GM Note: The thief is referred to as “Christopher Hines” for this adventure.
This session began a little differently. Instead of getting a mission from Punwick or having some kind of trouble stumble across their path, the game instead started thanks to the input of the players themselves. You see, after the mission onboard the Akagiwhen I stated that the players would be getting some vacation time, they justifiably took that to mean that it would happen behind the scenes and not that I would take that opportunity to throw them into another adventure. As such, some of them planned out what they would be doing in their free time, and the player behind the character of Strauss even wrote out his entire vacation and delivered it to me at the start of the next session.
GM Note: If your players ever submit to you their own bits of backstory or lore, and as long as it doesn’t break the overarching lore, continuity, or rules of the gameworld you’re playing in, use it. This makes the players even more active participants in the world (albeit on something of a meta level) and can only serve to make them more involved. In games I’ve played in, player sculpting of the universe can come in virtually any form from using a bit of character backstory to establish game ideas to table chatter jokes being so damn funny that everyone unanimously decides that a false moustache stolen from a nobleman grants a +2 to diplomacy checks as long as it’s worn. This is a player-driven world, after all, and the GMs job is just to make sure they don’t break it.
In Strauss’ detailed account of his time off from G&H, he describes a trip to see his sister and her husband, Carl. As it happens, however, Strauss doesn’t care much for his brother-in-law and doesn’t believe that he’s anything resembling the legitimate businessman that his sister believes him to be. Following him out one night, Strauss observed Carl talking to a number of shady individuals. When they parted ways, Strauss opted to follow the other group, knowing that he could always catch up to Carl later. Strauss followed the figures to a commercial building, which they entered using methods other than a legitimate key. Waiting outside, Strauss saw them emerge several minutes later with a briefcase in tow. Deciding that he’d seen enough, Strauss (and his rifle) interjected. After the men were dead, he retrieved the briefcase, which he brought back to his fellow employees at G&H for consideration.
And this is where the adventure began. Presenting the briefcase to the party, Strauss elaborates (somewhat vaguely) on how he obtained it, and asks if anyone can open it. Chris, always eager to show off his thievery skills, sets to work on the briefcase lock and in a few minutes manages to crack it. Popping the lid on the case, he opens it to reveal a stack of papers and a few USB drives. The information on them paints a somewhat disturbing picture: Arcane Technologies, though quickly losing power in Sigil thanks to the actions of the party, was still a large security provider for a number of prominent establishments in the multiverse. Contained in the briefcase were Arcane Technologies documents detailing security measures, codes, and other information for the City of Brass, the Efreeti trade city on the Elemental Plane of Fire and one of the largest urban centers on the Wheel.
Smelling a potential opportunity for G&H (and sensing the plot hook) the players briefly debate their options and then decide to investigate the city themselves to see if they can turn up any further leads on what appears to be an attempted security breach. Making their way through a few portals they catch a specially-constructed ship built to withstand the lava oceans of the Elemental Plane of Fire and begin the journey to the City of Brass. Sailing through one final portal, they are bombarded with a sudden extreme heat as the world turns red, lit by the undying fires of the plane they’ve just entered. Their ship traverses a roiling sea of molten rock, waves of lava lapping at the hull and attempting to course over the sides and consume the passengers. Ahead in the distance lies the City of Brass itself, an immense metropolis situated atop a magically floating half-sphere of bronze and gleaming majestically in the light of reflected fires.
As their ship approaches, the city slowly begins to descend from its elevated perch above the fiery surface. The bronze half-sphere on the underside of the city gradually submerges and as the city settles into place the lava floods the various ports and harbors that ring the sphere, creating a docking point for the incoming vessel. The whole spectacle takes maybe 20 minutes, but it long completed by the time the party’s ship docks at the city’s Magma Gate in the Iskalat District. Now at harbor at their destination the party faces their first real challenge of the session: getting into the city itself.
The City of Brass is not, all considered, a very welcoming place. Populated by the lawful evil Efreeti, located on an eternally burning plane of fire, and home to the largest slave trade industry in the multiverse, it’s not the kind of place you’d want to take your kids. It is, however, a very prominent trade hub and makes use of a very rigid border and interior security network. Proper travel codes are needed to enter or exit the city and regular guard patrols keep a vigilant eye out for those that would violate the city’s strict laws. The party has some of these access codes in their possession, but they have no way of knowing whether or not they’re up to date or even legitimate at all. As such, they decide to attempt to sneak in some of their more… questionable cargo with Chris.
GM Note: At this point in the campaign, some of the players have finally hit the prerequisites for one of the more fun D20 modern additions: cybernetics. Some of that fun comes at a compromise, mind you, as you really need to keep an eye on what you players want to augment. Some cybernetics offer a flat bonus to major attributes all the way up to +6 or something ridiculous like that. Unless you’re willing to venture into “totally broken” territory it’s best to use the GM veto on upgrades like this. But others are more balanced and can result in a lot of fun. Chris is the only character in the party really excited about getting a cybernetic augment and at this point he has outfitted himself with a Chameleon Skin dermal augmentation, a kind of optic camouflage a-la Metal Gear Solid. And, as a result of the party helping out that particular upgrade’s creator during the Akagi fiasco he also got an additional upgrade: the ability to make portions of his skin light up at will into a kind of built-in wristwatch. Not especially powerful, but cool.
And so with Chris’ newly-acquired ability to go nearly invisible, they load him up with several items they brought with them that would probably not make it through customs: namely the cocaine they stole from Jack Flash’s operation and the lycanthropy virus that they stole from the SAS. At this point in the campaign they actually seem to be unable to go anywhere without it, harboring a “just in case” mentality.
Loading up with the contraband, Chris steps into a shadowy corner and fades from view. He carefully weaves his way through the bustle of the docks being careful not to make contact with anyone. As he finally approaches the security checkpoint leading into the city, he circles wide around to the extreme edge of the barricade and crawls his way over, narrowly avoiding knocking over the portable fence and drawing unwanted attention to himself.
With Chris safely within the city the rest of the players approach the checkpoint and present the security codes to the two Efreeti guards stationed there. They hold their collective breaths for a moment as the codes are scanned and verified, but after a few moments they are given the go-ahead and allowed into the city. Now they just need to figure out what exactly they’re doing there.
