disguised as a prince) in charge of the prison, and flew off.

So, having just defeated a dragon without having to fight the damn thing at all, you’d think we’d then just go and clear our the rest of the prison right? Nah, where’s the fun in that? Instead, I quickly forged some documents so that they appeared to have been dictated by the dragon, stating that the ice trolls garrisoned in the prison now worked for us. We went and found the witch responsible for the trolls, showed her the documents (ready to kill her if she was looking like disbelieving them), and rescued the children that she was planning on feeding to the trolls by telling her we’d take them along as snacks for the trolls on the road. In the process, I triggered one of only two combats for the whole session… with an animated stove. Luckily the party paladin was carrying an adamantine warhammer around, and he proceeded to critical hit the damn thing first try, destroying it in a single turn.

After we wandered downstairs and gathered up the trolls, we found the rest of the children the witch had locked up, guarded by some kind of goblinoid creature called a Whick-A-Whack… combat ensued… this time the Gunslinger critted, and again the enemy went down in a single turn. That done, we got the children out of there and to the safety of the resistance base, and informed the resistance that not only was the dragon gone, but they now had a small army of ice trolls at their disposal. After staring disbelieving for a while, and repeatedly asking if this was a joke, they advised that the trolls would be best used as a distraction by sending them to attack the Water Palace. So I led my brave, but oh so stupid trolls towards the palace, gave them their orders, and sent them on their way… at which point we cheesed it over to the market square where the Dancing Hut was kept, in the middle of a magic forest that hat sprung up around it. The entrance was guarded by three trolls, but a bit more bluffing and confusion tactics sent them on their way to the Water Palace, and we were free to make our way to the hut…

That’s where the session wrapped up, but it’ll be continuing on Saturday. It took much less time than expected for us to get that far, mostly because Jimbles wasn’t really expecting a smartass Bard to come prancing along and just bluff, lie and forge documentation until he got everyone dancing to his tune like some kind of prevarication-spewing pied piper of Hamelin. Credit where credit is due though, he ran with it like a boss, winging adjustments to the plot as needed and letting the Rule of Cool hold sway on the session. The result was an incredibly fun session that was enjoyable for everyone, even though there wasn’t a whole lot for rest of the party to do other than stand back and marvel at the fact that the Bard was somehow still able to walk normally despite the fact that he apparently has the gigantic balls of steel needed to not only attempt, but pull this kind of stunt off.

Moral of the story? Don’t underestimate the narrative power that a properly built Face character can have. A well thought out bluff can change the whole course of a session.


Written while listening to the album Minus the Machine, by alt-metal/rock band 10 Years. It’s their latest album, and has some absolutely brilliant tracks on it. My personal favourite is… And All The Other Colours‘. I’ve been listening to them nearly seven years now, ever since I picked up a copy of their breakthrough album, The Autumn Effect back when I first started as a Schools IT Support trainee in 2007. 

Next update will probably be either a review or two of some Pathfinder stuff, or a Kickstarter roundup… there are a lot of gaming projects on Kickstarter that I’d like to write about at the moment, but the downside is that it’s very unsafe for my bank balance to spend so much time looking at them, because so many of them are ones that I’d like to throw ALL OF THE MONEY AT. So I need to see if I feel I can resist the urge to start backing all of the projects before I start writing about them. Should hopefully have something up by Monday either way. 

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