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Friday Fight Night – Wendrake Shadowmend’s Tower

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Finding themselves at the tower of the mage they had been sent to kill, the party decided on a novel approach to getting in – they knocked on the door. They expected no response, and thus were surprised when the door obligingly swung open.

Inside they found themselves in a small square sitting room. A thick, lush rug covered part of the stone floor; a comfortable-looking armchair sat before a hearth that was blazing with flame, an ornamental longsword mounted above it. Against a wall stood a suit of gleaming armour, and a flight of stairs led up to the next level. Nobody appeared to be here.

They suspected a trap, and they were right to. Wendrake had been kidnapping dwarves because they were useful in his experiments – but the dwarves had gotten smart, and had stopped venturing so close to his hunting grounds. Troglodytes he could use, but he preferred not to. So when he saw the party approaching, he saw an opportunity to net a new batch of test subjects. Their caution wouldn’t be much use, though; they had no idea what they had just walked into.

Even though they were pretty sure this was probably some kind of ambush, Thorak still decided to walk straight across the room and inspect the sword above the mantelpiece. That was the moment at which the door slammed shut – and disappeared, of course – and the sword and armour sprang to life. So did the rug, which Manbearpig was standing on. It immediately tried to eat him, and the first Initiative of the night was rolled.

Initially Thorak wasn’t sure what to do. The sword was dancing in the air in front of him, definitely doing its best to stab him, but he didn’t know quite how to approach fighting an animated weapon. In his experience, fights usually involved trying to hit the thing swinging the weapon, not the weapon itself.

The rest of the group had no such qualms about fighting the armour and the rug. They rolled well, and the rug didn’t get another attack after the initial surprise.

This was one of the most fun combats I’ve ever run, mainly because Thorak’s player was genuinely confused about how to go about fighting a flying sword. Every attack was announced with a generous helping of disbelief that this was actually happening – and a lot of laughter every time Thorak utterly failed to make contact with the blade.

Eventually the battle came to an end, and with nobody looking too rough they pressed on up the stairs. There they found a 40′ long, 10′ wide corridor that was completely bare – spotlessly clean, in fact. This was odd; from the outside the keep had been about 20′ wide on each side, and had gone straight up, with a small tower branching off near the top. There was certainly no indication that there could be a 30′ corridor leading off from the top of the stairs.

Still, this was where they found themselves. At the end corridor, two doors stood side by side. And as they stepped off the stairs, the wall behind them immediately sealed itself. Now they knew something weird was going on.

The party were obviously surprised – and frustrated – to find that their exit had vanished, but none of them noticed the multiple hints that I dropped about the cleanliness of the corridor. They’d been in a 10′ wide, 10′ high, perfectly clean corridor before and it had gone fairly badly, but this wasn’t currently jogging any memories. Which was fine by me.

At the end of the corridor, they tried to decide which door to open and decided to pick one at random. They picked the one on the left, which opened onto a 10′ square room that was perfectly clean and completely bare, with the exception of a trapdoor in the ceiling.

Still they missed the hints, and decided to open the door on the right. That door turned out to be a Mimic, which immediately attacked, and as the fight began in earnest the gelatinous cube behind the first door squeezed itself out of the room and tried to engulf Pstan.

This was a cheap trap. I’m not going to argue about that. Using the RAW, the group stood no chance of spotting either of these monsters. I usually prefer to situate traps in logical places, and to give the players – not the characters, but the players – hints in the way I describe things that will allow them to figure out where traps might be placed. and thus search accordingly. This does a few things – it adds some verisimilitude and logical consistency to your world, it makes your players feel like they’ve achieved something when they use their knowledge of the world to evade a trap rather than rolling for it, and (arguably the most important factor) it lessons the temptation to check for traps before entering each and every new location. On top of that, if they learn that traps tend to be in places where you’d expect them to be and not simply placed arbitrarily then getting caught in one doesn’t feel as cheap, and it doesn’t feel so much like they’re playing against me (versus with me) when they do get caught in one.

