Sunday, August 14, 2022

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #38

Return to Edersarr

The party’s boat crew are happy enough to head home, as they have left women and families there for the last year. Not a terribly responsible thing to do, but then, they are sailors. The party’s new acquisitions – the troop of ranked marksmen and the troop of common yeoman – are dubious, despite the Bard’s best sales pitch, until the Ranger notes that the Stinging Sea is free of dragons.

So some seventy men crowd onto the longship and set sail back the way they came. They do not stop to visit any of their old adventures and nothing new troubles them on the way. After a few weeks at sea the ship finally draws into their old familiar harbour, a little jetty where they hide their ship. The men march eagerly to the site of the old keep… and find nothing but a pile of stones.

The site is abandoned. It is clear that work had started, but then stopped months ago. The villagers and sailor’s families have disappeared without trace. The Ranger can only find a few old dire wolf tracks, but this does not explain their absence, as a pack of wolves would have left bones behind.

After a disappointing night, the men press on to the village by the lake. Perhaps the villagers just returned home once the party had been absent too long.

But this is not the case, either. The village is virtually empty and has been for months. Only the innkeeper of the Soggy Mistress remains, with his barmaid Anna Beeman and perpetual non-paying customer Old Bob. The innkeeper welcomes them back with real joy and serves up his best ale, or at least what he has left.

“Not much in the cellar,” he explains. “Been no business since the demons carried off half the town.”

This prompts many questions but the innkeeper is a poor source of information. He can say that demons from Varsoulou have been raiding the kingdom, that he’s never seen one, and that after several families disappeared from the village in the middle of the night, Lord Darcio (their neighbour and once liege) showed up and took the rest back to his town.

Darcio also declared their lands forfeit and under his control, and took their two old donkeys as a tax payment. Of all the thousand and one insults Darcio has inflicted on them, this last may be the worst.

The party is intrigued by this talk of demons – they are, after all, old hands at the profession of demon-slaying. Consequently they spend the night in the woods, hoping to attract a demonic attack. When that subjects them to nothing worse than mosquitoes, they return to the village and set their men to fortifying it. They also dispatch Captain Abel and the innkeeper to the city to buy supplies, trusting to Abel the professional smuggler to keep a low profile.

A week passes without incident as they rebuild the village and run a palisade wall around it. Their new soldiers are proficient hunters, Abel has returned with plenty of ale, and life is pleasant. But soon enough the sailors start asking for leave to search out their families in Darcio’s town.

The party has two choices: go to the city and check in with Count Kird, their contact in the royal court; or head directly to Darcio’s to see what’s up. They choose the path of direction action.

After a long day’s walk they enter Irlyd county – the land of their birth. With dismay they see that the town is significantly depopulated and the iron mine seems to be shut down. The local innkeeper welcomes them back in, remembering their last visit when they paid in gold and didn’t stab anyone – always a positive recommendation for a hotelier. When he finds out they just arrived from the lake, he is shocked.

“You were outside all day? But that’s illegal!” The innkeeper explains that King Ragnar passed a law requiring all commoners to be inside during the night, and all nobles to be inside during the day. The idea is to make sure the nobility are out and about at night, so as to intercept the demon raids. And the plan seems to be working; the raids have mostly stopped now.

Once they realize that Darcio will be awake all night, they head off to the castle as soon as the sun sets. They tell the gate guard that they are travelling nobles and paying a courtesy call on the local landlord. After cooling their heels for half an hour in the street (a calculated insult), Darcio’s butler opens the castle gates for them.

The butler suggests that if they don’t have appropriate dress for dinner, he can supply some. While every noble has the right and duty to be armed at all times, even in the presence of the king, it would be considered rude to show up in full armour. The party quickly agrees to this reasonable demand and are soon sitting in Darcio’s hall dressed almost like normal people – except for the Druid, who cannot help but look like a homeless bum even on the best of days.