Asking around the right back alleys for a bit gives them a name: Al-Arat, an Efreet who tends to be at the center of any underwold activities within the city. He runs his operations of an establishment in the Rookery, and can usually be found there, albeit behind a number of personal bodyguards. If someone was trying to steal the security plans for the city, he may very well know who and why.
Before they can advance any further along that line of inquiry, however, they notice that the street seems to be clearing of other occupants, and looking a bit further on they can see why. A squad of guards approaches the party, polearms displayed prominently (though admittedly if there’s another way to display a polearm I don’t know of it). The squad’s sergeant steps forward and declares that their access codes were flagged as suspicious upon entering the city and that they are required to accompany the guards to the Charcoal Palace, where the Vizier wishes to speak to them.
The party exchanges glances, first with each other, then with the eight heavily-armed soldiers in front of them, and ultimately decide that engaging the city’s police force immediately upon arriving would not be the best course of action and so agree to accompany the guards to the Palace. The players are not restrained or even disarmed, but they are flanked by the guards as they make their way through the city’s streets and onto the main avenue. As they proceed through the streets, the massive black dome of the Charcoal Palace looms up in front of them. The Palace has served for thousands of years as the seat of power for the ruler of the City of Brass, currently the Sultana of Brass, Samira al A’shadieeyah, who has ruled for only a short time following the assassination of the previous Sultan.
Entering the Palace, they are ushered up several sets of stairs and down several more ornate hallways before entering the Vizier’s private office. The Vizier himself is a towering red-skinned Efreeti, suited in elaborate finery befitting that of a royal advisor. He looks up when they enter and rises to greet them, offering what is probably the closest thing to a warm smile a chaotic evil individual can put forth.
Vizier: “Welcome, my rather suspicious foreigners. My name is Abd al Hadi bin Uthman, Vizier to our Sultana of Brass. I apologize for the rudeness of this summons, but circumstances necessitated such action. Thank you, Sergeant, you may leave.”
The sergeant throws a sharp salute and then turns on his heel and exits the room, leaving the party alone with the Vizier.
Vizier: “So. You know why you are here?”
Norm: “The Sergeant said something about our access codes.”
Vizier: “Correct. Your access codes have been flagged as a potential security risk. Mainly because those codes were stolen from an Arcane Tech office several days ago.”
Strauss: “Okay, before you jump to conclusions, we didn’t steal them.”
Vizier: “I know.”
Strauss: “You know?”
Vizier: “Security footage from inside the building has shown the perpetrators to be known associates of a criminal presence that frequents this city, one Carl Lark.”
Strauss: “I knew it.”
Strauss: “Carl is my brother-in-law.”
Vizier: “Hrmm. My sympathies to your sister, then. Mr. Lark often shows up here in the city to make trouble, though we haven’t been able to connect him to anything directly. He’s been making power plays here and there in the underworld and what with this recent security breach he’s beginning to become quite a bother.”
Strauss: “Yeah, I’ll bet.”
Gorak: “Uh, not to wreck the status quo here, but are we under arrest?”
Vizier: “No. As I said, security footage was able to identify the thieves who stole these codes. Other cameras also captured footage of a man with a rifle gunning them all down in the street.”
Vizier: “So I think we can be reasonably sure you’re not the ones who stole our security plans. At least not initially. While I am a bit irritated that you attempted to use said stolen property to enter our city, I believe that we can find a way to look past that.”
Chris: “That being?”
Vizier: “I’ll be frank: the security of this city may still be compromised. We don’t know if any of the information that was taken was transmitted to other parties, and whether any of our current security measures can be trusted. We have several representatives coming in from Baator tomorrow that the Sultana must greet personally as a matter of appearances. This is not something I am keen to risk in a potential security crisis. Seeing as how you seem experienced individuals, that you apparently know our prime suspect, and most importantly because you are an unknown variable in our plans, I’d like to enlist your help in seeking out Mr. Lark and putting a stop to any dealings he has in the works.”
Norm: “And is this paid, or…?”
Vizier: “I’m not arresting you, am I?”
Norm: “Right. Wonderful.”
Vizier: “Track down Mr. Lark and bring him in, I’m not particular as to whether he’s breathing or not, just get it done, and do so before tomorrow afternoon.”
Chris: “Alright, we can do that.”
Vizier: “Good. Report back here when you’ve taken care of it. And don’t try to leave the city. We’ll know.”
The players funnel back through the hallways and stairwells and exit the Palace. Back on the streets of the city, they decide to pick up where they left off: tracking down Al-Arat to see if he has any leads on Carl. Heading to the Rookery where Al-Arat’s establishment is located, they are directed to a building that doesn’t look like much more than a warehouse at first glance. Lacking any windows, at least from the front, and painted a dull, chipped green the place certainly looks shady enough. Pushing through the front door, a cacophony of noise washes over them. Several patrons stand at a haphazard bar against the east wall, and a Salamander guard flanks the door to the right, but the majority of the building’s occupants are crowded in a circle around a pit dug into the floor. Waving money above their heads and shouting in varying fits of excitement and profanity, they watch two snakes fight each other in the bottom of the pit, the volume getting louder every time a bite is landed.
Giving the snake pit and the crowd around it a wide berth for the time being, the players circle around toward the rear of the room toward a pair of salamander guards that stand on either side of a door. Chris approaches the pair with an air of confidence.
Chris: “We’re here to see Al-Arat.”
Salamander: “Al-Arat isn’t expecting any meetings today.”
Chris: “We’re old friends. A drop-in appointment, he’ll be glad to see us.”
Salamander: “No one sees the boss.”
Chris: “If you’ll just talk to him-”
Salamander: “No one. Now, either get a drink or place a bet or we’ll have to remove you.”
Gorak: “Actually guys, I wouldn’t mind putting a few bucks down on one of the snakes…”
Norm: “Or we could do this.”
Drawing his swords, Norm swings at the salamander in front of them, who slithers back but not without catching a grazing wound across the chest. Hissing angrily, he lowers his spear and thrusts back in retaliation as the second salamander circles around to the party’s right flank and two others rush in from the front door and next to the bar, making it a four-on-four fight. The salamanders close in their circle around the party, trying to close the distance between themselves and the party members with weapons, forcing them into melee range. Strauss and Chris manage to tumble through them as they advance, however, and the building itself is fairly large, giving them enough space to spread out and get some distance between themselves and their spear-wielding enemies. Norm and Gorak go back-to-back in the middle of the group and try to fend off the polearm attack with sword and mace. Gorak is stabbed in the shoulder and gets a sudden unpleasant lesson in the 3.5 monster manual: salamanders do extra fire damage on a successful hit.
