Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Terrinoth #4 - The Road of the Dead

Campaign Diary

Our motley crew, comprising of Entana the Wizard, his bodyguard Strigoi the Orc Fighter, Gio the Gnomish Rogue, and Orglath the Dragon hybrid Barbarian set out from the great city of Tamalir on the 13th day of the month of Witu; their destination: the Ashen Hills, where Entana hoped to study the rune-marked obelisks found there.

Their journey took them across the barony of Otrin, between the Gardens of Tarn and the rock formation known as Menara's Teeth, and into the barony of Frest. After a week traveling, they arrived at the foot of the Ashen Hills. Here, our party was intercepted by soldiers from Fort Rodric, a stronghold guarding the passage between the Ashen Hills and the Mountains of Marshan to the south. Upon learning their quest, the sergeant of the undermanned fort requested that they reported their findings to him, and the party agreed.

The following day the party trekked into the hills, following the directions given by one of the soldiers who had seen one of the obelisk formations. At a little before noon they arrived at the destination: a cluster of six standing stones, set in two rows of three. Each of the standing stones was covered in runes from an unknown language. After several hours of study, Entana determined that that some of the runic symbols described the solar alignment that was consistent with the autumn solstice, which as luck would have it, was that very day!

As the sun dipped to the horizon, the last rays of light from it streamed between the standing stones, and lit a cluster of boulders atop an adjoining hill. Making their way there as dusk falls, our party found a cave opening that has been deliberately covered by a stone slab. They pushed aside the stone slab, entered the opening, and found themselves on a ledge in a natural cavern, overlooking a body of water some 50 feet below. The party descended to the pool below using a combination of rope and the Feather Fall spell, where they were attacked by a strange being made entirely of water. After dispatching the being, our adventurers exited the only tunnel out of the cavern, following the outflow of the pool until they reached the edge of a waterfall within another cavern, one larger than the one they had just left.

The party made their way down the waterfall to the ground below to find themselves on the banks of an underground river some 20 feet wide, and deeper than the length of a quarterstaff. A statue of a kneeling figure stood on the near bank, and across the river from it they could see the opening of a tunnel that led deeper into the cave complex. On the near bank, they found dozens of large, covered urns lined up against the walls of the cavern. They eventually gathered up the courage to open one, and found within it the skeletal remains of a person, with an earthen jug, mug, and bowl.

While the rest of the party tried to figure out a way to cross the river, Gio the Gnome systematically opened the other urns, to find that they all contained the same thing: a set of skeletons, a jug, a mug, and a bowl. The party now realised that they were in the burial grounds of an ancient people, and wondered if they should leave the dead undisturbed. But eventually curiosity won, and they decided to proceed on. Unable to figure out how the statue might aid them in crossing the river, the two strong men of the party proposed that they tossed Gio across with a rope tied around his waist. Having performed in a traveling circus before, Gio agreed to the plan, and executed a perfect landing on the far bank.

The whole party made their way across the river. The tunnel wound further into the bowels of the earth, and soon the rushing sound of the river was left behind. Eventually they entered a cavern, where they saw half a dozen urns lined up against one side. Before they had the chance to inspect the urns more closely, the sound of pottery breaking rang out, and from the darkness on the other side of the cavern five skeletal figures, each one wielding a corroded bronze sword, lurched out. It was fighting at close quarters, and the party won the day. They searched the cavern thoroughly, and found five (by now) empty urns on the other side of the cavern. Inside the original six urns they found six sets of skeletons, interred with bronze jewellery, including a necklace with an amber set into it. They noted that urns themselves were also of a higher craftsmanship, and were adorned with geometric patterns, unlike the undecorated ones found across the river. All previous misgivings about desecrating tombs vanished as our four adventurers divided up jewellery among themselves.

The tunnel continued on the far side of the cavern, and although all wounded by now, the party decided to carry on their exploration. A little further on they found their way blocked by a stone slab, upon which were carved runes similar to the ones found on the obelisks on the hill. Strigoi and Orglath pushed the slab aside, and the party entered into the small chamber beyond it. A single urn, a little larger than the ones they have seen so far, sat on the ground at the end of the chamber. As they approached it, its lid was pushed aside from within, and a skeletal figure, clad in corroded bronze armour and wearing a bronze helmet of an unfamiliar design, vaulted out of the urn. In its hand it held a bronze sword which gleamed in the light of their lantern. After a brutal melee which saw Entana nearly losing his life, our party defeated the skeletal figure. Within its urn they found a cloak pin made of gold and encrusted with gems. Strigoi claimed the curiously untarnished sword as his prize.

Too exhausted to make their way back to the surface, the party decided to rest right there and then in the chamber.


Prepping and Running the Game

As I mentioned in my earlier posts in this series, I planned to run the first part of this campaign as a sandbox. At session zero, I showed the Runebound map to my players, and gave a short description of what rumours were associated with each of the sites of interest, and asked them where they wanted to go explore.

They picked up on the "rune-marked obelisks" on Ashen Hills, and I had a little less than a week from that point to come up with an adventure. The "Realms of Terrinoth" book did not elaborate on the nature or origin of the obelisks, so I had to find a scenario or module that featured obelisks. After some time on rpgnow, I found what I needed in Raging Swan Press' "Road of the Dead" (spoilers ahead!).

The adventure features an exploration of a cave complex that is a physical representation of the spiritual beliefs of an ancient race. The author based the mythology of the race on that of the Mesoamerican civilisations, but I thought it would be more appropriate to base my dungeon on that of a bronze age European culture.

A little googling later I found out about the Urnfield Culture, and from then on it was easy to imagine a similar pre-historic culture in Terrinoth, existing perhaps before the days of the Penacor kings. I took the idea of urn burials, and of the presence of different classes in these people and how that was apparent by their burial goods, and put that in my dungeon. I also came across the theory about the concept of a river that separated the realms of the living from the dead that existed in the common proto-Indo-European culture, and incorporated that too. And in case you are wondering, the 'solution' to the puzzle of crossing the river was to pay the guardian statue two silver coins (by placing them onto its eyes), which would have raised a stone causeway for the PCs to cross.

For much of the environmental challenges I copied from the original module, but for the 'monsters' I decided to go with the more level-appropriate undead. For loot I rolled up the worth on a random loot table, and then decided that the jewellery they looted would bring roughly that amount on the market. For magical loot I initially contemplated getting something that would fit one of the party members specifically, but in the end I decided to again go with the theme of the dungeon and leave them with something that a bronze age warrior king would reasonable have as part of his burial goods - perhaps Strigoi can make it his signature weapon in the future.

The dungeon I eventually used is linear: there is just one path with no branches or junctions. This was partly because I wanted to keep things simple as most of us are not familiar with the D&D 5E rules, and partly because that was how I envisioned a burial cave complex would be. The environmental obstacles placed in the PCs' way was a way to make the linear path more interesting, providing options in how they would proceed as opposed to where they would proceed. However, I found that at low level play this meant many skill checks, which in turn meant many chances of failures, which meant attrition of Hit Points, which, at low level, can lead to a dead spiral.

My unfamiliarity with the rules meant that I missed many minor rule details when running combat. Hopefully I will get better with practice.

Still, I consider this session a minor success as I think I managed to convey the sense of exploration a mysterious location. The players' realisation that they were in the burial grounds of an ancient people, and their (albeit brief) misgivings about grave-robbing made the work of prepping and running this session worthwhile.

Next week the party will explore the mysterious Gardens of Tarn, so now I need to go find a forest-based module. See you next week.

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