After a series of adventures, the group heads home for their first ’Winter Holiday’. To make sure the settlement evolves and grows, I decided early that every winter the characters would rest and work on other tasks until the next group of settlers arrive from the ‘old world’.
This blog post describes some of the activities (so that we can remember them), and I have a couple of thoughts on the system (or disregard for the system).
The Pathfinder way discarded
I had planned to use some of Pathfinder’s rules on downtime. I thought it would be cool to use the rules from Ultimate Campaign on building a house, and later strong holds, and so on. But it turned out that:
1) my players weren’t really into that level of bookkeeping
2) I wasn’t into that level of bookkeeping and …
3) the wizard picked spells like Wall of stone and Fabricate, making the need for materials partially irrelevant.
So, I’ve skipped it completely. And fundamentally run downtime as a narrative, with some skill rolls.
What did the characters do?
It had turned out that, Jarn, the paladin/ranger had made one of the two serving girls pregnant. The player decided that he honestly did love the girl, who was a no nonsense scrappy city-girl, and they decided to get married. The druid of the group officiated and gifts were presented. Each character came up with a gift for the couple, including a bridal suite in their new house with a clock, platinum rings for the entire group and his wife, jade figurines and a donation of blood from the scary half-orc fighter.
During the months they built a sizeable house with a small tower, a glass blowing workshop and smithy and the gnome constructed a ballista for the tower. They craft weapons and armor and train the militia.
The druid also started training an apprentice, the elf Sekhlas, and he went to negotiate for dragon scales, to build an armor, but unfortunately failed in his diplomatic effort.
I also let several characters learn languages, skills and tools, because, why the hell not?
As the new settlers arrive in the spring, some characters receive mail and messages, and they finally get some plate mail. Their leader, Jarn, gets news that his father – who is the head of a knightly order – is sick from enemy magic, and that his mother needs assistance. She has in return sent his father’s medallion, which protects against fey charm. The druid, Weylyn gets a letter from a friend, which relates the story of a kidnapping or defection by a great boat wright to the Hrran Hegemony.
The group was already worried about spies, and they are watchful, but also decide to lay a honey trap. They spread the rumor that they have hidden powerful war machines in the forest, and use awakened beasts to patrol the site – and wait. I think it is a good plan, which I will definitely play to.
The settlers that arrive include two adventuring groups. One is with the rival guild, and another accompanies the dwarves, who have come to run the iron mine, which the characters find.
Furthermore, the wizard, Thul Dweomereye, has apprentices and guards coming to expand his position.
What worked well?
Down time is essentially a chance to role-play and create more context and relations for the characters.
I think everyone got to do interesting things and the wedding and the news from home ground the characters in the setting. It creates a greater attachment to the world around them, and meant that I think they found pleasure in having a lot of gold they can send home and to the war effort.
I hope that the war in their homeland will come more into focus in the next leg of the campaign.
The players have fun when they use their spells creatively to create a home and survive, and there was no reason to take that away, because I had imagined we would use a more ‘mechanistic’ system for it.
And just for fun, I’ve decided to add the text of one of the two hand-outs here:
The Letter to Weylyn:
I hope that you are thriving? I have thought of you many times in the last couple of years, but finding an opportunity to actually sending a letter has been difficult. This winter I finally returned to Finrod after what feels like a life-time of conflict. I have spent much time in Burndeth and helped our ancient kin and allies there. Pentath is now besieged by folk of the wild tribes of Lest, but they learned to fear the forest. So, they burned much of it. I have grown stronger in my struggle, and as we know, adversity and challenges makes you find new strength within you.
I write, not solely out of my desire to convey my thoughts and experiences to you. During the last couple of months here in Finrod, it was impossible not to hear rumours of this expedition and the ships going out to sea. I couldn’t help myself from paying close attention to these stories, as I had already understood from Deekin Chass that you were no longer on the Isles. It therefore troubled me that I stumbled on information that the great shipwright Amhlaidh Tod disappeared from his shipyard last year. The Council and the Circle have been keeping it under close lid, but you know how it is here – everyone knows everybody. The point is, they think he might have been kidnapped, or worse, been bribed to go over to the enemy. If that is true, the Hegemony might soon field a fleet of ocean going vessels. Their seafarers will not rival our own, but in my battles with Hrran, I have learned that its leadership is very resourceful and flexible in their thinking.
I have sent this letter to Moss Keeper Clearbrook, and I hope that it will find you soon.
The player’s guide for the Dungeons & Dragons version of a Middle-Earth role-playing game is perfect for a fan of Tolkien’s world. The designers basically nail the atmosphere and feel of the setting and demonstrate that the D&D 5ed. rules can be reworked to fit a very different style of play.
Adventures in Middle-Earth is very true to the original material and is therefore a very low magic game. There are no spell-casting classes and the abilities the players do have can be heroic, but the magic in them are always subtle – just like in Tolkien’s novels.
The game is published by Cubicle 7, who also makes the One Ring role-playing game, and Adventures in Middle-Earth is their D&D interpretation of that game. It is clear that the designers already have a deep understanding of the lore. All the classes, cultures and virtues are clearly grounded in the source material and the book is filled with relevant quotes from the books.
