-- Download post as PDF --
If you just want this week’s maps, go here.
We left the party having slain the ettercap and seeming to bring some peace to the dryad. And, with Thorak still at death’s door, the party settled down for the night. (As always, if you’re a player in this game or don’t want spoilers for what’s coming, don’t read the footnotes.)
Unfortunately, things are never that simple. Now that the ettercap and the spiders were dead – as well as the gelatinous cube – the reason for the heavily-webbed door became clear. The source of the blights – still unknown to the party (and, frankly, they seemed to have forgotten about the blight temporarily) – dwelled in the lower levels, and without the ettercap present to keep the door sealed, blights had managed to force the door open and emerge into this level of the temple.
The group slept heavily and, being new to this adventuring lark, didn’t set a watch. As a result their rest was rudely interrupted by a horde of blights and strange, foliage-infested zombies.
Initially the party stood their ground, but with their resources expended after battling the ettercap and having not had the benefit of a full rest, they decided that their best option was to flee back to town. 1
They emerged into the forest in the early hours of the morning. The sun hadn’t risen yet, and initially they struggled to get their bearings. After a brief moment of blind panic, they managed to find their way to the glass dome and the well where they had fought the bear and ‘rescued’ Selwyn. Having found the road, they began to run as blights and vine-zombies stumbled through the trees after them.
They ran for hours, leaving the blights behind in the darkness but not slowing the pace until they saw the lights of Tarnswood ahead of them. Once there they returned to their rented rooms in the tavern, fell into their beds, and hoped for the best.
The best, of course, didn’t come.
The party woke to the sounds of screaming. As they pulled back the curtains of their rooms and looked down on the market square below, they were greeted by a scene of chaos. The blights had followed them back from the temple, arriving shortly after dawn, and had immediately set upon the traders setting up for the day’s market. This prompted a lot of swearing from the party.
Blights and vine-zombies were everywhere, seemingly twice as many as had chased the party out of the temple, laying waste to the market and anybody in it. In a co-ordinated show of cowardice, the group slipped out of the tavern and into the stables next door.2 There must be a carriage or a wagon in there, they figured, and in the chaos nobody would notice if they used it to slip away.
As they assessed their options – there was, indeed, a carriage, but it was ornate and expensive-looking and the party figured that it would probably be missed quite quickly – the sound from outside the stables changed. Where before it had been the screams and cries of merchants trying and failing to defend themselves, now they heard the jangle and scrape of armour, the crackle and pop of magic, and – weirdly – a flute playing a jaunty jig.
Peeking around the stable doors, the party saw something of a familiar sight – a group of four well-armed and armoured individuals had arrived in the market and begun to take the fight to the blights. Seeing that the tide was turning, the party sprang from the stables and began to flank the blights. Thorak seemed to become fairly enamored with the large goliath fighter laying about him with a strange polearm of some sort, but didn’t let that distract him from cutting into the horde of blights like he was trying to clear a forest.
Eventually the enemy was felled, and the party received healing the human man in brilliant armour who had turned some of the vine-zombies to dust. His name, he said, was Treadway Loxton, a Paladin of the Phoenix and leader of the group that contained Slavin (Thorak’s new favourite person) Hepzibeth – a gnome bard who Ha’an immediately began to trade stories with – and an as-yet nameless human wizard, who set himself apart from both groups after the battle ended.3 Treadway told them that he and his party had come to town after hearing that Baenre needed some help. This result in a not-insignificant amount of gloating as the party informed Treadway that they had already done the job.
Slavin and Hepzibeth seemed rather put out that their services weren’t needed, but Treadway took it in his stride. Just the nature of the job, he said. Sometimes you just aren’t fast enough.4 The party turned their gloating down a little, but they still decided to show Treadway the javelin of leaves – which he immediately insisted they were honour-bound to return to Baenre in exchange for the payment they had agreed upon.
At this point, the party realised that the reward they had negotiated seemed a little small considering what they had been through.
