Monday, March 28, 2011

fortune cards & (not) the end of civilization as we know it: part 2

So I passed out the free packs of Fortune Cards at the first session of March of the Phantom Brigade and what happened?

No one used them, that’s what happened. In fact, after seven weeks of Encounters sessions, no one has used the cards. Well, that’s not completely true… one guy did use them during one game session (around about Week 3, I think), but he wasn’t even in the original group that received the free packs.

Wondering why Fortune Cards weren’t being put into more widespread use by my Encounters players, I passed out a questionnaire at last Wednesday’s session of MotPB. The feedback was interesting and shed some light on why no one has been using the cards.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

the one with the spiders (kots, session 8)

Harold deftly sidestepped away from the hobgoblin soldier’s clumsy flail attack. As the hobgoblin growled in frustration, the minotaur’s eyes were drawn to a blur of movement above his opponent’s head. For a split second, Harold’s brain couldn’t process what he was seeing, but then with a start he realized that his worst nightmare was coming true… a giant spider was leaping through the air, headed straight for him (Death from Above). Before he could bring his new halberd up to defend himself, the spider was on him. The monstrous spider knocked Harold prone and started to bite him. Even small, normal-sized spiders give Harold the heebie-jeebies, so it is to the minotaur’s credit that he somehow suppressed the urge to scream like a little girl even though a spider the size of a horse was sitting on his chest and biting him with large fangs that were dripping with venom.

* * * * *

At the end of the previous session of our Keep on the Shadowfell adventure, we had decided to chase Ninaran and backtrack toward the hobgoblin guard room. Our plan was to track down Ninaran and prevent her from warning Kalarel of our presence. We also wanted to go back and eliminate the hobgoblin guards we’d bypassed, thereby securing our rear before we passed through the cherub-doorway in the Chamber of Statues.

For our eighth session of KotS at Stonebridge Games, the usual cast of characters made up our adventuring party: Greth (githzerai hunter/seeker hybrid), Harold (minotaur fighter), Korlon (half-elf warlock), Sulader (goliath paladin of the Raven Queen), Tarionsus (tiefling warlord), and Tosdar Strudil (dwarf battle cleric).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

march of the phantom brigade, session 7: the burning of inverness

After the death of Brother Splintershield during an ambush in the Harken Wood by spectral soldiers from the Phantom Brigade, the heroes made their way back toward Inverness. When they came within sight of the village, their worst fears were confirmed when they saw that the settlement was in flames. From their vantage point on the edge of the forest, the adventurers could see settlers fighting the fires and battling ghostly soldiers. Wanting to rush to the aid of the stricken villagers, our heroes were checked by the sight of dozens of Phantom Brigade soldiers patrolling the fields between the woods and Inverness.

Skill Challenge: Sneaking Into Inverness

The party noticed that the patrols of spectral warriors were alert and moving with military precision, but they had a wide area to cover. Our heroes were almost certain it would be possible to make their way to the road leading up the hill to Inverness without being detected.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

fortune cards & (not) the end of civilization as we know it: part 1

WotC released the first set of D&D Fortune Cards, Shadow Over Nentir Vale, on 8 February 2011, ready to use with the new D&D Encounters season. According to WotC promotional material (“So Just What Exactly Are Fortune Cards, Anyway?”),

Fortune Cards are a new D&D gameplay enhancement that showcase the chaotic nature of adventuring in a fantastic world of danger and magic. Every time players begin an encounter, they draw cards from their decks of Fortune Cards, activating the game benefit at the appropriate time. Each card provides a game effect that enhances attacks, defenses, or provides some other sort of benefit to a player character. For example, a card might provide some temporary damage resistance, a bonus on your next attack roll if you charge, or give you a reroll when a certain condition is triggered.

Fortune Cards are available in 8-card booster packs (MSRP of $3.99 each) with differing levels of rarity (common, uncommon, and rare), and serve as another avenue for excitement at the game table. Players can crack open boosters of cards just prior to participating in a game session, or come with pre-built decks. With each booster, a player’s tactical options for their character during the game are altered and expanded in interesting ways.

It’s important to point out that Fortune Cards are not a requirement for D&D play; they are an enhancement that simulates blind luck, the winds of fate, or divine influence. And they are an enhancement to the gameplay experience— they can be added or removed from a game when desired. Once you start to use them, you’ll see that they actually help to focus player actions and provide interesting tactical opportunities that you may not have considered previously.
Since Fortune Cards were being released last month in connection with the start of March of the Phantom Brigade— and since I would be DMing MotPB at a local game store here in Colorado— I was curious as to how the players at the Encounters sessions would take to the “new D&D gameplay enhancement.”

I had also been amused to see the number of alarmist blog articles and forum postings in the 4e D&D community that were bashing WotC for the release of Fortune Cards. These articles and postings were blaming Fortune Cards for everything from being the final nail in the coffin of 4e D&D to being the event that heralded the end of western civilization as we know it. (I mean, c’mon, people… everyone knows that the introduction of digital watches heralded the end of western civilization as we know it.)

