Session 22 & 23: The Crystal Pinnacle

These were two relatively encounter heavy session, where the characters enter the lair of the (buffed) hag Arasekha, but sessions, where they sacrifice important things to gain knowledge that will move the plot forward.

Sacrifices for Oracle

We began the session by the well, where Xarzon, whom the paladin identifies as being a celestial, still sits waiting for them to leave, so he can use the oracle himself.

There are seven players present, so when the player of Korrick, the dwarf fighter/bard, asks Xarzon, what you must sacrifice to learn something, not everyone hears. That becomes important.

Korrick decides to sacrifice his new Ring of Protection +1 to the spirit in the well, and the huge spirit emerges from the well and answers Korricks question on the nature of the curse that afflicts his clan (more on that later).

A little later, the gnome rogue, who together with the group’s wizard stole some sort of item from the monastery the wizard grew up in, decides to do the same, but choses to sacrifice 30 silver and some blood. Obviously, 30 silver is far from enough, so the spirit snatches some of the offered life force and the gnome is deducted 5 hit points – permanently.

Both characters got some relevant information that potentially will change the future decisions they might make.

green_hag-5e
The green hag of the MM was too weak. Arasekha was a 10th level diviner, with extra HP and Lair Actions. Her older sister is worse.

The lair of Arasekha

The group then continues and find the exit to the lair of Arasekha, and when they pass through the portal, they emerge on a platform suspended more than 100 feet above the crystal forest on the side of a huge crystal spire (300 feet high). They are immediately attacked by a group of flying crystalline creatures, and they take some punishment. They dare a short rest, hoping that the witch hasn’t set an alarm, and succeed.

Exploring the pinnacle, which is a maze of hard to navigate crystal halls and corridors with multiple reflections of everything, they first find a garden of crystal plants with an elven caretaker. He is pruning the plants with a mithral dagger. They engage him in conversation, and he stalls until “his” minions arrive. Three groups of crystallized centaurs and hobgoblins charge towards the room. The elf turns out to be some form of simulacra and he shatters when hit, and the minions are engaged with fireballs and other potent magic, and fall before the group.

They push on and enter a large room where a group of crystallized hobgoblins are experimenting with the crystal. And we end session 22, ready to roll initiative.

Session 23

The following session the group fights the hobgoblin laboratory workers and a crystallized deranged hill giant. They defeat them without too much trouble and find hobgoblins immersed in a solution, which seems to expedite the growth of crystal, and an elven prisoner, who is mostly infected with the crystal, which seems to be spreading like an infection. She begs them to kill her and find her imprisoned brother.

The leader Jarn decides to try and find the prisoner, before they deal with the witch. They succeed and locate him together with two centaurs. After the jailers attack, and are defeated they make for the tip of the pinnacle.

At the top they find Arasekha, who is guarded by a couple of crystalline elves in a small throne room. A battle begins, and she summons simulacra of herself to divert their attention, while casting wall of fire and other spells. The group responds with all they have, using summoned panthers to attack the simulacra, to locate her true self. After a fierce struggle they defeat her, loot her sanctum of spells, her Staff of the Seer and a few other items, including a very finely made mechanical beetle.

The spire begins to collapse, and when they reach the portal, it collapses. The Warlock use his feather fall spell to let them escape, without having to brave the collapsing spire. When the session (and 2016) ends, the group find themselves in a crystal forest 100s of miles from their settlement.

What went well:

  • The crystal spire was an evocative setting, and with five major rooms/encounters it also had the right size.
  • The final battle with Araskeha was fun and had good features, lair actions and odd surprises in it.
  • The use of the oracle helped propel the plot forward based on player actions.

What could I have done differently:

  • I should have used Arasekhas ability to speak and act through the crystal even more to make her even more evocative and interesting.
  • Her minions at the final battle should have been just a bit tougher to make the encounter a little more challenging.

 

 

 

Planar travel for dummies – session 21

In this session, my players wander into the planes for the first time, and therefore I will write something on how I see the planes in D&D and how I’ve changed it for my home brew world, in addition to the normal session recap.

A couple of the issues I have with the planes in D&D are that there are so many of them, that the facts concerning the planes are ‘true’ and that most of them are infinite.

The problem with the fact that there are so many is that most characters – and thus players – will so rarely visit the same ones that they never gain any familiarity with them. The planes fail to become an integral part of the game world. In a typical campaign you will maybe visit one plane, so unless a campaign is centered around one of them – invasion by the City of Brass or the intrigues of the unseelie courts – they don’t play a big role.

sigil
Sigil is probably the most interesting city Wizards or TSR ever made, and it doesn’t exist in the prime material plane. 