I was so inspired by this book that I began re-reading the Lord of the Rings (for I don’t know which time), and this is the first role-playing supplement that I’ve read cover to cover since D&D 3.5.
The setting focus on the 70-year period between the events of the Hobbit and the events in the Lord of the Rings. The default area for the game is the Wilderlands, which covers the area from the Misty Mountains in the west to Erebor in the East. The death of Smaug, the return of dwarves to the Lonely Mountain and the rise of Dale as a center of trade has created a cautious surge in optimism, and Bard of Dale calls for adventurers to help them rebuild the land.
The most significant mechanical innovation is the Journey system the game has and the game also features corruption of the character’s spirits through Shadow Points. That said, all the fundamental elements, such as class, races, feats and equipment have been re-worked to fit the setting. That creates – in totality – almost a different game entirely.
I look at some of the major features below.
Making a Character
Each player picks a culture instead of a race, such as Men of Bree, Men of Minas Tirith or Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. All of the cultures are flavorful and has long lists of appropriate names. Mechanically they are similar to the races of the PhB, but with fewer fantastic abilities. They mainly provide stat increases and skills, and – importantly – define which virtues (feats) you can pick.
The classes are where the rules begin to diverge significantly from a regular Dungeons & Dragons game. There are six available classes: Scholar, Slayer, Treasure Hunter, Wanderer, Warden and Warrior. Some of them are mechanically quite similar to the core classes. Fx the Slayer is similar to the Barbarian and the Treasure Hunter is similar to the Rogue. But all the spell casting classes are gone and replaced by the Scholar, who is both healer and keeper of lore.
The two or three archetypes for each class also sets all the classes apart. These are closely molded to the Middle-Earth setting and blurs some classic distinctions. For example, the Warden has Counsellor, Herald and Bounder as archetypes, and they are part bard and part fighter, depending on which one you pick. What I love about them is how well they fit the setting. The Bounder for example, if you don’t know, is referenced in the Lord of the Rings, as the halflings that keep the Shire safe.
Mechanically, it is hard to judge, without playing the game, how well they are balanced.
In place of feats there are a number of virtues, and most of them are tied to the character’s culture. Thus, only wood elves can learn Wood-Elf magic – which gives you the “awesome” power to enchant an arrow, and, if you pick the virtue three times, make a victim fall asleep! I love how low magic that is. And again, they fit the setting perfectly.
A few of them seems to be a bit over-powered. For example, Bardings can pick Swordmaster. It says: when fighting with either a broad sword or long sword, add your proficiency bonus to your AC. I can’t see myself not picking that Virtue. Even if it added half your proficiency modifier, I would pick it. That indicates an imbalance… (P.S. and I’ve now noticed that one of the pre-generated characters has this Virtue, and he only gains +1 to AC, so perhaps they made an error in the write-up?)
The backgrounds have much more flavor, compared to the PhB, and again connects well with the setting. Examples include Doomed to Die (You know your life isn’t going to end well, but soldier on anyway), Loyal Servant (as a squire or gardener or close kin) or Hunted by the Shadow (the Shadow is constantly after you and your family, as you are renowned foes of the Enemy).
The equipment chapter is short, but mechanically relevant. All the armor and weapons are found in Tolkien’s world, so there are no great swords or plate mails on the list. Particularly, when it comes to AC, that can influence gameplay. Heavy mail provides the highest AC, which is 16. They’ve added Great Shields, which gives +4 to AC, which is probably to close that gap. On the “magic item” side, they don’t compare to the regular DMG. Cultural Heirlooms can be gained as a feat on level 4 and on. It could be a weapon, like the Dalish Longbow, that gives +1 to attack and damage, and +1d8 extra on a critical hit. On one hand, I like that player’s can add cultural heirlooms ‘off screen’ so to speak. But will they? And if they do spend a feat on an heirloom, how do they feel about another player finding something similar in a treasure hoard?
Journeys and rest – adding meaningful encounters:
The most significant ‘new thing’ in the game, in my view, is a system for journeys. I won’t go into the detail of the rules, but whenever the group needs to travel to an adventure location, they need to use the journey rules, in place of the regular overland travel and random encounters described in D&D.
Each map area has a difficulty level (color coded), and the start of each journey the group pick characters for a number of roles: Guide, Scout, Hunter and Look-out. Embarkation dice are rolled and modifiers added, and depending on the roll and the land they travel through, they may have a number of Events. The events can be combat events or obstacles, but they can also be beneficial.
The tough part is, when the characters arrive at their destination, they roll an Arrival roll. If that goes badly, they might gain exhaustion levels or Shadow Points. Both are bad.
Furthermore, travel connects with the rest and healing rules of the setting. Long Rests can only be had in a Sanctuary – like the House of Elrond or Beorn’s home. Therefore any damage or exhaustion they acquire from encounters or bad luck may be hard to heal when you reach the destination.
The rules will add danger and flavor to the game, and they can be used in other campaigns with a little modification and work. In my current regular D&D campaign, with 9-10th lvl characters, one random encounter should either be very dangerous or have a deeper purpose, such as providing clues, potential allies or add depth to the setting, because it won’t drain resources or make their lives significantly more challenging, as they are back to full power the next day, unless I want to spend several hours just running random encounters. I think this system solves that issue – you basically want to avoid wolves or orc raiding parties – because they can impact if you are able to succeed in your greater goal or quest.