I found it amusing that so many people were bashing WotC for selling Fortune Cards because the critical articles and disparaging postings were being written before the cards went on sale to the public and therefore were being written before anyone had used the cards in actual gameplay. One thoughtful and sensitive Fortune Card critic titled his rant: “4e D&D Goes Full Retard.” On my local D&D gaming group website, one player who posted to a forum thread titled “Fortune Cards?”, dismissed the cards as “just another marketing ploy by WotC to try and make money.” I saw this criticism echoed in other forums on other gaming sites and wondered if there are people out there who truly think WotC is some sort of not-for-profit charity catering to the whims of fickle D&D enthusiasts. WotC may have employees who are passionate gamers and who have an emotional stake in the D&D brand, but WotC is first and foremost a business seeking to make a profit.

Another poster to that same forum thread said that he would forbid the use of Fortune Cards at any of the multiple games he DMs each week, and he would discourage their use at any LFR or RPGA events where he was the DM. If a player insisted on using the cards at such an event anyway, he said that he’d modify the monster stats so that any benefit the cards granted to a player would be negated. The DM of my Sunday afternoon Keep on the Shadowfell game said, “If a player wants to use Fortune Cards at my table I will allow it under one condition: he has to share them with the entire table—including the DM.”

With all of the buzz surrounding the release of the cards, I was pleased as Punch to find that some promotional packs had been included with my DM kit for MotPB. There were enough cards in the kit for me to pass out a pack to each player at the first session of MotPB, and also for me to keep some cards for myself for, um, you know, research purposes.

Before handing out the cards at that first session of MotPB, I hopped on and printed enough copies of the Fortune Cards rules that I could give each player their own copy. The rules are as follows:


You can use all the cards of one or more D&D Fortune Cards boosters as your deck. Each player brings his or her own deck to the game.

At the start of each encounter, shuffle your deck and draw a card.

You can play one card per round. It requires no action to play. The rules on each card state when you can play it and what effect it has. A card takes effect just once unless it states otherwise, and you discard the card when its effect ends.

You can have only one Fortune Card in your hand at a time. At the start of each of your turns, you can do one of the following”
  • Discard the card in your hand and draw a new one.

  • Draw a new card if you don’t have one in your hand.

  • Keep the card that’s in your hand if you haven’t played it.

You can also build and play with your own customized deck of Fortune Cards. Each card in the Shadow Over Nentir Vale set belongs to one of three categories: Attack, Defense, or Tactics. The card’s face displays its category.

A custom Fortune Card deck can contain any multiple of 10 cards (10, 20, 30, and so on). For every 10 cards in your deck, you must have at least 3 cards of each of the three categories (Attack, Defense, Tactics). Deck Size: 10 Minimum Cards per Category: 3 … Deck Size: 20 Minimum Cards per Category: 6 … Deck Size: 30 Minimum Cards per Category: 9 … And so on.
I was excited at the thought of putting a pack of Fortune Cards in the players’ hands that first week of Encounters and then seeing how everyone would use them in the following sessions. Would they have a drastic effect on play balance? By adding to the complexity of a player’s options, would it noticeably slow down everyone’s turn? Would there be any jealousy at the table if one player invested in buying enough packs to build a killer deck while another player either had no cards or just a ‘starter’ deck?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

march of the phantom brigade, session 6: vengeance

I think the combination of the recent time change (it’s staying light later—yeah!) and warm spring weather (it was in the mid-seventies here in the Denver metro area) resulted in a smaller-than-usual group of gamers showing up at Total Escape Games for Session 6 of March of the Phantom Brigade. One of the players who made it for the session was the eleven-year-old boy who plays Jarren, and he was accompanied by his grandma. Grandma asked if she could sit at the table and watch (which was totally cool, of course), so she sat there knitting throughout our game (which was kind of funny, of course).

* * * * *
After their battle with the missing loggers, Brother Splintershield led our heroes deeper into the forest to search for the source of the mysterious plague and perform a cleansing ritual to eliminate it. Falling in alongside the determined cleric were Atreyu (human thief), Givner (human scout), Iados (tiefling wizard), Jarren (human wizard), and Sebastian (human wizard).

To prepare for the session, I drew a map of the forest to give to the party. I marked the six locations which they needed to investigate in order to discover the source of the plague.

Starting off in an unaffected section of the Harken Forest, the heroes confirmed that the area held nothing out of the ordinary. Then the party came upon an area where many trees had been knocked down and splintered. In the center of the destruction was a crater where they found several crystal formations similar to those left by the mysterious sickness. Iados recognized that something large and heavy had been dragged away from the crater. Sebastian told the party that some planar warping hovered around the edge of the crater. He said that such phenomena suggested that something was forcefully pushed into the world from another plane, creating the crater when it happened.

