Saturday, February 18, 2023

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #43

Vampire Neighbors, part V

By daylight the keep is rendered sad and neglected, rather than haunted and spooky. The party wiles away the hours, waiting for darkness. Attacking vampires at night is dangerous, but also the only way to find their true lair. Also, this delay gives their Wizard time to wander into the city and join them, having finally been pulled away from Theodoric’s library by the call of duty (the Wizard’s player was able to make this session).

At sunset they head for the royal castle. As nobles known to the realm they easily talk their way through the gates. Just outside the throne room they pause to prepare spells and drink potions, knowing that on the other side of the wall Ragnar is surely making his own preparations. Then the Barbarian bravely opens the door and marches inside, where he is greeted by… a little old lady offering him a tray of teacups.

“No thanks,” he says, and continues into the room. The rest of the party follows, save for the Druid, who stays in the hall and continues casting predatory spells, and the Ranger, who elbows the little old lady in the face as he walks by. Ragnar and his retinue wait at the other end of the hall, at the end of a gauntlet of a half-dozen servants bearing trays of sweetmeats, pastries, and candies. The friendly image is only slightly disturbed by the hulking man-bull zombie hybrid abominations lurking at the edges of the room.

But the pleasantries are immediately discarded when Ragnar’s opening statement is a Dispel spell. He strips a few minor protections from some of the party while his servants turn out the lights, plunging the room into total darkness. The Bard rushes to a pillar and turns it into a giant neon tube of light, but this leaves him facing one of the zombie monsters and several servants. The Barbarian charges across the room to engage the second zombie; the Cleric blasts Ragnar in the face with a beam of light before the Wizard casts Wall of Fire and splits the room in half, trapping the third zombie on the other side. This turns out to be crucial, as it delays Ragnar’s retinue for two rounds and consumes two precious spells before the vampire king can bring down the wall.

The Bard finds himself in over his head as the zombie tears into his images; meanwhile, the Barbarian discovers his hit points are not unlimited as a zombie hacks at him with a massive axe. The Cleric and Wizard are left to fight off the vampire spawn, which they do poorly. The Ranger is still dealing with the old lady, and the Druid is still out of the room preparing.

Once the wall is down, Ragnar’s people join the fight. The third zombie charges in while Palek the sorcerer throws around scorching rays without hitting anything. Yeron the Skald provides musical accompaniment for his side, making the zombies even more painful. The Marichoness disappears into hiding, looking for a chance to backstab. Lady Night stands by, preparing to counter-spell the party. Ragnar starts throwing out Spiritual Hammers, because he has a lot of them.

The Cleric is casting his own hammers, while the Bard is renewing his images and getting seriously concerned for his health. The Barbarian is winning against the zombies but at considerable cost. Eventually the Druid-bear enters the battle, eviscerating one zombie, only to be ambushed by wraiths in the doorway. In the general melee that follows, the Barbarian is knocked unconscious three times, the Druid-bear once, the Wizard almost dies while fireballing Ragnar and others, the Cleric loses several levels, gets them back with a Remove Curse potion, loses some more, and gets those back with another potion. The Ranger is the only one who manages to avoid life-threatening injuries.

When Yeron and Palek finally wade into the melee, the Skald proves to be formidable, slapping levels off of the party left and right, and even the Druid begins to look weak after a surprise wraith attack. Eventually, however, all of Ragnar’s retinue are beaten down, leaving only himself and Lady Night. Tired of waiting for the party to charge his throne and trigger all the traps he has laid, he strides forward confidently to face the party mano-a-undead-cleric-o. He is layered in protections the party cannot even guess at and unconcerned about the death of his retinue, since after all they will return the next night; and the party is vastly weakened, low on spells, vitality, and even potions. Surely he can finish the fight on his own terms.

But no. The Druid-bear tears Lady Night apart in a single round while the Bard and Wizard riddle Ragnar with Magic Missiles, thus bypassing his fantastic armor. The Druid-bear even lands a claw attack, weakening the vampire king further; Ragnar responds by dominating the Druid (having earlier dispelled his Protection from Evil) and ordering it to kill the Barbarian. Out of spells and options, the Bard solves the problem with brute force: Magic Missiles reduce the Druid-bear to unconsciousness without quite killing him. And then the Cleric ends it all as it began: with a beam of light to the face.

(Note: Ragnar had various defences and traps against all the tactics they had employed in previous battles, none of which they used in this one.)