After bidding farewell to Treadway and his group the party made their way back to Baenre’s clearing, where they found the druid in a foul mood. They had gone against her instructions, she said, going deeper into the temple and releasing a scourge of blight that was already beginning to destroy the forest. They told her about what had happened with Selwyn, and Baenre claimed never to have heard of him – but something about the way she said it didn’t ring true, and Ha’an was convinced that she was lying to them.5
The group attempted to hold the javelin hostage in demand for extra pay, but Baenre was not so easy to convince. She stuck to her guns, insisting that they had been explicitly instructed nto to venture deeper into the temple, and that they were lucky to be getting paid at all after the trouble they had caused – including the fact that they had burned down a large portion of the forest before they had even accepted the job.
Eventually Baenre became exasperated with the group, turning into a giant eagle and rage quitting out of the argument.6 This left the party alone in her grove, with the javelin and no real idea what to do next.
Before they could decide, though, Selwyn darted from his hiding place in the trees and attempted to steal the javelin. He failed, and fled, and the party gave chase. He led them back to the temple, where they saw him dart through the exit they had used the night before and descend into the darkness below.
At this point, the party paused and took stock. Having thoroughly explored that floor of the temple, they were fairly convinced that Selwyn’s only way out was to come back up through those same doors. He could go deeper, down to the lower levels, but they didn’t think the presence of a third entrance to the temple that bypassed an entire floor was likely.
So they faced a decision. They could simply go – take the javelin, forget about Selwyn, and leave town in search of new adventure. Their second option was to stay where they were and wait him out. Or, finally, they could chase him into the temple, where they would almost certainly have to fight more blights but might also find more treasure.
The promise of treasure – and of hard, bloody vengeance, payback for his two attempts to steal the javelin from them – won out, and the party descended once again into the temple.
Slowly they stalked him through the temple, though they struggled to follow his tracks. What they could find seemed to lead to the door that had been covered in webbing, now smashed open from the inside and showing definite signs of a horde of blights and vine-zombies having forced their way through it.
Those “definite signs” came in the form of another – smaller – horde of blights and vine-zombie who had clearly recently come up through the door, which the party fought beneath the healthier-looking leaves of the dryad’s tree.
After dispatching the blights the party ventured deeper, into the catacombs. There was a brief discussion about Selwyn – would he have gone down here, or looped back to the entrance? They figured that if he was going to leave he would have done it already – they should have split the party and hunted him through the temple, but now they would probably never catch him if he hadn’t gone further down into the temple. There was disappointment, but it was overridden by the desire to kill more things – and, potentially, find more treasure.7
In the catacombs the party found no more blights, but there were more vine-zombies. They fought them in a chamber beside a pair of ornate stone doors carved with all kinds of iconography to a god that nobody could remember. After dispatching the monsters, the party found that the door was sealed with an intricate lock that required two large, cog-like disks being inserted into slots cut out for them and turned together. Of course, neither of those disks were in the possession of the party.
In a chamber off the to side of this one the party found a room used to prepare bodies for interment in the catacombs. Shelves were filled with embalming fluids, powders, incenses, and other herbs and tinctures of obscure purpose. In a small wardrobe Wartsanall found a robe of useful items and, in a cloth bag in one of the drawers, he found the first disk they needed.
Another door on the opposite side of the room had been knocked from its hinges, and now more zombies began to come through it towards the party, along with skeletons whose bones were snaked-through with vines. The party made short work of them and advanced down the corridor into the next room – a long, cold chamber filled with stone coffins. Some of these were already open, while others were in the process of opening, and more zombies and skeletons were rising up to face the group.
Rather than stand and fight, the party backed out and used the joining corridor as a bottleneck, taking their foes one at a time until they were victorious.
In the main catacombs they began going through the coffins, finding little of value. Another room off this one proved more fruitful, though; a small chamber seemed empty at first, until the group noticed that the walls were covered in small clay tablets inscribed with names and dates of death. Upon breaking one open, Wartsanall found it was sealing a small compartment containing what was presumably the belongings of the person whose name had been on the seal.
Obviously, they looted the room. Along with gold and a number of small trinkets (all of which came from my table of 100 trinkets nudge nudge wink wink) they also found a set of goggles of night, which Wartsanall immediately took possession of.