Continuing to explore the woods, the group came across a cave in a hillside. As they approached the cave, a horrible stench of decay assaulted them. Inside the cave, they discovered a pair of black bears that had clearly been dead for several days. Both animals bore the now-familiar crystal-filled lesions on their bodies. Iados noticed that the bears died from wounds inflicted by each other—as though they were driven to tear into each other with their claws.

The heroes next followed an ice-covered stream to a large pool of water. Such a pond should have been frozen solid, but that one was only partially frozen. Faint wisps of steam rose from the water’s surface and large gaps in the ice showed black water underneath. The edges of the breaks festered with red crystals. Searching nearby, Givner found the remains of the loggers’ camp. The party also discovered signs of animal passage in the area. They concluded that the infected loggers and diseased animals must have contracted the plague after drinking the water from the pond.

Leaving the pond and exploring upstream, our heroes entered a stretch of forest where the trees showed signs of infection. The trees had developed the same crystal lesions, each of which was filled with gold flecks. The worst of them appeared as though their growth had been shaped in strange, chaotic ways. Jarren could discern no obvious pattern concerning which trees were infected and which remained untouched. He suggested the lack of uniformity was evidence the plague wasn’t airborne, but instead was spread by contact between infected hosts.

Following the frozen stream through the ravaged trees, the adventurers eventually discovered the source of the plague. The corpse of a large, monstrous creature lay rotting alongside the stream. The body was nearly overgrown with red crystals. The creature was generating an intense, supernatural heat— it had melted the surface of the stream and was causing infected water to flow beneath the ice downstream to the pond.

Brother Splintershield approached the corpse and said, ”It’s some manner of demon, but I’ve never seen its like. This sickness must be some kind of Abyssal plague-- a foul malignancy brought here from beyond our plane. I think I can cleanse it with a ritual.”

The Death of Aldus Splintershield

Splintershield and the rest of the heroes were about to discover that the outbreak of the plague was part of a trap set by the scorned ghost, Salazar Vladistone. The spirit wanted to kill Splintershield to break the ritual that barred him from Inverness and his wife’s grave. Vladistone had enlisted the spectral soldiers from the Phantom Brigade to help him kill Splintershield. After coming across the corpse of the plague demon, Vladistone decided to use it to lay a trap for the dwarf cleric.

Just as Splintershield completed the cleansing ritual, a pulse of vile energy staggered the party. When our heroes recovered, they saw a ghostly spear jutting up from the ground, piercing Brother Splintershield’s chest. Slowly, a phantom soldier rose from the snow-covered soil. Gripping its weapon purposefully as it ascended, the ghost forced the spear through the stricken cleric with a sickening noise.

As several more spectral soldiers rose from the ground nearby, Jarren groaned and said, “Malgram is going to kill us.”

The heroes moved quickly to save Brother Splintershield, but the Phantom Brigade Armigers and Squires had already surrounded the cleric. The spectral soldiers ignored the others and concentrated on their primary mission: the death of Splintershield. After striking Splintershield down, one of the armigers said, “Vladistone has his vengeance. The cleric is slain and his shield has fallen. Let us finish these fools and join the others at the Ghost Tower.”

Caught up in a fight for their lives, it was several rounds before any of the heroes could get close enough to Splintershield to ascertain the cleric’s condition. When Jarren confirmed through a heal check that the cleric had truly been slain by the Phantom Brigade soldiers, the adventurers saw a flash in the sky coming from the direction of Inverness. They knew that the flash indicated the protective ward over the town had collapsed. At the same instant, the remaining spectral soldiers began to fade away and dissolve into a fine mist that disappeared back into the ground.

Beating a hasty retreat back to the village, the heroes made their way through the forest with no difficulty. At the end of the hour or so it took them to arrive within sight of Inverness, however, they realized they were too late. In the distance, the night sky glowed with flames as the village of Inverness burned.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

march of the phantom brigade, session 5: the abyssal plague

For Session 5 of March of the Phantom Brigade at Total Escape Games, we once again had enough players to run two tables. The adventurers at my table were Atreyu (human rogue), Brandis (human paladin), Halitin (dragonborn paladin), Jarren (human wizard), and Norward Reithar (half-elf druid).

This past Wednesday’s session marked the beginning of the second chapter of MotPB. Winter has come to the Nentir Vale. Months have passed since the settlers and heroes arrived at the ruins of Castle Inverness. The busy settlers have built homes and workplaces, established farms in the surrounding countryside, and started to construct a road north toward Hammerfast. Trade with the village of Harkenwold to the south is growing. Looming above the newly established settlement, the mysterious Ghost Tower continues to frustrate every attempt to enter it.

Our heroes have spent the last several months fending off the occasional monster attack, patrolling to protect the town against Mugsy and his goblin gang from Harken Forest, and escorting supply caravans between Inverness and Hammerfast. On this particular night, they are dining in the village’s tavern. Faldyra joins them and during their meal, the party overhears a conversation between several foresters at a nearby table. The foresters are talking about some animal corpses they have been finding lately. The animals bear no visible sign of injury— but they all have signs of an odd disease. The dead creatures all have weird crystalline growths that have broken through the skin.