Gorak’s wound erupts in (literal) fiery pain, nearly causing him to drop his weapon. But he manages to swing his mace up and ward off a second attack from the salamanders as they look for an opening. Norm meanwhile is whirling around in all directions, lashing out at the salamanders around him. Blocking one spear thrust with crossed swords, he turns and cuts one of the salamanders down with a backhanded slash to his torso.
Chris and Strauss meanwhile vault behind the bar to take up firing positions, joining a bartender who is crouched beside some of the more expensive bottles but to his credit looks nonplussed at the situation. Chris fires a round that goes wide, the crack of gunfire seeming to alert the cheering gamblers that there is another, more immediately attention-demanding than the one they had been watching and while a few funnel quickly outside, most simple relocate out of the path of gunfire and stand on the sides of the room to watch. A few even start placing bets again. Strauss follows up with a double-tap to the salamander that stabbed Gorak, the bullets lancing through the thick scales and lodging in the flesh underneath.
The salamander attempts to turn toward the source of the gunfire, but Gorak relocates his attention back on him by clubbing him in the ribs with his mace, drawing another angry spearthrust that burns as it scythes against Gorak’s arm. Norm turns to protect Gorak’s flank and lands a decent blow that narrowly misses impaling his enemy, but earns a spear wound of his own in return which comes close to knocking him unconscious in one hit. Chris fires another round from behind the bar, this one tearing through the bicep and lodging in the chest cavity of the salamander Norm tried to stab, dropping him to the floor with a gurgling sound and leaving only two enemies remaining. Those two are quickly reduced to one as Strauss lands another two shots. The last surviving salamander, somewhat larger than the other three, stabs one last time at Gorak, who sidesteps the thrust and lurches forward with a powerful upward swing, catching the salamander under his chin and evoking the disconcerting sound of a cracking neck as the salamander topples backwards to the floor.
The crowd along the sides of the room seem to be surprised at first. Then they swap a few coins, several individuals earning a rather sizeable take, and then go back to watching their snake fight. The bartender stands back up and begins polishing the same glass he was before the fighting broke out. The party shrugs and turns back to the door at the back of the room.
Opening the door, the group steps into a small office, somewhat better maintained than the rest of the building, with a male efreet sitting at a desk against the far wall. He doesn’t even look up at the sound of the door opening.
Al-Arat: “I assume you took care of whatever that was?”
Chris: “Yeah, we took care of it, alright.”
Al-Arat’s head jerks up at the unfamiliar voice and his expression looks concerned for a moment, but quickly transforms into a scowl of indignation.
Al-Arat: “Who are you?”
Chris: “We’re the guys who just took out your guards, Mr. Rat.”
Chris: “Sure, whatever.”
Al-Arat: “What is it you want?”
Strauss: “Carl Lark.”
Strauss: “Don’t play dumb. Word is you know everything going on in the back alleys of this city, so you’d know who he is. Start talking.”
Al-Arat: “Alright, so I know him. What does it matter to you?”
Chris: “We’re looking for him, that’s all you need to know.”
Al-Arat appears to debate his options for a moment, and apparently taking into consideration what happened to his guards, grudgingly starts talking.
Al-Arat: “He came to me a few days ago, looking to hire some muscle. For the price he was paying I was more than happy to hook him up with a few folks who fit the bill.”
Chris: “Who? And give us numbers.”
Al-Arat: “Slaves, mostly, but good fighters. Efreet, a few salamanders. About 20 of ‘em in all, give or take.”
Strauss: “What’d he need them for?”
Al-Arat: “He didn’t say, I didn’t ask. Though that many, it wasn’t just for protection so I’d say he’s planning some kinda move. Besides, he already had two bodyguards with him.”
Strauss: “He did?”
Al-Arat: “Yeah, two creepy-lookin’ humans. Looked like twins, maybe, but you humans all look the same to me, anyway.”
Strauss: “And where is he now?”
Al-Arat: “I can’t be sure exactly, but when one of those two humans came in to pick up the muscle I overheard him tell them that they’d be heading down to the Marlgate. That’s where I’d start.”
Chris: “Thank you, you’ve been very helpful. However, you are a known criminal around here.”
Al-Arat: “You broke into my place of business and killed my guards!”
Strauss: “Yeah, but you’re still the criminal. Go figure.”
Chris: “Wait. I’m actually debating this here. Do we want to kill this guy, or do we actually want to leave a contact alive for a change?”
There is a momentary pause, and then Norm starts laughing hysterically, as if that one sentence was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
Norm: “No, but seriously, you want me to do it?”
Before the party can continue to debate whether or not they’re going to kill their captive (directly in front of said captive, might I add) something crashes through the back window of the office. A small, cylindrical object rolls to a stop directly in front of the party and they all eye it in confusion for a moment as realization sets in. Before anyone has much of a chance to move, the flashbang detonates and Chris is the only one who reacts quickly enough to raise a hand and shield his eyes from the blast. Everyone else is completely disoriented from the grenade, and Chris is still deafened but he still has his vision and sees a dwarf crash through the window with his shotgun raised. Chris fires his pistol at the figure, but the bullet passes harmlessly past his shoulder as the dwarf turns his shotgun in a wide arc to cover the entire group.
Dwarf: “All right, everybody on the- wait, what the hell are you guys doing here?”
No one can really hear his question, but Chris’ vision is still intact enough to recognize the dwarven intruder: it’s Al, the bartender from the Akagi lounge. Following close behind him are Shaun, Mortimer, and Eliandra, the rest of the party that helped them take the ship back from the Drow terrorists. Apparently they were hired on a totally separate mission to collect a bounty on Al-Arat from a disgruntled snake breeder who didn’t take kindly to his wares being exploited in combat for sport. The two parties exchange pleasantries and discuss their respective jobs while Al-Arat looks on from a restrained position on the floor. Then with promises to meet up later for beers, they go their separate ways.
GM Note: When you can, it’s always a fun idea to reference the continuity of your game. Have players meet individuals they’ve talked to, worked with, or even fought before. It lets them establish a common, relatable face in the game world. You can also do recurring gags a-la cabbage guy. We’ve already seen a few recurring characters like Punwick and Lawrence the doctor demon, but they’re more intrinsically connected to the players’ home hub. Throwing in other characters as coincidence is generally more noteworthy as long as you don’t overuse it and make your world seem to small, like what happens in Mass Effect when you’re constantly running into old acquaintances despite travelling all over the damn galaxy; these random encounters can be overused and become contrived, so watch your step.
