Saturday, February 26, 2011

march of the phantom brigade, session 3: scouting the castle

While the rest of the adventurers waited a short distance away, Atreyu stealthily approached the ruins of the castle’s southeast tower. The elven rogue saw a small fountain nestled in the corner formed by the crumbled stone wall and ruined tower. Atreyu noted that the dry fountain was the only structure within the castle’s perimeter not completely covered with plant life. In fact, the fountain was remarkably free of moss or fungus.

Odd, he thought.

Continuing to make his careful way toward the tower, the elf suddenly heard slurping sounds issue from the fountain. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw some kind of amber sludge oozing out into the fountain’s basin. With a start, Atreyu realized the slime was advancing toward him.

* * * * *
For the third session of March of the Phantom Brigade at Total Escape Games, the expedition to settle a new village at the ruins of the mysterious Castle Inverness rolled onward. Seven bold adventurers took part in this week’s adventure: Atreyu (elven rogue), Hallitin (dragonborn paladin), Jarren (human wizard), Melek (tiefling mage), Sebastian Nilrem (human wizard), Theo (halfling mage), and Twig (halfling rogue).

After the adventurers’ fight with the goblin gang, Splintershield and Malgram had again hurried the caravan along. Faldyra had marched with our heroes and told them more of what her research (she is to be the new town’s resident scholar) in Hammerfast had revealed about Castle Inverness. The ruins, she said, are thought to be haunted—the people of the Nentir Vale refer to the place as one of the “Ghost Towers.” Ghost Towers are said to be focal points for spirit activity. Another tower stands in the Witchlight Fens; Faldyra has heard of a third one somewhere in the Nentir Vale, but the exact location is a matter of some dispute. The Ghost Towers are known to be places where the spirits of the restless dead wander by night. That disturbing fact, the pretty elf explained, was why Brother Splintershield wished to perform a cleansing ritual at the site.

Near the end of the caravan’s third day of travel, the weary group of settlers and adventurers topped a hill overlooking the site of Castle Inverness. The setting sun cast a red-orange glow across a small valley below. Beyond the shadowed vale was a small rise, atop which sat the ruins of what must have once been a great castle. A perimeter of broken-down stone walls, now overgrown with foliage, created the illusion of a natural barrier. At each of the four corners, ruined towers rose in various states of disrepair. Surrounded by the fallen walls, a ring made of huge, weathered stone blocks clearly marked the location where a large central tower once rose above the castle.

As our heroes and the settlers looked over to the ruins, Faldyra bleakly proclaimed, “Welcome to Castle Inverness.”

As Faldyra’s words were carried away by a chill wind, Aldus Splintershield and Malgram approached the adventurers and told them that the caravan wouldn’t proceed to the site of the new town until the cleansing ritual was performed. Before Splintershield and those who would help him with the ritual (all nocombatants) entered the ruins, though, Malgram wanted our heroes to scout the area for danger and make sure that things were safe.

As the party checked their weapons and equipment before moving out, Faldyra had walked over to Theo and— laying a hand on the halfling’s shoulder— had whispered, “Please be careful.” After a moment’s hesitation, she leaned down and gave the mage a kiss on the cheek before she quickly walked away.

The blushing halfling took some good-natured ribbing from the rest of the heroes as they set off for the castle, but the group soon grew serious and approached the ruins of the main gate with caution. All that remained of the main gate were two sides of an archway that reached no higher than a tall human. As they passed through the gate, each of our heroes experienced a shiver of dread, as if from entering an alien environment. It was hard for them to shake the feeling that passing through the main gateway transported them to another time and place entirely. The party’s magic users made successful Arcana checks and learned that the disturbing sensation came from some lingering magic on the stones that made up the old gate, likely once a ward designed to keep out intruders. It has since lost its potency, however, and is no longer a threat. Sebastian could also tell that the group’s sense of disorientation was caused by the nature of the ward’s magic, as though it was placed using magical power and techniques completely alien to the natural world.

After they passed through the remains of the gateway, Jarren suggested the party split up in order to search the ruins more quickly. Everyone else (except the DM) thought splitting the party was a bad idea, so the adventurers stayed together as they explored a bit.

Standing in the remains of the interior courtyard, the group decided to check out the western part of the ruins. There they found a graveyard. At first, the dozen or so headstones were barely discernible in the brush. They were worn with age, their etchings heavily eroded. On second glance, though, the party noticed that the area around a thirteenth headstone appeared to have been tended and cleared of foliage on a regular basis. The writing on that headstone was still legible: “Oldivya Vladistone—Wife and Friend.” Jarren made a successful history check and recalled that Oldivya Vladistone was an adventurer some decades ago in a famous group called the Silver Company.

Our heroes next explored the ring of jumbled stones resting where a massive central tower once stood. All that remains now is a small rise, covered by vines and brush, obviously untouched for decades. The stone blocks looked incredibly old—far older than any other structure or ruins the adventurers had ever seen. Everyone thought it strange that no stones filled the interior of the circle, as though no solid ground floor existed in the original tower. Searching through the jumbled stones of the tower’s walls, the group found the cornerstone that was placed when the tower was first constructed. The block bore writing in a language that none of the heroes had seen before. Theo copied down the text and later showed it to Faldyra. After examining it and consulting a few of her books, she indicated that the language originates from a distant place that sages have identified as Oerth. She translated the writing and said it appeared to be a proper name: “Galap-Dreidel.”