Of course, it also adds a lot of flavor, and, as the group has no magical aid – like Purify Water, Good Berries or Leomund’s Tiny Hut – the journey will become something dangerous the group must consider closely.
The game has a system for gaining corruption. It can happen through sorrow, blighted places, misdeeds and tainted treasure. The results are negative psychological traits (Shadow Weakness) and ultimately a complete fall into Shadow. Boromir is the obvious example from the novels.
It is hard to judge how big a threat it is to the characters over a campaign. But I like the mechanic and, again, it feels right for the setting.
In accordance with the fiction, not everyone welcomes travelers from afar, and the game therefore has a system for Audiences with the various rulers of Middle-Earth. It is basically skill challenges modified by how various cultures see each other. Not everyone enjoys a system for a role-playing encounter, but I can see why it is included. It can certainly add drama and consequences, and again fits the game setting perfectly. In the published adventure Wilderland Adventures, the mechanic is used frequently – but more on that in a future review.
The Fellowship Phase:
This down-time system also fits well with the setting. The assumption is that you adventure and travel in the spring and summer, maybe autumn, and settle down for the winter, perhaps to help bring the harvest home, to research ancient lore or to open a new Sanctuary. It is also a way to regain hit points and exhaustion levels, which might be sorely needed, given the trials that the characters can go through.
It is certainly a much more interesting down-system compared to the original D&D rules, but without a whole lot of clunky mechanics added.
Final Thoughts on Adventures in Middle-Earth:
I would love to run a campaign in this game and setting. It is very well done, and it feels like you can really play a Dúnedain ranger, a dour dwarf of the Blue Mountains or a hobbit off seeing the world and stride right into Tolkien’s pages.
I don’t think it is for everyone, though. It is probably the least magical fantasy setting I’ve encountered, certainly in D&D, unless you go for an actual historical or near-historical setting.
As a DM (or Lore Master I should say), my greatest concern is that I doubt the setting works well with characters above 7th level or so. I could be wrong, but I think making stories with fitting enemies and drama at level 8+ will be a challenge within the Middle-Earth setting – partly because the most epic plots have been told by Tolkien. But these concerns are for the review of the Loremaster’s Guide, which should arrive at my door soon… and perhaps the upcoming campaign: Mirkwood.
It can be hard to judge if the game is well balanced, and particularly how well the different classes and cultures compare to each other. Player’s really dislike if one class or character build outshines every other, and almost every group has a player who will spot those ‘killer combos’ in an instant. And as there is little or no enchanted equipment, except for heirloom items and good dwarven steel, the player’s AC and attack modifiers, will generally be lower, compared to standard D&D. It is hard to tell how they stack up against monsters?
Exhaustion can also be crippling and it is hard to remove. Are the journey rules too hard, if you don’t have characters built to be good at survival, perception and so on, or if they are plain unlucky?
Why should you buy this book?
If you love Tolkien’s world and want to play in it.
If you plan on running a low magic campaign. It will have many things you can lift.
If you are a newcomer to DM Dungeons & Dragons this game is in some ways easier than regular D&D, as there are fewer spells and so on to keep track of, and the setting will be familiar to most people. However, … see below
If you want inspiration for your own campaign, such as classes, feats and backgrounds.
Why shouldn’t you buy this book?
If your players want plenty of cool spells and magical gear, Adventures in Middle-Earth isn’t for you.
The murder hobo, kick in the door play-style is also a hard fit with the setting. This is a game of heroes and often tales tinged with sadness.
A newcomer DM might find it hard to deal with the game, if it turns out there are imbalances, whereas core D&D is quite robust.
I was almost caught up – and then life hits. Well, here is the final recap of this adventure. The next session had some downtime, and the sessions after that is the first chapter in a grand expedition to explore the lands around them after the winter. As always, I prioritize actually preparing D&D over writing about what happened. At least until I have significantly more time in the evenings… I do want to add a couple of reviews of RPG-material that I’ve been reading. And I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of Trudvang Chronicles.
If the players thought they were done with mindflayers, they were wrong. The group was back to only four players, due to the Easter holiday, and the decided to make a short rest, before exploring the rest of the guild hall. They find their ancient archive, in a magical storage room, and recognize it as a valuable trove of lore, if you spend sufficient time on piecing things together. The also enter the guild masters office, where they locate the secret door to the strong room, but when they tamper with it, two stone guardians attack. In the strong room they find gold and silver, and more importantly a few bars of mithral and adamantine and a scroll that can be used to enchant a weapon permanently.