In this scenario though, I really just wanted to come up with a way to stop the players from murdering another unarmed prisoner. They’d done that a lot at this point and combined with some of their other antics were really starting to toe the line between neutral and evil. But we’ll talk more about that later.
Before leaving the building, the players go through the old song and dance of looting the place clean and in the process, stumble across the deed to the place. Figuring “hey, free ‘sports bar’”, they head back out into the main room, and politely inform the bartender that his boss has been arrested and that they are assuming new ownership of the establishment. After assurances that he’ll still be paid, the bartender agrees to the new arrangement without much fuss. In the City of Brass, someone can go from a CEO one day to a slave the next, so you learn to take things in stride.
Finally, they decide that they’ve been carrying around that werewolf virus for a while now and haven’t done anything with it, and there is a pit full of snakes right over there…
I think you can tell where this is going. Long story short, in one of the snake cages below the pit is a snake that will, from time to time, grow random tufts of fur and gain a few resistances and stat boosts.
So after wresting ownership of a sports bar, force-feeding a snake an experimental military serum to turn it into a were-snake, and then nipping off to find a healer for a quick cure light wounds or two, the party is ready to get back on track and sets off toward the Marlgate warehouses to investigate their lead. While the City of Brass is a densely populated metropolis, the industrial storage areas of any city will generally be a bit less bustling than other areas, so when the party spots an efreet poke his head out of a doorway and then slip outside with a crate under his arm, they expect that they’ve found their destination.
Sneaking up to the door that the efreet exited from, Chris activates his invisibility augment and pokes his head up to the small window to look inside. Roaming about inside the warehouse are a collection of about six efreeti and salamanders. They don’t look to be up to anything sinister at the moment and there is no sign of Carl. This, combined with the fact that they don’t particularly want to engage in a fight with six strong enemies prompts them to instead follow the efreet who left, who was heading in the direction of the Riqaq Canal.
Following the apparent path of the efreet, the party comes to a small boat launch leading into the canal. Canals in the City of Brass are much like the oceans surrounding it: ergo, filled with lava. Boats traversing the canal must be insulated in the same way that the ship that brought them into the city was. These boats and the less-crowded canals offer a fast means of transporting goods throughout the city, but there are dangers inherent to sailing on a river of laval. Accidents do happen, and falling into boiling lava is a fair sight more dangerous than falling into even the dirtiest of rivers.
On the boat launch standing next to a small speedboat is the efreet with the crate they saw exit the warehouse, along with another efreet. And Carl. Strauss spots him immediately and his jaw hardens. Calling out to him, Strauss begins making his way over to the boat. Carl looks up and instantly pales. Shouting to the two efreeti, he jumps into the boat and they push out into the canal and begin accelerating away. Not willing to let him escape, Strauss ejects several nearby citizens from their own boat and shouts at the party to hurry up. They pile into the commandeered boat, Norm behind the wheel, and speed off in pursuit of Carl.
Now embroiled in a speedboat chase in a lava-filled canal in the middle of the City of Brass, the players don’t hold anything back. As Norm swerves in and out of the minor boat traffic on the canal and pulls into position behind Carl’s fleeing boat, the rest of the players open fire on the rear of the boat, hoping to damage its internal engine. Under the combined firepower of Strauss, Chris, and Gorak the rear of the boat is shredded and begins leaking smoke. Unable to keep up its former pace, Norm seizes the opportunity to pull up alongside the opposing boat, allowing the party more clear shots. Strauss and Gorak pepper the boat again with gunfire, and it begins listing heavily to one side, not something that you generally want to happen while you’re floating on lava. Adding to the hysteria on the other craft, Chris pops the pin on a smoke grenade and lobs it onto the deck between the two efreeti.
Norm, seeing an opportunity, to get a few punches in, hands control of the boat over to Chris and launches himself over the five-foot gap between the boats (and over lava) and directly behind Carl. Obscured by the smoke grenade, and suspecting that Carl himself probably isn’t much of a threat, Norm instead turns towards the back of the boat and bull rushes the efreet on the port side of the boat.
GM Note: Even when a bull rush succeeds, I tend to still give a character, PC or NPC, a free reflex save to attempt to grab onto the side of whatever they’re being bull rushed off of. I’m generally a more cinematic GM so I like removing some of the immediacy of death from getting pushed off a cliff and adding some of the drama from hanging over a bottomless pit. Just personal preference.
Norm’s bull rush succeeds and he comes hurtling out of the smoke cloud to slam shoulder first into the efreet in front of him. Now, efreeti have pretty darn good saves. Quite good, in fact. So good that they would actually need to roll a 1 in order to fail their reflex save and fall to their deaths. Norm’s chances of actually defeating his enemy here are precisely 1 in 20.
So of course the efreet critically fails his save. Arms pinwheeling wildly, he tips backwards precariously and with a look of pure terror plunges headfirst into the lava canal, too surprised even to scream. Efreeti have fire resistance, to be sure, but “resistant to fire” is not by any means the same as “immune to lava”. The slowly sinking, now burning efreet is left behind the two boats and quickly obscured by the trailing combined smoke from Chris’ grenade and the engine that Strauss and Gorak are continually filling with bullets, despite it being pretty thoroughly destroyed by now.
But Norm isn’t done yet. Recovering from his charge, he turns and with a shout and a maniacal laugh, throws himself into the remaining efreet who is only just starting to turn his weapon toward the crazed human. Norm collides with his enemy like a linebacker…
And the efreet’s save also comes up 1.
With a cry of incredulity the efreet is lifted into the air and sails out away from the boat, seeming to hang in the air above his own demise for a moment before plummeting into it.
GM Note: The table pretty much exploded at this point. Norm has, in only two rounds, killed two enemies who were at full health and – if I’m being honest – were two levels above the players’ level. (Actually pretty much everybody they fought in this session was at least one level above them, making encounters with multiple enemies pretty darn dangerous, but they handled themselves just fine so apparently it wasn’t too big of a deal). Norm was on a killstreak, and the sheer odds of two successive life-ending critical failures is pretty low, so there was definitely cause for excitement. If this had been a boss-level character, then I might have been upset, and that was the façade I put up anyway as a GM. But as a D&D fan, this was pretty stinking awesome and I was having just as much fun as the rest of ‘em.