In this case, though, I wanted it to feel cheap. Wendrake Shadowmend’s tower is a weird, illogical place, and he’s not above cheap tricks – he’s been around long enough to know that he can’t hold his own against a group of 5 well-armed adventurers. He’s welcome to visitors – it’s the easiest way to stock his laboratory – and he’s constructed his base of operations in order to soften invaders up before they get to him.

So yes, this may have been a cheap tactic – but it was also an easy fight, and that was fairly deliberate too. The party have of course faced a gelatinous cube in the past, and it nearly killed Thorak. This time, though, they dispatched it easily – even with the Mimic in tow. One of my favourite tactics as a DM is to take monsters that gave the party a hard time in the past and reuse them in encounters a few levels later. One of the dangers of always scaling encounters to match the party is that the level of risk stays fairly constant. Some fights will be harder than others – generally boss fights – but it’s rare to completely roll over an encounter. By letting them face a creature that neaerly killed them in the past, and having them win easily, the players are given a tangible meausre of how much stronger they have become. Yes, they gain new abilities with each level, and they can do more things, but that only matters if those new things make life easier for them.

It also makes it easier for me to run a good game if I reuse monsters. Half the battle of running good combats is being familiar enough with the abilities of the creatures to utilise them effectively. If you try to use new monsters every time, you don’t get much chance to learn what works best for those monsters. Reusing things means you get to practice using them, which means you get better at it. It’s fairly straightforward, really.

With the combat over, the party opened the trapdoor. This was the moment when they became sure that something strange was happening to the geography of this tower. The trapdoor in the ceiling of this room opened into the wall of the next room; as they crossed the threshold of the trapdoor, they could distinctly feel gravity shift to point to what should have been the wall.

Some discussion followed about the best way to get Nanook up the rope and through the trapdoor. (I completely forgot to include the details of crossing the lava cavern with Nanook in the last update, and I feel bad about that. Rest assured that it was hilarious). Eventually, though, they managed to get him up there. The exit and subsequent fall to the floor of the next room wasn’t graceful, but it wasn’t much effort to get everyone through.

Looking around, they found themselves in a laboratory of sorts. Two metal operating tables stood in the middle of the room, one of which held a mutilated body. Shelves lined the walls, holding books and bottles, jars filled with floating organs and pieces of dead creatures. In the far corner a small alchemy lab was set up, its shelves cluttered with more bottles and vials. Another door stood on the other side of the room. And dimly, just on the edges of hearing, they could hear the low, maniacal gibbering of multiple voices.

Surprise, surprise, there was more fighting to be had here. As they passed the operating table, the severed hands of the corpse twitched to life and threw themselves off the table at the party. And at the same time, a dark mass of flesh and body parts crawled out of the darkened corner of the room, a gibbering mouther come to feed.

The fight started off messy, with the group getting too close to the mouther and succumbing to the effects of its gibbering. As soon asthey began attacking each other randomly they pulled away, trying to take it down with ranged attacks but being harried by a pair of less-than-idle hands that they were having an inordinate amount of trouble dispatching.

By the end of this fight the group were ready to take a rest – they were definitely looking worse for wear by now – but there was some trepidation about it. This place obviously couldn’t be trusted, and they were worried about being ambushed. At the end, though, they pulled their way back through the trapdoor and sealed themselves in the room that had held the gelatinous cube for long enough to take a short rest.

I was tempted to attack them at this point, but I thought better of it. Yes, Wendrake knows that they’re here, and he could easily kill them at this point. It certainly wouldn’t have been unfair for me to throw an encounter at them – they’re resting in hostile terrain, after all. I’d cut off their exit, though, and I knew that another encounter now might well result in a TPK. If they’d pressed on instead of resting and I’d ended up killing them, that would be one thing – I’d feel that they’d earned it, by not knowing when the take a minute to recuperate. But in this case they’d recognised that it would be too dangerous to continue, and they’d taken the best steps they could to find a safe place to do it in. That’s not the kind of playing I want to discourage, and dropping a potentially game ending fight on them seems like a good way to discourage something.

So they rested, and then they pushed on. Back through the trapdoor – dealing with the gravity shift a little more gracefully this time – and across the lab, stopping to loot the alchemy table. There they found a few potions of healing, and a milky white potion that they hadn’t seen before. This was a potion of greater restoration, and I was glad they’d found it. There was every chance they’d need it in the next room.

