Thursday, August 22, 2019

Terrinoth #39 - Unmerciful

When you're about to start writing the campaign diary
Campaign Diary

On the south bank of the Flametail River, our heroes: Therion Lakemane, Giso Meyer, Whisper Blackmane, and Risvir Tellir stood silent in the snow (click here for PC profiles), until at last Risvir spoke.

The situation, he declared, was more than he had signed up for, and he would for now leave Tamalir, and return to claim his share of the pay another day.

Unwilling to return to the city to face a criminal gang, the three remaining heroes decided to head for a monastery a few hours south of Tamalir, where they hoped to find shelter for the night as they planned their next move.

They did not get far before Whisper noticed a long-haired figure in tattered clothing standing in their path.

'Where is he?' she hissed.

The party replied that they had no idea where Weiss had gone. They then noticed that a male figure, who looked similarly disheveled, had meanwhile crept up behind them.

'Then they are of no use to us!' he said.

The two charged at our heroes, baring fangs in their mouths and claws on their fingers. The party fought back against the strange couple, and as he was struck by one of them, Therion realised that their strength was like that of the man who was chained to the ruined keep.

Despite their weariness from their earlier ordeal, our heroes fought a running battle against the two, until at last Therion froze the female with the magic from his family ring, and the male fled into the woods. Whisper chased after him, but soon lost him in the darkness. Refusing to give up, she continued deeper into the woods. Then suddenly, she noticed a figure silhouetted against the moonlight ahead. There was a blinding flash as a bolt of green light arced from the figure's raised hand... not towards Whisper, but to a nearby tree. There was a cry, which was followed by a dull 'thud' as the body of the male landed onto the snow.

The figure stepped into the moonlight with a cackle: it was Mama Peat. The hag chided our heroes for making a commotion on her turf, but gave them some smoked lamprey as provision when Therion asked for her aid. Then, as suddenly as she had appeared, she departed.

Our heroes inspected the body of the man. In his death, he looked like a normal person, his fangs and jagged claws gone. Hoping to use the body to prove that the city was under the threat of vampires, the trio dragged it in a makeshift litter to the monastery.

The sight of three strangers with a corpse in tow at their gate caused panic among the monks, until Giso was able to convince the abbot that he was a priest of Kellos. The abbot, caught up in the excitement, initially suggested beheading the body and then setting it on fire to prevent it from rising again, but when questioned, confessed that the suggestion was not based upon church teachings, but tales he heard as a child - after all, vampires were just creatures of legend, and no one had seen one in centuries! Once he had calmed down, the abbot realised that to the city watch, the body would appear as just a victim of violence left out in the cold, which would make the party prime suspects for murder! Moreover, tales of vampires in the city, whether true or not, would likely cause a panic and a mass exodus which, it being the middle of winter right now, would no doubt cause the loss of countless lives among those who could not find shelter in the cold. He bade the party to travel on to Vynelvale, the seat of the Order of Kellos, where they would perhaps learn more about how to deal with vampires; in the mean time, he and his monks would inform the city watch that the two bodies were found in the wilderness, perhaps victims of bandits.

The next morning our heroes started the long journey to Vynelvale. After three long weeks, they arrived at the great cathedral city, at the end of the annual Conclave, when all the Hierophants from the rest of Terrinoth would converge each year.

Giso led the party into the inner city of Vynelvale, which was closed to outsiders between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Here Giso sought out Johannes, his mentor, and told him what they had learned: a war between criminal gangs, over the profits of a drug called red mist, made perhaps from the blood of vampire, or vampires, had begun in Tamalir. The drug made its user quick and strong, but also make him become addicted, and eventually mad. Johannes cautioned the party against reckless action before they had sufficient proof, and advised them to seek out Brother Grimmel, the Chief Librarian, to see if some information regarding vampires could be found at the Order's library.

Brother Grimmel, a tall and haughty man, was skeptical of the heroes' tale of vampires, but nevertheless referred them to a young acolyte named Brother Berkin, who was in charge of the 'Occult' section of the library. Our heroes offered to help the young librarian search for books on vampires, but Brother Berkin declined their aid, and instead asked to be left alone to do his work, promising to have the information ready for them the next day. Therion and Giso decided to spend the rest of the day at a tavern Giso frequented when he was living in Vynelvale (where Therion's rendition of the latest songs from Lorimor was met with less than warm welcome by the patrons), while Whisper, suspicious of Brother Berkin, remained outside the library and observed Brother Berkin from a distance. As the day wore on she saw the young librarian bring several books to his desk by the window, and occasionally he would make notes on a piece of paper. Then, when the bell rang for dinner, he put away his things, and with a large tome tucked under one arm, returned to his dormitory before joining the other monks for evening meal.

