Saturday, March 3, 2012

"Don't Mind Us. We're Just Death Cultists." (The Pillars of Night, Session 1)

The Last Moonboat

As the party journeyed deeper into the Frontier, they unexpectedly came upon the fortified town of Erstlin.  Many refugees, driven out of forest villages or remote mining communities by vicious bands of cultists, were camped outside the well-defended enclave.  Guards at the town’s main gate directed our heroes to the Sundial Tavern.

Talking to folks in the busy tavern, the party learned that the abandoned temple being used as a base by the Orcus cultists was two weeks north along the rough track known as the Black March.  But everyone agreed that travel north of Erstlin along the Black March was suicidal.  In the villages razed by the cult, those the cultists don’t drive off or kill are taken to the abandoned temple at the Pillars of Night.  The locals told our heroes that the strongest and toughest villagers are forced to join the cult.  One old-timer said, “Only safe way north is the river, but you’d need a moonboat for that and the boats are long gone.”

Shortly after the PCs heard of the moonboats, a taciturn dwarf motioned them over to a quiet corner of the tavern.  From beneath a flat cap, the thickly muscled dwarf gave a deferential nod.  “Name’s Glasur. Heard you’re looking for a way north.  People tell you the March’s death, and they’re right. People tell you the moonboats are gone, but they’re wrong.  I’ve seen the Pillars of Night from the river many a time. I can get you there in four days.”

Glasur turned out to be the last of the captains who once sailed the river.  He told the party he could have his moonboat ready the next morning for the journey upriver.  In response to a question about payment, the dwarf said that a mere 10 gp would cover his coasts.  When asked why he wasn’t charging more for the trip, Glasur’s mood darkened and he said: “I had family in a village a few days up the March.  Not anymore.  Cult saw to that.”

Fire on the Water

The next morning, an hour of steep climbing brought the adventurers out above the waterfall.  Along banks of dark shale lay a deserted dockyard.  Where a dozen boats might have once been moored, a ramshackle 35-foot cutter floated.  The name “Blacksnake” was etched on its prow.  Glasur was amidships, tying off ropes.  He acknowledged the party’s approach with a nod.

The heroes noticed Glasur’s boat had no mast, but even as they wondered whether the dwarf expected them to row against the raging current, they saw movement down in the foaming water.  Two dire pike thrashed there, both creatures harnessed to the ropes Glasur was setting.  “Been a while since my girls got a chance to run.  We leave when you’re ready,” the dwarf said.

For three days, the moonboat made steady progress north.  Glasur’s dire pike pulled the boat with unceasing strength by day; the dwarf unharnessed them each night to hunt in the river’s frigid depths.
Late in the afternoon of the third day’s travel, the party saw a heavy plume of gray-black smoke rising into the sky beyond a bend in the river.  When asked what lay ahead, Glasur said, “There’s a small village up ahead… or there was a village, by the look of it.”

When Glasur piloted the Blacksnake around the bend, the adventurers saw a burning village along the river’s edge.  Three dragonborn in scale armor were torching buildings.  Some human villagers were fleeing into some trees or up a nearby hillside.  With a whoop, Glasur drove the moonboat right up onto the shoreline and yelled, “Go get ‘em, boys!”
  • 3 Dragonborn Soldiers (Level 5 Soldier)
  • Bugbear Strangler (Level 6 Lurker)
  • Death Cultist Mage (Level 5 Artillery)

Once Blake, Gaultis, Dagon, and Silas had jumped ashore and engaged the dragonborn, the mage showed himself.  He stayed inside a building and popped Boojum with Magic Missile.  As Silas got into it with one of the dragonborn soldiers, the bugbear slipped out of a hut and used its Strangle attack on the eladrin vampire.  The highlight of the battle (at least for me) was when Dagon targeted the bugbear with an attack, but the monster used Body Shield as an immediate interrupt and Silas became the target of Dagon’s attack instead.  And did I mention that Dagon’s attack actually dropped Silas?  Hee hee.  My delight didn’t last very long, though, since the chagrined artificer then healed his fallen friend.

All five of the cultists fought to the death.  All of them sported Orcus talismans and also wore distinctive gray cloaks over their armor or robes.  The adventurers snagged these items, thinking they might come in handy sometime.  One of the dragonborn had been wearing a nifty horned helm that caught the fancy of both Blake and Gaultis.  Blake offered to armwrestle the goliath for it.  Armwrestling a goliath might not seem like the best idea in the world, but darned if the shifter didn’t end up claiming the helm when he rolled a natural 20 on his Strength check.

DM Tip:  For the series of encounters set in the Frontier, the wild and woolly areas north of Newhaven, I’m using material from an adventure by Scott Fitzgerald Gray called “Heathen,” which was published in Dungeon 155.

The Pillars of Night

After the encounter with the cultists at the riverside village, the party continued the moonboat journey toward the Pillars of Night.  The next day, as the sun was setting and the dire pike were thrashing against the current, they saw a twisted pillar of dark stone rising in the distance.  Its lower third appeared to be carved into perfectly aligned upright slabs.  As the peak disappeared into the descending dusk, the pillars appeared to hold up the dark sky itself.  The temple lay before them, a day’s march away.

For the better part of the next day, our heroes hiked toward their goal.  They finally slipped through a screen of trees and up to a low rise.  A mile or so off, they saw the Black March end where it met the base of the mountain.  At the base of the peak was a temple.  On both sides of the road, a settlement spread beneath the peak.  While some people went about the ordinary communal business of any northern village, other people could be seen training with sword and shield.  Everyone wore the gray cloaks that apparently served as the cult’s “uniform.”

After observing the settlement for a while, and with the sun getting low in the sky, the party decided to don their gray cloaks, make their way through the settlement, and approach the temple.  Down in the settlement, our heroes encountered many cultists making their way home from the day’s training or labor.  One cultist, assuming the adventurers were new arrivals that had just come up the Black March, started to chat with them.  When the man noticed Boojum and thought it was odd that a pixie would be a member of the group, Boojum rocked his Bluff check and the cultist’s suspicions were successfully allayed.

As the sun finally slipped behind the mountains, the party came to the base of the Pillars of Night, where a wide flight of stone steps led up to the temple’s entrance.  Torchlight flared from within the entrance hall and several guards could be seen inside.  Thinking their disguises had worked pretty well so far, the confident adventurers decided to just waltz on into the temple and bluff their way past the guards.  Unfortunately for them, it was very unusual for anyone to approach the temple that late in the day, so the guards were instantly alerted that something strange was happening.  As the party entered the temple and were challenged, the they rather spectacularly failed their group Bluff check, and so the guards slammed the temple doors shut and attacked our heroes.
  • 6 Advanced Human Berserkers (Level 5 Brute)

The confined space of the temple’s entrance hall made this a close-in, vicious fight.  The elite guards were armed with greataxes, which did d12+4 damage with each hit.  On a crit, the greataxes would actually do a wicked d12+16 damage, so I was really hoping to roll quite a few nat 20s during the encounter. But, sadly, I just rolled one.  Bummer.

When only two wounded guards were still standing, one of them made his way over to the doors, opened them, and started to yelled, “Help! Intruders in the temple! Help!”  As the sound of shouts and running feet from outside the entrance grew louder, our heroes frantically cut down the last two guards and then just barely managed to shut and bar the doors ahead of the enraged crowd of cultists.

With our heroes now trapped inside the death cult’s temple, what will happen in the next exciting session of our campaign?  Tune in to the next post to find out!

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