Expedition to Fort 25 and the Ashen Plains

This is a recap from my home-brew campaign the Fallen World. It is an exploration focused campaign, with plenty of dungeons and dragons. Seven characters have been chosen to go to the first colony on a newly discovered continent. Their homeland and allies have been in a protracted war with the Hrran Hegemony for 30 years, and both sides of the conflict are heavily strained. The Kingdom of Aquilar hopes the adventurers sent to the new world can find riches and powerful artefacts that can turn the tides of war in their favour.

This recap covers session 31-33. Characters are around 9th level. 

My players decided to try and find Fort 25, which they had heard about in their exploration of Fort 27. They travel northwest through the thick forest for a few days and eventually arrive at the edge of another plain of ashes.

At this point they don’t know what created the plains, they are simply aware that these locations have a thin barrier to the Elemental Plane of Fire and that magic can be erratic there. So, they resolutely begin exploring it.

For the plains I had created a list of encounters that were more substantial than monsters, but weren’t so elaborate that I would hate to not use them. The core monsters were ashen zombies and wights. The zombies I had already used previously in a similar area, so the characters had an idea of what they were getting into.

Azer_-_Sam_Wood
Azers a dwarf-like elemental creatures from the plane of fire. 

Their first encounter turned out to be a roleplaying encounter. They find a mining operation being undertaken by a group of Azers. As they only speak Ignan, and the characters don’t the druid summons a fire mephit, which he can use for translation. I found that quite inventive and fun to role-play. They agree to buy a magical shield, as the Azers are looking for gold (which I reasoned was hard to find at the elemental plane of fire, due to the temperature…). And they agreed the Azers  would craft a magical weapon for them paid with substantial amount of gold – for an upfront payment of half – and promised to return to trade for it.

The following encounter was a ruined elven town half buried in the ashes. They found an ancient shrine, where a prayer boosted Korrick (20 temporary hit points) and they were attacked by Ashen Wights and Zombies (inspired by Skyrim). It was foreshadowing for a ‘boss encounter’ at the fort.

They also located a tunnel leading into the hill, where they find a sealed door. Behind it the elves buried murderers, and they have turned to wraiths. A tough fight ensues, but the group manages to win and recover a Dagger of Venom and a Periapt of Proof against Poisons (which turns out to be quite handy later in the campaign).

Arrival at the Fort

After a long rest, they continue towards the middle of the plains. From afar they see what looks like a big tower of iron girders atop a hill. It turns out that the fort is on the hill, and that the iron tower looks like the remains of a giant immovable trebuchet, and the group has a hard time figuring its purpose, as it cannot really be aimed.

The fort, like the previous one they encounters, has an underground component, but when they try to get in, they are attacked by more Ashen Wights. The wights are nasty, as they all have the equivalent of a fireshield, and one of them is a sorcerer with a fire elemental and the commander is a powerful melee combatant.

For some reason, despite all the hints, only the druid has some kind of fire protection, but they manage to defeat the wights. Particular the Abjurers use of counterspell has a deciding effect on the battle, as he keeps the sorcerer from dishing out a lot of fire damage. They recover a scimitar +2 that does an extra D6 damage against abominations among a couple of other items.

Inside the fort they find a number things: They find the covered corpses of dozens of elves which they – wisely – let rest in peace.

They find a war-room with a sand table, where they can see the miniatures used by the generals that represents skeletons, elves and abominations (beholders and mindflayers), and it is clear that the elves and skeletons were allied against the abominations.

At the end of a large chamber there is a door, and the entire end of the room is covered in a mystical lattice-web that turns out to be an intelligent ward.

The Intelligent Ward

Computer network security connection technology
I don’t know if I succeeded in getting across how intelligent the ward was, and how it tried to counter their moves…

This encounter is set as a skill challenge, and I inform the players, that they will automatically get the door open, but how well they perform against the ward will determined how hard, what happens on the other side, is. And that if they fail 3 checks, it will be pretty bad…

I use the Matt Coleville version of the skill challenge, where players can try any skill they can explain, but only use the same skill once.

They begin engaging with the ward, and fail the first roll, which results in a power surge from the ward (lightning bolt), the second roll succeeds, but the third roll also fails (which sends a ray of radiant power at the player), and finally Arak the War Cleric decides to brute force the door, which succeeds. Which means they have 2 success and 2 failures. The consequence is that they face 3 stone golems on the other side, instead of the potential 4.

