Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Terrinoth #16 - Moonspike Tower Part II

Dalkon holds Therion hostage
Campaign Diary

In the month of Hailag, at a time when most sensible folks would not venture into the wilderness on account of the cold, we find our party wading through the frigid waters of Blackwing Swamp.

Having learned about the long-forgotten causeway through the swamp, Therion Lakemane, entrepreneur and adventurer, had put together a crew to explore and claim the use of the causeway for himself. Joining him on the expedition were Whisper Blackmane and Risver Tellir, elven adventurers, and Tom Kelloson and Giso Meyer, priests of Kellos who had come along on the prospect of setting up a shrine long the route. They had need for haste, as soon snow would arrive and render all travel impossible.

(Click here for PC profiles)

Following the marks left by Whisper on their last foray into the swamp, the party arrived at the causeway just as the sun began to set. From here they planned to strike out northwards to the ruined keep where they battled goblins and a wyvern, and then to the northern end of the causeway, to see where it ended, before turning south again to find the other end.

Arriving at the ruined keep the next day, they found the wyvern still roosted at the top of the tower, warming its wings in the morning sun. The party waited until the wyvern had flown off to hunt before they entered the keep. There were no signs of the goblins - their carcasses had presumably fed the wyvern over the past weeks. Whisper laid a bear trap in the wyvern's bed of branches and anchored it to the floor below, and disguised the scent of the party using swamp mud. Our adventurers laid in wait inside the tower, hoping to take down the creature once it was caught.

Eventually the sound of flapping wings announced the wyvern's return. On the floor below, our heroes waited with bated breath. They heard a sniffing sound, followed by shriek as the wyvern took off into the air again - it had detected the trap! The party scrambled to the rooftop, eager to catch the creature before it can flee again. The wyvern defended its nest fiercely, but this time it faced more foes, and it was felled by an arrow as it tried to escape once more.

Therion had the wyvern skinned for its leather, hoping to recover part of the cost for the expedition by selling it off later. Exhausted from the fight, the party spent the night inside the relative comfort of the tower.

The next day they followed the course of the causeway northwards. As the afternoon wore on they found the ground now drier and the tree cover more sparse. Here, towards the edge of the swamp, the water gave way to boglands covered by moss and ferns. As the sun began to set, they saw the remnants of a tower by the side of the causeway, this one without a curtain wall, and in worse state of disrepair - only the first storey of the tower remained, and someone had laid a thatched roof over it, and smoke emerged from one corner of it. As the party observed the ruined tower from a distance, the form of an old woman emerged - it seemed that she had made a dwelling out of the tower.

Therion strode to the dwelling and introduced himself to the old woman, and asked permission for the party to be admitted to her home. The old woman introduced herself as Mama Peat ('on account of my using the peat for cooking and smoking lampreys, you see'), a 'wise woman' who had been living at the tower for years, living on smoked lampreys, moss and other plants, as well as other food and items which folks from the nearby villages would bring to exchange for potions which she would brew.

The party were given lamprey stew for dinner as Therion tried to interest Mama Peat in his business, but she replied that she had little use for money but had an interest in magical items, and asked if our heroes had any they were willing to trade for her help. Tom offered his throwing knife, but it was turned down. As the evening wore on Tom fell into a deep slumber. Talk continued to revolve around the subject of magic. Mama Peat began to tell our heroes of a tale of an evil witch who lived in the swamp and claimed the lives of babies born before the full moon... and revealed herself to be the sister of the witch whom our heroes have slain several weeks before! She demanded that the gem that Whisper plucked from the body of her sister to be returned to her, and in return she would leave their business with the causeway alone. Before Whisper could give a reply, Therion drew his rapier and attacked the witch, but instead of staying and fighting, she stepped into the fireplace and vanished in a blaze.

Our heroes searched the rest of the dwelling and found little else besides smoked lampreys and dried herbs and moss. They set watch and spent a fitful night in the dwelling.

The next day they found the northern end of the causeway a short distance away from the dwelling, and turned south to find the other end.

On the fifth day of their expedition dark clouds rolled in from the north. Late in the afternoon they came upon the remains of yet another tower by the causeway, this one so worn that only the foundations of the tower remained. As they approached the tower they saw that its floor had given way and now opened to a basement some ten feet below. They heard the jingling of chains, followed by voices crying for help.

