Against the gnolls, part 2
This was an interesting session for me because I got to use my house rules in Explorers of Prime for wilderness encounters. We stuck to the rules as written and trusted to the dice to generate drama - and they did.
The party is faced with a choice: do they abandon their armor and run light, hoping to get out of gnoll territory before they are caught, or do they move more slowly but with a better chance to fight? Ironically the barbarian with his heavy plate isn't even the issue; it's the cleric, ranger, and bard in their chain mail that are slow pokes.
They choose the slower path. Random fate, in the form of a d4, is invoked... and turns up a 1 on the very first roll. Vengeance has come for the party, borne on the crooked legs of gnolls.
Squads of gnolls charge out of the woods. The barbarian charges up to hold a forward position while the rest of the party engages in various forms of ranged combat. While ordinary gnolls, even in squad formation, have failed against the party, this battle includes several obviously ranked individuals. These officers can shoot, and they have spell-casting defenders who have prepared precisely those spells best suited to shut down the party's best attacks: conjure water, to quench the rolling fireballs of the druid; protection from good, to block the swarms; and entangle, to counter-spell the party's attempt at battlefield control.
Naturally, the party uses none of these techniques in this battle. Instead they exchange several rounds of largely ineffective arrow fire while the barbarian slowly whittles down the squads of axe-men (axe-gnolls?). The enemy spell-casters grow desperate and begin burning through their spell slots in offensive ways, mostly magic missiles which while weak still chip away at the party's health. The bard, perhaps high on his own supply of heroic ballads, suddenly launches a flank charge into the spell-casters and archers.
This works out far better than it should have. The bard reaches the enemy and kills a shaman on an attack of opportunity when it tries to cast, his halberd's high damage potential finally paying off. The next round the bard kills another caster, and then slays an archer with an AoO when he goes to draw his axe for melee. This is serious damage to the gnoll force; half their magic and ranged support are shut down in seconds by a single singing hero.
One of the other shaman attempts to contain the damage with an Entangle spell; as has become typical, the barbarian simply ignores the spell (throughout the entire combat he never missed a single save vs the Entangle) and murders the last two archers. The entire battle has become a complete debacle on the part of the gnolls... until the other half of their force shows up.
The bard's heroics are quickly shut down as a squad of axe-men charge in and knock him to the ground. The barbarian goes into high gear, dancing through the Entangle as if he were immune and murdering another entire squad of axe-men in a single whirling attack.
But the gnoll war-leader is here. His bow is a true threat; he puts an arrow through the barbarian's neck, driving him to the ground and well on his way to staying there permanently. The druid, unpleasantly trapped by the Entangle, gives up trying to flee and starts trying to save the barbarian's life. Miraculously the gnoll archers lose their focus, their arrows landing without effect in the writhing vines and weeds of the forest floor. The barbarian, for once, chooses the better part of valor. Slinging the bard's bleeding body over his shoulder he quickly disengages. The druid finally struggles out of the grass with him, following the path of uprooted grasses.
The spell now works against the gnolls, giving the party a momentary respite as the gnolls circle the affected area. The cleric and druid pour healing and buffing spells into the barbarian, despite the arrows raining down on all of them. Retreat is not an option; there are still four archers on the gnoll side, one of whom is truly deadly. The barbarian charges into the advancing gnolls in a rage while the ranger returns to the archery battle.
The barbarian's whirlwind attack fails to completely demolish the squad of gnolls providing cover for their archers. He is now sucking up arrows, his still-diminished vitality fading fast. And then the gnolls make a fatal mistake.
The squad in front of the barbarian go on full defense, making themselves a harder target so that they might last longer and give their archers more time to win. This seemed like a good idea, right up until the barbarian realizes what they are doing. Since Total Defense does not allow attacks of opportunity, he seizes the opportunity and charges past them, into the line of archers, where his whirling blade does its usual devastation.