With the two efreeti dead, Strauss follows Norm into the opposite boat to confront his brother-in-law. Placing the muzzle of his rifle against his head for added effect, Strauss orchestrates a miniature family reunion.
Strauss: “Hello, Carl.”
Carl: “John, what are you doing here?”
Strauss: “Looking for you, as it happens.”
Carl: “… are you gonna kill me?”
Strauss: “Haven’t decided yet. You’ve got a little time to convince me not to, though, so get started.”
Carl: “What do you want me to say?”
Strauss: “Why you stole security codes for the city from Arcane Tech, for starters. Why you’re hiring muscle from Al-Arat, next. Then maybe you can bring it all home by explaining why you’re such a douche.”
The boat has lost nearly all motor power by this point, and it moving forward by inertia. That same inertia, however, doesn’t allow it to turn to navigate the 45 degree turn the canal takes up ahead and it bumps against the canal wall, causing the vessel to shudder and sink a little lower into the lava.
Carl: “John, we’re sinking here.”
Strauss: “Then talk fast.”
Carl: “Alright, fine. I hired people to steal those codes so I could smuggle a few things into the city, and so I could figure out guard postings and schedules.”
Strauss: “Why? And why the muscle?”
Carl: “Because… because we’re going to kill the Sultana of Brass.”
Strauss: “What? Why?”
Carl: “You know I’m not a businessman, Carl. I do bad things for bad people. I got instructions to kill the Sultana from one of my dead drops. I don’t ask questions and they promised good pay, so I got to work.”
Norm: “You idiot. Do you have any idea what killing the Sultana would do to this place?”
GM Note: When one says that the Sultana rules the City of Brass, they mean that very literally. The city is kept aloft and protected from the heat of the Elemental Plane of Fire by the will of the Sultana herself. If she dies, then the city is subjected to the unchecked heat of its environment and will gradually sink back into the lava flows beneath it.
Carl: “This city has had Sultans and Sultanas assassinated before. They always choose a new one before anything gets too bad. It won’t be any different now. We’ll have a few days of panic in which I’ll get rich, and then everything will go back to normal.”
Strauss: “Good plan. Only now we caught you, and you’re a few inches from burning to death. What now, genius?”
Carl: “So what, you’re just gonna leave me here? Let me burn?”
There is a pregnant pause as Strauss appears to consider the option. The hiss and crackle of the slowly burning boat beneath them is the only sound.
Strauss: “No. Tempting, but I’ve got other plans.” (To the party) “Tie his hands, he’s coming with us.”
Binding Carl and hauling themselves up over the side of the canal before the boat sinks deeper into the canal, the party follows Strauss as he leads them back to the Charcoal Palace. Seeking out a guard officer, they request to have Carl turned over to the Sultan’s Own. An order of approximately 500 Salamanders, “The Jackals” as they are sometimes called are a military force within the city that are renowned for their exceptional sadism. People who are subjected to the Jackals’ unique brand of hospitality are generally never seen again. And those that are… well, most wish they weren’t.
Ushered into a pit below the prison, the party is led to a barred gate lit by a single flickering torch and guarded by a scarred, grim-looking salamander. The guard officer steps forward.
Officer: “Prisoner to drop off.”
Salamander: “What, all five of ‘em?”
Party (All together): “No!”
Strauss: “Uh, just this one.”
Salamander: (Sounding upset) “Oh. Well, this way then, we’ve got a lot to do.”
Carl: “John, you can’t abandon me to these people.”
Strauss: “Watch me.”
Carl: “They cut out people’s eyes, John! Their tongues!”
Salamander: “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll have those for a while yet. We like to start with fingernails.”
Strauss: “Sounds like a blast. I think you’ll have fun here, Carl. See you never.”
Carl: “John. JOOOOOHN!”
Strauss turns and walks back up to the surface, a smug grin on his face and the rest of the party in tow.
Gorak: “Guys, I can’t tell if we’re being evil right now.”
Chris: “We’re being chaotic us. Now keep walking, prisons make me nervous.”
With Carl out of the picture, the players now have a new, much more important mission: stop the assassination of the Sultana of Brass. Knowing that Carl’s hired henchmen operated out of the warehouse they scouted earlier, they decide to go there to look for any potential leads. Retracing their steps back to the Marlgate, they peek inside the warehouse but instead of the group of efreeti and salamanders they saw earlier, instead the building appears to be empty. Erring on the side of caution, Chris activates his invisibility augment and steps quietly through the door. Doing periodic scans of the environment, Chris creeps his way through the warehouse. Seeing no one on the ground floor, he advances to the catwalks and small offices above. Still with no one in sight, Chris declares the warehouse safe and calls in the rest of the party.
With no one to interrogate, the group instead begins searching through the offices for clues. They find a few crates of weapons, but mostly common pieces that don’t outmatch their own equipment. There are a few copies of the stolen security codes and documents strewn about the desks, but any kind of written proof of whatever their plan might be is absent. After a bit more searching, however, they do find something that seems out of place amidst the weapons and illegal documents: a crate filled with the robes and vestments of a priest of Agni, the God of the Ever-Burning Torches and one of the foremost deities of worship in the City of Brass. Needless to say, it seems more than a little odd that a bunch of assassins would moonlight as priests during their free time, so the party assumes that the robes have to be some part of the plot. Knowing that the Sultana’s procession will advance down the Street of Stelae to greet the Baator representatives at the docks, so they check a list of locations for Temples of Agni against the route of the Street of Stelae and find a likely location where the assassins could set up.
Hurrying to the temple, they find the doors closed and locked and the windows shuttered. Knocking on the door, they are met with a gruff voice that tells them to go away and that the temple is not offering services and is closed for the day. The players don’t accept that answer, and Chris goes to work picking the lock. It only takes a few moments, but he waits until he can’t hear anyone on the opposite side of the door before opening it just a crack and peeking inside. He only sees one figure, wearing robes of a priest of Agni, and its back is turned to him at the moment. Signaling to the rest of the group to wait outside for a moment , he goes invisible and slips through the doorway, gingerly closing the door behind him.