Whisper crept close to the edge and saw that two men and a woman were imprisoned inside there, each chained by their ankles to an alcove in one of the four corners of the basement floor. Tom leapt onto the floor below and started to question them.

The three gave their names as Dalkon, Feck, and Tilsa, and claimed to be residents of Tamalir who woke up about a week ago to find themselves chained there. They had no knowledge of how they came to be there, nor who had brought them there or for what purpose, and they begged our heroes to free them from the chains.

Whisper cast a rope down and climbed down, followed by the others. As Giso examined the chains around Tilsa's ankles he noticed them to be of good quality steel, and that the manacles were not locked but forge-welded shut. Setting the chain against a rock, he set to work with his hammer, and after some effort broke one of them.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party grew more and more suspicious of the circumstances the prisoners were in: despite not having a source of food or water, the trio had remained alive for a week in the middle of winter, and indeed there were no signs of waste or excrement there. Whisper sensed magic on the three prisoners, but could not make out its nature.

Tension began to rise as our heroes pressed the prisoners for answers, and were met only with protestations of ignorance and increasingly desperate pleas to be freed. Eventually patience wore thin and Risver drew his knife and approached Dalkon, thinking to cut him and see if he bled. As he came within reach Dalkon struck out at him, throwing Risver several yards back. Enraged, Giso charged at Dalkon with his hammer. Therion stepped before Dalkon, shielding him from Giso's attack... and felt Dalkon's hand close around his neck in a vice-like grip.

Release him and the other two, he demanded, or he would kill Therion.

But the party was in no bargaining mood - they attacked Dalkon, even as he shielded himself with Therion. Unable to break himself free from the strangle, the bard passed out, only to be revived by Whisper chanting a healing word. Seeing this Dalkon cast Therion aside and seized Whisper by her neck instead. In the confusion that followed Whisper was struck by Giso and passed out, but her companions were able to wrest her from the grasp of Dalkon. As the three prisoners strained against their bonds to try to grab at our heroes, they one by one climbed out of the basement, and from the safety of their vantage point above called down holy fire against the now-defenceless trio.

When the prisoners were vanquished the party recovered the chains, noting the maker's mark upon them - they might solve this mystery yet!

Leaving the ruined tower behind, the party trekked on southwards, until they came to the end  of the causeway. Their journey had come to an end.


Having returned to Tamalir, Whisper recovered her gem from the vault of a merchant house where she had deposited it. Holding it in her hand, she called out silently to Mama Peat, but received no reply.

Then one night she awoke in her room at the Leaky Tap, and found the witch standing by her window. The witch repeated her offered to leave the dwelling in the swamp and not interfere with the party's business in exchange for the gem. Whisper in return told her that now that she has learned of the nature of the gem, she did not want it in her possession. She handed the gem to the witch, who stepped back into the shadow... and vanished once more.

Prepping and Running the Game

I apologise in advance if I blow my own trumpet too much in this post, but I feel the session was a good example of how an 'improv' style of GMing can work with experienced and engaged players.

This session was the first in the Terrinoth campaign that I did not base off a specific module, but rather the elements of the scenario came from loose threads left over from three previous session. There was very little to prep for in the specifics - I prepared the monster stats, a couple of terrain mats, and did some reading on peat, lampreys, and smoking lampreys with peat.

To begin with the whole reason for this expedition was based on an idea supplied by the players themselves. As the GM all I needed to do was to make up some reasonable challenges to provide more information on the causeway and its history (indirectly).

The first part of the session was to me the most straight-forward, so I was a little surprised when the players took a long time trying to decide how to tackle the wyvern. Eventually I decided to make it fly off to hunt for food so they could get close to it without being detected.

The second encounter was a follow-up to the session where they encountered and killed an evil hag. I had wanted to introduce the idea that the hag was once one of three hags in a coven, and when I needed to populate another location for this session, I decided to make use of this thread, I left the encounter very much unscripted, hoping to react to how the PCs acted instead. I had actually a model of a purple worm (painted in flesh colour) on my table to use as a giant lamprey ally for the hag if a fight broke out, but it didn't seem to fit the feel in the room at the moment, and I decided not to use it.

I had imagined that Whisper and the two priests of Kellos would want to attack the hag once they learned her true nature, and that Therion would rather strike a bargain with her, so I was rather surprised when it was the other way round.