The gnoll position has gone from expensive victory to total defeat in an instant. The war-leader and what remains of the gnolls - a squad or two of axe-men, a pair of low-rank shamans - flee. The ranger tackles the barbarian to the ground, to stop him from giving chase. As broken as the gnolls are, breaking the party's formation will still lead to disaster.
The party loots the battlefield, collecting even more gnoll ears, and resumes their march homeward. Now a game of cat and mouse ensues, as each party stalks the other. A brief encounter results in the druid being badly injured by an arrow before the gnolls break off and flee again. Obviously they intend a battle of attrition.
The ranger puts an end to this strategy, however, by tracking the gnolls. Improbably, the cleric manages a miracle of stealth, and the party surprises the gnolls while they are resting. The party charges into close combat, murdering what remains of the axe-man and shamans, while the ranger proves his worth by closing with the enemy captain and slaying him at sword point while the gnoll is still trying to use his bow.
After that night, having rested and respelled, they are no longer in any real danger. They return to Flefliequelp without incident, riding the river barges upstream to the capital. At Alys' bardic hall they dump a sack full of gnoll ears on the table, causing an audible gasp. Well over a hundred gnolls have died, including a considerable chunk of the enemy leadership.
Alys tells them she cannot possibly pay them such a large bounty; instead, they must receive it directly from the queen. She arranges an invitation to the palace the next day.
The queen is a staggeringly beautiful woman, which keeps the party on its best behavior. They seem to equate beauty with danger, at least when it comes to the female gender. Perhaps the reputation of the queen's Minister of Arcane, who is said to be so lethal she can kill men in their dreams, has something to do with that.
The queen is in her turn properly gracious to these wandering heroes. She asks them what their future plans are. When the evidence a desire to return to the gnoll camp and finish the job, she regretfully informs them that the royal treasury cannot afford to continue the bounty on the same terms. A bout of haggling ensues and ultimately the party settles for a future reward of only 25 gold per gnoll, though without any question of taxes, and more importantly the queen offers the old rate if the party is willing to take her services in trade instead of cash.
As it turns out, the queen is the only known source of magic rings on this side of the continent (at least, for those restricted to non-goblin kingdoms). The party realizes they should take this opportunity to acquire some magic items, as they have so far been getting by with a +1 mace and a handful of potions.
After the royal reception and dinner the bard and Alys have a somewhat more frank discussion. Alys has a far more rewarding and interesting offer for them, though it must come from unofficial channels. A kingdom down the coast harbors a family of witches whose power derives from an ancestral artifact: a Helm of Brilliance. This is a staggeringly powerful device. Alys would very much like to make a present of it to the queen. So much so that she offers the party 50,000 gp if they can obtain it - though they must swear to keep the bloodshed to an absolute minimum.
The bard is suspicious: what does Alys stand to gain from this? She eventually confides that her goal is to be promoted to the government as Minister of Coin, as success in such a mission would inevitably result. The queen, on her part, will use possession of the helm to lure the witches who can best operate it to relocate to her kingdom, thus allowing Flefliequelp to utterly dominate its two human rivals and become the sole (human) power in the domain.
Later that night, the mystery deepens. The party returns to their rooms at the inn to find them already occupied by another shady woman, a rogue named Esyllt. She offers them a somewhat different deal: 250,000 gp for the helm, and never mind the blood. In fact, she'll pay an additional bounty for every dead witch.
The party, once again, has many paths to choose from. But the ranger successfully argues against the spy mission; the party, as he accurately notes, is not exactly well-represented in the stealth and intrigue department. Perhaps he also fears being drawn into political entanglements with repercussions beyond their ken. He convinces the party to return south, to wipe out the weakened gnolls and reap the bounty of tael and gold that has been promised.
They disperse through the town, seeking to spend some of their current wealth on the magic and equipment that will enable them to sieze more wealth, and only the bard is left to ponder the curious fact that while tael can be sold for the standard price of 5 gp, no one he talks to will let him buy it for that price. This is an economic absurdity; the exchange rate of tael is fixed across all the known planes; so why should it vary here?