That night, while Giso and Therion slept, Whisper felt a sense of unease which compelled her to stand watch by the window. Several hours past midnight, she saw a figure, dressed in the robes of a priest, make his solitary way across the dark courtyard below. Suddenly the figure stopped in his track, and began to flail his arms before him, as if fighting off an invisible assailant. Then just as suddenly, he fell to the ground, motionless. Whisper turned from the window to wake Giso and Therion, and when the three returned to the window they could see a second figure crouched over the first. In a moment, the crouched figure stood up, looked furtively around, and then disappeared into the shadows.

Our heroes rushed downstairs and out of their quarters, and called out to a pair of patrolling watchmen to follow them to the scene. Lying on the courtyard was a priest dressed in the robes of a Master - it was Master Maruis, the party later learned, the Master of the College of Science - and next to his body on the floor was his tongue, cut inexpertly out of his mouth.

Whisper tried to find tracks of the second figure, but no marks could be found on the flagstones. The gates to the inner city were all closed, and there were no signs of forced entry to any of the doors of the buildings nearby. Where could he have gone?

Soon a crowd of monks and priests had formed around the body. An order was given to bring the body to the Hospital, where our heroes were also summoned.

Inside the Hospital Master Marius' body was disrobed and examined. There was a distinct smell of spirits - the watchmen at the gate revealed that the rotund priest had returned very late indeed from a night of drinking in the outer city - but there were no signs of injury. There was little bleeding from the severed tongue, indicating that Master Marius had already expired before the tongue was removed. More disturbingly, a silver Gros was found inside his mouth. Our heroes were questioned, and then bade to tell no one of what they saw.

The next morning a funeral service was held for Master Marius, who, officially, had "died of a medical accident", but that did not stop the gossiping among the priests and monks.

Returning to the library that afternoon, the party found Brother Grimmel looking flustered. When he learned that the heroes had not heard about the rumours of his involvement in the night's affair, he heaved a sigh of relief, and invited them into his office.

When the previous Master of Science had died two years ago, Brother Grimmel explained, he had expected himself to be promoted to the position on account of his seniority. However, the younger Marius was promoted in his stead, which caused some unpleasantness. Now, he was worried, aspersions might be cast on him, and he was at last glad to have someone he could voice his concerns to. Marius, he added, had meanwhile proved to be an able administrator, and had managed to gain funding for the building of a new wing to the library, while he himself had gained great joy from his post as Chief Librarian. Perhaps, Brother Grimmel mused, Kellos had passed him over for the promotion to teach him contentment.

Leaving the old man to his reverie, our heroes left the office and sought out Brother Berkin at his desk. Immediately Whisper sensed that the young librarian was hiding something, and began to question him first about what he had learned about vampires, and then his whereabouts the night before. As she did so, Therion walked over to his desk, and placed his musical box upon it, where it began to play a soft tune. The young monk gave vague replies, tried to evade pointed questions, but the spell in the music played upon his mind, and he found it harder and harder to hide the truth. When at last Whisper asked if he knew how Master Marius had died, he barked,

"Yes! Because I was the one who killed him!"

Brother Berkin lunged for the quill knife on his desk, but Whisper was quicker; she moved between the monk and the desk, and threw a punch at his head - Brother Berkin fell to the ground, unconscious.

The commotion brought the other monks to the scene. Therion roused Brother Berkin, and whispered a spell in his ears as he did so, bidding him to tell the truth. But perhaps he did not need to, for when he came to, the young monk revealed everything to all who were present with a righteousness tone.

One day, two years ago, while collecting some books from Master Marius' office, he came across letters which revealed to him that the priest had acted as a go-between for the current Procurator of the Grand Hierophant's Household and the Hierophant of Riverwatch - the former had bribed the latter for his post, and for his troubles Marius was elevated to the position of Master of Science. Incensed by this, yet afraid of retaliation should he speak out, the young monk turned to the dark knowledge which he had come across in his work: by means of an Ynfernal ritual found in an ancient tome, he summoned up an invisible assassin, which he set upon Master Marius, who was famous for his late night jaunts. He then cut off the dead man's tongue, the offending part, with his quill knife, and stuffed a coin in his mouth as a symbol for his greed.

The ancient tome was recovered from Brother Berkin's room, along with his journal, in which he detailed his discovery and his plans for the assassination of Master Marius, as well as the Procurator and the Hierophant of Riverwatch.

For their part in solving the murder, our heroes were met by the Seneschal of the grand Hierophant's Household, who exacted a pledge to speak no words of the affair to anyone for the price of 500 Gros.

Our heroes returned once more to Johannes, and informed him of what they have learned regarding vampires. Therion at last decided to show the justicar a vial of red mist he had acquired, as well as the dagger which the assassin had stabbed Weiss with. Johannes placed the dagger under sunlight, whereupon the dried blood on the blade began to sizzle and smoke. He then placed the vial under the sunlight, but it was not changed.