The inside of the temple is arranged like a typical church; an alter at the front is surrounded by dozens of burning candles, the symbol of Agni emblazoned on the wall behind him. The walls are similarly lined with torches, but despite the many light sources the room is still dim and the light flickers sporadically. Rows of pews line a center aisle and stairs leading to an upper wraparound balcony are positioned on either side towards the rear of the room. The cloaked figure doesn’t appear to have heard the opening and closing of the door and does not turn around. Heading to the stairway on the right, Chris proceeds up to the balcony unseen.
There, crouching over a large crate at the base of a closed window, is another hooded figure, this one not wearing the symbol of the priesthood. The figure turns but the dim light of the church is bent around Chris, rendering him nearly impossible to spot even in the best of circumstances. Under the hood, the face of an efreeti female peers into the darkness, but looks directly through the adventurer not more than 15 feet from her. She apparently dismisses whatever she thought she saw or heard as part of her imagination and turns back to the crate. As Chris approaches the figure, each step placed delicately so as to avoid any sound, he gets a look at what the woman is working on. Inside the crate, nestled in wood shavings is a KPV machine gun, a 14.5 millimeter behemoth that is normally only mounted on armored vehicles. Seeing as how such a weapon is far from typical temple decoration, Chris determines that he’s located their assassins and, hoping that his party will catch on quick enough come to his aid, takes a page out of Norm’s book and charges the unaware woman.
The woman hears the sudden footfalls and begins to turn to investigate right as Chris collides with her. Struck with an invisible force, she doesn’t have time to ready herself for the impact and sails backwards, crashing through the shuttered window behind her. Flying out the window in a crash of broken wood, she hits the sloped roof overhanging the front door and rolls, several ceramic roofing tiles coming loose and following her as she rolls off the roof and crashes to the ground with a grunt of pain directly behind the party. Taking the less-than-subtle hint, Norm and Gorak turn to the double doors and kick them in, charging into the temple. Strauss turns to the figure on the ground behind him as she raises herself up. He fires one round but the woman narrowly dodges out of the way and, evaluating her situation, turns and runs down the street, hoping to find cover in the alleyways. Just as she reaches the corner of the temple and starts to turn, another round from Strauss’ rifle slams into the back of her neck, dropping her back onto the street.
Inside, the sudden commotion has drawn the attention of the priest at the front near the altar and another that was in one of the back rooms. They soon reveal themselves not to be priests, however, as they pull AKS assault rifles from under their robes and fire on the party. Bullets chew into the pews as Norm and Gorak duck behind them, running in a low crouch up the sides of the room to close the distance. Reaching the altar first, Norm jumps up onto the front row of pews and launches himself at the fake priest, his katana raking a long gash in his forearm as he raises an arm to defend himself. Gorak concentrates on the second man, firing his shotgun on the move and taking chunks out of the wall beside him, forcing him to duck back into a doorway for cover.
Upstairs, Chris turns back to the action inside and fires at the first figure, his aim somewhat hampered by Norm. Strauss also turns his attentions to the fight inside, adding his accurate sniper fire to the assault on the first figure. Struck by a shot to the leg, the efreet’s footing is shaken, allowing Norm an opening to cut him from hip to shoulder, scoring a killing blow.
Suddenly alone in the fight, the last priest-imposter throws his weapon out onto the floor and comes out into the open with his hands raised. He receives a quick bash to the face from Gorak’s shotgun, just to be sure, and as he drops to a knee, bleeding nose in his hands, the party quickly surrounds him as Strauss closes the temple doors behind them.
After more of the party’s special brand of coercion, the figure, another efreet, confirms that he and the group here are indeed the ones hired by Carl to take out the Sultana. They were set to mount the machine gun in the window above and open fire on the Sultana’s procession, mowing down her and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing anywhere near her.
GM Note: This actually raised quite a bit of discord at the table that I really should have expected and elaborated on before this point in the story. Some of the players expressed absolute disbelief that a simple machine gun could comprise an effective assassination attempt on a character like the Sultana of Brass. After all, she’s crazy high level right? They’d need to shoot her for like, ten straight rounds to do anything and even then they’d still have to hit her, so how did they possibly think this was going to work?
This is a classic case of gameplay and story segregation. Yes, in game terms it would be a pretty damn stupid plan to just spray the Sultana with machine gun fire, even if the bullets are the size of small missiles. But, this is very much meta thinking. From a story perspective, the Sultana is just another efreet; a very powerful one, granted, but an efreet nonetheless. Cut her and she bleeds, hold her underwater and she drowns, and put a 14.5 millimeter bullet through her head and she’ll die just as well as anybody else. Hitpoints, armor class, and any applicable dodge bonuses don’t matter when describing an assassination attempt in-universe. If the Sultana is shot, she will die, just like Vecna, Drizz’t, or anybody else if you put a sword through their neck, to hell with how high level they are.
This kind of thing does always seem a little wonky, and it can take some getting used to, but in essence it works in the same way that we manage guns in general in games like these. You can score a “hit” on a character and drain some HP, but that doesn’t mean that the bullet hit them square in the chest. Hell, it might not even have hit them at all, but their likelihood of surviving the next shot is now diminished. It’s like with swordplay in regular D&D: you don’t describe a character as having a sword run through his heart every time somebody scores a hit. The first time that lethal (or disabling) blow comes about, that’s when you say that they got stabbed or shot in a pretty vital place. It’s the same thing here: sure, the Sultana might be able to survive a dozen “hits” from a machine gun, but for the purposes of the narrative it only takes one.
Their prisoner says that he and his two friends weren’t the only ones stationed in the temple, however; more went out for supplies earlier and are expected back within the hour. With that in mind, the players decide to set up a little surprise for the returning assassins. Heading back upstairs, they assemble the KPV machine gun and mount it on the balcony railing… facing the temple doors. As Strauss makes the final adjustments to the gun, Gorak ties up the efreet in front of the altar and then takes up a position at the base of the right stairway, across from Norm on the left. Chris climbs back up to the balcony and sets up a lookout in the window, waiting for the other assassins to return.
After about half an hour, Chris spots a group of six hooded figures approach the temple carrying a few crates of supplies. He signals to the rest of the party to get ready, then climbs out onto the roof overhang above the doors. The returning assassins open the front doors and walk into the temple, calling out to their friends. The first thing they see is the last remaining survivor tied to a chair in front of the altar, mumbling loudly into the duct tape over his mouth in the closest he can get to a warning. The second thing they see is Strauss, turning the muzzle of an oversized machinegun to bear on them and chambering a round in the loudest possible way he knows how. The third thing they see is the doors of the temple slam shut in their faces as they turn to run, Chris having dropped down behind them and closed off their only escape route, jamming the lock and sealing them in. The assassins are now as close as they will ever get to being fish in a barrel.