After completing their search of the central tower’s ruins, the party headed over to the southeast corner of the castle’s courtyard. That’s where Atreyu discovered that two ochre jellies lived in the dark and damp cistern below a small stone fountain. The goopy oozes emerged from the cistern when they sensed Atreyu moving nearby. Mindlessly feeding on creatures that dissolve in their acidic bodies, oozes bear their prey no particular malice… but that lack of malice makes them no less dangerous.

I used some Play-Doh to represent the two oozes. I thought the Play-Doh would be a handy medium, especially since an ooze splits into two creatures when it becomes bloodied. When I placed the tan ooze and the white ooze on the map at the beginning of the encounter, the players immediately christened them Peanut Butter and Snowflake.

The first round of combat definitely went to the adventurers. Five of the seven heroes hit with their attacks while the two ochre oozes missed with all four of their attacks (they both used their action points during the first round to gain additional Slam attacks).

As the fight against the oozes continued, Atreyu and Twig made good use of their Tactical Trick and Sneak Attack powers to deal out epic amounts of damage. In just three rounds of combat, the two agile and tricky rogues dealt out 93 points of damage to the slimy creatures!

Melek dug some powerful magic out of his spellbook, hitting the oozes with Charm of Misplaced Wrath, Phantom Cage, and Phantasmal Assault.

During the first round of combat, Theo used his piercing gaze and whispered word to let him seize momentary control of Snowflake’s mind (does an ooze really have a ‘mind’?) and slide the goopy blob three squares with his Hypnotism attack. After that, he used Magic Missile to reliably strike the oozes each round.

Jarren threw two wild pitches during Round 1, missing both oozes with Arc Lightning. After that, he hit on Rounds 2, 3, and 4 with accurate applications of Freezing Burst and Burning Hands.

The party’s fourth magic user, Sebastian Nilrem, drew on the power of elemental cold, scouring the oozes with Freezing Burst attacks. Digging deep into his arcane arsenal, he also scorched both oozes with a fierce blast of flame that erupted from his hands (Burning Hands).

Hallitan, the dragonborn paladin, filled with the strength of his convictions, called upon divine power to smite his foes. When that didn’t work so well, he opened his mouth with a roar and the deadly power of his draconic kin blasted forth to engulf the oozes with lightning (Dragon Breath).

The two ochre oozes crept around, sliming the heroes with acid, bloodying a few of them, but in the end Peanut Butter & Snowflake and their 'offspring' all fell to the adventurers’ relentless attacks. Once they verified that no more dangers remained hidden in the castle’s ruins, our heroes returned to the caravan and gave the go-ahead to Splintershield.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

the one with balgron (kots, session 5)

As he skidded around the corner, Harold was astonished to see Korlon, Sulader, and Tar attacking each other. Not knowing what was up with his companions, but suspecting foul play, the minotaur charged the nearest goblin warrior. After cutting down the shrieking little creature, Harold saw that his three comrades seemed to have come to their senses and were attacking a large hobgoblin a bit farther down the corridor. When their attacks missed the hobgoblin, though, the bellowing creature retreated through a doorway and out of sight. Pushing past his friends, the minotaur rushed after the hobgoblin (who he assumed was the infamous Balgron the Bellower).

Entering a small chamber, Harold saw Balgron across the room, the hobgoblin’s hand reaching out to pull back a length of tapestry. The minotaur whooped with delight, shouted “Goring Charge!”, and lowered his head.

The next thing Balgron knew, he was flat on his back, looking up into the hostile faces of a dwarf, a minotaur, and a tiefling. Popping to his feet, the wily hobgoblin chieftain used some kind of dastardly dominate-type spell or something on his foes. Balgron’s attack forced Tar and Tosdar to gang up on Harold.

Harold, soooo not amused at that turn of events, used a Spinning Sweep attack to knock down Balgron once again. In fact, not only did the enraged minotaur’s strike knock the hobgoblin down, it knocked him OUT.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Bellower.

* * * * *
One player was absent for our fifth session of Keep on the Shadowfell, so our party of intrepid adventurers had to make do without Caliban (deva avenger). That left six of us to head down the mountain from Sunderpeak Temple and return to the ancient keep…
  • Greth (githzerai hunter/seeker hybrid)

  • Harold (minotaur great weapon fighter)

  • Korlon (half-elf warlock)

  • Sulader (goliath paladin of the Raven Queen)

  • Tarionsus (tiefling warlord)

  • Tosdar Strudil (dwarf battle cleric)
Before we departed Sunderpeak, some old geezer told us about the last commander of Shadowfell Keep, a paladin of Bahamut named Sir Keegan. For reasons unknown, Sir Keegan went postal one day and murdered quite a few members of the keep’s garrison. Although many brave soldiers died, they eventually managed to drive the mad knight into the passages beneath the keep. Sir Keegan’s body was never found.

After that ominous bit of foreshadowing, we got some more good news when a small patrol from Sunderpeak accompanied us back down to the battered temple of Erathis. Upon completing a brief CSI-ish investigation of the site, the Sunderpeakers informed us that certain pieces of evidence (acid damage, claw marks) led them to think that a brash, young black dragon named Blightborn may have participated in the attack on the temple. Well, great.