The vampiric smoke flees the room, once again chased by the Bard in gaseous form. And again he is foiled by the system of tubes running under the castle. The party splits up and searches far and wide for the vampire’s coffins: the Wizard searches for secret lairs beneath the castle dungeon, the Cleric searches the attics and towers, the Ranger searches the sewers in and out of the castle, the Barbarian returns to the Order’s keep, and the Bard roots through the Castle cemetery looking for fresh graves. All of these turn up empty and the party fears it might have to wait until the next night and do it all again, until the Druid recruits rats and sends them down the various tubes. One rat does not return; when the next two sent down the same tube also do not return, the party assumes there is a vampire on the other end (and not, say, a cat or rat-trap).

In an act of astonishing bravery, the Bard turns them all gaseous and they blindly enter the tube, to see where it will lead.

At the other end they find themselves in a small tunnel. This leads to a locked grate, which the Barbarian tries to force, only to suffer a crippling curse; after several rounds of unnecessary caution the party manages to make it through the gate and up the stairs into the crypt of Count Kird, their old friend and the kingdom’s most beloved hero.

Here they are flummoxed. Could the vampires have passed through Kird’s crypt and into the Church cemetery or the Church itself? Or does the answer lie closer to hand? The Bard convinces the handful of townspeople visiting the graves of their loved ones to leave, and the party steels itself to the unpleasant task of disrupting Count Kird’s mortal remains. But as they go to haul the first coffin out into the sunlight to inspect it, King Ragnar steps out of it and attacks, joined by the rest of his retinue stepping out of their coffins.

Everyone is all jammed together in a small stone crypt, which is made more claustrophobic by the fact that one of them is a giant dire bear. This should be a fight that favors the vampires and their close melee attacks, but what actually happens is the bear tears a hole in roof of the crypt, climbs on top, and jumps up and down until the entire roof caves in, crushing everyone underneath and exposing the interior to direct sunlight.

Of course our mighty heroes are barely discomfited by having a stone crypt collapse on them, while the vampires are almost instantly reduced to ash by the sun. The fight is well and truly done. The party returns to the castle, where a spirited discussion ends in a vote to liberate the entire royal treasury by 4 to 2. Having sequestered the cash, magic items, and tael, the party is happy to welcome the paladin Theodric and his armies a few days later and turn the crown over to him.

They have all the responsibility they want with their own county, and besides, someone needs to go straighten out Varsoulou before this demon thing gets out of hand.

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #42

Vampire Neighbors, part IV

The party returns to the capital in the dead of night, avoiding the innocent soldiers and townsmen. Their only target is the ruling class.

They return to the Order of the Edge's private keep at midnight. The gates open at their touch; the keep appears deserted, or at least lifeless. Cautiously they creep onto the grounds and begin to search for monsters, prisoners, or just clues. They have prepared by drinking Hide from Undead potions, but in the end this turns out not to really matter, as the vampires generally see through it for the rest of the battle.

After a few minutes of investigating a barn door that is mysteriously barred from within, the Barbarian loses patience. Going to the next building, he pushes open the door, unwraps his light stone, and has a look around. The armory seems to have been used recently, implying that someone in the keep still cares about weapons and armor. Meanwhile the Ranger has climbed into the barn through a 2nd story window (it's only combat rolls he can't make) and discovered the barn is dusty with disuse and neglect. While he's opening the barn door for the rest of the party, the Barbarian comes out of the armory and makes a discovery.

Specifically, he discovers a critical strike from a lance wielded by a vampire on a nightmare. Two more make a pass with the lance, their mounts traveling on clouds of smoke five feet above the ground, and one of them hits. The Barbarian is now bleeding real blood, reduced to merely mortal flesh, and for once in his soon-to-be-brief life, chooses the better part of valor. He runs back into the armory to hide. The rest of the party, caught in the open and watching the three vampire knights wheel around for another charge, rush to join him, leaving the Ranger alone in an empty barn.

The knights land in front of the armory, issuing taunts and laughter. One has his horse knock down the door with a powerful lash of hooves. The others send in swarms of bats, but the Druid foils this with a simple spell while the Cleric and Bard put the Barbarian back into fighting shape. The Cleric then chants, driving two of the nightmares away; the knights, secure in their confidence, dismount to carry out the battle on foot.