Johannes returned the dagger to Therion, and then, gazing at the vial of red mist, advised the party to follow the trail of money - for if indeed red mist is made from the blood of a vampire, then surely the trail of silver will lead them to it.

Prepping and Running the Game

After a hiatus of eight months, we at last returned to B Team this week. When we ended the previous session, the players decided that they wanted to find out more about vampires and how to defeat them, so we decided that the next session would have them travel to Vynelvale to research at the Order's famous library.

This session was based on the module Unmerciful, by Adventurer's Inn, which also published Blood & Gold, upon which the current arc is based. Or rather it was supposed to be based on the module - a month off GMing had thrown my game off, and I had trouble with the pacing, but fortunately for me the game turned out fairly well.

I had the game start off from right where we left off, which meant the PCs had not had a chance to heal up. I wanted to test out a new house rule which came up in a chat group I belong to: I divided the PCs' hit points into two halves: Wind, and Wound.

Wind represented things like luck, stamina, and alertness, while Wound represented actual damage. When a PC takes damage, it is first deducted off Wind, and when Wind drops to zero, the damage is applied to Wound.

The difference between the two is that Wind is restored by spending Hit Dice, while Wound is restored by healing, whether via magic or potion, and by Natural Healing, which happens at the rate of the PC's level + CON modifier once per long rest.

The new system did not make a real difference this session, since there was only one real fight; but in a longer, continuous session, like say a dungeon crawl, it would generate more stress as recovery to full hit points will take more time.

I planned the session to have three parts: the fight with the vampire spawn (for which I used a Wight's stats), a narrative of their journey to Vynelvale, and the scenario proper.

I had planned for the first fight to be deadly, such that the PCs would lose the fight, and then Mama Peat's would arrive and drive the vampire spawn off. As it turned out the players were tougher than I had expected. This presented me with the problem of two vampire spawn corpses, which I had not expected to have to deal with. The encounter at the monastery was improvised, and I managed to get the party back on track for their journey to Vynelvale.

For the Vynvelvale part of the session I did a bit of reading on the organisation of the Catholic church in the medieval era. Despite the religion of Kellos being the most prominent one in Terrinoth, there is very little detail about the organisation and teachings of the religion in the sourcebook. I decided that the order probably began as a sort of a community of ascetics made up of Kellos' original followers, and a priesthood, which was started as described in the sourcebook. The former probably saw Kellos as more man than god, while the latter saw him more as a god than as a man. I imagine there were some conflict between the two traditions as to who truly represented Kellos, and that the priestly faction won, and subsumed the monastic faction.

I imagine that the church did not hold anything near to the order of land and power the Catholic church held in the Holy Roman Empire, but that it nonetheless held a manor here and there throughout the land, some under a monastery, and some under a church. I organised these under twenty Hierophants, one for each Barony and Free City, with the Hierophant of Vynelvale being the Grand Hierophant. The Grand Hierophant also had his own Household, much like the Papal Household.

All these were important, as I wanted the plot of Unmerciful to be translated to a "real world" structure.

The scenario was supposed to feature a serial-murder mystery, but I had not even introduced half of the cast of NPCs before the players became convinced that Brother Berkin was a bad guy - apparently they found his reluctance for their assistance suspicious, and thought he might have been in league with the vampires!

When Whisper started trailing Brother Berkin, I thought the game was up and she would find his journal in his quarters before the first murder. To make things worse there was only 40 minutes of game time left when we reached this point of the adventure, and I was considering abandoning the plot and ending the session with the PCs returning to Tamalir. Fortunately, I decided to push on.

The game was once more threatened with a premature end when Whisper decided, with no apparent reason, to keep watch at the window. Perhaps by now my players have realised that whenever there are monks in my game, there will be murder or arson, or both.

Now I could have decided that the murder would take place at a part of the compound that was not in view from the PCs' room, but it seemed like poor sport. I let Whisper witness the murder, which moved the plot ahead faster, and also revealed more about the nature of the assassin.

At the end of the autopsy, the game was back on tracks, and we had little time left. Once more my players surprised me by zooming straight to Brother Berkin. I did not realise that Therion had the spell Zone of Truth, which of course is the bane to all GMs running a murder mystery. In this case, the application of the spell allowed us to end the session on a short but intense roleplay, which I thought had a ring of the final scene from A Few Good Men.

The players may have expected a boss fight after the revelation, and were surprised when Brother Berkin went down with just one punch. I, however, liked that it showed how sometimes, the villain of the session can be a misguided level zero NPC.

The only pity is that I did not get to let the PCs fight the invisible assassin, which was supposed to be a Skulk, from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. Unmerciful actually has a human assassin as the murderer, but I wanted something supernatural instead, and the Skulk's description inspired me, and I was able to weave its fluff into the plot of the module, as well as into the NPCs which was natural for the PCs to come across.

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