After parting ways with the patrol, we continued our journey back to the keep. Late in the day, we reached our former campsite and found numerous goblin tracks all over the place. We decided to spend the night at a new site a short distance away. As we sat around the roaring campfire that night, toasting marshmellows and making s’mores, Splug told us that his goblin tribe, the Toestompers, worked in the dungeons below the keep for an unpleasant hobgoblin named Balgron the Bellower. Splug said that Balgron and his Bloodreavers had been hired to protect the dungeons, but they were also involved in slavery. Splug had seen the Bloodreavers bring human captives to the keep and then take them off somewhere to the east.

After an uneventful night, we got up the next morning and trekked over to the entrance to the keep… and found that a makeshift barricade had been erected across the top of the stairway that led down into the dungeons. The barrier, sloppily constructed of random boards and whatnot, had a small goblin-size hole at ground level. Peering through the hole, another barricade at the bottom of the stairway could be seen.

After battering our way through the barricades (which were a lot sturdier than they looked!), there was a frustrating bottleneck at the bottom of the narrow stairway when two guard drakes rushed up and attacked Harold and Sulader. With the drakes preventing the party from coming down the stairs and into the dungeon, a couple of goblins also appeared and peppered the goliath and minotaur with crossbow bolts and a harpoon or two.

By the time the troublesome pair of drakes were finally cleared away from the bottom of the stairs and the party had some room to maneuver, Harold was bloodied, harpooned, and ticked off. As the goblin picador across the room snickered and started to reel in his large victim (obviously hoping to drag the minotaur into the rat swarm pit trap of session #3 fame), Harold reached down, grasped the line, and—with a mighty pull—yanked the reel right out of the picador’s grasp. While the disappointed picador beat a hasty retreat, Harold grimaced and managed to pull the harpoon out of his leg. Tosdar, moving down into the dungeon, stopped to heal the badly wounded minotaur.

We hunted down the goblin snipers and the picador, dispatching them with ease, until only one enemy remained. He bolted through a door to the east and down a dark stairway. Splug shouted, “Treasure down there!” and made as if to follow the retreating sniper, but we restrained him. We closed the door and secured it with a harpoon and some line.

After a short rest, we cautiously made our way toward the torture chamber where we had rescued Splug. As we passed the door to the foul-smelling larder, Splug wanted to go in and eat, so we nodded our heads and off he went. At the northern end of the hallway, we stopped outside the closed door to the torture chamber. Greth slowly opened the door a bit and peeked inside the room. He saw a strange blue light moving around back toward the cellblock. None of us particularly wanted to investigate what that was all about, so Greth shut the door and we turned our attention to the iron double doors standing to the east.

Oh so quietly easing the doors open, we saw a long hall heading east to a room that was illuminated by flickering torchlight (see the map below). We couldn’t see around the far corner into the room, but midway down the hall a sleeping guard drake lay curled up. We spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out what to do about that snoozing drake. We finally decided that Greth, being the sneakiest member of the party, would try to trap the drake. So we got a crate and some nasty, rotten meat out of the larder (where Splug was busy gorging himself on some yucky chicken). Greth took the crate, put the meat in it, snuck down the hallway, and then swiftly tipped the box over the drake. Voila! One neutralized guard drake.

Greth still couldn’t see very much of the room at the end of the hall, but he could hear two goblins talking. It sounded like they were playing cards. The githzerai motioned for us to come up to him. Unfortunately, while we were traipsing down the hallway, we failed a group stealth check and one of the goblins came around the corner and spotted us. Greth, acting quickly, let fly with Twin Strike and bloodied the surprised goblin warrior. Tar charged down the hall, but his hasty attack missed the wounded creature. The other goblin— after watching his comrade get thwacked but good by two arrows and then seeing a tiefling come charging into view— started banging a small bronze bell that sat atop a table amidst some scattered cards.

At that point, something told us that— despite our nifty move to neutralize the guard drake— we had just lost the element of surprise.

After a swift but deadly (for the goblins) round of combat against the warriors in the guard room, we took stock of the situation. To the east, two thick tapestries covered the walls. Ripping down the tapestry at the northern end of the wall, Tar could see a short passage and hear lots of noise coming from behind a door set in the left side of the hallway. Korlon, Harold, Sulader, and Tar moved down the passage until they stood opposite the door. Tar knocked on the door. We heard goblins on the other side of the door start squealing in alarm and shouting, “You go out!” “No, you go first!” “Ouch, stop pushing me!” After a few moments of this, one of the goblins— much to our surprise— actually cracked open the door. Whereupon Sulader killt him dead.

Meanwhile, back in the guard room, Greth and Tosdar had decided to investigate what was behind the other tapestry. Pushing aside the greazy tapestry, Tosdar saw a short passage with a set of double doors at the far end. Just then, a door set in the south side of the hallway opened and a goblin peered out. Looking up and down the hallway, it spotted Tosdar and shouted, “There’s a stinking dwarf out here! Get him!”

So, boys and girls, I’m sure you see what had happened. Yep, that’s right. We… had… split… the… party.

Korlon heard the commotion in the southern hallway, so— trusting that Harold, Sulader, and Tar could clear out the storage area— he decided to follow the corridor all the way around and help Greth and Tosdar. But as Korlon made his way down the hallway, the double doors to the east burst open and a bellowing hobgoblin with a big black bow charged the startled half-elf.