I’ve modified the golems by giving them ranged spells, lightning bolts and sunbeam with a recharge, to make things more interesting and give them some tactical flexibility. The house rule is also that they need enchanted adamantine to penetrate their damage resistance.

The group fights quite smart, and the wizard use Bigby’s Hand to contain one golem at range. But the other two engage in melee and casts Slow, which the melee characters find very annoying.

The stone golem damage output is quite intense, but I don’t roll above average. A crit deals 52 damage to the War Cleric, which commands respect.

Ultimately, they defeat the golems, but it was clear that one additional golem would have been too much for them to handle. It was a good encounter, because it balanced on the edge, and they could see the consequences of previous actions and their spell abilities added some unpredictability for my experienced players.

NO_to_trillion__on_Nuclear_Weaponsiamge
Orb of Sundering in action.

After defeating the golems they don’t find any significant treasure, but instead a large insulated box with another box suspended within that once contained a sphere around 2 feet in diameter. Alongside the box there are instructions for this device, which is an Orb of Sundering (basically a nuke) and orders for the general of the army to deploy it. The implication is that the elves and their allies had to use desperate measures in their attempt to survive.

As the homeland of the characters are in a big war, such a weapon has military potential, along with moral issues, if they could locate a Orb of Sundering.

 

A Side Note: 

The wizard is finally able to cast Legend Lore, which begin to reveal things about their items, and potential quests, including an item, which was part of the wizard’s backstory.

One of the more important items is a silver rod, found with the first Sister of Sorrow that turns out to be a key.

“Created by High Mage Izenova as one of four keys to defend the Towers of the Stars. The silver key unlocks the second ring. Illuminated under Mur’s eye, in one of her sacred sites, you may bond yourself to its purpose.“

 

 

 

Review: The Road Goes Ever On

The Road Goes Ever on is a travel supplement for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7. It contains four large maps with print on both sides and a 32-page booklet.

The most significant value lies in the eight maps that covers each of the four large regions of Middle-Earth, Eriador (where the Shire, Bree and Rivendell lies and the site of ancient Arnor), Wilderland (which is the initial focus of the setting), Gondor & Rohan and Mordor.

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Cleverly, the player map and the colour coded map for the Loremaster map is on two different pieces, so you can hand out the player map, while keeping the Loremaster version. 

The hexed maps are essential if you wish to use the Middle-Earth travel system. In this system area has a colour code and a symbol for how difficult and dangerous the terrain is. With the core books you only get the map for Wilderland, so if you run a game in one of the other areas these maps are needed (I guess you can make something similar yourself, with some graphic skills!).

The booklet contains expanded events, rules and inspiration for generating random NPC-encounters on the road, inspiration and random tables for creating ruins, a few groups of enemies, a couple of camp-site battle-maps, a system for avoiding battles, a couple of pages of inspiration for sights along the way, and two pages on lodgings on the road and finally two pages on experience for journeys and travel related oaths.

Is it good?

Yes, I actually liked the supplement, and was inspired by it. As always, Cubicle 7 captures the mood of Middle-Earth very well.

The maps are of good quality, and I now have one I can hand out to my players.

The best part, was – for me – the random events, encounters on the road and the section on ruins (which covers about 2/3 of the booklet). I don’t need them that bad, as I run Wilderland Adventures, where there are dedicated event charts, but if you run a more open sandbox style game, the will be handy. But I did get a better sense of details in the setting, like which plants are you likely to find and what travelers can you meet on the road.

The section on motivations for random travelers on the road is thorough, and has some suggestions for turning expectations on its head, and they help you ask questions, that can generate plot hooks and interesting role-play situations.

Bones of the Earth

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A ruined farmhouse from Road Goes Ever On.

The ruin section helps you create ruins with a distinct Middle-Earth feel. The odds of encountering something dangerous is actually quite low, though. I think the best way to use the section is to spend 30 minutes rolling up a couple of ruins for later use, in stead of slowing down the game and doing it at the table. That way, you also make sure you have something ready, if you want to change the pacing of the game, or need to introduce a place to rest for the players.

The eight dangerous encounters are also handy. They run from CR 4 to 10. They claim the CR can be modified by giving the boss or the warband one of the strengths or weaknesses from the Loremaster’s Guide. I have serious doubts that they have that great an effect, as the deciding factors in encounter CR are mainly the number of attacks arrayed against the PC’s. Secondly an unusually high AC or nasty (area of effect) special ability, is normally a key danger point.