Darcio and his retinue, the Minister of War Viscount Thorn and the Minister of Coin Lady Charis, sit at the high table. The party is given the next best table on the main floor, directly in front of the court, allowing for a public conversation.

They make mostly small talk, trying to suss out the true nature of the demon threat and finding Darcio frustratingly vague on the details. A brief protocol lesson from the Bard reminds them that while they can offer to help fight the demons, they cannot in anyway suggest that Darcio needs their help in defending his people. To do so is to directly challenge his right to rule. By the same token, he has claimed their lands because they failed to defend them. At the moment they are not willing to make an issue of it, as long as their people are safe.

At one point Lady Charis’ maid serves them a fine wine directly from the Baron’s table, and makes eyes at the Bard. Soon enough he has excused himself and slunk off to the back kitchen to canoodle with the young woman. All is progressing well until she looks him in the eyes and asks him to make a Will save.

Which he fails! (At this point I was contacting him on a separate chat channel.) He suddenly realizes that she is the love of his life and he needs to convince his party to leave him behind so he can take a seat in the Baron’s court. When the two of them discreetly return to dinner by different doors, the Bard discovers the rest of the party in the process of making a Fortitude save.

The Cleric and Druid succeed, while the Ranger and Barbarian fail. Apparently the latter two indulged in the wine far more freely. It is a minor poison, hardly noticeable, inflicting a small Strength penalty. The Bard begins suggesting that the party should retire for the night, only to find Darcio has suddenly become very interested in continuing the conversation.

The Druid realizes something is up. He rises from the table and agrees it is time to go. Placing his hand on the Barbarian’s shoulder, he discreetly casts a Delay Poison spell. Well, he tries; the spell works, of course, but it’s not at all discreet.

Darcio’s eyebrows shoot up. The Druid casts in Sylvan, rather than the national priestly standard of Aqueos or the sorcerous tongue of Arcanus. Seizing the moment, Darcio makes a scene.

“Heretic!” he shouts. “Guards, arrest that man at once!”

The rest of the party shrugs off of the effect of the wine (that is, they all made their Save vs the poison that would have put them to sleep) and stands up. But the Druid surprises everyone.

“I surrender!” he immediately says. “Take me to the dungeon.”

Apparently the Druid is under the impression that he can easily escape mere iron bars and stone walls, and if all else fails, he’ll need to be tried in the capital where the King and his retinue are friends, rather than here in Darcio’s own land.

The Bard pipes up, offering to stay and watch over the Druid to make sure he is treated fairly, while exchanging a knowing glance with the lady’s maid. The rest of the party is nonplussed and let themselves be shown the door.

The Cleric, Ranger, and Barbarian are standing out on the street in front of the keep, trying to decide what to do. The Cleric wants to rush to the capital; the Ranger suggests returning to the inn and seeing what transpires; and the Barbarian is casing the walls to see how hard it would be to fight his way back tonight.

Meanwhile, the Bard is watching the Druid be escorted to a cell. The guards lock the Druid in, leaving the Bard on the other side of the bars, and then withdraw to the dungeon entrance. Before the two can have a talk, though, Lady Charis and her maid show up.

The Lady is concerned. “You poor boy,” she says, “losing your way in false religion. But do not despair: I can help you. I can safe you from this fate.” She stares intently at the Druid through the bars.

The Druid scrapes mud off his boots and blocks his ears. “Sorry, I can’t hear you,” he says, apparently under the impression that will block a Charm spell. Apparently it works well enough, because the Druid makes his Will save.

The Lady is upset; she doesn’t like failure. But she has another plan. Producing the key, she unlocks the cell and enters. The Druid shys away until he runs up against the wall and can retreat no further.

“Be calm, boy, I mean you no harm,” the Lady says, placing her hands on either side of his face.

This sentiment is rather belied by the dark energy flowing out of the Druid and into Lady Charis’ fingers. The Energy Drain reduces the Druid two levels, and he finally realizes that the rules of hospitality have failed. He turns into a bear and tears into Lady Charis with his claws. (To be honest, I’m amazed the party took this long to resort to violence.)