The third encounter was my favourite. The mysterious nature of the prisoners and their reluctance to provide answers, and their physical prowess displayed later really puzzled the players. I will not spoil the story here, but this location is tied to the Blood & Gold scenario. One of the players even asked if his character knew if this was in anyway linked to the Cult of Nordros - as a GM it is always gratifying to have bits of lore you told the players thrown back at you in a later game.

I could feel the tension and the frustration (a good kind, I thought) at the table rise as the players and PCs started to disagree on what to do and then each went ahead and did what he or she felt was right - it was a little like the scene in The Avengers when they started to turn on each other. But as in the movie, once the enemy showed himself, the team acted together and defeated their foes.

When Therion's player placed his figure in front of Dalkon to shield him from Giso, I saw the perfect opportunity to raise the stakes and took it, actually physically moving to behind the player and passing my hand in front of his neck (which unfortunately meant I could not see the look on his face when that happened). The player was so traumatised by the event that after the game he told me that Therion's alignment had shifted from Neutral Good to True Neutral after this.

Despite the fight being fought on a fixed location on account of Dalkon being chained, it was actually one of the more tactical fights in the campaign as the PCs tried to rescue their comrades without hurting them, trying instead to pry them loose from Dalkon's grasp. I thought I did rather well too when I made Dalkon take the risk of letting go of a hostage and grabbing the healer instead.

Once the PCs were all out of reach of the prisoners, it was basically shooting fish in a barrel as they had ranged-attack cantrips. It was however fitting for the prisoners to not have any ranged attacks, so I allowed them their victory.

Once again the players were experienced enough to bounce off elements I had included in the scenario without much thought, in this case looking for a maker's mark on the chains, which I had described as well-made. This will allow them to trace the buyer of the chains (presumably the person who imprisoned the trio there), but in fact it will be the other way round: allowing the person to find those who have killed his prisoners!

All in all this was a very enjoyable session, and it has given me more confidence in running a less prepped game.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Terrinoth #15 - Retribution

The heroes fail to stem the tide of zombies...

Campaign Diary

Giso and Tom's recent adventures had earned the attention of Abbot Kostel, who decided that it would be best if the two priests did a spot of penance at St Olfryc's Priory until after the Winter Solstice mass. They would be accompanied on their journey to the priory by Whisper Blackmane, who had been employed as a guide.

(Click here for PC profiles)

Our reluctant priests headed north from Tamalir, with a mule carrying winter supplies in tow. St Olfryc's Priory, our priests knew, was founded as a hermitage several centuries ago, and was later expanded to a priory when a childless noble obtained permission from the Baron to bequeath the land to the church upon his death. For a period the priory was home to a sect of the church of Kellos known as the Order of the Cleansing Flames, whose members practised self-mortification by branding themselves. The practice gradually fell out of favour, and had stopped in the past few decades.

On the third day of the journey, as the party climbed the hill to reach the priory, a snowstorm began. The trio struggled on, but found their path ahead blocked by two large wolves. The wolves growled menacingly at the party, but would not attack. Faced with a long trip back to the nearest village or a long detour, the party chose to attack, and after a hard battle managed to kill the wolves and continue on their way.

The winter sun was close to setting when they finally arrived at the priory. They were welcomed into the compound, and introduced to the monks who lived there: Prior Ruan, his assistant Dean Leland, Brother Rosen who ran the scriptorium, Brother Enthel who did most of the cooking and cleaning, and the young novice Brother Malven.

The party reported their encounter with the wolves, and were told that the woods had been strangely quiet the past week. With the storm showing no signs of letting up, Whisper was invited to stay at the priory until the weather improved. Giso and Tom were assigned to work with Brother Rosen to copy scriptures during their penance, while Whisper volunteered to help around the place.

Th next morning when the monks left their dormitory for morning services, they found five dead ravens on the snow-covered garth in the middle of the priory. The birds were frozen solid, with no signs of injury on them, and there were no tracks leading to or from where they were laid.

At the scriptorium, Tom did his best to impress Brother Rosen with his calligraphy, while Giso, protesting his exile to the priory, deliberately did a mediocre job, and earned the disapproval of Dean Leland. Whisper meanwhile earned the attention of the dean when he found out that she was not a follower of Kellos, and found herself being proselytised to at each meal time.

