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Today’s post is a little late. I got caught up with work for my MA and fell behind. Apologies for that. But it’s here now, and hopefully it was worth the wait!
With the spectator dead, the group made sure the doors were fortified and guarded (by Nanook) and availed themselves of a short rest. They spent some time searching the room, too, but there was little to be found in the way of loot – with the exception of an old sheet of paper clutched in the dead hands of one of the temple’s masters. It appeared to be a map of some sort – and, in a surprise twist, it was marked with a large black ‘X’ and the word ‘treasure’. But it seemed to point to a place far to the north, in the harsh desert that they had heard about but never visited. It was certainly worth checking out, they decided, but they didn’t know if they should go immediately. Then, with nothing else to do and seemingly no more loot to be had in the Temple of Leaves, they returned to the surface and started to travel back to town.
At this point the group had a choice regarding what to do next. They had completed their goal of clearing out the temple and destroying the source of the blight, but they hadn’t caught Selwyn and they didn’t know what – if anything – to do about Baenre (though as I’m writing this I’m looking at the notes that Thorak’s player keeps. Notes which say, very clearly, “Fuck up Baenre”). They seemed a little unsure which thread to pull on – should they hunt down Selwyn and exact their revenge, or maybe provision themselves and set off on an expedition to the north? I wasn’t too concerned, though; at this early stage in the game (the party are now level 3) they’ve been led by the nose a little bit, and I wanted to give them more of a chance to form their own plans. Plus, I knew what was coming next.
So, I described them walking back to town, and they immediately began to talk about what they were going to do. I simply let them talk until it seemed like they were starting to get distracted from the game.. If you read my article about pacing adventures earlier this week, you’ll know that I was letting them have an extended comedown from the action-packed sessions they’d been playing recently. What that also means is that they were about to walk into another conflict.
As they reached the outskirts of Tarnswood they began to see smoke and smell burning. As they began to run towards town, fearing the worst, they met a figure sprinting towards them away from town. He was wearing the uniform of the Tarnswood constabulary – a group of six elected men and women who enforced law the best they could and collected taxes to be sent to the capital in Oralea after each harvest. He immediately recognised the group, and seemed relieved to have found them before they returned to town.
The guard introduced himself as Rendle Rutineau. He explained that the party were in danger; Selwyn had stumbled into Tarnswood earlier in the day, bloodied and beaten and carrying the dead body of Baenre. He claimed that he had been employed by Baenre to help her retrieve something from the temple, but that the party had ambushed them, killed Baenre, and stolen the artifact they had retrieved – an ancient javelin carved with vines and leaves, a sacred relic of Baenre’s druidic order. A stablehand had also been found dead in the coach house beside the inn the party had been staying in, and although somebody had already been arrested and sent to the Wheelhouse for that crime, Selwyn had claimed the party were involved in the murder.
As a result of this, the Flame Guard had been summoned from Oralea, and they were already arriving in town and beginning to search for the party. If they were found, they would be tried and probably executed.
The party reacted to this news with exactly the level of indignant rage that I was hoping for – and not a small amount of suspicion. Rendle, after all, was a Tarnswood guard. If what he said was true, why would he now be offering to help the party rather than trying to arrest them?
Rendle, helpfully, was quite upfront with the party. He knew that the party hadn’t been responsible for anything Selwyn claimed – because he knew Selwyn was responsible. After the half-elf had arrived in Tarnswood, Rendle had been suspicious – so he began to ask around, and wrote to his brother in Oralea. His brother didn’t know the name Selwyn, but he knew of somebody who matched the description alomst perfectly – someone who he said was a treasure hunter with a knack of leaving bodies in his wake.
Rendle also explained that he was good friends with the man arrested for the murder of the stablehand – a man called Bronson (yes, yes, I know). Bronson, Rendle said, wasn’t capable of murder. He, too, was a stablehand, and though he had had a less than cordial relationship with the murdered man, and the two had come to blows occasionally, Rendle knew that Bronson wasn’t a killer. Bronson claimed that he and the murdered man had caught somebody stealing a carriage and intervened; that the thief had knocked Bronson unconcious; and that Bronson had awoken to find his collegauge dead beside him, Bronson himself covered in blood and holding the murder weapon, and one of the other constables standing over him. He didn’t know the name of the man who had committed the crime, but the description he gave Rendle matched Selwyn perfectly.
Rendle offered to get the party safely out of town – he knew the ways through the woods surrounding Tarnswood that would help the group evade the Flame Guards arriving from Oralea – but he needed a favour from them in return. He needed them to break into the Wheelhouse, free Bronson, and take him to safety with them.
The party weren’t too happy about this bargain. They were wanted criminals through no fault of their own – why should they try to break in to a prison? Why not simply come forward and fight their case?