On the other side of the catacombs was another short corridor that led to a smaller tomb, this one more ornate and well-appointed – clearly this was where more important members of the temple were interred. And as the party arrived in the chamber, one of those VIPs was pulling herself from her casket and throwing herself at the party.
They immediately realised that this wasn’t just a zombie – this was angry, full of menace, and dangerous. This, in fact, was a ghast.
After Thorak took the first hit – and the first hit hit hard – the party decided that their bottleneck tactic might just work again. They backed away down the corridor and into the previous room, but they weren’t counting on the speed or the ferocity of the ghast. It chased them, and the battle got underway atop the corpses of the enemies the party had just felled.
Eventually the ghast was added to the pile of corpses, and the party returned to the room it had raged out of. There they found the skeletal remains of one of the clerics who had lived in the temple long ago, with the second disk clutched in the bones of his fingers.
They returned to the stone doors. As soon as the doors opened a strange, babbling voice was heard – not audibly, but broadcasting itself directly into the party’s minds. Cautiously they advanced up the richly-decorated hallway, paranoid as they passed statues of strange, unidentifiable creatures that stood at intervals along the walls.
Another set of ornate doors barred their way, but these weren’t locked and opened easily. The party stepped into a circular chamber with more clay tablets along the walls – these ones larger and painted with gold leaf. In the center of the chamber was what looked like a low, circular well – this one sealed with a round stone slab carved with arcane symbols. The stone was cracked in places, pierced by thick black-green vines that rose up from inside the well and had made their way down the sides and into the floor of the chamber.
With the mad babbling still echoing in their heads, and with no immediate threat, the party examined the tablets on the walls. It didn’t take long before they decided to break one open, and that was when things went bad.
As soon as the clay was shattered the enchantment on it was released. The large doors to the chamber slammed shut, sealing the party in, and the stone slab sealing the well exploded in a crack of arcane energy. From within the depths of the well emerged something pulled out of nightmares – one large eye, a twisted mouth full of vicious teeth, long purple tongue lolling out and flicking at the air, and four tentacles rising from above the central eye that ended in smaller eyes of their own.8
The fight was not pretty. The spectator floated above the party, out of range of thrown weapons, and rained down destruction with its eye rays. Pstan was paralyzed and Ha’an was rendered useless through fear, while Thorak wasn’t able to get into melee range and thus was less than useful.
On the edge of death, Wartsanall took hold of the javelin of leaves, spoke its command word, and hoped.
That attack was the first, and only, natural 20 of the night, and Warts rolled exactly enough damage to kill the spectator. It was perfect.
With the spectator dead and the temple fully explored, the party concluded that they must have dealt with the source of the blight – and that Selwyn had almost definitely escaped them.9
And that’s where we left the session. Next week, a return to Tarnswood, and the aftermath of the attack on town.
Go here for this week’s map! I’m now providing them in PDF format for home printing as well as high-resolution images.
- I staged this attack very deliberately. At this point they hadn’t really considered fleeing at all, and I wanted to establish early on in the campaign that not every fight is one that they can win. They’d already impressed me by not really considering fighting the dryad at any point – not many newbie groups willingly walk past combat encounters – but so far when they had got into a fight, they had finished it. I’d already done some work in establishing that monsters will try their best to kill them by having the ettercap stamp on Thorak after he went down, but now I wanted to hammer that lesson home. They could still choose to fight if they wanted to – this was still an encounter balanced at the top-end of Medium difficulty, so at full or even partially-reduced power they could definitely succeed. And I wasn’t going to do anything as cheap as sending constant waves of enemies at them. But I was hoping that they would look at their situation, realise fighting might not be the best option, and choose to run away and return later.The reason I care about this so much is a little selfish, honestly. I love big, sprawling dungeons that can’t be cleared in one expedition. I absolutely plan to include at least one megadungeon in this campaign, a site that the party can choose to return to again and again if they so wish. It won’t come until they’re a little higher level – I’m aiming to introduce it as a place they’ve heard of some time around level 6 or 7 – but I wanted to establish a couple of constants about the dungeons they’ll be facing early on in the game. The first is just what I said above – that sometimes you need to make your escape and resupply before you can push deeper into the dungeon. And the second is that dungeons are living things – that they will change as a result of the actions of the players. I’m jumping ahead of myself a little here, but once the party returned and saw that the previously webbed-over door had been broken down by the blights, I didn’t need to tell them that the ettercap had sealed the door – they figured it out for themselves. It was a proud moment for me – not just because it showed me that they were interacting with the game on a level beyond simply wanting to hit things, but also because it showed me that my approach was working. Getting validation like that at the table makes it much easier to run a good game when you have one of those all-too-common moments of self-doubt.