The Lady punches back with her bare fists, knowing that if she can land a blow she can drain the Druid back into commoner status. For a few rounds it looks like she might win, but then the Druid scores a critical and knocks her to the ground. The lady’s maid, who had been restraining the Bard with whispered promises that no harm would come to the Druid, suddenly snaps.

“Kill that monster!” she hisses, and in that moment, her face a feral mask of cruelty, the Bard wonders what he ever saw in her. (He makes his second Will save, when compelled to do something against his nature.) When she turns on him, he tries to hold her off, only to discover that her touch is almost as draining as Lady Charis’.

The Druid, having taken animal form, acts with animal savagery. He tears Lady Charis’ head off. But much to his shock, the result is not a bloody mangled body but a column of smoke. The lady disintegrates into black smoke! When the Druid charges out of the cave and saves the Bard by smashing the maid up against the wall and tearing her in half with his claws, she also turns to smoke.

“Hey now,” says one of the guards from outside the door. “Is everything all right in there, ma’am?”

The Bard is a smooth talker. “Uh, ya, but I need to take the prisoner back upstairs now.”

The guard pops his head in. “Wait, where did the Lady go?”

“Oh, she left,” the Bard says, waving vaguely in an indefinite direction.

As the woman is manifestly not in the room, this suffices. The guard lets them out, and the Bard quickly talks their way to the kitchen via back hallways and then out the postern gate. He and the Druid start back to the inn, only to stumble upon the rest of the party standing in the street, still arguing. (Interestingly, in four years of campaigning, this is the first time we’ve split the party.)

The Cleric luckily can repair their lost levels, though it costs him all of his 4th level spells for the day. The Druid is all for running for the capital, but the Ranger makes him stop long enough to explain what just happened. The Bard finally puts the pieces together and realizes that Lady Charis and her maid must be vampires. They had known that Lady Night had taken up with the Baron, when they were last in this town, so really it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise.

After considerable discussion the party decides to return immediately to the castle and either rescue Darcio if he is under the vampire’s control; or destroy him if he is in league with the monsters. Better to strike now while at least two of them are disabled.

The Ranger and Barbarian are prepared to storm the walls, but the Bard raps on the gate. “Uh, excuse me,” he says, “but I forgot my armour.” This ruse works because it is true; the Bard’s fine studded leather armour is still hanging in the gatehouse where he had left it to go to dinner. He failed to retrieve it when the rest of the party was retrieving theirs because he didn’t come out of the gate.

This gets the entire party back inside the keep walls. As soon as the Bard is dressed for battle, they charge the keep door. “We’re just going to say goodnight,” the Bard shouts over his shoulder, but the truth is there is nothing the common gate guards can do to stop them.

The Barbarian and Ranger smash into the keep door and simply bust it down. (In an interesting bit of gamesmanship, I let the Barbarian have a natural 20 on his roll for the price of sacrificing his next natural 20. This lead to a nice cinematic moment.)

Darcio is not overly surprised to see them, though he is annoyed to see all of them when he thought two were still in his dungeon. “Well,” he shouts, “don’t just sit there. Get them!” His ten knights and dozen lancers draw weapons and advance.

The party rushes into the room. The Cleric chants a holy hymn; Viscount Thorn shouts, “Damnation! They have a priest!” and bolts out the back. The Ranger and Barbarian open fire with bows, killing the butler instantly. To no one’s surprise he turns into smoke. The Bard casts powerful magic to encourage his foes. The Druid, for once, cannot rely on Entangle or Call Lightning, and does not want to become a bear because he is afraid of being touched by the bad lady. Instead, he dedicates himself to dousing the flaming spheres that Darcio keeps sending against the party.

Then several swarms of bats come streaming in through the broken door. The party has used these to great effect in the past, and are discomfited to be on the receiving end. Darcio has more surprises: “Release the hounds!” he shouts, and five dire wolves rush in from the kennels behind him.