Death Comes to Inverness

As the heroes share concerned looks at what they have heard from the foresters’ table, Brother Splintershield rushes into the tavern. He approaches Faldyra and our heroes and says, “I think you’d better come have a look at this. Some of the scouts are back, and it looks bad.”

When they arrive at the town gate, the heroes see that two rows of bodies have been laid out on the ground. The six human bodies appear to be unmarked except for numerous red crystalline lesions. Malgram tells Faldyra and our heroes that these foresters were part of a larger group out downing trees for construction projects in the village. The tough half-orc says, “I’ve never seen anything like this. We were hoping one of you might be able to tell us what happened to them.”

As the adventurers inspect the bodies, one of the “corpses” opens its eyes and grabs Jarren’s arm. The man croaks out a few words in a raspy, weak voice: “… the demon in the forest… drank the water… a plague… others may yet live.” With that, the logger collapses, at last dead.

Malgram quickly organizes several search parties to head out and look for any surviving foresters. Aldus Splintershield insists that he will join one of the search parties, so Malgram turns him over to our heroes. The half-orc pulls the adventurers aside and urges them to stay close to the cleric and bring him back alive, whether they find the loggers or not.
The Missing Foresters

As our heroes fall in alongside him, Brother Splintershield heads east, where several ponds are fed by springs. Even in the depths of a winter night, the Harken Forest is alive with sounds. The full moon shines down, producing long, ominous shadows across the snowy ground.

As they near a small clearing in the woods, Brandis notices that the nocturnal animals have gone silent and warns the party that danger might be near. (Brandis gained a +1 to all his defenses for the upcoming encounter.)

Norward identifies the tracks of the foresters in the snow and begins to navigate the party into a good location for battle. (The wizard gained a +1 bonus to his attack rolls for the encounter.)

As Brandis and Norward help prepare the group for battle, Jarren spots signs of strange crystalline growth on nearby trees and warns the party that the loggers are near. (For his excellent perception, Jarren started the fight with 5 temporary hit points.)

As our heroes enter the clearing, they see six figures dressed in tattered clothes. The adventurers notice unmistakable signs that the loggers are infected by the same sickness as the ones who were lain out in Inverness. Unlike their dead companions, these foresters seem to be feverish, maddened, and aggressive.

Fortunately for the heroes, the plagued foresters are not in their right minds and lack any tactical ability. Two of the loggers lurch toward Jarren, however, and their vicious axe attacks quickly reduce the wizard to one hit point. With the help of some healing from Brother Splintershield, the embattled mage manages to stay in the fight and hits the foresters with blasts of ice (Freezing Burst) and fire (Burning Hands).

Brandis wastes no time in activating his Defender Aura. Because of the aura, enemies keep attacking the stalwart paladin, ignoring his less-armored friends.

In this encounter, Atreyu continues to use Tactical Trick with devastating effectiveness. Circling around the chaotic fight, the nimble rogue uses his short bow to strike down loggers locked in melee combat with his companions.

Norward, skillfully wielding the magic of the natural world, opens the battle with a whip-crack of sonic power that lashes up from the ground (Thunderwave) and hits three loggers. The half-elf follows this up by assuming the form of a primeval bear, a monstrous creature of great strength and savagery (Form of the Primeval Bear).

Three foes closing in on Halitin are hit when the dragonborn opens his mouth with a roar, letting the deadly power of his draconic kin blast forth to engulf his foes (Dragon Breath).

The maddened foresters continue to attack the heroes until they are all cut down. As silence once again settles over the clearing, Splintershield begins circling the area with an odd look in his eyes. He claims that the source of the mysterious disease must be nearby, because he can sense a “wrongness” to the area. He believes the party can quickly find the source of the plague, and then he’ll perform a cleansing ritual to eliminate it tonight.

With a last look at the trampled, bloody snow in the clearing and the still forms of the loggers scattered about in the moonlight, the party heads deeper into the forest, hoping to find the source of the deadly sickness plaguing Inverness.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

hello, ninaran, long time no see (kots, session 7)

For our seventh session of Keep on the Shadowfell, we ventured deeper into the dungeons below the ruins of the keep. After convincing Sir Keegan that we weren’t tomb robbers and after taking an extended rest in the safety of the area outside his tomb, the six of us* headed back north to the stairway that Tar had discovered while running away from the terror rune trap.

*Note: Since leaving Sunderpeak Temple, we’d been hoping Caliban (deva avenger) might hook back up with the party, but it looks as if he has decided to pursue other adventures. Fare thee well, Caliban. So six of us are left to explore the dungeons below Shadowfell Keep and stop Kalarel from opening the rift.