Strauss wastes no time in taking advantage of the turkey shoot set up for him and opens up with an autofire burst on the group below. The machine gun roars to life and tears into the group, rending flesh and floorboards alike as the panicked efreeti push and shove to get out of the line of fire. They branch off to the right and left, anything to stay out of the center aisle and its killzone. The two branching groups run directly into Norm and Gorak who were waiting for them at the sides of the room. Gorak steps out from behind the banister railing and clotheslines the first figure with his mace, but the two behind him open fire with assault rifles and both score hits on the dwarf for a decent chunk of damage. Norm takes a hit himself and manages to kill one enemy before the being forced up the stairs.
Outside, Chris climbs back up to the second story window and enters the temple just as Strauss lets loose with another autofire burst. The rain of bullets cuts down one of the stragglers that didn’t make it into cover yet, leaving only four left standing. But as their initial surprise attack begins to slow and combat falls back into a regular rhythm, their advantage begins to wane. Gorak pummels the enemy he knocked to the ground earlier as he tries to stand up, but more focused rifle fire knocks him to the ground, his mace rolling from his grasp. Norm continues to fight as he retreats back up the stairs, wounding one of his opponents but a well-placed shot drops him as well as he reaches the top. Strauss’ bursts of automatic fire have started to overheat the barrel, and his accuracy is dropping fast, the next burst impacting only the floor as the two efreeti by Gorak’s now-unconscious body turn and open fire on him, bullets chewing into the balcony railing.
Chris, seeing Norm collapse at the top of the stairs to his left, dashes forward and slides in next to his wounded ally, pulling a health potion from his pack and forcing it down Norm’s throat. He doesn’t see the efreet coming up the stairs behind him. As Norm’s eyes snap open, he shoves Chris to the side and stabs his sword forward just as the efreet raises his rifle to fire at the spot where Chris stood a moment before. The blade sinks into the efreet’s abdomen, a look of surprise on his face as the sword holds him upright. Norm withdraws the blade and the efreet topples backward and rolls down the stairs, tripping the second efreet that was following him up.
Together, Norm and Chris attack the efreet at the base of the stairs and bring him down. Strauss fires one more targeted burst from the machine gun and manages to kill the efreet that Gorak had heavily wounded earlier. With only two enemies remaining, the three party members still on their feet rally and come together to defeat them without any further serious wounds. As Strauss sees to Gorak, Norm and Chris survey the scene. Hardly any of the woodwork has survived the battle, and the God of Ever-Burning Torches has a few more fires on his hands. The restrained efreet in front of the alter has survived the battle, leaving the party with another potential prisoner. Deciding that they’ve let enough targets continue living for one day, they execute the efreet, grab the machine gun, and head back to the bar, recently acquired from Al-Arat.
They drop off the machine gun in Al-Arat’s old office, the bartender not regarding them with more than a raised eyebrow as they carry a small anti-aircraft weapon past his bar. Another snake fight has already begun in the center pit, and a new crowd has gathered to bet on the outcome. It doesn’t really appear to matter to anyone who happens to own this establishment, as long as the entertainment keeps going. Since any kind of further managerial work at their new place would obviously be unwarranted, the players decide that after taking out the assassins their job for the city is finished and they can go back to the Vizier to report mission accomplished.
They head back to the Charcoal Palace, where the guards are beginning to recognize them and escort them immediately to the Vizier’s office. As the players enter, the Vizier looks up from his desk and looks them over, almost quizzically.
Vizier: “Yes, can I help you?”
Strauss: “We took care of your problem.”
Gorak: “Those guys trying to kill the Sultana. We took ‘em out.”
Norm: “And we handed that Carl guy over to some of what I understand to be your best torturers.”
Vizier: “Ah, yes. Yes, of course. Well done. That’s, uh, that’s one less thing to worry about.”
Chris, realizing that the Vizier is acting strangely and sensing something wrong, rolls a sense motive check. He rolls well and is able to determine that the Vizier doesn’t seem to know what they’re talking about. He’s talking quickly and going along with what is presented to him to cover his tracks, but he doesn’t seem to have any recollection of the job he sent the party out on, or even the party for that matter.
Vizier: “Well then, if there is nothing else…”
Chris: “Actually, Sir, you can probably tell that we’re a little beat up. If it’s not too much trouble, we could really use a cleric; somebody to help us heal up a bit.”
Vizier: “Yes, of course, it seems the least I can do for the service you’ve provided this city. Will you be comfortable here while I go and fetch one?”
Vizier: “Very well, I will return shortly.”
As the Vizier gets up to leave and moves past the party, Chris stealthily slips a small electronic audio bug into his pocket. The Vizier doesn’t seem to notice and continues out of the office, leaving the party alone.
Norm: “So… that was weird, right?”
Strauss: “Definitely. Something’s not right here.”
Chris: “Agreed. I planted a bug on him before he left, though. Let’s see what he’s up to.”
Removing the bug receiver from his pack, Chris places the device on the desk and the party groups around it. There is the expected rustle of clothing as the Vizier moves, and a few formalities as he addresses guards on the way out. It’s clear that he’s leaving the palace altogether, not going to get a cleric. After a few minutes, the dialing of a cell phone can be heard.
Vizier: “It’s me. Yeah, I think I might have been made. The Vizier hired some group of adventurers to do some off-the-record work for him, that must have been why we didn’t get any advance warning. They took out our team in the temple and they caught the boss.” (Pause) “No, I left them in his office, but I think they know something’s up, and I don’t wanna risk going back in there. I think it’s on you at this point.” (Pause) “Yeah, I know, but it’s all we’ve got. I’ll be at the warehouse. Good luck.”
The call terminates and the bug transmits only street noise. Chris reaches over and turns the receiver off.
Strauss: “Well, I’d say that’s pretty definitive.”
Norm: “Yup. So we gonna kill this guy?”
Chris: “We’ll see when we get there. But yeah, probably.”
The party then quickly exits the office and leaves the palace grounds, heading back to the warehouse. Once again, Chris uses his invisibility augment to enter the building stealthily and scout out the situation. The lower levels are again empty, but the upper offices are now occupied by a single individual. It is not the Vizier, but is a tall, grey figure with its back turned to the door. Chris’ many years of life (and his somewhat sordid past) instantly fill in the blanks and let him determine what has happened. The figure in front of him is a doppelganger, a creature able to take on virtually any form with near perfect accuracy. It must have killed the real Vizier and replaced him in order to get close to the Sultana. Had they not returned when they did, things could have been very bad.