I kept track of time, because – unbeknownst to the players and their characters – the mindflayers continued to be aware of them and their actions. So they gathered another force and attacked again. They led that attack with a hill giant and a purple worm. The players were pretty freaked. But still, the four 8th level players, decided to fight the purple worm (which is CR 15 and has 250 hit points). Fortunately for them, they had luck on their side, as the purple worm is so strong that it can basically remove a character from the fight every round. The purple worm used its bite attack on the paladin/ranger in the first round, but the dwarf bard/fighter used his protective ability to give it disadvantage, so it missed. And the dwarf could tank the tail attack. Next round the purple worm missed with its bite again, but hit the druid with its poisonous tail, who went down. And then a mind flayer emerged from the hole the purple worm left. This was double trouble, but they kept piling on damage, and then the paladin/ranger was swallowed by the worm. The purple worm was heavily damaged, so with a final eldritch blast the warlock killed the purple worm (which 3 characters gave 250 in damage in 3 rounds…)
I had narrated that the three characters, with players who weren’t present, take on the hill giant and the goblins that followed it, and that the half-orc bellowed that they had to flee (that we my DM-que that it was wise).
The purple worm spits out the paladin in its death throes, and with a feather fall they escape the guild hall, but in the ruins beyond the run into another mindflayer ambush, with a single mindflayer, two intellect devourers and some goblins. That was fun!
The players know they are just a couple of bad saving throws away from defeat, but a couple of summoned bears and a charging paladin kills the mindflayer, which cause the rest to flee. The warlock had his intelligence reduced by the intellect devourer though, and is comatose, so now they are down to three characters.
The finally reach the exit point at the tower, where an elf is waiting for them. He introduces himself as Kelgon, but the paladin sense that he is a fiend in disguise. He does not reveal his true form, when they confront him with that knowledge, but he admits that the Mezzoloths that attacked them works for him, and that he has a proposal for them: if they are willing to help him kill undead in the ruins, he will give them knowledge and magic items in return. Their response is that they want to consider it, and that they will return with an answer, if he is willing to let them exit the ruin. He allows that, and finally the group emerges from the ruins into a forest that now seems much more benign and safe.
The group is searching for a wizard in a ruined city. He deserted from their settlement several months ago, and has already learned that there are both fiends and mind flayers inside the ruins. You can read the beginning here.
In the third installment I will also make the adventure itself available.
The body of Corbian
The group enters the big ancient guildhall of elven craftsmen and find a huge lump of blue resin-like substance with a robe clad elf inside on the second floor. Next to it lies the body of the wizard Corbian, who they were sent to find, along with his spell book, which contains a ritual – which Corbian created – that can release the elf. There are no signs of his men. Abbott – the warlock – finds the mind of the imprisoned wizard (he thinks), and communicates with him.
They decide to release the wizard, with the ritual that takes an hour. While the wizard casts the ritual the rest of the team watch the surroundings. They are of course aware that something will happen. Unfortunately, as the ritual finishes, the gnome rogue watching the entrance has become lost in thoughts and fail to notice the attackers arriving, and an epic fight begins.
A mind flayer and a gauth (beholder-kin from the new Volo’s Guide to monsters) burst through a large window at the end of a hallway, and via the staircase goblins attack from below with another mind flayer and another gauth. With liberal use of fireballs, wall of thorns and other spells, the group manages to defeat the attackers. Jarn, the paladin/ranger is stunned by a mind blast, and has difficulty making his save.
At the end of the third round the resin bursts and reveals another 10 foot tall armored mindflayer – an Ilithor – an illithid war leader – of my own creation (you can find the stats here). It attempts to eat the dwarf in front of it, but he makes his saving throw, and the round after use a prismatic spray – and then the paladin, who was stunned for half the fight, has done an enormous amount of damage with Smites, and it falls. And after looting, we end the session.
It was a very intense and fun encounter.Partly because of the many different attacks and enemies the characters had to fight – magical effects from the eye rays, gauths that explode on death and the danger of the mind flayer’s mind blasts and subsequent brain extraction. And partly because of the large battlefield, with several different features, which were used for cover and tactical maneuvers. The party used spells creatively and spent a ton of resources – which will become important.
I would have liked the Ilithor to last one more round to really highlight how dangerous it was, but it was still very epic, and Korrick the dwarf was just one save away from having his brain eaten.
Description: a three meters tall armor clad ilithid with only four tentacles. It is more bulky and squat compared with the regular mind flayers and wields a mind-blade great sword. The Ilithor is created by the Elder Brain to function as commanders of the ilithid armies.
Armor Class: 18, Hit Points: 168 (16d10+80) , Speed: 40 ft.
Saving Throws: Int +6, Wis +7, Cha +7 (advantage from psi carapace)
Skills: Insight +7, Perception +7, Deception +6
Damage Immunities: Psychic
Condition Immunities: Frightened, Charmed
Senses: darkvision 120 ft., passive perception 17
Languages: undercommon, telepathy 120 ft.
Challenge: 10 Special: Magic Resistance. The ilithor has advance on saving throws against spells and other magical effects. Innate spellcasting (psionics): The ilithor’s innate spellcasting ability is intelligence (spell save DC 15). At will: detect thoughts, levitate, 1/day dominate monster, prismatic spray Actions: Multi-attack. The ilithor can make two attacks with its great sword.