  • 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)
* * * * *
Hobgoblin Guard Room

We found that the aforementioned stairs descended into a large, torch-lit chamber. Two human-sized creatures in leather armor stood with their backs to us, leaning over a well in the center of the room. Another of the creatures, this one in scale armor, stood across the chamber. Big, pointed ears stuck out from under his helmet, and sharp teeth glittered in his mouth. When the hobgoblin soldier spotted us, he yelled out a challenge phrase: “Shadow seeks shadow!” The two hobgoblin grunts at the well spun around and faced us, their eyes widening.

Thinking quickly, we answered the guard with the pass phrase that Balgron had given us: “And life fails in the dark!”

The hobgoblin soldier squinted at us and demanded, “What business do you have with Kalarel that you know the password?”

“We, uh… Um, well… We’re here to deliver the shadow dragon heart to him. Yeh, yeh, that’s what we’re doing here!”

The soldier said, “Ha! Good for you. I knew that fool Ninaran would fail. Alright, come down.”

As we descended the stairs, the soldier told one of the grunts to go on ahead and tell Kalarel about our arrival with the heart. He ordered the other grunt to escort us to Kalarel’s quarters. As we came down into the chamber, we noticed that the hobgoblins had a sickly, grayish pallor and were moving sluggishly. We also saw— much to Harold’s dismay— that in a smaller room to the north, a steel cage held a spider the size of a horse. A third grunt, waiting for us to advance and be recognized, was poised to release the caged spider.

At that point, we obviously had a decision to make. We could either attack the hobgoblins there in the guard room or we could continue on with the bluff and see how far it would take us. We decided to carry on with the bluff.

For five tense rounds, we successfully bluffed our way through the hobgoblin guarded chambers. The charade actually carried us right through that area (past another horse-sized spider) and all the way to a large room to the south with a towering statue of a warrior in plate armor holding an outstretched sword.

Chamber of Statues

As we entered that chamber with our hobgoblin escort, there was much whispering about how much longer we wanted to follow him. Carrying on with the bluff for so long had put us all on edge, so it was agreed that it was time to end the act, come what may. Since we were finally out of sight and hearing of the hobgoblin guard room area, it was time for our shambling, sickly escort to have an accident. Slipping up behind the hobgoblin, Harold decapitated it. Oops.

Looking around the chamber, we noticed that it looked vaguely like a memorial. The larger-than-life warrior statue dominated the western part of the room. Across from the warrior, in the corners of the eastern wall, sat two statues of crouching dragons. To the south, an entryway led to a set of double doors. In that entryway, there was a puddle of water running down a drain in the floor. In the corners of the entryway were four statues of small, cherubic figures holding vases above their heads. Hmm…

Tosdar had been bringing up the rear, and as the dwarf entered the room the double doors to the north slammed shut behind him. As the doors slammed shut, the massive sword-wielding statue swung its weapon in a deadly arc. Greth, Harold, and Tar managed to avoid the blow, but the titan statue hit Sulader and knocked the goliath prone. From the east side of the room, magical energy sparked within one of the dragon mouths and flames spewed forth, catching Korlon in the blast.

As Greth fired arrows at the murderous statue, Tar managed to leap up onto the pedestal and noticed a small control panel on the inside of one of the titan’s legs. While Tar opened the cover on the control panel and fiddled around with the levers and dials within, Sulader stood up and swung Aecris at the statue. In the blink of an eye, a massive stone arm and fifteen-foot long sword lay on the floor. Wow.

While Tar kept fiddling around inside the now impotent statue’s control panel and Sulader attacked the titan’s leg, Harold just shook his head and turned to see if the northern doors were still locked. Meanwhile, Korlon and Tosdar came up with a plan to throw the hobgoblin grunt’s body over into the entryway to the south and see if it activated another trap.

As Tosdar carried the grunt’s body across the room, one of the northern doors suddenly banged open. Harold stumbled backward in surprise as two hobgoblin soldiers appeared in the doorway. From somewhere behind the soldiers a familiar female voice shouted, “Yes! It’s them!”

And mayhem ensued.

Ninaran was leading a patrol consisting of the two soldiers, a hobgoblin commander, and two hobgoblin archers. The two soldiers formed a shield wall in front of the commander. While forming the shield wall, they had an AC of 22. We were having a difficult time getting past the soldiers until Sulader bull rushed the door that was still closed, shoved it open, and went on an end run straight for Ninaran.

During the battle, Korlon and Tosdar both used powers that— in my opinion —should always hit, just because they have such cool names. Korlon used 'Winged Horde', while Tosdar pulled out both 'Split the Sky' and 'Wrathful Thunder'. Tar had an encounter power named 'Steel Monsoon' that he used on one of the archers. Even Sulader used 'Vengeful Strike' on an archer. Man, Harold really needs to get some powers with some cool names.

The tipping point of the fight came when Greth cut down the hobgoblin commander with a timely application of 'Twin Strike'. At that point, Ninaran turned and ran down the darkened hallway, back toward the hobgoblin guard room.