As Balgron appeared on the scene, Tosdar took out one of the two goblins in the hallway outside the barracks room, then the dwarf used an action point to attack the other warrior with Split the Sky (You invoke ancient words of wrath as you attack with your weapon. The thundering power of your melee strike causes your foe to stumble backward and fall.). Split the Sky! Since his arsenal also includes Wrathful Thunder, Tosdar definitely wins the prize for powers with the coolest names.

Just down the hall, Balgron used some kind of dastardly dominate-type spell or something on Korlon, Sulader, and Tar, causing them to attack each other. Thus came to pass the scene you found at the top of the post, dear reader.

With Balgron finally down for the count, Tar lost no time in plundering the fallen hobgoblin’s chamber. Checking the secret door, Tosdar saw that it led downward into darkness. Greth and Sulader went back out to the larder to fetch Splug, but all they found was a trail of chicken bones leading down the hallway toward the door where Splug had said there was treasure.

When Balgron regained consciousness, he begged for mercy. In exchange for some information, we said that we’d let him go— but if we ever saw his ugly mug again, we’d leak a story to the press about how he was a dirty, yellow-bellied coward who had fled the dungeon during the fight. When we asked him about the secret door, he said it went down to a room where he’d set the goblins to digging for a fictitious treasure in their spare time to keep them from causing mischief in other areas of the dungeon. He also revealed the pass phrase to gain admittance to the level below the “Bad! Dead!” door.

Having cleared out the first level of the dungeon, but being pretty beat up and in need of an extended rest, we debated whether to hole up in a secure room or head back outside and camp again. I think that at some point in our exploration we might have to bite the bullet and rest in the dungeon, but we decided that this time we’d go ahead and camp outside again. (I think perhaps a vision of another cozy campfire and more s’mores was dancing in everyone’s head.)
So at the end of the session, we left the dungeon in order to take an extended rest above ground. We took Balgron with us and, honoring our agreement with him, set the hobgoblin chieftain free.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

march of the phantom brigade, session 2: goblins in the forest

For the second session of March of the Phantom Brigade at Total Escape Games, we had quite a… um… large and diversified adventuring party. Okay, who am I kidding? It was a whacking big group. Throwing down the gauntlet last night were Darvon (human warpriest), Hallitan (dragonborn paladin), Iados (tiefling mage), Jarren (human wizard), Keira (elven rogue), Sebastian (human mage), Theo (halfling mage), Twig (halfling rogue), and last but not least, Valkrite (? slayer). For those of you counting, that’s NINE players. And two more guys arrived a bit late, but decided to pass when they saw the mob already gathered around the table. (The dad of one of the youngest players stayed to help him, which actually was great, so— including me— we had eleven people gathered around the table. Wow!) Having so many players show up is a nice problem to have, but it’s still a problem. Having another DM on standby would be the ideal solution… unfortunately we didn’t plan ahead for that, so last night we just had to roll with a very large group and make the best of it.

* * * * *
After the encounter with the stirges while fording the stream, Brother Splintershield wished to press on as quickly as possible so that the caravan might reach the ruins of Castle Inverness before nightfall. The fight at the stream and burying the fallen settlers had unnerved Splintershield’s charges, however, and the caravan’s progress over the next few hours was negligible. The dwarf was forced to call a halt so that the shaken settlers might rally and ready themselves for the final push to the former site of Castle Inverness.

As the dwarf stumped up and down the line of wagons, encouraging the settlers, the heroes saw Malgram striding toward them. Following behind him was a female elf dressed in elegant robes. The half-orc ranger stopped before the heroes and introduced them to the elf.

“This is Faldyra. She has it in her head to go digging in the dirt, and she’s far too valuable to the settlement to let her wander off on her own. I need you to watch after her for a while.”

When Malgram had finished speaking, a few of the party members cast surprised glances at each other. After they had lost several of the settlers under their protection during the battle with the stirges, they were astonished the gruff half-orc would trust them to watch over Faldyra. Before the heroes could respond, though, the winsome elf took Theo’s hand and set off for a nearby stand of trees. As the rest of the party hurried to catch up to the pair, they could hear Faldyra chatting about the founding of the new settlement.

While she wandered about, searching for her rare herbs, Faldyra told the group that Castle Inverness used to be a thriving town that was home to hundreds of people. The castle crumbled into ruin long ago and the site and its strange tower were the focus of frightful stories. Decades ago, however, a brave band of adventurers plundered the tower and sealed it. The location was recently rediscovered by some rangers traveling off the beaten path between Hammerfast and Harkenwold. Faldyra told the heroes that, given the unknown dangers in the area, Aldus Splintershield plans to perform a consecration ritual to imbue the land surrounding the tower with the blessing of Moradin.

As Faldyra dug for herbs and chatted with the heroes, she found a few wildflowers that were still blooming. Picking them carefully, she shyly handed them to Theo. The grinning halfling took the small bouquet and gave the attractive elf a rakish wink and a flashy bow.

At that moment, Keira— rolling her eyes at the halfling’s shameless theatrics— spotted a goblin hiding in some nearby shrubbery. As she yelled a warning to her comrades, more goblins popped into sight. Some of the creatures were armed with short bows, while others had light shields and short swords. One of the savages, wearing leather robes and a headdress made of bones and a small animal’s skull, waved a staff and yelled, “Okay, kill ‘em all, see… Kill ‘em all, see, and den we’ll get all da treasure in dem wagons!” The adventurers heard one of the other goblins call the hex hurler “Mugsy.”