But on the other hand, the planes are infinite. They must therefore have many more interesting places and beings than the prime world, which annoys me, because the prime world should be the most interesting (Sigil is in many ways a more interesting place than Greyhawk or Waterdeep). And there are known ‘facts’ about them (you can look them up in the DMG), which makes them less mysterious.

 

The prime world is more complex and finite and therefore more manageable and interesting to explore (as it should be), but the actual interaction with these far planes should be part of the adventurer’s lives and understanding.

My approach
To improve on this (in my opinion), I’ve made some changes to my multi-verse. The key ones are below. Others I will not write here, as my players are unaware of them, and I like to keep it that way.

earthdawn3
In Earthdawn powerful monstrosities lurk in the Astral plane, and some even exists in both planes at once.
  • First of all, I’ve combined the Feywild, Shadowfell and the Etheral plane into one and called them the Warrens (inspired by Steven Erikson), and that plane mirrors the prime plane, like the astral plane in Earthdawn and the umbra in Werewolf the Apocalypse.

 

  • Secondly , I’ve changed several spells to fit this, so when you detect or divine you see through the Warrens and when you teleport or misty step or whatever, you actually walk through the Warrens, where time and distance works differently. As the Warrens are a mirror to the prime world, it also means you can’t teleport across an ocean, you need a vessel inside the Warrens, which would enable you to cross the ocean faster. There are also beings inside the Warrens, many of them powerful, so you have to tread carefully.
  • Thirdly, there is not one, but several explanations to what they are and how they work – just like we can discuss the nature of the divine. The two my players have heard are: Some say the Warrens are a failed version of the prime world that the first gods discarded. Others that the presence of magical essence in all things naturally creates a mirror state.

These changes have the effect that the Warrens are relevant in basically every session and that the players slowly learn more about them.

It also underscores the main theme of my campaign: exploration. The Warrens is a place you explore and it is part of exploring the prime plane.

Also, instead of simply teleporting from one place to the other they have to travel everywhere, and have to consider if the advantage of going somewhere quickly outweighs the risk of meeting something very dangerous. This also underlines the theme of the campaign.

The session:
When the characters stepped through the portal (only 3 out of 7 players were present) they were immediately set upon by vengeful animal spirits, which they relatively easily defeated but they damaged them. The portal was located inside the Warren’s version of the hollowed tree.

They then began investigating the tortured elf who was crucified nearby and concluded that he had lost his soul. Then the Horned Devil and its two henchmen (bearded devils) were summoned and another fight ensued. It appeared that it had been promised their souls.

devilhorned
5th edition Horned Devil. A CR 11 monster taken out by 3 level 6 characters. Maybe I was easy on them?

To explain the presence of more characters and make they fight more appropriate, I ruled that the non-present player’s characters engage the two bearded devils. The three remaining characters then sniped away from a Fog Cloud and managed to banish the devil.

Outside of the tree, the woods of the Warrens were eerily quiet and unnatural, with no sun and with the great trees casting long shadows. Two paths had been marked through the Warrens, and they knew that to navigate the Warrens away from the path would require a stern focus (successful INT or WIS checks). One path was marked with skulls another with small crystals. They chose the crystal path north, which should lead to the middle sister.

After a few hours journeying through the Warrens they spot a corpse of an elf by an altar holding a staff with gems. They move away from the path to investigate, and when they get closer suddenly the path has disappeared, as has their four companions, and the elf turns out to be a skeleton holding nothing. At that point they are set upon by shadow bats and a weird sylvan creature with the legs of a hind and razor sharp teeth that sucks blood. They defeat them after a fierce battle and search the area as they can’t see the path anyway. In some ruins nearby they find her lair and a cloak woven from living plants and shadows and decide to rest.

They steel themselves and locate the path again, but they can’t see their companions anywhere. As the move on, they come upon a fight between a big dark skinned man wielding a beautiful great sword fighting a pack of very cunning regenerating wolves next to a mysterious dark well. They enter the battle on his side and finally slay all the wolves, which coalesce into one rangy man wearing wolf-skin.

malazen
Very complex fantasy series, highly influenced by Black Company, and grew out of an RPG campaign. One of my favorites. 

The man, who is named Xarzon, thanks them and they talk. It turns out the man was hunting him on behalf of a former employer, whom he has a disagreement with. He was a dangerous Dissembler – a shape shifter that can turn into multiple beasts (also stolen from Eriksons novels). He also tells them that the well has a spirit in it which serves as an oracle, if appeased correctly. He also tells them a few things about the Warrens: that they are strange beyond the vast space of the north, that the land is under some kind of curse and that the eldest of the Sisters of Sorrow dominates the trolls in her area and has made a pact with one of the Lords of the Nine Hells.