Mind blast. The ilithor emits psychic energy in a 60 ft. cone. Each creature in that area must make succeed in a DC 15 Int Save or take 4d8+3 pyschic damage, and be stunned for 1 minute. Great sword. Melee weapon attack, 10 ft. reach, +9, 2d8 slashing +2d6 psychic damage. Tentacles. Melee weapon attack: +9, 5 ft. reach, 2d10+4 psychic damage + grappled (escape DC 17), Int save 15,or be stunned until grapple ends. Extract brain. Attack+9 One incapacitated humanoid grappled by the ilithor. Hit, the target takes 10d10 piercing damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 hit points, the ilithor kills the target by extracting and devouring its brain.
Equipment/Treasure: psi carapace, mind blade greatsword
This is the first part of a three part recap of a D&D adventure. I also include some thoughts on design.
The group decided – in the previous session – they wanted to explore the large ruined city that lies half a day’s march from their settlement. It is the first time they enter the ruins, and I wanted it to be memorable and give the players and characters a good sense of the danger and conflicts going on inside the ruins. The ruined city is also a centerpiece for the campaign – an almost irresistible adventuring fun-land – but it is de facto optional for the characters.
The ruins is my own combination version of Myth Drannor and Parlainth, two city-ruin box sets that I have always enjoyed, and that I know tickles the imagination of players.
Like in the Parlainth box set (from Earthdawn) I’ve divided the ruins into a number of districts, and added a few key locations and a faction or two to each. By making a ‘purpose’ and framework for each district, it become easier to improvise, created random encounters and to describe each district in a distinctive way.
The characters already knew from a celestial they met in the Warrens, that he was unable to enter the ruins, and they know of a fey queen trapped inside, and the power of the ranger has told them that there are plenty of demons inside too. So clearly, not everyone can move freely in and out, for some reason.
From a design perspective, the feature that some things can’t get out, means that there is a contained, mid to high level adventuring zone, close to their home base. The fact that it is contained means that the characters don’t feel forced to remove this danger close to their settlement immediately. On the other hand, it adds tension that they have to fear messing with whatever contains the monsters inside the ruins, as that would be a potential disaster for the entire region.
Inside the leaders of the various factions can be powerful allies and sources of information, particularly of the ancient history of the land. They can also be major plot movers, but they don’t have to be. Which is why it is optional. If the players chose to engage with one or more of them, the appropriate plots they are involved in can be affected.
Session 27 – setting the stage
I introduced an actual quest set out by the governor, which gave them an objective. The first wizard that came with the settlement, a diviner named Corbian de Juxa, had deserted from the settlement and went into the ruins with a group of soldiers, whom he had convinced to follow him. He believed someone important was trapped inside.
The group – which for this session only had four characters present – went to the ruins, and outside the walls encountered the elves, who guard against creatures coming out. They were warned by them, not to let anything dangerous out, but were also shown to the point where Corbian and his men entered the ruin – one of the broken towers in the wall surrounding the city.
From the inside of the tower they can see a building that matches the description Corbian gave to the governor before he deserted, and they head for it.
In a ruined road, in what was a residential area with many 3 and 4 storied buildings, they are attacked, and the attackers open with a Cloud Kill. The attackers turn out to be three Mezoloths supported by a pack of armored hounds led by two hell hounds. They fight fiercely, but the fiends don’t fight to the death. All three Mezoloths teleport away when they go low on hit points, and the group manages to defeat the hounds.
However, they spent quite a lot of resources to do it. They therefore decided to have a short rest. At that point they get a second random encounter, which are two mind flayers with a pack of goblin slaves. They don’t see the hidden players, but the player on guard sees them searching the place where they fought the yugloths.
The mezzoloths were a fixed encounter, as I need them to set up a meeting in before they exit the ruins. The mind flayers were a random encounter, but worked well as foreshadowing.
At the end of the session they reach the building they were heading for and try to enter through a balcony door, but the fighter, Arak, is hit with a disintegrate when he tampers with the door and barely survives.
Fiends, cloud kill spells and disintegrate traps and the rightly feared mind flayers sets the stage for the ruins, shows them that they’ve move up into a ‘new league’ and it foreshadows future encounters.
After this update I will be only 2 sessions behind in having a synopsis of our game on this blog! I’ve been struggling simply to get prepared for each session, which means there has been no time for the blog. Unfortunately. So this is a bit of a long read.
The walk in the woods begins after the party defeated the second hag of a coven in her massive crystal tower.
When I began planning this part, I had to consider strongly how many game sessions I wanted this journey of hundreds of miles to last. There were many points of interest on the map, and the potential for a lot of encounters, but I didn’t want them to spend too much time on this part of the campaign, as it wouldn’t result in much resolution of any of the main plots. That said, the trip underscores my exploration theme, and it was their first big introduction to the wider world around the local area of their settlement. So I used the trip to expand upon the knowledge of the world and planted a few potential plot hooks and adventuring sites.
The characters start their journey through the crystal forest south to the more regular vast woodlands where the settlement lies.
Inside the crystal forest, they find a Alseid (a sort of deer centaur from Tome of Beasts) infected by the crystal and ripped by a large creature. Some hours later they are attacked by four land sharks infected with the crystal. The characters defeat them with some luck.
A couple of days later they reach the regular forest, and they notice that the elf Sekhlas is a bit nervous by the whole thing.