A battle ensues, with the Ranger killing swarms of bats with a torch he snatched off the wall and, true to form, slaying a Dire Wolf with a dagger while rolling around on the ground, the Bard soloing a Dire Wolf with Mirror Images and his Shocking halberd, the Cleric taking out several wolves with his army of Spiritual Hammers, and the Barbarian returning to form and absolutely slaughtering the knights and common soldiers. The Druid actually finds himself in danger as wolves and bats gang up on him – this seems wholly unfair, since they are animals and he is normally good with dogs. Finally the party forces their way to Darcio himself, only to discover the Baron has formidable defences (i.e. an AC of 31). The Barbarian is undaunted; he hurtles himself at the Baron with fire in his eyes. In the face of such an intimidating charge, the Baron – turns to smoke!

The party is victorious, but not celebratory. They know that the vampires are merely disabled, not destroyed. They fan out into the grounds, looking for the hidden coffins. The Bard casually informs the remnants of the common guardsmen that their lord was a vampire. They do not seem overly surprised – “That explains a lot,” one says – but are aggrieved when the Ranger sends them in to clean up the remains of their fellows.

Their search yields nothing, despite being backed up by magic. As the sun rises the head into the town, looking for likely spots – the local graveyard, any secret caves, an otherwise abandoned warehouse. This search is also futile, and the spreading news that Darcio was vampire is also not entirely shocking. He was never a popular lord in the best of times. The populace is concerned, though, until the party reassures them that they won’t be going anywhere. They are claiming Darcio’s lands by right of strength, a perfectly legal manoeuvre even when the lord isn’t a hideous bloodsucking undead monster.

They send two of their new guardsmen out to retrieve the rest of their army, but this will take at least two days. Which means as night falls, they find themselves sitting at the high table, served by a single kitchen maid too traumatized by the previous battle to have enough sense to go and hide like every other commoner in the castle has.

The party discusses strategy, tactics, and options late into the night, waiting for the assault they know must come. They have barred all the doors and windows, so Darcio is forced to break into his own keep. He knocks the front door down with fiery magic (the second time in two nights it has been destroyed), and he and his vampiric retinue charge in.

Once again archery slays the butler before he can act. Darcio sends in more bat swarms and two more dire wolves. The Cleric chants, forcing Lady Charis to retreat; the rest of the party attacks the wolves and bats. But Darcio is playing for keeps: he and Thorn charge the party, trusting to their insane defences. Once at the table the Baron stares directly into the Barbarian’s eyes. This time he wins the contest of wills.

The Barbarian swings his deadly sword, only to discover he’s struck the Ranger! This puts him on the ground, in danger of dying just from the ambient assaults of bats, fires, and various other effects. The Cleric dashes in to save the Ranger with a spell; when Darcio commands the Barbarian to slay the Cleric, this time he shrugs off the command and returns to himself. Eventually the party beats the vampires back into smoke. As the columns of darkness drift up to the ceiling, the Bard turns himself into gaseous form and follows!

This is an inspired strategy; the vampires are matched evenly, and the Bard tracks them to their lair, down a narrow drainage pipe to a secret chamber thirty feet underground. There Darcio resumes material form and attempts to command the Bard, but he escapes back up the pipe and puts his hat over it, to trap the smoke below.

The party debates whether to attack now or wait for morning. They summon their new guardsmen and hand out shovels. At this the men rebel; they are not going to dig through the night into a vampire’s lair. The Druid uses magic to help, and the Barbarian and Ranger do the labor themselves. By morning they have a wide shaft that drops into the secret room below.

Time is no longer of the essence; the party stands on the lip of the shaft and prepares themselves with spells and potions until the noon sun is high. Then, like true heroes, they leap thirty feet down into a battle with no possibility of retreat. The Ranger and Barbarian rappel down ropes, the Cleric walks on air, the Druid uses a potion of Spider Climb, and the Bard falls like a feather.