As Mugsy and the rest of his goblin gang burst out of the foliage, the heroes sprang into action.

Iados started off the encounter on a positive note, hitting Mugsy and two snipers with Sleep, one of his dailies.

As the goblin snipers targeted Faldyra, Theo courageously defended the fear-stricken elf. He managed to draw her away from the goblins and then used his body as a shield to protect Faldyra from the wicked creatures’ ranged attacks.

Jarren (whose father stuck around to help him play) used Arc Lightning to good effect early in the encounter. A bolt of lightning slammed into a sniper, exploding the goblin, thereby letting the group know that some of their enemies were minions. A bit later in the battle, he used Burning Hands to throw out a fierce blast of flame that scorched four nearby foes (and also Hallitan!).

Our slayer, Valkrite (whose father probably should’ve stuck around to help him), perhaps a bit unhinged by the two Mountain Dews, two giant beef jerky sticks, and Snickers candy bar that he’d consumed at the beginning of the session, dropped his greataxe, rushed toward the enemy, threw his dagger at them (miss), and then (to the surprise of us all) pulled out a crossbow and proceeded to take potshots at the goblins. Okie dokie.
Twig, hit by Mugsy’s annoying Stinging Hex attack (the target takes 3d6+1 damage if it moves during its turn), also found himself flanked by two goblin cutthroats. With a little help from his friends, though, he managed to escape his predicament with just a few flesh wounds.

I’m not sure what the dragonborn, Hallitan, was a paladin of, but he started off his first turn of the encounter by asking the goblins what the purpose of their violence was and tried to dissuade them from attacking the party. As you might expect, the wicked creatures ignored him. After that, he did get down to the business at hand, especially when he blasted several goblins with his handy Dragon Breath encounter power.

Sebastian made good use of his Freezing Burst and Beguiling Strands at-will powers. Well, except for that one memorable round when he missed four goblins with Beguiling Strands by rolling a 1, another 1, a 2, and then something a bit higher that was still a miss.

Keira dashed around the battlefield, dealing out damage to the goblins by doing rogue-ish stuff like Tactical Trick.

Darvon found that he was the focus of several cutthroats’ attention and he was bloodied on two different occasions. Luckily, being a warpriest, he could use Healing Word on himself.

Despite having nine characters in the party, the group did surprisingly little damage to the goblins. For several rounds, all they managed to take out was one sniper. I kept waiting for the wizards to use Magic Missile on the minions, but I don’t think it was used once the entire encounter. And— except for maybe one instance when Beguiling Strands was used to position goblins for an ally’s blast attack— the party’s tactics were uncoordinated. Given the nature of an Encounters group, though, that’s not surprising. No one has played together before and you have widely disparate levels of gameplaying skills.

A little before 8pm, I started to have the remaining goblins retreat off the map. With the heroes having driven off Mugsy’s raiding party, they easily convinced Faldyra it was time to return to the caravan. When Malgram and Splintershield heard about the encounter, they hurriedly got the wagons moving again. If nothing else untoward should occur, the caravan still ought to reach the ruins of Castle Inverness before nightfall.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

march of the phantom brigade, session 1: on the road

The new season of D&D Encounters, March of the Phantom Brigade, started this past Wednesday night at Total Escape Games. The adventurers at the first session were Atreyu (half-elf rogue), Darvon (human warpriest), Gemel (human knight), Melek (tiefling mage), Norward Reithar (half-elf druid), Theo (halfling wizard), and Twig (halfling rogue).

Day 1: Setting Out From Hammerfast

The adventure began with a caravan setting out from the town of Hammerfast. The caravan was made up of settlers going to found a new town to the southwest, in an area where a great castle once stood. The new town, built upon the ruins of Castle Inverness, will serve as a waypoint for traders traveling between Harkenwold and Hammerfast. A dwarf cleric of Moradin, Aldus Splintershield, had been entrusted with the task of creating a better trade route to the south by forging a new road through the foothills of the Dawnforge Mountains. Inverness was to be the first advance station for the road-building workers and supplies. The adventurers had signed on to protect the caravan during its journey to Castle Inverness, and then to provide security as the settlers work to establish the new town.

The first day’s travel went well, as the caravan rolled easily down the Trade Road. About ten miles outside Hammerfast, the road left the majestic peaks of the Dawnforge Mountains and began rolling through the foothills. Everyone seemed to be in fine spirits. The enthusiastic Splintershield’s optimism was contagious and the settlers were excited by the thought that they were participants in a historic event.

Day 2: Argument on the Road

The easy camaraderie of the first day began to fray a bit as the caravan turned south and abandoned the smooth Trade Road. It proceeded to follow a rough trail not meant for wagons and carts. After several hours of difficult travel, shouting was heard near the head of the caravan. When the characters investigated, they found Splintershield and a half-orc ranger named Malgram yelling at one another. The adventurers had found the half-orc to be brusque and ill-mannered, so up to that point they had avoided him as much as possible.