At one point they rest in a small cave, and it turns out it has a sprite guardian, who gifts them with some sleeping poison, after a bit of mischief.
After a few more days of travelling they reach the area of the elven tribe, and they arrive at their camp one evening. They parlay and agree to let them visit the tribe. Here they are hospitably met and they establish good relations with their leader. He agrees to supply them with information and assistance in their journey in return for help with destroying a band of hobgoblin slavers that have entered the forest.
The group has already learned from the centaur they met that the hobgoblins live on the plains and are building a great city, so this is extra information for them.
The group finds a good place to ambush the hobgoblins, which has a captain, more than 30 warriors, a few armored ogres, two low level clerics, and a warlock among them. But the advantageous location (based on great survival roll), and a couple of fireballs, ensures that the group has the encounter well under control.
The information they get is important. First of all they learn of a black dragon living in the ruins of a keep by a ruined bridge, and where its territory lies. They learn of the Land of Decay, which is full of fungi, and a goblin tribe in the area they have to pass through. They also learn of the elven tribe Two Tears, across the river, and how to contact them.
The group deliberates and decide to sneak across the river as quickly as possible and move south. They avoid an encounter with the dragon, and obtain elven guides through the forest until they reach another big river, where they can see ruins on the other side and pillars of an ancient bridge.
The ruins on the other side are on a hill and desolate. It also looked like someone made a fortification inside the town by digging a deep trench and throwing up ramparts in a large circle. They enter this area and discover it is another fort, called Fort 27 (they already heard of Fort 25). They find two magical flags and a tunnel has been dug in the middle of the fort.
Down in the tunnel they discover rooms that were the site of intense combat with lots of bones, broken weapons and sign of spell damage. When they enter the central chamber, they are attacked by a Neothelid.
The full group of 7 level 7 characters deal swift death to the CR 13 Neothelid with 325 hitpoints. It doesn’t get a third round. It is a demonstration of the difficulty of balance with more than 4 players. A single monster needs multiple actions and the ability to counter player moves, if it is to survive. OR perhaps I should add 75% hitpoints for more balanced encounters? It was fun though, and had one player missed a save, they might have been in much greater trouble.
Beyond the Neothelid they locate an ancient war council chamber, with the bodies of two ancient commanders, their magic items, and three message stones with the following ‘voice recordings’.
Commander, proceed north and delay hostile forces approaching Ivanith’Laril. Archmages are working to protect the Towers of the Stars, but they need time. Make sure they have it.
Commander, you will receive reinforcements. The 8th Legion is retreating towards your position. Secure the bridge at Serahin. The tirelessness of our allies should enable you to fortify the position against the horde and buy us more time. That, and King Wailmorr’s mercenaries, may be enough.
These are the last words of Commander Thelketh. Our position is almost overrun. Our allies’ efforts have ensured we have lasted this long. I never would have thought to end up owing them a debt. We saw the flash from Fort 25. Gods have mercy on them. The other forts must be overrun. Whoever finds this, please pray for my soul.
They conclude that the elves actually were allies with the undead Bones of Sarakhon. And that the Towers of the Stars are inside the ruined city close to the settlement (more on that next time…)
And all this ties in to the backstory of the world they are in. And a small pieces of the greater jigsaw puzzle.
On the final leg of the journey the enter an ashen plain, where nothing grows, and it turns out, the barrier to the elemental plane of fire has been worn thin. They cross it, and meet some Ash Zombies, and at the center find a very large crater, with a big fire elemental in the middle, surrounded by Ash Zombies and mephits, and in the heat haze they can glimpse into the elemental plane of fire. They decide not to approach the elemental and move on.
Beyond the ashen plains they travel through the woods and finally get back to their settlement. The final surprise is that the barmaid Lara is pregnant, and the young paladin Jarn has had a very close relationship with her.
I recently acquired two monster books: Volo’s Guide to Monsters from Wizards of the Coast and Tome of Beasts from Kobold Press. The Tome of Beasts turned out to be the most expensive monster book I ever bought. It was sold out in my local game store, and they didn’t have any copies on Amazon, so I decided to buy it from Kobold Press in the U.S. When you included shipping, it was already pricey. Then they picked it up in customs, and added a fee. Then the tax man came and added his value-added tax of 25% to the customs fee (yes, crazy, I know). Ultimately, I paid more than 150 USD for Tome of Beasts and another 50, plus shipping, for Volo’s Guide. Was it worth it? So far, yes.
I – obviously! – haven’t read them cover to cover. Who does that with monster manuals? I’ve flipped through them several times and I’ve used monsters from both – and will use the fearsome Neothelid in my next session, and can see many more that I’m likely to use.
The two books are quite different. Volo’s Guide is not just a collection of monsters, but contains lore to a lot of the classical monsters (goblinoids, beholders, gnolls, giants, beholders etc.), several new playable races, 7 cool lair maps and a collection of around 100 monsters. Tome of Beasts has more than 400 monsters and some lore for each, with special Midgard lore in boxes for many of them. All of it in full color.
Both books have a lot of cool and useful monsters. My favorites include the gnoll variants and all the illithid creatures in Volo’s Guide, but there are many classics, like the Cave fisher or Tanarukks. In Tome of Beasts some of my favourites are the Clockwork creatures, Rotting Wind and Mordant Snare.