Of course it’s not as bad as that; whey they reach the ground they are standing in full daylight, looking at the vampires huddling in the edges of the room. Leisurely the archers feather the butler again, expecting this to be a turkey shoot.

But Darcio has a surprise for them. Summoning all of his and his minion’s bat swarms, he clogs the shaft with so many that the sun is blocked. Now the fight is on equal terms!

Or so it must have seemed, for a moment. Instead the Barbarian charges in with a whirlwind of slashing steel while spells and magic slam into the vampires. There is one brief moment of danger when all of the vampires try to grapple the Barbarian and pile on him, where their mere touch would rapidly destroy him; but he blocks their attempts and in the next moment cuts them down.

Then it is a simple matter to stake the vampires as they reform in their broken coffins, ending their undead existence for once and forever.

They climb back out of the pit. The soldiers and servants come out of hiding and cheer. The party has won themselves a keep; but more, it is the keep they once thought to serve. Yet this victory is not uppermost on their minds: instead, they are weighted with a greater concern.

Lady Night was not among the monsters they slew. How much further has her taint spread? How many other county lords are vampires now? Has the infection spread even to the royal court?

Sunday, August 7, 2022

World of Prime: Campaign Journal #37

 Against the Giants: epilogue

Gizela successfully convinces the party of the wisdom of restraint, or perhaps they just get tired of arguing with her. They ride back to face the goblins with only a portion of her army: a troop of noble knights, three troops of common lancers, and a crossbow troop. The other half of their army is Baron Anatole and his three troops of knights, with their mounted Red priestesses scowling at the party over their glaives.

Once on the road, Anatole urges the horsemen to ride ahead and scout. The party is keen to lure the goblin forces into a trap, so they split their army: the ranked will ride ahead, and the common men will follow. The idea is that the noble horsemen will engage the enemy and then lead them back to where the commoners have prepared an ambush. However, this plan is doomed to fail for the same reason so many other medieval battle strategies failed: lack of communication and misjudgement of noble pride.

At first the party is worried that Anatole will be difficult, but he is the opposite. He welcomes Gizela’s knights with hearty smiles. These are free knights from the town, many of whom had either tried to enlist or thought about trying to enlist with the Order of the Lance at some point in the past. When the cavalry column stops for the night, Anatole shares his ale and food with the free knights. Many stories of valor and adventure are told around the fire; Anatole makes it clear that these men’s attendance on this glorious mission is causing him to re-evaluate their worthiness for the Order.

In the morning Anatole is eager to press ahead. Despite not having contact with the van of their army for over eighteen hours, the party agrees, perhaps just as eager for the clash of arms.

Very quickly they encounter bugbear patrols, which fall back in the face of so much steel. The party pursues, hoping to catch them before they reach the safety of their fort. But this is not to be; instead, the party suddenly finds the entire goblin army in front of them. It is the goblins who have led their foes to a prepared battlefield.

The sight of so many monsters does not deter Anatole, and perhaps inspired by his example, the party decides to attack. The Ranger orders a general charge against the enemy’s right flank, hoping to smash those forces before the left half of the army can engage. The goblins are mostly infantry, after all; the knights will use their mobility to overwhelm each troop in detail.

Bugbear knights fan out, seeking to flank the charging cavalry. The Wizard begins shelling them with fireballs, confident that the army of knights between him and the bugbears will keep him alive. However, the bugbears are hardier than that; they largely shrug off the fireballs and stick to their mission. Piqued, the Wizard turns his arcane fury on the crossbow troops and murders several of them as they are trying to march into effective range.

Anatole’s knights smash the goblin infantry. These men are ranked and hence a few crossbow quarrels are not enough to bring them down. When the ogres and trolls plow through the crossbow troops to get at the knights, Anatole cleverly retreats, wheels around, and charges again. Lances tear the big monsters apart, with significant help from the Ranger and the Barbarian in the front lines.