Malgram, who had volunteered to be the captain of the guard in the new town of Inverness, had just received word from one of his scouts that strong fall storms and rushing streams had wiped out the trail ahead. The caravan would have to ford one of those streams some time the next morning, and it had two options. One stream was closer to the northeastern edge of the Harken Forest, the other closer to the foothills of the mountains. Malgram argued that the foothills were dangerous, while Brother Splintershield asserted the blessings of Moradin would make the mountains the better choice. When he saw the adventurers approach, Splintershield asked for their opinion. Darvon was suspicious of Malgram, but the majority of the party decided to trust the ranger and follow his advice. Splintershield acquiesced (grudgingly) and the caravan set off in the direction Malgram recommended.

Day 3: Fording the Stream

Near the middle of the third day, the caravan reached the rushing stream that had been swollen by fall storms. Although far from a coursing river, the stream was deep enough that the crossing would be no trivial matter. Malgram and Aldus Splintershield had prepared a plan to ford the stream. The two of them would lead half the caravan across the stream first, while the heroes stayed behind to guard the second half. Once the first half of the caravan was safely across and on higher ground, the heroes would escort the remaining wagons across.

As the second group of wagons started to cross the stream, the sound of rushing water and the creaking wagons masked a buzzing noise approaching from the sky. What the adventurers thought was a small flock of birds at first glance proved to be a pack of four-winged monsters. Norward recognized that the flying menaces were stirges. He quickly warned the others that a stirge will fly up close to its prey and grab the creature with four clawed limbs. The stirge, he said, then plunges its pointed snout into the victim’s body, draining even a large creature of blood in minutes.

As the stirges closed swiftly, the horses whinnied with fear and the settlers cried out in alarm. The heroes sprang into action, some moving to shield the wagons and settlers while others attacked the rapidly approaching stirges with ranged attacks. During the ensuing fight, the adventurers managed to move all of the horses and wagons across the stream and off the battlefield, but unfortunately three of the settlers perished in the stirge attack. With the monsters dead and the wagons safely across the stream, the adventurers reunited the caravan. After burying the fallen settlers, the road-weary caravan got under way once again. Some time had been lost, however, and if the settlers were to reach the ruins of Castle Inverness by nightfall, they would have to push hard for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

night of the living dead (kots, session 4)

[Ed]: Any zombies out there?
[Shaun]: Don’t say that.
That. The Z-word. Don’t say it!
Why not?
Because it’s ridiculous!
All right— are there any out there, though?

~ Shaun of the Dead (2004)
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There were no changes in the party’s roster for Session 4 of our Keep on the Shadowfell adventure. Back to do battle against the forces of evil were Caliban (avenger), Greth (ranger/seeker), Harold (fighter), Korlon (warlock), Sulader (paladin), Tar (warlord), and Tosdar (cleric).

A Funny Thing Happened On Our Way to Sunderpeak…

While taking the shadow dragon heart to the Sentinels of Bahamut at Sunderpeak Temple, we came upon a small temple of Erathis that served as a way station on the road up into the Cairngorm Peaks. We planned to rest there on our trek to Sunderpeak, but as we approached the place, we could see that the temple’s front doors looked as if they had been violently torn asunder.

While the rest of us moved off the road and took cover a short distance away from the temple, Caliban and Greth stealthed up closer to the building. Their reconnaissance confirmed that the front doors had indeed been violently breached. They also observed the arrow-riddled corpse of an orc lying amidst the tombstones in the small cemetery behind the temple. They signaled the rest of us to join them at the rear of the temple, and then we all snuck up to the back door. The door was ajar and we could see a body crumpled just inside the doorway. Having spent almost forty-five minutes of real time just sneaking up to the temple, most of us were ready to hit something, so Caliban, Harold, and Tar rushed through the rear door, ready to take on all comers.

The sanctuary, however, was empty, save for the scattered bodies of several humans and orcs. Everywhere we looked, there was evidence that a violent battle had taken place within the temple. We were shocked to see that the statue of Erathis, up on the dais, was toppled over and the altar had been foully desecrated. As the rest of the party came in through the rear door and joined us in the demolished sanctuary, Harold felt a wave of foreboding. He began to suspect that the party had walked into a trap. No one else seemed overly concerned, so we split up to search the rest of the temple. (Yes, I know you’re never supposed to split the party, but this was simply a matter of some of us going upstairs while the rest looked around the ground floor a bit more.)

Greth, Harold, and Tosdar (and Splug) stayed downstairs while the rest of the group went upstairs. The downstairs crew found a trapdoor that led down to some catacombs below the sanctuary. After discovering a clue in a mural of Erathis at the back of the sanctuary, they checked the altar and found a secret drawer that contained four potions of healing and eight vials of holy water. Meanwhile, the upstairs group had found a small floor safe that had been opened and its contents strewn about. The safe appeared to have held ledgers and blueprints of various religious houses. Sorting through the scattered papers, they noticed that any blueprints for Sunderpeak Temple were conspicuously absent. A desk sat near the safe, and a badly scorched kobold body lay beside the desk. Korlon detected that the desk was trapped and (since the party doesn’t have a rogue) they decided to steer clear of it.

After coming back together and sharing their discoveries, it was getting close to dusk, so the party decided to spend the night at the temple. They carried bodies outside, barricaded doors, cleaned up the dais and altar as best they could, and then set watches for the night.

Remember the Alamo!