A halting melee occurs at the door, with the Barbarian lunging out to attack the nightmare while dodging sword thrusts and hooves. The Ranger is sniping from the barn door, his arrows contributing damage but not revealing his location to the knights, who it must be said were not the sharpest fangs in the drawer. Eventually the nightmare is slain, enraging the knights; one walks around to the side of the building and begins smashing a hole in the shutters. Since the windows are barred with iron, the party wonders what he is doing. When they see him turn into mist so he can float through the hole and flank the doorway, the Druid sends his gaseous form packing with a Gust of Wind. Meanwhile, the party is winning the fight at the doorway; the Barbarian destroys one and the Bard drops another with Magic Missiles. They turn to mist and the Bard immediately follows.

The third knight solidifies on the other side of the courtyard, where the wind sent him, but finally realizes the fight is against him. He flees through a gate, locking it behind him.

The gaseous vampires float into the main building on the second floor, with the Bard following. Rather than deal with the gate and then the main hall door, the rest of the party decides to climb up to the second floor. This is easy for the Cleric, who Air Walks; the Ranger, who can climb; and the Druid, who cheats and uses a Spider Climb potion; but it is comically difficult for the Barbarian who fails his first attempt and falls to the ground. His second attempt is more successful, and he smashes open the window the Ranger was attempting to unlock.

The party climbs through onto a balcony over a perfectly dark room. The Barbarian throws his light stone into the darkness, only to reveal an empty hall.

"Try that again," comes a voice from the end of the hall. The Ranger does, hurtling his light stone in the direction of the voice.

This reveals a line of seven vampire knights waiting for them, along with their old foe Palek the sorcerer. The Cleric rebukes four of the lesser knights, driving them into the corner. Another one picks up the lightstone and puts it into his pocket while one summons a wolf and the others begin crawling up the support pillars to attack.

The Bard takes solid form, leaving him on the far side of the room from the party. He casts Sunlight on the nearest support pillar, thus solving the party's vision problems, but winds up in a fist-fight with a vampire. Somehow he manages to avoid losing any levels while still getting beaten unconscious over the next few rounds.

Palek the fire-sorcerer is blasting away at anything and everyone, and missing. Several vampires are on the balcony slogging it out with the Barbarian, Ranger and Cleric (who has successfully paralyzed one with Hold Person), when a wraith comes through the wall and strikes the Cleric. This is CON drain, not damage; another hit like that will suck the life-force out of the Cleric and leave him a rotting husk!

The Barbarian demonstrates his tactical wisdom by grabbing the cleric in one hand and throwing him off of the balcony. Sure, he takes damage from the fall, and sure, he lands sprawled at the feet of the vampire sorcerer; but neither of those is going to immediately kill him like the wraith might.

The Druid is equally concerned about the wraith, but has a different solution. He turns into a giant bear with the constitution of, well, a giant bear. Having previously cast Magic Fang on himself, he easily shreds the wraith (and the wall it is partially occupying). The Barbarian does the same for a second wraith that lunged out of the wall but fortunately missed.

The vampires realize they are not winning. Their leader crawls to the middle of the room, clinging to the ceiling like a bat and summons another wolf. However, the wolf is limited in its targets; only the Ranger is open to its attacks (the others are still protected by the Hide from Animals cast by the Druid back in the armory). Instead, the wolf grabs the paralyzed vampire and throws it off the balcony, thus damaging it and breaking the Hold Person spell. The Druid leaps from the balcony (which trembles but does not collapse) to a pillar near the leader (which also quivers but holds) and claws him into bits, using that Spider Climb potion to good effect.

But the Cleric is in trouble; he's on the ground, surrounded by vampires, and Palek finally manages to scorch him with a ray. The Druid-bear drops to the ground, where Palek futilely blasts it before being eviscerated by a flurry of claws.

Just as it looks like the heros are winning, the main door flies open and two nightmares charge into the room! Then the Barbarian obliterates them in two rounds with Whirlwind attacks, incidentally taking out a poor vampire who happened to get caught in the carnage.

At this point an invisible rogue stabs the Druid-bear in the back twice, but even her advanced Level Drain has no hope of affecting the bear. Still, her daggers do real damage, and he has to turn his attention to her, leaving the Cleric open to a level-draining sucker-punch from vampire that already beat the Bard unconscious. This turns out to matter because the other vampires that had been previously turned are now rejoining the fight, and the Cleric's new turn attempt is rendered totally ineffective. Perhaps you can't intimidate vampires when you are on the ground, bleeding, smoking around the edges, and pathetically low level - who knew?

The Druid-bear finally finishes off the rogue, whom by deduction must be the Marichoness, and by observation is clearly a vampire rather than a prisoner, and the Ranger has brought the Bard around with a healing potion, so the remaining low-level vampire knights have no real chance. The Barbarian and Druid-bear crush them in short order.