He also gives them a ring of protection as thank you, and with the loot of the Dissembler, it was a rewarding session.

Double feature: A dragon surprise…

So, being a dad and a DM, leaves less time for prep. And obviously, prep is more important than the recap and the blog. But I will keep at it, but the recaps of the latest two sessions will be short and to the point.

lazy_dm_cover_340wI’ve been looking into The Lazy DM (Lazy DM download), and there are some very good tips, but aren’t fully applicable to the kind of campaign I’m currently running. The kind of depth that I’m looking for in the history of the world they slowly uncover simply can’t be extrapolated from a few notes and improvisation (I can’t at least). It requires a bit more prep.

I did one thing in session 19 that I think warrants a pat on the DM-back, and that is letting go of prepared stuff, in favor of moving the plot forward.

When the PCs finished with the mine and returned to the settlement to rest, they discussed what to do next. I had already cut out the attack on the goblin tribe nearby by having the other adventuring party deal with that threat. That also reinforced the meta-theme of colonizing a new land and dealing with the natives. It is brutal, and interesting, how easy the dilemma of wanting to build something in a new land, but faced with enemies and diverging interest, leads to morally questionable choices. In any case, I had mapped the goblin lair and made a few rooms, but they were already too high level, and I would rather follow other, and more important, plot threads.

I also clearly said that the Kuo Toas could be dealt with by others as that adventure also wouldn’t push the plot(s) forward.

But back to the recaps.

Session 19:

The group explored the umber hulk lair and the tunnel from there that lead down to a natural cave, where the ancient miners had begun digging. From that cave they found the first shaft, which they entered the complex through.

0fcf9a3b039cf78b7ab1b984c1a04958
The dragon simulacra had less dangerous breath weapons and only AC 17. 

Finally, they went down to the automaton storage via the unexplored elevator. The automatons didn’t attack, and the room led to the vault. The vault was protected by a security system, including an automatic portcullis, a very intelligent magic mouth that shot frost rays from its eyes and two dragon simulacra of metal that attacked when they tried to pick the lock to the vault.

They succeeded in dispelling the worst of the trap and rapidly killed the simulacra (the damage output, when the party is lucky, is insane). Inside the vault they found their first platemail, a few magic items, including an axe made by giants, and a lot of knowledge. This included letters between two elven sisters and a story about a curse put on an elven family by giants.

Having cleared the mine, they returned to the settlement and spent a month and a half of down time. In that time, they returned to the mine with a few dwarves from the settlement and made an anvil in the mine, so they could setup their own smithy and the druid awakened a couple of beasts to help protect the settlement.

Session 20:

Of the four most interesting options: going after the remaining hags through the portal, visiting the Colourless Bridge, exploring the ruined city and exploring Fort 25, they chose the first.

Before they left, someone scried on the party, and Welk, the wizard with a weird item, knew that to be the case (for some reason).

After the harvest, they returned to the lair of Kinsira, but went a different route, and found a devil trapped in an old building with magic. They decided it would keep until they returned.

When they approached the huge tree stump, they noticed webs in the area that would warn anyone inside of their approach.

Inside the tree, there were apparently giant spiders, and something spoke to them in draconic, demand that they leave. They tried to intimidate it into submitting, but they were unaware that the creature behind the voice had been paid by the two remaining hags for protecting the area.

green_dragon_wyrmling
I liked the idea of having a quite mercenary young dragon, who ran into more dangerous adversaries. 

The spiders eventually attacked together with some ettercaps. At the worst possible moment, for the group, the young green dragon attacked, and its breath weapon drained a lot of hit points from the team (42 to be exact). Unfortunately for them, I rolled a 6 on recharge next round, and gave them another breath, but couldn’t cover them all, and it could have ended in a TPK, but the characters still standing responded with a wall of thorns and a fireball, and when the dragon failed to fell the mighty half-orc fighter the following round, it submitted to the stronger adversary.

Back on their feet, they questioned the dragon and learned a couple of things, including the facts that the eldest of the hags lives in a swamp to the south and the middle sister lives in a crystal forest to the north, and that they are called the Sisters of Sorrow. The group argued about whether to make a deal with this evil dragon about staying there as their ally, but they ended up banishing it, and hoping it will stick to their deal.

Finally, they passed the portal into the Warrens. Inside they found a tortured elf and was almost immediately attacked by animal spirits of beast that Kinsira had conducted her experiments on.

Roll initiative! 

Goodberries and Mayonnaise

The group spent one month in the settlement, working on down-time tasks and talking to NPCs, while eating Goodberries drenched in mayonnaise.