Regrouping on the catwalks outside the office, the party bursts through the door to confront the doppelganger. There is no witty banter, no questions, no messing around: the fight is quick and brutal, as the doppelganger attempts to fight off the party’s attacks with a pair of scimitars, leftover from his Vizier disguise. His defense has a few holes in it, however, and after several rounds so does he. As his body sinks to the ground, the party sits back and contemplates the situation.
Gorak: “So what the hell was that thing?”
Chris: “Doppelganger. They can take the form of anyone and anything. I’m guessing if we investigated that office a bit more, we’d find the real Vizier stuffed in a closet somewhere.”
Strauss: “What does that mean for us getting paid?”
Chris: “I’m really not sure.”
Norm: “So where did this guy even come from?”
Chris: “He’s probably not one of the guys Carl hired from Al-Arat, I can guess that much.”
Gorak: “Hey, didn’t Al-Arat say that Carl had two identical-looking humans with him earlier?”
Strauss: “I think so, yeah.”
Gorak: “Well… y’know: two identical-looking humans…”
The reality of the situation takes a few moments to sink in, but once it does the players wordlessly scramble for the exit and make a mad dash back to the Charcoal Palace. Somewhere out there, there is another doppelganger, probably who the first one was talking to on the phone, and it probably isn’t planning a surprise birthday party for the Sultana.
Charging through the main gates, they spot a Guard Lieutenant overseeing an inspection of the gate guards, likely in preparation for the Sultana’s procession to the docks later.
Chris: “You there! We need to speak to the Sultana.”
Lieutenant: “That’s quite impossible. No one sees the Sultana without appointment.”
Strauss: “Listen, pal: we’ve been doing some work for your Vizier, only when we got back here to report to him, a freakin’ doppelganger had killed him and taken his place. We took care of that, but there’s another one around somewhere and the Sultana needs to be warned.”
Lieutenant: “A doppelganger? Killed the Vizier?”
Strauss: “Did I stutter?”
Lieutenant: “That’s impossible. I escorted the Vizier to the Sultana’s throne room myself not five minutes ago.”
At that, the party abandons all pretense of formality and simply charges past the gate guards and into the palace, navigating through grand hallways until they burst through the massive double doors of the throne room. There, seated on the throne is the Sultana of Brass herself, whose expression does not change despite the sudden intrusion of a group of armed mercenaries into her presence. In front of her at the base of the elevated throne stands the Vizier, showing decidedly more surprise than the Sultana. A number of palace guards, who had previously been lining the walls between towering brass pillars, rush forward and block the players’ path with leveled spears, forming a phalanx line in front of their ruler. The Lieutenant and several more guards come through the doors behind them, trapping them inside.
Sultana: “What is the meaning of this?”
Strauss: “Sultana, the man in front of you is not who he claims to be.”
Chris: “He’s a doppelganger, sent here as part of a plot by a man named Carl Lark to kill you. We’ve already eliminated most of his allies and now he’s their last attempt.”
Vizier: “This is ridiculous! I assure you, I am myself! And I’ve never seen these men before!”
Norm: “We were working for you, moron. The real Vizier would remember that.”
The Sultana looks at both parties, then turns her gaze on the guard lieutenant.
Sultana: “Jarrot, is there a reason you have allowed these men to invade my throne room?”
Jarrot: “I’m sorry, Your Grace, they evaded us.”
Sultana: “Well then.”
Jarrot: “It’s just…”
Sultana: “You have something to add, Jarrot?”
Jarrot: “Well, Your Grace… it’s true that the Vizier did hire a group of mercenaries, and these men here were recognized by our guards at the gates.”
The Sultana turns back to the Vizier and rises from the throne, slowly striding down the steps to stand at ground level. She is not a large woman, standing nearly a head shorter than the Vizier, but she nonetheless strikes an imposing figure.
Sultana: “Well, my trusted Vizier: have you anything to say? Are you here to kill me? Are you even who you appear to be at all?”
Vizier: “Your Grace, you know me: I would never do such a thing.”
The Sultana appears to consider this for a moment, though her countenance never once changes from its stern, cemented default. Then, a small dagger suddenly appears in her hand, though she never appeared to make any sort of move to draw it. Without a word she whips the blade up and draws it across the Vizier’s throat. As his eyes widen in surprise, the Vizier lets out a gurgling gasp and then sinks to the floor. The players, still surrounded by over a dozen well-armed soldiers, hold their collective breaths as they watch the body on the floor. After a few seconds, the Vizier fades away, shifting into a grey, almost featureless creature with elongated limbs. The party sighs in relief, but draws the breath in again as the Sultana fixes her gaze on them.
Sultana: “It seems you were telling the truth. This is very fortunate for you. While I appreciate the attempt to save my life, things would have gone very badly for you had you been wrong. And yet still, we’ve been hearing tell of a number of disturbances within the city: disruption of boat traffic on the canals, the destruction of a temple of one of our most sacred gods, and more than a few instances of general dangerous activity that puts the people of this city at risk.”
Gorak: “Yeah, but… the life-saving thing…”
Sultana: “Indeed. It is for this reason that I am allowing you to leave. You will not be permitted to return to this city, but you will leave in good health. This is more than I would normally offer, so consider yourselves as having my thanks. Jarrot, escort these men back to the docks. We’ll discuss how these four managed to slip past you at a later date.”
Jarrot: “Yes, Your Grace.”
Jarrot leads the party out of the Charcoal Palace and back to the Iskalat docks. He loads them onto a boat, his palace authorization waving any payment that might have been necessary, and lets them know that in spite of what punishment he might receive for letting them infiltrate the palace, he is thankful that they saved the Sultana. While they may not be able to return to the city, he tells them that they will always have an ally there if they require one.
As the boat sails away from the docks and the City of Brass rises out of the fiery ocean behind them, the players decide that getting banned from the city isn’t so bad: They can always run their sports bar from afar and have the profits deposited to them, and if they need anything from here again they can just call Jarrot to get it for them. Besides, that place was hot: they figure that they’re fine never returning since that was about as close to hell as they’re likely to get.
Oh, how wrong they are.