The mist forms of the Marichoness and Palek float up and out a window, while the others float down to the floor. The party discovers ten graves crudely concealed beneath the flooring, and stake the Order of the Edge's vampiric inhabitants while they are still reforming. The Bard, for once, does not go chasing after wisps of smoke, because he knows where they are going (the royal castle) and he fears following them in his depleted state.

Next comes the assault on the throne, as the evidence for Ragnar's corruption is no longer questionable. The party debates waiting for Theodoric's arrival and his allied armies, but is swayed to immediate action by two concerns. First, that Theodoric's civil war will kill hundreds of innocent soldiers on both sides; and second, that waiting for Theodoric's help means splitting the loot.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #41

Vampire Neighbors, part III

The party heads for the last county of unknown status: Iochoarr, home of the Earl Theodoric, a paladin of high rank. They know him as the leader of the War Party back in the days of the Spice Wars.

He welcomes them into his castle and takes their news about Irlyd well; he never thought much of Baron Darcio anyway. Mostly he seems intent on sounding out their views on possible contenders for the throne, should something untoward happened to King Ragnar. He gets as blunt as preparing to challenge any of them to a deadly joust if they do not recognize his superiority.

Surprisingly, none of the party wants the job of king; they’re happy to let Theodoric do it. This ends what could have been a potentially dangerous encounter on good terms. When he receives the news about the utter devastation of Ieppyxoox, his words begin to border on treason. For one party to seize the throne from another is just life as usual; for an entire county to be exterminated is a failure of royal duty.

The party then leaves for the capital, promising to report back to Theodoric on the state of affairs therein, and potentially with evidence sufficient for Theodoric to declare for the throne. As they are leaving the Earl happens to mention that his fellow paladin Count Kird died at the beginning of the demon war, a fact that grieves the party as he was a true ally.

The capital seems healthy enough, having suffered only moderate despoilment in the on-going demonic attacks. Rumors abound, though, such as the conflicting claims that Ragnar’s sister has been abducted by or sought refuge with the Order of the Edge, a knightly house even more powerful than the Order of the Tower. Faced with three options – seek an audience with the king, investigate the Order, or call on the new Minister of War to pay their respects – sees them choose the least committal of these actions. After all, they know how to get into the royal stables where the Minister holds court, having visited Kird there many times.

They are unpleasantly surprised to find the stables full of Dire Wolves instead of noble war horses, but this is the least of the unpleasant surprises for the night. When they meet the new Minister in a barn full of large dangerous canines, he turns out to be none other than Payson Graylek! (Long-time readers will recall him as the demon-summoning sorcerer from the start of their adventuring career – they arrested him and turned him over to royal justice, only to see him wriggle out from consequences. Well, other than the fact that they burnt his house down.) To see this vile creature in the office of the noble Count Kird is an insult.

But Graylek is not alone; the Minister of the Arcane, Yeron the Skald, is also in the barn. He quizzes the party on their adventures, and interrupts their war of words with Graylek to have a side-conversation with the Bard. At this moment things are put into motion that will have far-reaching consequences.

The Bard has suspicion only for Graylek, and thus is completely unprepared with Yeron stares into his eyes and crushes his will with vampiric domination. Only the Cleric notices that something has changed in the Bard’s manner. He can tell that something has happened, but cannot distinguish whether it is arcane enchantment or supernatural domination. Smoothly he maneuvers next to the Bard and places his hand on his shoulder as if to say, “Time to leave,” but in fact he casts Protection from Evil, risking everything on a choice between two spells, one to foil arcane and the other to foil vampires.

He makes the right choice. The Bard immediately begins casting a defensive spell, aware that only seconds ago Yeron was in his head. Yeron begins a spell, Graylek notices and starts his own, as does the Druid, and the Barbarian leaps into the middle of the room attacking an entire knot of Dire Wolves. The Ranger also decides to stab a random wolf because it seems to be the thing to do.

Then the wolves start biting. And they bite hard! Mirror Images save the Bard, but the Cleric takes a tremendous bite and eats a heat ray from Graylek. One round into combat and the Cleric is already facing death. The Barbarian saves him by stabbing the attacking wolf, and then in an astonishing feat of swordsmanship uses the attack to cleave into the rest of the wolves, killing them all. This frees the Cleric to Rebuke Undead, which sends Grayson cowering into a corner. Yeron responds by dominating the Cleric and ordering him to kill the Barbarian.