Rendle sympathised with them, but he explained that Baenre had been very well-liked and respected in Tarnswood. She had been living outside the town for a long time, had helped many of the residents through illness, and had aided in making crops grow during times of drought. The group were certainly welcome to give themselves up and await trial in Oralea – a circle of truth would clear everything up – but it would take time to get a trial date. In the meantime they would be held in Tarnswood – either in the Wheelhouse, or in the small town gaol. If they were held in the Wheelhouse they would almost certainly take it upon themselves to escape before their trial – in which case they would then be legitimate fugitives. And if they were held in the gaol? Well, Baenre had been loved, and with only six constables in town, it would only be a matter of time before the court of public opinion made its ruling and carried out a sentence of its own.
The group were still not convinced, but they agreed to go with Rendle – there was some talk of simply going with him to the Wheelhouse and then running off without freeing Bronson, until they realised that Rendle could hear every word they were saying.
Rendle led them on a route that took them straight through town, down back alleys and side streets. This didn’t please them, either – they were trying not to be caught – but at this point they had no choice but to trust Rendle or give themselves in. As they skulked past the market they saw the source of the flames – a pile of blights was being burned among the rubble of the market. And, swarming everywhere, they saw the Flame Guard sent from Oralea. Knights in deep red armour emblazoned with glorious golden pheonixes were everywhere, alert and well-armed, helping to rebuild but also clearly looking for the party.
Rendle led them out of town, along hunting trails and through tangles of brush and undergrowth, until they emerged further up the river away from town. In a small copse of trees at the top of a low hill they looked down on the wooden pallisades surrounding the Wheelhouse, and they began to plan.
I’ll admit, I planned this session because I had visions of the gorup pulling off an awesome prison break. So far they’d foguht their way through most encounters, and were showing some definite murder-hobo-y tendencies, so I wanted to give them an option to do something other than fight. If they chose to fight simply break into the prison and kill everyone inside, that was fine – if the players want a game like that, I’m happy to provide one (though given the events that started this session, I have hopefully established that the world will react in a predictable way to senseless murder). But I wanted to provide the opportunity for them to do something else – try and talk their way in, or sneak in, or anything else realistic that they could come up with – even if they ultimately chose not to take that opportunity.
Rendle had sketched them a rough map of the ground floor of the prison – he had been there from time to time to deliver prisoners – but he had no knowledge of the upper floor or the cells in the basement. He told them that Bronson could still be in the holding cell on the ground floor, but if not then the partty would have to find a way below ground.
The planning took quite some time, but it was also awesome.
Thorak, at this point, had reached level 3, and had chosen the Totem of the Bear – which granted him the speak with animals spell as a ritual. And, in case you’d forgotten, Pstan has a pet mouse. So Thorak settled down on the ground for ten minutes, sitting cross-legged and beginning to meditate on his new-found affinity for bears. In a wonderful coincidence – because Thorak’s player hadn’t looked at theoptions available to a barbarian as they level up when we played the first session – Thorak had explicitly taken some teeth and scraps of fur from the bear that the group fought outside the temple of leaves. He began to piece together a small totem of his own, using the bear parts and Simon, the kobold head that he has been carrying since day one, and as he did this he sank into a trance unlike anything he had ever experienced.
While in the trance, Thorak reached out with his mind – and found Mouse. Though there were some issues getting around the low intelligence of both Mouse and Thorak, he eventually conveyed his message; he asked Mouse to go down the hill to the Wheelhouse, find a way in, and explore as much as possible.
Then, before Mouse was allowed to leave, Thorak used his other new ability – beast sense.
With the ritual complete, Mouse set off down the hill towards the Wheelhouse, with Thorak seeing the world through his eyes.
For the next hour (game time, not real time – I’m not that bad) the party sat around and made their preparations for getting into the Wheelhouse, while Thorak sat stock still, meditating. And Thorak was treated to a mouse-eye view of the ground floor of the Wheelhouse, as Mouse scurried in through a crack beneath the main doors, evaded the stamping feet of a guard, ducked into what appeared to be a holding cell – and immediately fled, as a foot plunged down from the darkness and attempting to stamp on him, and led Thorak through a guided tour of the sacks of grain and meal being stored on the ground floor.
Once Thorak returned and conveyed his information, things sort of ground to a halt for a bit. I’ll be honest – this wasn’t my finest hour as a DM. I had set up the situation, and the group were engaging with it, but they were struggling to settle on a strategy that they liked – and I didn’t do as much as I should have done to get things moving again. I did try – I sent a cart up the road towards the Wheelhouse, a supply run bringing goods to the prison, with the hope that the party would incorporate it into their plans in some way, but they didn’t bite.