Korlon and Sulader had the second watch of the night. Midway through the watch, Sulader was struggling a bit to stay alert, but then he popped wide awake as he noticed a black mist seeping out of the pack containing the shadow dragon heart. Opening the pack, he could see that the nasty lump was pulsing rapidly. He and Korlon took the pack to the altar, but that made no difference in the heart’s strange behavior. At that point, they saw black mist beginning to seep through the barricaded doors and broken windows around the perimeter of the sanctuary. A faint scratching sounded at the rear door, followed by an alarming “THUMP.” The half-elf and goliath decided this would be a good time to wake the rest of us.

What followed was a series of skill challenges punctuated by a number of extremely chaotic battles in which we frantically attempted to keep swarms of undead from overrunning our makeshift fort. During the skill challenge portions of the encounter, we could either attempt to strengthen the barricades at the doors and windows or we could assist with the ritual to reconsecrate the temple. The attempt to reconsecrate the temple was moving at a snail’s pace until someone thought to take Splug upstairs and convinced him to use his thief-ery skills to open the desk. Lo and behold, inside the desk was a magical implement, a symbol of Erathis, which markedly sped up the reconsecration ritual.

Combat was insane, with unending waves of zombies trying to claw through every door and window that opened into the sanctuary. They were even coming up through the trapdoor in the middle of the floor. When we’d beat them back and were able to start on the skill challenge again, we could still hear them outside, moaning, shrieking, and shambling around the building.

Just when the barricade at the front doors was finally breached and the zombies down in the catacombs actually ripped a hole in the floor through which Korlon fell, who should make an appearance but Kalarel. Woo hoo! Welcome to the party, good buddy! In the midst of the fierce battle, his spectral apparition phased through a wall and floated into the sanctuary. He waved his skull-capped rod around the room and said, “Give me the heart and you will walk away from this alive. Refuse me and you will still walk away… as my undead minions.”

With Kalarel’s appearance, any attempt to continue the reconsecration ritual was abandoned as we fought for our lives. Harold went down trying to hold back the flood of zombies pouring through the front door. Korlon managed to teleport up and out of the catacombs, with several undead creatures in hot pursuit. Tosdar used a timely application of Turn Undead to sear a number of the zombies inside the sanctuary. Greth cut down a zombie who was making a beeline for the altar and the shadow dragon heart. Sulader took out a wraith that was also making for the heart. Caliban and Tar kept the Kalarel-apparition occupied.

The surviving heroes somehow managed to clear the sanctuary of undead and to hold off the spectral apparition of Kalarel. As they helped Harold and took stock of the situation, they looked outside and noticed a faint glow beginning to illumine the eastern sky. Sunrise! As the flaming ball of the sun rose above the horizon, all manner of panicked screeches, howls, and screams sounded from the shadows around the temple. As sunlight banished the last of the gloom from around the battered building, the exhausted adventurers took grim satisfaction in the gruesome demise of the remaining undead.

After bandaging our wounds and getting some rest, we continued our journey to Sunderpeak Temple. When we arrived at the temple, we were met by two very serious dragonborn in plate armor who escorted us into the small fortress. Valthrun had sent word of our mission, so the Sentinels were expecting us. After taking the shadow dragon heart from us, they were dismayed to learn of what had happened at the small temple to Erathis. They thanked us for warning them that an enemy might have stolen the blueprints to their facility and that our information might explain the kobolds they’d seen skulking about the last day or two. After seeing the stronghold for ourselves, though, it was obvious that Kalarel would need a small army to storm the place. The Sentinels invited us to spend the night at Sunderpeak Temple and we readily agreed.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

and that's a wrap (kotb, week 20)

This past Wednesday, the D&D Encounters group at Total Escape Games finished our Keep on the Borderlands adventure with a bang. Within embattled Restwell Keep, our band of heroes entered the Great Hall and finally caught up the dastardly Benwick!

For Week 20, our adventuring party consisted of a slayer (Eldeth), two knights, a wizard, and a cleric. A new player also showed up for this last session with a warlock character. Jumping right into the final encounter of this adventure must’ve seemed a bit bewildering, I’m sure, but we were glad to have the guy’s warlock join us in the fight against Benwick.

Outside the sundered doors to the Great Hall, we came across Kendon, the Keep’s bailiff. He told us that Benwick and Lord Drysdale had been engaged in a fierce battle inside the building. As we cautiously made our way through the front entrance, we saw Benwick across the hall, standing over the bloodied, prostrate form of Lord Drysdale. Grrrr. Our one thought was to close rapidly with the villian and cut him down, but as we started to move forward, we were attacked by two vipers. Benwick then threw some pellets across our path. The pellets magically morphed into spitting cobras and, suddenly, a sea of serpents stood between us and Benwick. Sigh. Well, at least they weren’t spiders.

We had a difficult time fighting our way through the snakes. The vipers were tough opponents, able to make two attacks against a target (the second hit left the target with ongoing poison damage). The cobras were minions, but they had this annoying attack called Blinding Spittle that left quite a few of us stumbling around, blinded (save ends). As the snakes kept us occupied, Benwick would blast us with his Biting Coils attack.