Tome of Beasts significantly expands the fey portfolio, which is useful for my campaign, and also has plenty of undead, which are almost always useful.
Ultimately, the monsters in Tome of Beasts are better suited for my home brew campaign, but I will be using the various beholders and illithids from Volo’s as well. Most of the lore in Volo’s isn’t useful in my current campaign, which also reduces its usefulness.
The negative – too low CR
One of the reasons I will by using more from the Tome of Beasts is the – to me – relatively low CR of most of the creatures. This touches the core issue for me with both books. Too many of the monsters that are likely to be the focus of a story or session, and mostly meant to be met as single creatures, are too low Challenge Rating. And there are not enough creatures which characters of mid to high level might meet in groups. One example is the Clockwork creatures. They range from CR ½ to 6. If am to use them with my group, which is already level 7-8, and has seven characters, I will need to buff them significantly.
For the original Monster Manual it makes sense that the selection of creatures is skewed towards the lower CRs, but why make the Cave Fisher CR 3 with 58 hit points, or the very rare master mind Ulitharid CR 9?
But all in all, they are two great products with great value for years and years of D&D campaigns, which is good, given how much I ended up paying 🙂
Why should I especially buy Tome of Beasts?
If you just love having a ton of monsters
If you need a lot of Fey creatures
If you run a desert campaign
If you use a lot of undead
If you run the Midgard campaign setting from Kobold Press.
Why should I especially buy Volo’s Guide?
If you want more character races
If you use a lot of humanoids in your campaigns
If you like to have quick drop in content
If you want more lore for many of the classic D&D monsters
These were two relatively encounter heavy session, where the characters enter the lair of the (buffed) hag Arasekha, but sessions, where they sacrifice important things to gain knowledge that will move the plot forward.
Sacrifices for Oracle
We began the session by the well, where Xarzon, whom the paladin identifies as being a celestial, still sits waiting for them to leave, so he can use the oracle himself.
There are seven players present, so when the player of Korrick, the dwarf fighter/bard, asks Xarzon, what you must sacrifice to learn something, not everyone hears. That becomes important.
Korrick decides to sacrifice his new Ring of Protection +1 to the spirit in the well, and the huge spirit emerges from the well and answers Korricks question on the nature of the curse that afflicts his clan (more on that later).
A little later, the gnome rogue, who together with the group’s wizard stole some sort of item from the monastery the wizard grew up in, decides to do the same, but choses to sacrifice 30 silver and some blood. Obviously, 30 silver is far from enough, so the spirit snatches some of the offered life force and the gnome is deducted 5 hit points – permanently.
Both characters got some relevant information that potentially will change the future decisions they might make.
The lair of Arasekha
The group then continues and find the exit to the lair of Arasekha, and when they pass through the portal, they emerge on a platform suspended more than 100 feet above the crystal forest on the side of a huge crystal spire (300 feet high). They are immediately attacked by a group of flying crystalline creatures, and they take some punishment. They dare a short rest, hoping that the witch hasn’t set an alarm, and succeed.
Exploring the pinnacle, which is a maze of hard to navigate crystal halls and corridors with multiple reflections of everything, they first find a garden of crystal plants with an elven caretaker. He is pruning the plants with a mithral dagger. They engage him in conversation, and he stalls until “his” minions arrive. Three groups of crystallized centaurs and hobgoblins charge towards the room. The elf turns out to be some form of simulacra and he shatters when hit, and the minions are engaged with fireballs and other potent magic, and fall before the group.
They push on and enter a large room where a group of crystallized hobgoblins are experimenting with the crystal. And we end session 22, ready to roll initiative.
The following session the group fights the hobgoblin laboratory workers and a crystallized deranged hill giant. They defeat them without too much trouble and find hobgoblins immersed in a solution, which seems to expedite the growth of crystal, and an elven prisoner, who is mostly infected with the crystal, which seems to be spreading like an infection. She begs them to kill her and find her imprisoned brother.
The leader Jarn decides to try and find the prisoner, before they deal with the witch. They succeed and locate him together with two centaurs. After the jailers attack, and are defeated they make for the tip of the pinnacle.
At the top they find Arasekha, who is guarded by a couple of crystalline elves in a small throne room. A battle begins, and she summons simulacra of herself to divert their attention, while casting wall of fire and other spells. The group responds with all they have, using summoned panthers to attack the simulacra, to locate her true self. After a fierce struggle they defeat her, loot her sanctum of spells, her Staff of the Seer and a few other items, including a very finely made mechanical beetle.
The spire begins to collapse, and when they reach the portal, it collapses. The Warlock use his feather fall spell to let them escape, without having to brave the collapsing spire. When the session (and 2016) ends, the group find themselves in a crystal forest 100s of miles from their settlement.
What went well:
The crystal spire was an evocative setting, and with five major rooms/encounters it also had the right size.
The final battle with Araskeha was fun and had good features, lair actions and odd surprises in it.
The use of the oracle helped propel the plot forward based on player actions.
What could I have done differently:
I should have used Arasekhas ability to speak and act through the crystal even more to make her even more evocative and interesting.