The casters, in danger of being engaged by bugbears, throw around Entangle spells with abandon. Soon half the battlefield is snarling grass, their profligate magic enabled by the wands the Bard and Wizard brought. Nonetheless a few bugbears manage to close, only to be frightened off by magic.

Everything seems to be going our heroes’ way until the giant finally makes contact with a knight troop. Swinging a triple-headed flail in a wicked circle, he lays waste to the entire unit, killing them in a single devastating attack.

The knights respond with more lance charges while the party throws spells. The giant destroys another knight troop and then knocks the stuffing out of the Barbarian. The Bard sings a song of terror, and it works – the giant begins to retreat! But the monster only takes a few steps before shrugging off the magic and returning to battle.

The Druid is calling down lightning, the Wizard is reduced to arcane missiles, and the Bard is playing hide and seek to stay alive. The giant manages to destroy the troop of free knights before the combined assault of magic and arms brings him down. The Barbarian, returned to battle by the Cleric’s magic, strikes the killing blow. The party is horrified at how difficult it was to damage the monster through its many layers of iron and stony hide; they shudder to think of facing two of the things at once. Crushed men and broken horses are scattered around, mixed with the riven and burnt corpses of goblinoids.

From across the field, where he had been preparing another lance charge at the giant with his last troop of knights, Anatole congratulates them.

“Our mutual association has been profitable. Alas, it is now at an end; the terms of our agreement are concluded.” With that, he and his men couch lances, and charge.

The Barbarian is caught in the field. Several lances pin him to the ground; only the immediate efforts of the Cleric keep him from dying on the spot. The Druid turns his lightning storm on the Baron and turns himself into a bear. Before the knights can withdraw and charge again, the bear and the Cleric’s army of divine ghostly hammers destroy the Baron and his troop.

The battlefield yields a huge prize, and the party are the only ones left alive to claim it. Yet the cost weighs heavily on their souls, as does the knowledge that absent these men’s sacrifices, the giant would have made paste out of even the Barbarian.

They hastily ride for home, encountering the remainder of their common army on the way. The soldiers are confused to see that no monsters are pursing the party, and even more confused to see that no knights are with them. The Ranger tersely explains.

“Anatole was not to be trusted; he turned on us after the battle. Nothing behind us remains alive, so stop looking.”

It is a subdued group that returns to the city, despite their victory. Gisela is happy to see them back, and ecstatic to see them unaccompanied by any knights. She has eliminated her competition for the small cost of a handful of mercenary knights of dubious loyalty. The Ranger crudely demands payment, but Gisela is not dismayed. She smiles as she hands over 5,000 gold pieces.

“You will recommend us to the Queen, yes, lads? Since we are the only game in town now.” Her odious retinue swells with anticipation; one can almost see them licking their chops.

The party is non-committal, telling Gisela to make her case to the Queen personally, since she will be arriving with her army in a few days. As the sun sinks on a loud and raucous victory celebration the party stands in the shadows, considering.

The Druid is uncomfortable; he fears for their alignment. They have done more than kill monsters; they have destroyed entire civilizations. The Cleric notes that their profits have been purchased with barrels of human blood, too; the tael from Baron Anatole and his men is mixed in with all the rest, indistinguishable from honest loot once it is harvested. The Ranger cannot help but feel that while they have always made their own decisions, they somehow seem to have always served Queen Rian’s interests.

The prospect of being mulched by giants under the eye of an unpredictable dragon while allied with a manipulative sorceress has lost its appeal. The party wants to settle down and build a castle… but not here, on this gold-accursed coast. The fratricide of Yellow on Yellow threatens to drag them down into Yellow with it.

Quietly they slip away. A small party of adventurers led by a highly skilled Ranger has no trouble avoiding the advancing army, slipping past the border patrols, and rousting their crew from the bars and inns the men have been carousing in for the last few months. In the dead of night the party takes its leave, turning their sails to familiar home. Green Edersarr! Eagerly they wonder how far their keep rebuilding project has progressed in their absence, and what demonic foes they can save the kingdom from without squelching through rivers of human blood.