Later that night, Giso and Tom were awakened from their slumber by a repetitive knocking sound. Tom dragged the reluctant Giso from the warmth of his bed, the two followed the noise to the door of the scriptorium, where they found a dead fox hung by its tail over the door - the winter wind slammed its frozen body against the wooden door periodically, creating the irregular knocking sound. Closer examination of the carcass showed a jagged wound on the chest of the animal, and that its heart had been ripped out. Again, there were no tracks leading to the door. Giso recalled from his reading that cultists of Nordros removed the hearts of the animals that they sacrificed to the evil god of Death and Winter. Tom and Giso alerted the other monks, but with no clue as to who the culprit was, there was nothing to do but to return to bed.

The mood at the refectory was subdued the next day. Dean Leland behaved coldly to Whisper, perhaps suspecting that she was responsible for the events. Brother Melvan suspected the villagers, whom he believed to be protesting their tithe to the priory.

Work continued at the scriptorium for our priests, while Whisper took a walk outside the priory walls during a lull in the storm, eventually chancing upon a nearby graveyard, where the deceased monks and worshipers were buried.

Thankfully, nothing strange happened that night.

On the third day, the priests were interrupted in the work at the scriptorium when Prior Ruan came to ask for help: someone had left the window to his chambers open, and the snow had blown in, wetting the floor and furniture. While the party helped the old man clean up, they noticed that he had brand marks over his forearms. Prior Ruan revealed that he had been an adherent of the Order of Cleansing Flames in his youth, and that he had been a zealot who forced self-mortification onto novices, which eventually resulted in his transfer out of the priory. It was only with the death of the previous prior of St Olfryc's that he had been reassigned to the priory. Age, he said, had mellowed him, and he now regretted his actions.

When they asked Prior Ruan about who had access to his chambers, the party also learned that the monastery had been missing some gold and silver candlesticks and goblets, and that the remainder had been kept under lock by the Prior.

At this point they all heard a loud sound followed by a scream coming from the nearby kitchen. Rushing there, they found that the lintel over the kitchen door had fallen, nearly missing Brother Enthel, who spilled the pot of pottage he was holding. Examination of the broken pieces of the lintel showed signs of sabotage, and our heroes volunteered to help investigate, which would also conveniently take them away from their duties in the scriptorium.

The next day our trio kept a close watch on the monks. Giso spied on Dean Leland from outside his office, Whisper feigned interest in the scriptures to spend time with Brother Rosen, and Tom watched Brothers Enthel and Malven from a discrete distance.

In the middle of the morning, Tom noticed Brother Enthel leaving the compound surreptitiously. While he trailed Brother Enthel, he noticed Brother Malven behaving around the tool shed in a suspicious manner. Making the decision to check on Brother Malven first, Tom crept next to the tool shed and saw the young novice rummaging in a corner. After Brother Malven left, Tom entered the tool shed to search it, and found the lost gold and silver items buried behind various tools in one corner. Leaving them in their place, Tom left to try to track Brother Enthel, but the falling snow had covered his tracks.

By now our heroes were on edge and suspected something bad was going to happen. They knew not what it was, but they resolved to keep a watch over the priory all through the night. Whisper stood watch in the scriptorium, while Tom and Giso guarded the two entrances to the priory: the door to the antechamber that led to the garth and the prior's chambers, and the door to the chapel respectively.

At around midnight the storm abated. Then Brother Enthel opened the door from the garth to the antechamber and walked in nonchalantly. Surprised but not suspecting anything sinister, Tom thanked him for the nice dinner he made earlier. Brother Enthel walked slowly over to the door and replied:" I'm glad you enjoyed it... because it was your last meal."

Then he lifted the bar across the door, opened it, and zombies spilled in.

Tom's cries alerted Whisper and Giso, who rushed to aid him. In the confusion Brother Enthel managed to slip past our heroes to enter the chapel and open the other door to the outside - more zombies entered.

While Whisper and Tom fought to contain the zombies in the antechamber and Giso faced off against several zombies alone in the chapel, Brother Enthel led a few zombies into the garth, heading towards the prior's chamber by a different route. The party despatched the zombies, sustaining grievous injuries while doing so, and chased after them.

Tom threw the throwing knife he had found in the wyvern's lair at Brother Enthel, imbuing it with the holy flames of Kellos as he did so... the knife missed its target and stuck in the door to the scriptorium, setting it alight. Tom called out to Brother Rosen, who had thus far been hiding in the dormitory with Brother Malven. Alerted to the fact that his beloved scriptures were in danger, the monk overcame his fear, rushed out, and began shoveling snow onto the burning door, eventually extinguishing the flames!