After mopping up the remaining hobgoblins, we decided to take a short rest and then we'll follow Ninaran back to the north, rather than tackling whatever lies through the cherub-doorway to the south. We assume that Ninaran is going to alert the rest of the hobgoblins that we bypassed and stir up a hornet’s nest behind us. Our plan is to eliminate the hobgoblins (and Ninaran) to our rear before we advance through the cherub-doorway.

Although the party is backtracking, a certain minotaur is hoping against hope that they won’t have to face those spiders. Did I mention they’re as big as horses?! Spiders. As big as horses.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

sir keegan, i presume? (kots, session 6)

After setting Balgron free and taking an extended rest at a campsite nearby (those s’mores were mmm, mmm, good!), we headed back down into the dungeons below the ruins of Shadowfell Keep.

Crypt of Shadows

Opening the “BAD! DEAD!” door, we found discolored stairs leading down into cold darkness. An overpowering odor of damp rot filled the air.

Down the stairs, we found zombies and terror runes. Making use of foul powers from beyond the rift, Kalarel had animated a number of corpses to act as undead guards in this area of the dungeon. He’d also inscribed several magical runes into the floor at strategic points along the narrow hallways. Contact with a rune would release a ghostly scream that triggered a fear effect, striking terror into the heart of a PC and causing the character to freak out and run away.
It took us four rounds to dispatch all of the zombies in the crypt, and then we investigated the mysterious runes inscribed into the floors. Korlon realized that the runes were traps designed to go off upon contact. Korlon decided to teleport to the other side of the rune, while the rest of us would jump across it. Greth, Harold, and Tar succeeded in jumping over the rune in question, but Tosdar tripped and triggered the trap. Oops. A throat-tearing scream exploded from the floor. Everyone except Greth and Harold were affected by the trap’s fear effect. After running into another one of the runes while fleeing in terror, Korlon actually ended up 18 squares away!

After everyone calmed down and we regrouped, Tar told us that he’d ended up in a chamber to the north where some stairs led downward. He said he’d seen some flickering lights (perhaps torchlight?) at the bottom of the stairs. When we checked out the chamber that Tar had found, Greth noticed that some tracks on the dusty floor seemed to disappear right into a wall. Hmmm…

Hidden Armory

The secret door that Greth discovered led into a small chamber where we had to contend with an illusory wall, several undead guardians, and a mysterious riddle.

When we went through the secret door, all we found at first was a tiny, bare room. Then we heard faint moans coming from behind the eastern wall of the chamber. Someone got the idea that the wall might be an illusion and perhaps rolling a zombie head toward it would reveal the wall’s true nature. Sure enough, the rolling zombie head went right through the wall and disappeared from view! As Harold and Sulader carefully sidled up to the illusory wall, decaying hands burst through and lunged for them. Harold dodged the hands and then, greataxe at the ready, shifted through the false wall.

Once through the wall, Harold could see that it functioned like a one-way mirror. An observer standing on the side nearer the secret door saw a wall, but creatures standing on the other side noticed only the faint outline of a wall, allowing them to see through it. Harold also saw four rotting corpses standing in the chamber, their dead eyes fixed upon him. The zombies wore full suits of armor, with the silver dragon symbol of Bahamut inscribed on their breastplates. The minotaur shouted back to his companions, telling them what he had found and urging them to come ahead quickly.

The vicious, close quarters fight against the zombies lasted for three rounds. After defeating the undead creatures, the party saw that the area beyond the false wall appeared to be an armory. There were two weapons racks on the north and south walls, and on the east wall was a stand with a black suit of scale armor mounted on it. As we moved closer to inspect the armor, a deep, booming voice posed a riddle:

“A wondrous treasure, Valued by all, sought by many. Found in both victory and defeat, yet never at the bottom of the treasure chest. It marches before you like a herald, And lives long after you are gone. Of what do I speak?”

Sulader answered, “Knowledge.” The voice rumbled, “You try my patience. Offer the answer soon, or the treasure I guard shall forever be denied to you.”
Harold happened to have his handy Rules Compendium with him, so he quickly looked up what it says about Bahamut on page 48. Since the Platinum Dragon is the god of justice, protection, nobility, and honor, he guessed that the answer to the riddle was honor. For giving the correct answer, the minotaur got the +1 Blackiron Scale Armor. Sweeeet!

Deciding not to venture down the stairway that Tar discovered quite yet, we headed back south to the room where we had glimpsed some sarcophagi.

Skeletal Legion

When we entered this chamber, we saw that ten massive stone sarcophagi, five on each wall, lined the crypt. The sarcophagi were granite and bore relief images of human warriors in plate armor. To the east, the crypt opened into a higher, wider area from which a starry glow emanated. Muffled clicks and scratching noises seemed to come from within a few of the sarcophagi.

As Sulader moved toward the higher, wider area to the east of the entry hall, concussive bangs sounded throughout the crypt as each sarcophagi lid slammed open. Clattering, clicking bones groped outward from each open tomb. The sarcophagi disgorged eight decrepit skeletons and two skeleton warriors, and then each lid slammed shut again. Once that occurred, the action unrolled in a fast and furious fashion.