To make the timeline move forward and to make sure that the characters have a more natural progress these interludes are important. Often, players have this sense of urgency, and think if they don’t spend every day adventuring, somehow they are going to miss something or become penalized in the story, for example by bad guys spending that time plotting against them and building their strength. I hope they will learn that that is not the case. As one of the goals of the campaign is for the characters to become older and the settlement to grow around them, spending down time, building a home, or a base of operations even, and gathering resources is important. It is also good from an overall pacing perspective. And lastly, I dislike characters going from 1st to 20th level over a few busy months. That just seems quite unrealistic – if such a word can be used for fantasy roleplaying.

A significant element of the 12th session was the practical issues when you are an adventurer in a small settlement, on a far off continent, with no trading partners and everyone being self-sufficient: How to get food, build a shelter and craft better armor and other stuff?

Mayonnaise_(1)
A liter of mayo is about 9000 calories, or 3 times the need of an adult male. 

The adventurers decided to solve the food issue with the Goodberries spell, which can sustain their entire group every day. The joke was that since the have the wonderful Alchemy Jug which can produce 2 gallons (8 liters) of mayonnaise every day they would be supplementing their diet of a single daily goodberry with a liter of mayo – each – which turned into jokes about offering presents of mayo and goodberries to the honoured elven guests and what the characters would look like when they started adventuring again after eating mayo non-stop for a month. Jokes aside, the Alchemy Jar continues to be a valuable item, as it can produce a lot of valuable liquids, when you are in an isolated settlement, such as honey, wine and vinegar.

There were a few key events and discoveries during the session:

  • It was a surprise to some that their gold and silver was worth very little in the settlement, but that everything had to be bartered for. I hope it provides a different perspective on what is valuable to them.
  • The group read the books they discovered in the hag lair, and the wizard, who wisely picked cartography as a proficiency, was able to determine the approximate location of some of the places named in one of the books, including the Colourless Bridge, which is inside the forest, and they learned the name of the ruined city nearby: Ivanith’laril. They could also see that the elves had made war against the Bones of Sarakhon and that they were undead.
  • The druid learned the local elven dialect, so now the risk of confusion is minimized when parlaying with the elves.
  • iron-ore-lump-333
    Iron ore: almost as valuable as gold at this stage in the campaign.

    They wanted to craft a full plate armour, but were horrified at the time it would take them to craft it themselves, so they made a deal with the dwarf family living in the settlement. The dwarves would help them craft 2 full plate armours during the coming year, and they would assist exploiting the iron ore deposit that the group had learned about from the elves, and in return, the dwarves would get 1500 gp. and their iron bars. The gold they could send back to their clan, who could use it to get more dwarves to migrate to the settlement.

  • A trio of goblins scouts snuck into the settlement, but the characters captured one and killed the rest, and learned of some of the other goblin tribes and that their own tribe the Red Fangs, had an ettin ally and powerful goblin witches. And more importantly, that there is a town at the edge of the forest where the goblins trade with the hobgoblins of the plains.
  • The elves visited with an ‘official’ delegation, and they told them the location of the site with iron and that there is an ancient road leading there. They also learned that the edge of the forest was about 400 miles from the settlement, and that the area around the Colourless Bridge is haunted.
Displacer_Beast_MM_4e
Roll initiative losers!

 

At the end of the session the group began their journey south through the forest along the ancient road, and during the first night Sir Jarn was jumped by a couple of Displacer Beasts – which means next session begins by rolling initiative.

I actually love starting a session with combat, and in one campaign had the rule, that all sessions started with an initiative roll, potentially as a flash forward scene, because the combat really gets the players focused right away.

Positive aspects

A couple of things worked really well this session:

  • Letting them research old books and speak to the locals and from that begin to fill in some blanks on the vast hex map is fun and tantalizing. The only down side is that every time I bring up a new location they haven’t visited, half the group immediately wants to go off and explore it right away… But that is also kind of the point of the campaign!
  • The moral and societal choices that happened when the Europeans came to the Americas are beginning to show themselves. For example, it is clear that the goblin tribe nearby will never let them farm and prosper in peace, so at some point they have to be destroyed, even though they are the natural inhabitants in this place – the situation is very similar to the one describe in this podcast  Apache Tears between the Apache and the Mexicans and U.S. settlers. Furthermore, the friendly elves certainly don’t mind some powerful allies against the hobgoblins, as the settlement has a minute impact on the forest, but what happens years down the road when more and more settlers arrive?

Negative aspects:

It isn’t negative as such, but the reality is that if you have a large group doing down time and NPC interaction in a settlement, the actual ‘screen time’ of each character is reduced significantly. As a change of pace the session was good, but we all prefer more action and adventure.