By the second round of combat, our wizard was already unconscious and dying. On his next turn, though, he rolled a natural 20 on his first death save, so he was able to get back in the fight... for one round, then he was cut down again by one of the cobras. While he was down, he was caught in one of Benwick’s Biting Coils attacks and died. During that same round, Benwick convinced Kendon to switch sides, one of our knights was very bloodied and blinded, the other knight went down, and the warlock was very bloodied, blinded, slowed, and had ongoing poison damage. The next round, the cleric was cut down.

Things weren’t looking so good for our band of heroes. But then Eldeth decided enough was enough. The dwarf had worked his way around the snakes and finally managed to reach a point from which he could use a move and a charge to close with Benwick. Once he came to grips with Benwick, Eldeth never let up, landing four consecutive hits for 19, 16, 16, and 19 points of damage. The valiant dwarf went down after that, but by that time the other PCs had sorted themselves out and were back in the fight. While Eldeth had went mano a mano with Benwick, the warlock and knight had stabilized the cleric. The cleric was then able to bring the downed knight back up. After Eldeth’s sacrifice gave them the time they needed to regroup, all four remaining party members converged on Benwick and took his sorry a$$ down.

I found this fight an extremely satisfying way to end the adventure. The climactic battle with Benwick was a close-run affair that pushed our group to its limits, so our success felt like quite an accomplishment. Eldeth’s heroics in this last session were a fun way to wrap-up my run with the valiant dwarf slayer dude.

All in all, playing Keep on the Borderlands was an enjoyable experience. Playing through a season of D&D Encounters is different than playing in a regular campaign, however, so you need to approach Encounters with some flexibility and patience. At Total Escape, we had a core group of five or six players that consistently showed up each week, but there were also five or six others that drifted in and out. There was also a wide range of ages represented in our group, from a seven-year-old to a forty-three-year-old. Some players showed up knowing almost nothing about Dungeons and Dragons, while others brought years of gaming experience to the table. All of these factors sometimes combined to make for an “interesting” session, but we managed to adapt and overcome. Most of the time. There was that unfortunate TPK in Week 17, but let’s not talk about that.
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Starting next Wednesday evening, I’ll be DMing the new season of Encounters (March of the Phantom Brigade) at Total Escape. Phantom Brigade will be my very first experience as a DM, so I look forward to sharing my insights and impressions from the other side of the screen with you.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

book review: legacy of dhakaan

I’ve never been to Eberron (not surprising since it’s a fictional creation), but novelist Don Bassingthwaite made me feel as if I had been there in the wake of the Last War, after the armies of the hobgoblin warlord Haruuc turned on the people of Cyre and Breland and founded the nation of Darguun. The three books in The Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy (The Doom of Kings, Word of Traitors, and The Tyranny of Ghosts) are terrific additions to WotC’s lineup of Eberron novels. Canadian author Bassingthwaite’s background is in cultural anthropology, and he puts that skill set to good use as he convincingly crafts an exciting, detailed picture of Darguun’s society, politics, and history.

In The Doom of Kings, the shifter Geth (hero of Bassingthwaite’s The Dragon Below trilogy) returns when the Lhesh Haruuc commissions him to find an ancient scepter that the aging warlord believes to be the key to holding Darguun together after his death. Haruuc fears that when he dies, rancorous tribal politics will tear apart his newly formed kingdom unless his successor possesses the legendary Rod of Kings, an ancient Dhakaani artifact. Haruuc chooses Geth to find the long-lost scepter because the shifter holds Wrath, the Sword of Heroes, one of the trio of powerful artifacts to which the Rod of Kings once belonged. Geth and his friends, including Ashi and Ekhaas (also from The Dragon Below trilogy), set out to track down the scepter and safeguard Haruuc’s legacy.

In Word of Traitors, Geth and his companions search for the assassin who killed Haruuc at a moment of crisis for Darguun. While Darguun mobilizes for war with the elves of Valenar, the heroes struggle to come up with a plan to keep the Rod of Kings out of the hands of Tariic, Haruuc’s nephew and the dead lhesh’s unstable successor. After their creation of a false scepter is discovered and they are betrayed by someone they believed to be a friend, Geth and the others find that they’re in a deadly race to retrieve the true rod from its hiding place.

The Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy reaches its thrilling conclusion with The Tyranny of Ghosts. After Geth and his friends were forced to flee Tariic’s wrath, they decided to seek out the last of the trio of powerful Dhakaani artifacts. They believed the enigmatic Shield of Nobles to be the key to destroying the corrupting Rod of Kings. Meanwhile, Ashi, trapped in Rhukaan Draal by the new lhesh, discovered that Tariic’s mad ambition was leading Darguun toward a larger conflict with the nations of Khorvaire.

Bassingthwaite’s trilogy is filled with interesting characters, but the shifter veteran Geth is the reason I liked these books so much. He’s a fascinating hero because he is no lone wolf; he knows that to defeat a very dangerous enemy, he needs the help of his friends. The larger theme of the story is Darguun’s place among the nations of Khorvaire, but the reason you want to keep turning the pages of these books is to find out what happens to Geth and his friends.

You’ll find any Eberron book you pick up by Don Bassingthwaite to be a well-crafted tale of high adventure that combines skillful writing and exciting storytelling. He deserves praise for his superior characterizations of diverse races (human, shifter, hobgoblin, etc) and his knack for telling a believable, engaging story set in the D&D world of Eberron. I’d recommend The Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy to anyone who is a fan of Eberron or D&D, and to anyone who enjoys thrilling sword-and-sorcery fantasy.