Over the next four rounds, the sarcophagi kept making whirling and clicking noises, and then they’d disgorge yet more skeletons into the crypt. We figured out early on that the key to stopping the never-ending flow of skeletons had something to do with the two altars down in the higher, wider area from which the starry glow emanated. A dome above that area depicted a fantastic, regal dragon with silvery scales in flight across an endless sky. An altar stood on either side of the area, each inscribed with elaborate, draconic script. Relief images of soldiers in plate armor on their knees in prayer appeared on the walls behind each altar.

Tar was the only member of the party who knew draconic, but he just couldn’t manage to fight his way through the skeletons in the crypt and get to the altars. Finally, after four interminable rounds of sarcophigi spitting out skeleton after skeleton, Sulader decided he’d just go ahead and kneel down in front of an altar and pray. But since he’s a paladin of the Raven Queen, the goliath refused to offer obeisance to Bahamut and instead prayed to his god of death. As you’d expect, this only caused yet more whirling and clicking noises to come from within the sarcophagi. Acting quickly, Tosdar knelt before the other altar and offered a brief prayer to the Silver Dragon. At the dwarf’s heartfelt words, the light in the domed area became bright, bathing the entire crypt in pure, white light. The skeletons stopped attacking and returned to their sarcophagi.

After the last of the skeletal legion had retreated back into their tombs, we searched the altars and discovered a secret compartment in one that held a number of small dragon statues of silver and platinum.

Sir Keegan’s Tomb

Sturdy double doors set into the eastern wall of the domed area bore the name of Sir Keegan, Shadowfell Keep’s last commander. Pushing through the unlocked doors, we found an old crypt with a raised dais across the way. A heavy stone coffin rested upon the dais. Carved on the lid of the coffin was a warrior in plate armor with a sword laid across his chest, the point toward his feet. Sulader tapped on the lid of the coffin, but nothing happened. As the goliath tried to pry open the lid of the coffin, Greth noticed a shimmering, blue-ish light floating through the air and coming slowly towards us through the room with the sarcophagi. As it drew closer, the light resolved itself into a humanoid skeleton in plate armor. The skeleton drew a longsword and croaked, “The rift must never be reopened! I am Sir Keegan. State your business, or prepare to die!”

Despite the fact that Sir Keegan’s words revealed him to be a potential ally in our quest, Sulader threatened the ghostly figure and moved to stop it from entering the tomb. Luckily, Sir Keegan took no notice of the goliath’s rash actions and instead started to question us in an attempt to discern our motives for being in the dungeon. Harold was actually the only PC to come up with a failure during this skill challenge. Oops.

As the last commander of the keep’s garrison, Sir Keegan held the responsibility of protecting the rift, lest Orcus’ unholy powers once again seep into the world. In that duty, he failed and, to this day, his spirit still despairs over that failure. Long years ago, Orcus’ vile taint soaked through the rift and into Keegan’s dreams. A madness overcame him and he went postal, killing many of his soldiers before the survivors managed to seal him in the passages below the keep.

After ascertaining that we were worthy to carry on with his work and purge Shadowfell Keep of those seeking to open the rift, Sir Keegan gifted Sulader with Aecris, his +1 magic longsword. Keegan also told us to be sure and take the dragon amulets we had found in the altars outside his tomb.

Sir Keegan regretted the injuries we sustained during the battle with his skeletal legion, but told us the area in the vicinity of his tomb was now a safe zone where we could take an extended rest and recuperate, if we so wished. So that’s what we did.

march of the phantom brigade, session 4: entering the castle

We had a great turnout this past Wednesday night for the fourth session of March of the Phantom Brigade. Nine players showed up at Total Escape Games, ready to take part in the latest installment of the popular D&D Encounters program. With such a large group, we put Plan B into action. We split up the party and one of the players (Erik W.) quickly put on his DM hat and ran a second game with four of the guys. It just so happened that the four players at my table all adventured with human characters: Atreyu (rogue), Darvon (warpriest), Jarren (wizard), and Sebastian Nilrem (wizard).
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After a short rest to recuperate from the battle against the Play-Doh ochre jellies, the heroes accompanied the caravan as it slowly approached the ruins of Castle Inverness. As darkness fell on the third day of their journey, the settlers and wagons passed through the main gate, into the safety of the castle walls. Despite the trials they had faced along the way, the settlers were in good spirits, glad to have finally reached their destination. As torches were lit, everyone pitched in and began unloading supplies.

It wasn’t long before the sound of a scream stopped everyone in their tracks. The heroes saw settlers scrambling away from the circle of jumbled stones that marked the base of the central tower. The air around the stones wavered and then, before their eyes, a ghostly apparition of a magnificent tower grew up from the base. In a matter of seconds, the massive central tower of Castle Inverness had come to rest in its original spot. The entire caravan stood bewildered at the sight of the sudden appearance of the tower. As the heroes studied the tower, they noticed that no exits or entrances were visible. Jarren— apparently deciding that rashness is the better part of valor— let fly with Magic Missile, but the glowing blue bolt of magical energy that hurtled from his finger exploded harmlessly against the side of the tower.