The part on avoiding battle is basically a set of skill checks, and may be useful for beginning Loremasters, but something a more experienced GM/Loremaster can wing quite easily.

The ekstra battle-maps and the oaths PC’s can make to gain experience are also ok, but minor additions, in my view.

That also goes for Lodgings on the Road, which describes the poor and rich farmhouses and inns in Middle-Earth. Again, fine inspiration, but not needed for most Loremasters.

Is it worth 30 dollars?

If you need the maps and/or if you have little time to prepare, I would say yes. But if you are on a budget, and you don’t need the maps, you can probably get more value for your money elsewhere. I would suggest the Rhovanion Region Guide. It is only 10 dollars extra, and has 135 pages of ready content and setting information. Will review it soon.

Except for the maps, there aren’t really anything in Road Goes Ever On that can’t be made by a relatively experienced Loremaster with time on her hands.

But if you – like me – are a fan, like the tables and the direct inspiration of the charts and questions, this is a useful supplement. I will definitely roll up a few things, just in case I need them in my game.

Why should you buy Road Goes Ever On:

  • Your game moves outside of Wilderland
  • You enjoy tables and charts for inspiration
  • You want to save time preparing your game

Why should you consider buying another supplement?

  • You have plenty of time to prepare
  • You prefer planned encounters
  • You are on a budget and don’t need the maps

 

Wilderland Adventures – a new campaign and a review (sort of)

My current D&D homebrew campaign has been put on hold, because I just got a new job, and to eliminate a stress factor, I decided to run a published campaign, to cut prep time. Instead we will pay Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7.

I’ve written about Adventures in Middle-Earth on this blog previously (Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide), and been quite excited on their use of the D&D 5th edition rules and their very thematic take on Middle-Earth.

But you can’t really know how well the rules work unless you’ve tried them in your game. As the youtuber Matt Coleville, so rightly puts it: the map is not the territory, the recipe is not the meal.

Adventures-in-Middle-earth-Wilderland-Adventures-cover-900
The cover of the adventure. A classic desperate stand in Middle-Earth, and the characters will have plenty of opportunity to try it. 

This new – and relatively short campaign – will therefore be an ongoing review of the seven adventures that makes up the Wilderland Adventures. They read well, but do they play well? And where do they need adjustments? Playing the campaign should also provide other GM’s, who might be interested, some insight into how the rules actually play out? In effect a review/playtest of the entire game.

When we’ve played through the seven adventures, we will return to my home brew campaign. I hope I can publish my backlog of session recaps over Christmas, so we have the game recorded while we are on a break.

As I’ve also bought the Rhovanion Region Guide and the Mirkwood Campaign, two new products for Adventures in Middle-Earth, I may drop in elements of those source books as well.

We make characters December 6th, and I hope we also get to play the first part of the first adventure.

Initial Review of Wilderland Adventures

This is not an in-depth review of the 156-page campaign. It is hard to really recommend a published campaign you haven’t run. This is more my first impressions from reading it, and getting ready to run it.

I won’t describe all the adventures. But it will have mild spoilers. So, if you are a player (especially one of my players), and you want to know absolutely nothing about the story or adventures, you should read no further.

Wilderland Adventures is seven linked adventures, where the first four can be dropped into most Middle-Earth campaigns set in this area. The final three are more closely linked, and are hard to run independently. The adventures take place in various locations in Wilderland and will take the adventurers to around 7th level.

My first impression of the seven adventures is very positive overall.

All of the adventures feel like they are set in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. The mood is spot on and follows the themes outlined in the Loremaster’s guide (such as The Long Defeat in a Fallen World and Deliverance Arrives as All Seems Lost).

Particularly the second, fourth and fifth adventures looks like they are excellent. The second one features a captured hobbit and fun goblin feast song, the fourth evolves around a Noldor elf the players have to escort towards the sea, but her powerful song and presence attracts a lot of attention and the fifth is an infiltration mission.

Actually, I think the first adventure is the weakest of the seven. It takes the group through Mirkwood, and has quite a dark tone. It is not a bad adventure at all, but I would have liked a much stronger hook.

As it is for 1st level characters, it would have been nice, if the adventure also accommodated getting the group together, with a strong motivation, as Mirkwood is a dangerous place for first level characters. Instead it assumes they already know each other and are wandering along the Long Lake, when something happens. The designers opt for having an action hook that can result in combat. I think it will work as intended, but I would have appreciated getting help with getting the group together.