Her minions at the final battle should have been just a bit tougher to make the encounter a little more challenging.
In this session, my players wander into the planes for the first time, and therefore I will write something on how I see the planes in D&D and how I’ve changed it for my home brew world, in addition to the normal session recap.
A couple of the issues I have with the planes in D&D are that there are so many of them, that the facts concerning the planes are ‘true’ and that most of them are infinite.
The problem with the fact that there are so many is that most characters – and thus players – will so rarely visit the same ones that they never gain any familiarity with them. The planes fail to become an integral part of the game world. In a typical campaign you will maybe visit one plane, so unless a campaign is centered around one of them – invasion by the City of Brass or the intrigues of the unseelie courts – they don’t play a big role.
But on the other hand, the planes are infinite. They must therefore have many more interesting places and beings than the prime world, which annoys me, because the prime world should be the most interesting (Sigil is in many ways a more interesting place than Greyhawk or Waterdeep). And there are known ‘facts’ about them (you can look them up in the DMG), which makes them less mysterious.
The prime world is more complex and finite and therefore more manageable and interesting to explore (as it should be), but the actual interaction with these far planes should be part of the adventurer’s lives and understanding.
To improve on this (in my opinion), I’ve made some changes to my multi-verse. The key ones are below. Others I will not write here, as my players are unaware of them, and I like to keep it that way.
First of all, I’ve combined the Feywild, Shadowfell and the Etheral plane into one and called them the Warrens (inspired by Steven Erikson), and that plane mirrors the prime plane, like the astral plane in Earthdawn and the umbra in Werewolf the Apocalypse.
Secondly , I’ve changed several spells to fit this, so when you detect or divine you see through the Warrens and when you teleport or misty step or whatever, you actually walk through the Warrens, where time and distance works differently. As the Warrens are a mirror to the prime world, it also means you can’t teleport across an ocean, you need a vessel inside the Warrens, which would enable you to cross the ocean faster. There are also beings inside the Warrens, many of them powerful, so you have to tread carefully.
Thirdly, there is not one, but several explanations to what they are and how they work – just like we can discuss the nature of the divine. The two my players have heard are: Some say the Warrens are a failed version of the prime world that the first gods discarded. Others that the presence of magical essence in all things naturally creates a mirror state.
These changes have the effect that the Warrens are relevant in basically every session and that the players slowly learn more about them.
It also underscores the main theme of my campaign: exploration. The Warrens is a place you explore and it is part of exploring the prime plane.
Also, instead of simply teleporting from one place to the other they have to travel everywhere, and have to consider if the advantage of going somewhere quickly outweighs the risk of meeting something very dangerous. This also underlines the theme of the campaign.
When the characters stepped through the portal (only 3 out of 7 players were present) they were immediately set upon by vengeful animal spirits, which they relatively easily defeated but they damaged them. The portal was located inside the Warren’s version of the hollowed tree.
They then began investigating the tortured elf who was crucified nearby and concluded that he had lost his soul. Then the Horned Devil and its two henchmen (bearded devils) were summoned and another fight ensued. It appeared that it had been promised their souls.
To explain the presence of more characters and make they fight more appropriate, I ruled that the non-present player’s characters engage the two bearded devils. The three remaining characters then sniped away from a Fog Cloud and managed to banish the devil.
Outside of the tree, the woods of the Warrens were eerily quiet and unnatural, with no sun and with the great trees casting long shadows. Two paths had been marked through the Warrens, and they knew that to navigate the Warrens away from the path would require a stern focus (successful INT or WIS checks). One path was marked with skulls another with small crystals. They chose the crystal path north, which should lead to the middle sister.
After a few hours journeying through the Warrens they spot a corpse of an elf by an altar holding a staff with gems. They move away from the path to investigate, and when they get closer suddenly the path has disappeared, as has their four companions, and the elf turns out to be a skeleton holding nothing. At that point they are set upon by shadow bats and a weird sylvan creature with the legs of a hind and razor sharp teeth that sucks blood. They defeat them after a fierce battle and search the area as they can’t see the path anyway. In some ruins nearby they find her lair and a cloak woven from living plants and shadows and decide to rest.
They steel themselves and locate the path again, but they can’t see their companions anywhere. As the move on, they come upon a fight between a big dark skinned man wielding a beautiful great sword fighting a pack of very cunning regenerating wolves next to a mysterious dark well. They enter the battle on his side and finally slay all the wolves, which coalesce into one rangy man wearing wolf-skin.
The man, who is named Xarzon, thanks them and they talk. It turns out the man was hunting him on behalf of a former employer, whom he has a disagreement with. He was a dangerous Dissembler – a shape shifter that can turn into multiple beasts (also stolen from Eriksons novels). He also tells them that the well has a spirit in it which serves as an oracle, if appeased correctly. He also tells them a few things about the Warrens: that they are strange beyond the vast space of the north, that the land is under some kind of curse and that the eldest of the Sisters of Sorrow dominates the trolls in her area and has made a pact with one of the Lords of the Nine Hells.
He also gives them a ring of protection as thank you, and with the loot of the Dissembler, it was a rewarding session.