As Jarren lowered his hand, Brother Splintershield sprang into action. The dwarf sent his acolytes off in multiple directions, shouting that he wanted the cleansing ritual to begin immediately. Splintershield took up a position just inside the front gate and then, once he saw that his acolytes were in place around the ruins, he commenced the ritual to cleanse and protect the site of the town from evil. For a few moments, all that could be heard was the chanting of the cleric and his acolytes, the nervous whispers of the settlers, and the haunting wind whipping across the castle.

The ritual was interrupted a few minutes into the process when Brother Splintershield let out a cry of alarm. Marching up the path toward the main gate of the castle were several rotting corpses and a small number of animated skeletons. Hardly missing a beat, the stout-hearted dwarf resumed the ritual. The heroes noticed that more undead creatures were climbing the hillsides around the perimeter, heading for the acolytes and seemingly intent on disrupting the ritual. As Malgram and his scouts quickly took up positions around the ruins, the half-orc ordered the heroes to protect Splintershield from the monsters approaching the front gate.

Sebastian started off the battle by hurling a hailstone (Freezing Blast) at one of the Grasping Zombies shambling up the path. He rolled a nat 20 and the zombie exploded in a burst of rotting flesh and icy shards. (Zombie Weakness: A critical hit automatically reduces the zombie to 0 hit points.)

Darvon, perhaps emboldened by the wizard’s success, recklessly charged out through the main gate and made straight for one of the skeletons. The undead creature, however, used its longsword to parry the warpriest’s attack.

The monsters coming up the path swarmed Darvon, hitting him hard. In mere moments, the embattled human was reduced to 1 hit point. (On his next turn, Darvon wisely used his Second Wind, and then also spent one of his Healing Words on himself.)

Atreyu used Tactical Trick to gain combat advantage against one of the zombies pressing Darvon, but the shifty rogue’s ranged attack missed.

Jarren, wasting no time in whipping out his daily attack power, attacked three of the monsters with Fountain of Flame. The wizard did 27 points of damage to the zombie next to Darvon and also destroyed two of the skeletons in the fiery pillar that spun like a top, dousing the undead creatures with searing heat.

Over the course of the battle, more skeletons kept appearing every other round, pulling themselves out of the earth near the main gate. The creatures, obviously disturbed by the start of the cleansing ritual, mindlessly tried to get past the heroes so they could attack the ritual casters. It was touch and go for a while, but the heroes managed to hold off the monsters for the time it took Splintershield to complete the ritual and ward the area against undead. Once the ritual was completed, bright light burst from the ruins, a wave of thunderous noise rolled across the hillside, and the remaining skeletons crumbled immediately. The Ghost Tower, however, remained visible and intact.

Brother Splintershield and Malgram both thanked the four brave adventurers for their efforts in repelling the undead. Splintershield remained puzzled by the appearance (and persistence) of the Ghost Tower. He said that if the structure was an imminent danger, though, the cleansing ritual would’ve either failed to complete or driven the tower away.

The conversation about the mysterious tower was interrupted by a cry from one of the scouts stationed at the front gate. When the group arrived at the gate, they were greeted with a strange sight. From out of the darkness, a lone figure could be seen marching up the path toward the ruins of Castle Inverness. The image resolved into an armed warrior bearing armor of ancient design and carrying a shield with heraldry. What was most disconcerting about the warrior, however, was that he was partially translucent—clearly a ghost of some kind.

The ghostly soldier strode up the path, stopping just outside the gateway. The spirit looked back and forth across the ground, as though examining a barrier that no one else could see. He looked up and called out in a raspy, otherworldly voice that echoed across the ruins.

“Who dares bar the path of Salazar Vladistone? What right have you to keep me from my sacred grounds? Send forth the one responsible for this disrespect so that I might slay him and break this spell.”

When Aldus Splintershield stepped forward (though still to a place within the area protected by the cleansing ritual), Vladistone attempted to convince the dwarf to either face him in single combat or remove the ritual and leave the castle’s ruins. Since the protective ward seemed to be strong enough to repel the ghostly figure, the cleric rejected Salazar’s repeated demands.

During the course of the ‘conversation’ with Vladistone, the heroes learned that he was the leader of the Silver Company— a group of adventurers who plundered and sealed the Ghost Tower some sixty years ago. When the adventurers mentioned the grave marker bearing the name “Oldivya Vladistone,” Salazar’s ghost confirmed that she was his wife, but ordered them not to desecrate her name with their unworthy tongues.

After making it clear that Splintershield’s rejection of his demands would not change the ultimate outcome, Salazar turned to depart… but not before offering a cryptic warning.

“You have denied but a single tortured spirit this night. We shall see how well you fare against the Phantom Brigade.”