- Of course, when attempting to reinforce a lesson, there’s always the chance that they learn it a little too well.
- Another opportunity to establish something about the campaign world, here. Thorak’s player had previously played Wutang in this world, so she knew that there was at least one other group of adventurers around, but I wanted to introduce the idea that the party aren’t unique. At least, not at this low a level. They’ll hear about other parties of adventurers, and even – I hope – compete with them as the campaign advances. Mainly that’s because it’s a hell of a lot of fun – if you’ve never introduced a rival party, you should do it immediately – but also it’s because as they level up I want them to have some kind of marker for how they’ve grown. If they eventually surpass people who were formerly rivals, they’re going to feel like they’ve really achieved something. Or at least, that’s the theory. We’ll see how it plays out as the campaign progresses.
- If you’re reading these footnotes, I bet you’ve figured out what’s going on here. This is classic foreshadowing. At some point, Treadway and co. Are absolutely going to beat the party to the punch on a quest of some kind.
- She was lying to them, though they still haven’t figured out the truth of what was going on yet. It all ties into the plans I have for the later stages of the campaign. Selwyn and Baenre are very much working together. They are relic hunters in the employ of a warlock who lives far to the north, in the wastes of the desert. He is building power, and an army, and eventually plans to sweep south over the mountains and conquer as much of the south as he can. Selwyn and Baenre seek out the powerful magics lying forgotten in ruins such as the temple of leaves and transport them back to the warlock, in exchange for money and the promise of power when he has conquered. Baenre, in fact, isn’t even her real name – and she isn’t a druid. She and Selwyn murdered the real Baenre when they knew that they would need to access the temple, and Baenre assumed her appearance so that nobody would be suspicious. After scrying the source of the evil in the temple, they decided that they would be better served hiring a group of naive adventurers to retrieve the javelin for them rather than risk it themselves.
- Baenre isn’t stupid. Though she was more powerful than the party at this point, the fight simply wasn’t worth it to her. The javelin is useful, but it’s not so powerful that she needs to endanger her life – and her mission – to obtain it.
- Of course Selwyn escaped.
- Though the party never found out – they never really asked, to be honest – the story of the temple goes something like this; this final chamber was used to bury the bodies of the elders of the temple, the most important figures in this ancient religion. These were powerful magic users, and it was believed at the time that their magical abilities were innate, and remained with the body upon death. There was a fear that those twisted few who practiced necromancy sought out the remains of the magically gifted, so as to animate their bodies and gain access to the magic that remained with them. In a bid to combat this, those who built the temple sealed a spectator in the well as a guardian. Should any of the tablets sealing the remains of the dead elders be disturbed, the spectator would ensure that those attempting to steal the secrets of the grave would never draw breath again.Unfortunately some doom befell those who lived at the temple, and it fell to ruin. The dryad in the tree upstairs and the spectator in the crypt were left alone for many, many years, and their only contact was with each others’ minds. The spectator, already unhinged in its very nature, went mad first, sending out pulses of lunatic psychic energy that inflicted a constant onslaught on the dryad’s mind.She held out for a long time, until the ettercap moved into the temple. The combined attacks of the spectator and the ettercap wore down the dryad’s defenses, and once she went broke there was nothing preventing the spectator’s madness infecting the temple. The dead began to rise once more (because fuck it, I’m making stuff up anyway, why can’t a crazy, imprisoned spectator bring things back to life?), and the mingling of the spectator’s and the dryad’s energies caused the blights to rise and and for pestilence to come to the forest.
- Of course Selwyn escaped.