My article this week about pacing adventures has its roots in this session, because this failure to keep the game engaging was something I felt bad about for a while. I won’t go on about it here too much – mainly, I just want to acknowledge that I did fail here. There was a period of five or ten minutes where the group were frustrated, bored, and not having fun any more, and that was on me. If you’re interested in the conclusions I came to after this, I’d recommend reading that article I just linked. It’s all in there.
Luckily for me, Thorak’s player is good at getting things moving again. They had already floated the idea of somebody creating a distraction by the main gates while the rest of the party crossed the river and tried to sneak in around the back of the prison – they had scouted while Thorak was piggybacking on Mouse, and found the side that met the river to be less heavly guarded. So, seeing that nobody was taking the initiative, Thorak charged down the hill towards the prison, screaming all the way.
As the guards raised bows and yelled at Thorak to stop where he was and drop his weapons, the rest of the party attempted to cross the fast-moving river – and promptly almost drowned. With some scrambling, though, and Pstan remembering that every single member of the party was carrying rope that they had all forgotten to use, they regrouped in the trees on the other side of the river, facing the back wall of the Wheelhouse.
Meanwhile, Thorak was chatting it up with the Wheelhouse guards. He spun them a tale about dangerous murderers on the loose, and how he and his party – none of whom were visible to the guards – had come to the prison because they heard that’s where murderers were kept, and could Thorak take a look inside and see if the ones he was looking for were there?
The answer, of course, was no, but Thorak roleplayed it so beautifully – and rolled so well – that the guards assumed that he was simply an idiot. A well-armed idiot, sure, but not one who meant them any harm. (I had already decided that the group’s descriptions hadn’t made it to the Wheelhouse yet. The guards there don’t have anything to do with enforcing order in Tarnswood, and wouldn’t be expected to help in hunting a fugitive unless that fugitive had escaped from the Wheelhouse – which nobody had ever done.) They let him leave, keeping their bows trained on him until he vanished back into the trees that he had charged out of.
So Thorak went back down the hill, crossed the river, and met up with the party – who had done very little to take advantage of his distraction. After a little more planning, though, and some time observing the few guards on this side, the group managed to sneak back across to the Wheelhouse’s walls, scale them, and drop unseen into the yard beyond.
There they found the waterwheel and the shaft that went inside the prison. They also found what they hadn’t been able to see from the trees atop the hill – a window in this back wall, with a small ledge beneath it that could just be reached from the ground.
Wartsanall clambered up to that ledge and peered through the window. Inside he saw a lushly appointed office dominated by a large desk, behind which sat a musclebound gnome with a hook for a hand who – luckily – was seated with his back to the window, poring over a pile of paperwork.
As Wartsanall watched, the gnome stood and left the office, seemingly responding to somebody calling his name from outside the room. Seeing their opportunity, Wartsanall jimmied the window and rolled in, with the rest of the party following close behind.
The group lined up behind the door, hurriedly trying to figure out what to do next. Then the door opened, Warden Barnes stepped back into the room, and all hell broke loose.
As soon as Pstan grabbed Barnes and slammed the door shut, the gnome let out a cry of rage and shouted for his guards. The group heard the sounds of armed men coming towards the door, and a female voice beginning to cast a spell.
The party started out with the best of intentions, dealing non-lethal damage to the warden and leaving him unconscious on the floor. Ha’an stepped out of the room and let fly with a sleep spell, dropping a number of the guards – but the elven mage on the other side of the door dropped her own sleep spell into the room with the party, incapacitating Wartsanall.
As Ha’an stepped back into the office, Pstan left. He stepped over the first sleeping guard – then changed his mind, and sank his axe into the torso of the incapacitated man. He did this to the next guard he found, too, while Thorak started heading around the mezzanine towards “that fucking elf throwing magic at us!”
After trading blows with the guards the group downed the last one – decapitated as he slipped on a patch of grease thrown by Ha’an – and chased the mage into her study. Unfortunately they were too late, bursting into the room in time to see her reading from a scroll and vanishing into the ether.
As the party came to terms with what had just happened – they had broken into a prison and murdered everyone inside, completely unprovoked – more guards could be heard coming in through the doors on the ground floor. But the rest of the guards – the ones who would allow these new guards access to the prison – were dead, and for a time the party were safe.
And that was where we left the session.
There wasn’t a huge amount of combat in this session, and what fighting did occur took place inside the Wheelhouse – which you can get for free (or for money, if you’d prefer) on the DMs Guild. It includes all the maps I used this week – this session, and the one I’ll be writing up next week, were the first playtest for the Wheelhouse. Given that I didn’t need to redraw any of the battle maps this week, I’ve instead drawn a map of Tarnswood itself – which you can find here.
Thanks for reading!