But let’s see how it plays out!

TFW05loading

The book is very well organized with summaries of the campaign and each adventure. It is also fully colour illustrated like the rest of the Middle-Earth products. As an added bonus, it contains colour battle maps for most of the encounters. But

On the design side, I really appreciate that all the adventures don’t assume the heroes succeed. There are usually options for various alternate solutions or paths that the adventure might take and failure is frequently an option – the one they are supposed to protect dies or they are discovered and need to flee before they learn key information. This is a refreshing change from the published adventures I’ve typically seen. But to be fair, I’ve not run a published adventure since 2007 or something like that.

That said, it is not a sand box-style series of adventures, like e.g. Curse of Strahd. Each adventure has a clear plot line, with a hook, a journey and a couple of adventuring locations, and a climax.

The transitions from one adventure to the next may need a bit of work, and I expect I might add some minor additional adventures or events to create a smooth flow.

An excellent additional value for money is the customized journey events that are included. A journey has 12 possible events, and there are 12 unique events for all 7 adventures. That will add some interesting spice to each adventure, and will ensure that two groups running the same adventure will have somewhat different experiences, as typically only two or three events will come into play.

npc mannerism
An example of help for the Loremaster.

On the role-playing side, there are plenty of opportunities and interesting NPCs. I particularly like that there is a box on how to role-play the major NPCs. They describe speech patterns, mannerisms and movement – elements that I’m generally not great at coming up with for my own NPCs. I hope the assistance will add a lot of extra fun to my game.

All of the adventures also use the Audience mechanic, and sometimes the outcome of an audience can be critical for the outcome of the adventure.

 

 

The Deserted Wizard – a D&D adventure – part 2

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.

Gauth-5e
A gauth. Its rays are less dangerous than a beholder’s, and its central eye is paralyzing instead of anti magic (which works really well combined with mindflayers…)

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.

The Ilithor
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.

Gm thoughts

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.

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I bought two packs of these minis. I had the wrong glue though, so had to wait until part III of the adventure to use them. 

Ilithor

Illithor (large)

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.

STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA
20 13 20 17 19 17
+5 +1 +5 +3 +4 +3

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

The Deserted Wizard – a D&D adventure

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.

Design choices

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.

parlainth myth drannor
Two ruined city mega dungeons, but designed very differently. I don’t think I’ve used any RPG box set more than Parlainth. 

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.

Mezzoloth-5e
Mezzoloths are the regular soldiers of the Yugloth armies.

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.

More on that in the next installment…

A Walk in the Woods (session 24-26)

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.

Session 24

The characters start their journey through the crystal forest south to the more regular vast woodlands where the settlement lies.

eva-widermann-tob-alseid-final-v2
The Alseid from Tome of Beasts, which I wrote about in my last post.

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.

Session 25

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.

4e_black_dragon
They didn’t want the treasure of an adult black dragon. Perhaps wise, as it is CR 15, with some additions of my own…

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.

Session 26:
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’.

Ascendant_runestone
The message stones look something like this, and can easily fit in a palm.
  • 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. 

Ash_Spawn
The idea for Ash zombies were lifted from the Ash Spawn of the Skyrim expansion. 

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.

A Monster Review: Volo’s Guide and Tome of Beasts

kobtob1001_500
You can find Tome of Beasts here: Kobold Press store

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.

500 monsters

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.

flind
The most dangerous gnoll – who are now all demon spawn. Get the book at Wizards: Wizard’s products

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.

ulitharid-5e
The not quite mighty enough Ulitharid… 

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
  • If you like beholders and mindflayers

Session 22 & 23: The Crystal Pinnacle

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.

green_hag-5e
The green hag of the MM was too weak. Arasekha was a 10th level diviner, with extra HP and Lair Actions. Her older sister is worse.

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.

Session 23

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.

 

 

 

Planar travel for dummies – session 21

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.

sigil
Sigil is probably the most interesting city Wizards or TSR ever made, and it doesn’t exist in the prime material plane. 

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.

My approach
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.

earthdawn3
In Earthdawn powerful monstrosities lurk in the Astral plane, and some even exists in both planes at once.
  • 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.

The session:
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.

devilhorned
5th edition Horned Devil. A CR 11 monster taken out by 3 level 6 characters. Maybe I was easy on them?

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.

malazen
Very complex fantasy series, highly influenced by Black Company, and grew out of an RPG campaign. One of my favorites. 

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.