Up more stairs, and they came to an octagonal room. A narrow shelf ran around the outside holding stone statues of various creatures – people who looked like they might have been adventurers, a satyr, a strange purple-skinned, squid-faced creature they didn’t recognise, and a number of dwarves. On the shelves in the middle of the room were yet more statues, smaller creatures this time – fairies, gnomes, and plenty of monstrosities that nobody recognised.

They failed to notice the portcullis just inside the door to the room, and they failed to notice the one on the other side. They failed to notice the secret door along the eastern wall, and they failed to notice the pressure plate on the floor of the room.

They noticed all of those things once Pstan stepped on the plate. There was a click, followed by the clang of the portcullises (portculli?) slamming shut and the sound of stone grinding as the door opened. That was swiftly followed by the growl and hiss of the basilisk that had been caged behind the secret door, and a round of initiative rolls and saving throws as the basilisk went first.

Wartsanall was the hero of this fight. The melee folks struggled greatly, taking a beating from the basilisk and failing to make contact with their own attacks due to averting their eyes from its gaze. Ha’an was useful, hiding behind the shelves in the middle of the room and buffing people with spells and inspiration. Wartsanall, meanwhile, immediately climbed onto the shelf around the edges of the room – just beyond the range of its gaze – and took shots from behind the legs of the satyr. His Sneak Attack was crucial in ending the fight – but it didn’t come fast enough, and Pstan was turned to stone.

That stopped them in their tracks, because they had no idea what to do. I think the players debated what to do next for almost an hour, before Thorak remembered the strange potion they had found in the previous room. Ha’an identified it as a restoration potion, and then there was a debate about whether potions can be used on somebody who hasn’t technically got a mouth.

Did you know potions can be applied topically? Me neither. But it turns out that in my world they can. Maybe I’m too kind.

With Pstan eventually rescued, they pressed on up more stairs. They found themselves on a narrow landing, with an ornate door flanked by rich tapestries. After checking that none of these were Mimics, Manbearpig opened the door.

The magical flame trapping the door nearly dropped him then and there, and the party got their first glimpse of Wendrake Shadowmend – who let off some kind of spell at Manbearpig, then fled up a short flight of steps into a large study-cum-library.

Wendrake fought dirty, hiding in his library and trying to pick them off from a distance. it didn’t do much good, though. Here I re-learned the lesson that a solo mage rarely makes for a substantial fight against a full party – especially a party of five. Shadowmend went down fast and hard, and Thorak took his head as a souvenier to show the dwarves of Vomturum.

Then things got weirder. The castle began to shake and collapse, with weird ripples spreading through the walls and floor. There was a brief debate about whether they had time to loot the place, but they decided that they didn’t – which was shame, because there was some tasty treasure hidden in the secret room on this floor. Instead, though, they fled – only to find that they needn’t have bothered. As they reached the basilisk’s gallery again, there was a tearing in the air and the party found themselves thrown through the air. They landed in a bare stone room, 20′ x 20′, with a plain staircase leading down to the lower floor and no decorations or furniture of any kind.

They made their way downstairs to another identical room, and out to the cavern again. Now they could see that the tower had changed its appearance, becoming a square, 30′ tall tower with battlements and arrowslits. Thorak was the last one out, and as he stepped through the door the tower shuddered and collapsed into a small cube of metal. Thorak picked it up and pocketed it, and it wouldn’t be long before he learned what it did – and it became his new favourite toy.

So, you may be wondering what the hell was going on there. The long and short of it was that Wendrake Shadowmend had set up shop here in an Instant Fortress and begun his experiments – whatever they may have been. Once his operation grew too large for the confines of the tower, he managed to construct a small pocket plane which he sculpted into the strange tower that the party had fought their way through. Once he died the pocket plane collapsed, ejecting the party into the tower. The tower collapsed simply because I thought it would be cool, and I wanted to make sure they didn’t miss that bit of loot having missed the treasure room in the tower itself.

That’s all for this week. Check out the maps here, and come back next week for the finale of this arc – and the party’s return to the surface!

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