The Bard and the Barbarian attack Yeron, but the man is now protected by several layers of magic and all they succeed in doing is eliminating a few of his images. Yeron’s response is to dominate the Barbarian and order him to kill the Cleric! Fortunately the Bard strikes an enchanting note on his lyre and breaks the curse before the Barbarian can carry out the command. Yeron then attempts several area-effect spells, none of which have any effect on his foes, while the Barbarian simply ignores the Cleric’s feeble attacks and the Bard whittles down Yeron’s images.

Meanwhile the Ranger and Druid finish off the rest of the wolves. The Druid then charges the cowering Graylek, hoping to destroy him in a single attack. The Barbarian, frustrated by so much magic defense, pauses to intimidate Yeron. Much to everyone’s surprise, it works: Yeron simply disintegrates into a cloud of smoke. Graylek follows suit and soon both of them have gone down a drain pipe.

Not to worry, because the Bard goes gaseous and follows them (apparently forgetting that both of them are in fact still combat capable). However, he comes to fork in the pipe; choosing the left hand, he soon runs into a sealed end. Going back and choosing the other fork dumps him in a small basement room with an old servant whiling away the time whittling and half a dozen pipe entrances; the servant appears to be waiting for a signal from the cloud of gas, and when it doesn’t come, he places an end-cap on the pipe behind the Bard’s gaseous form.

The Bard becomes solid and easily bluffs the servant into answering a few questions. He finds out there are several rooms like this under the castle, staffed by other servants, who close or open the pipes according to signals from the clouds of gas that sometimes pass through. He also confirms that no other gas has appeared in this room tonight, meaning that the vampires the Bard was pursuing went to a different room and shut the pipe behind them. Foiled, he returns to the stable, where the party is planning their next move.

At some point the Protection from Evil spell lapses… but no one remembers. The Bard is now secretly under the command of Yeron the vampire, as is the Cleric. (Notes are passed under the table between the DM and a player!) The Bard suddenly goes from arguing for a hasty retreat to arguing for an immediate assault on the Order of the Edge. Since his arguments about maintaining the element of surprise are sound, he wins the day, and the party quickly rushes through the night to the gates of the keep.

It is there, just as they are about to assault another tranche of vampires, that the Druid asks the Cleric what actually happens when the Protection from Evil spell expires. In response… the Bard casts Doom on the party and the Cleric summons a hammer to kill the Barbarian. A full-on party on party fight begins, with comic results. The Cleric Air-walks towards higher ground, trying to get room to hammer the Barbarian to death; while the Bard and Barbarian begin chopping at each other with swords and halberds. The Druid turns into a bear and unleashes a deadly blizzard of claws and fangs on the Cleric, only to be foiled at the last second by the Bard blinding him and causing him to miss (the Druid had rolled a critical hit and would have killed the Cleric outright by accident!). Then the Bard casts Fear and drives the Barbarian into the night.

The Druid turns his attention to the Bard and knocks him out easily, remembering at the last minute to switch to non-lethal damage. The Ranger follows the misty form of the Cleric through the streets, firing arrows up at him while he vainly tries to find the fleeing Barbarian and complete his command. Eventually the Ranger manages a bring down the Cleric, although another critical hit provides a momentary bit of drama.

Now that both their dominated fellows are unconscious, the party binds them and makes a total retreat, running all the way back to the safety of Earl Theodoric and his Curate. They stagger back into the Earl’s hall in terrible shape: one member blind and two raving of vampires. The Curate puts them all in order pretty quickly, and then Theodoric calls a war council.

It is clear that King Ragnar must be a vampire; it is impossible that two members of his retinue are vampires and he, a high-ranking cleric, does not know. It is not yet certain whether the Order of the Edge is compromised, though the party strongly suspects they are. The party considers fleeing once again, but realizing that any foes they face now will be just as dangerous and at least here they have some allies, decide to try again. They load up on potions and precautions (making the Curate very happy and very rich) and plot to return to the Order and determine the truth. Meanwhile, Theodoric will travel north to county Dearl, make his peace with the Vicar, and recruit the man to rebellion. For rebellion it must be; a vampire king cannot be allowed to stand!

This was the most unprofitable and dangerous mission the party ever faced, with the potential for a total party kill while there were no actual enemies on the board at all! Everything depended on a few key moments, from the Cleric noticing that the Bard had been dominated to the Druid remembering that the counter spells only temporarily stopped the effect before the next combat started to the Bard blinding the Druid before he murdered someone. It was both frustrating and hilarious at the same time.