While Whisper and Giso held off the zombies in the garth, Tom entered the kitchen to find Brother Enthel strangling Prior Ruan - like the older man his forearms bore brand marks too. Tom struck at Brother Enthel's neck, killing him. Searching his body, they found more brand marks, and a tattoo of a skull, marking him as a worshiper of Nodros.

As the party gathered around him, Prior Ruan revealed that Brother Enthel suffered under his tutelage when he was a novice and was made to brand himself many times. When the two met met again on Prior Ruan's return, the older man had apologised and asked for forgiveness, which was given - but now it seemed that Brother Enthel had never forgiven his erstwhile mentor, and had plotted a terrible revenge.

In the aftermath of the chaos Tom took Brother Malven aside and questioned him about the stash in the tool shed. The young monk, already shaken by recent events, spilled the beans: he was a wanted thief who had joined the priory to escape from the law, and was plotting to return to civilisation now that he thought things had blown over. Tom flipped the young man a Gros, and ordered him to depart, which he quickly did.

With only three members left, Prior Ruan realised that the priory could not sustain itself any longer. Packing their scriptures and as much supplies as they and the mule could carry, the monks and our heroes left the priory, and made their way to the nearest village.

Prepping and Running the Game

As this was the Halloween game, I thought it would be a good time to run Retribution by Raging Swan Press, a mystery-horror scenario. This is probably the third or fourth time I have run a "stranded in a monastery in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm with suspicious monks when murder and fire happens" scenario. It is not an innovative premise, but Retribution excelled in laying out how the GM can slowly rack up the tension in the game.

The original scenario has more content than the scenario I ran, with some details on the village near the monastery, and a whole dungeon section which I left out. It also has more combat encounters and a larger cast of villains and NPCs. The scenario as written would probably require more than the three hours we had, so in the interest of time and make it easier for me and the players to keep track of the NPCs I cut out most of the combat encounters, locales, and trimmed the list of NPCs down to five.

With a mystery scenario it is always difficult to strike a balance between giving the players enough clues to allow them to pinpoint a suspect, and not giving them so much information that the solve the mystery in the first hour. Retribution takes this into account, and has advice on what to do in case your players correctly identify the suspect early in the game.

In this case I think I did too good of a job making Brother Enthel low-key, such that the players suspected Brother Rosen, Dean Leland, and even a Prior Ruan with a split personality, but not Brother Enthel. The last one is an interesting idea which I may actually use for my next monastery mystery game.

For the layout of the priory I chose to use the beautiful 30" x 30" St Olfryc's Priory from Heroic Maps, specifically the winter-themed one, which was perfect for my purpose. I adjusted the plot to the map, which almost proved catastrophic at the critical moment in the game: there were only two main entrances into the priory which Brother Enthel could let the zombies in, and they were each guarded by a PC! If a PC attacked Brother Enthel before he could open the door, the game's climax would not happen.

The scenario had not predicted that the PCs would be guarding the route by which the zombies would attack, no did I expect them to stand guard all night. I literally stood hunched over the map with the figurines placed on them for a whole minute before I decided to let the dice fall where they may be and let Brother Enthel make his entrance. The seconds when I casually moved Brother Enthel's figure across the antechamber to the door and then uttered his line was the high point of the game for me.

I think the players were genuinely surprised by the suddenness of the zombie attack. Giso's player was so taken off guard that he did not think to turn undead until several turns into combat, when the PCs had all taken heavy damage.

The comic moment of the game happened when one of the players noted that the flaming throwing knife might set the scriptorium door on fire. I went with the suggestion and had Tom's player roll for fire damage. When they called to Rosen to help put out the fire, I decided that the natural thing for him to do would be to shovel the snow on the ground onto the burning door. I rolled to see how effective he was, and rolled high: he was a human hurricane, as one of the players put it!

I had not thought about how to end the game, but when one of the players made the remark that the priory would probably be too understaffed to continue, I went with it and had them abandon it for the season. This actually provides me with another site for a possible "holdings" campaign, so if either Giso or Tom's player do decide they want to "settle down", we have a site which they can feel a certain connection to.

Over all it was a fun session with plenty of opportunity for roleplaying. If you are looking for a horror-mystery scenario based in a monastery, I recommend you check Retribution out.