Friday, March 18, 2016

Year of the Demon Lord - Death Comes to Blackstone Ford (Part 2) & The Undertaker's Apprentice

Previously ... the heroes investigated corpses in the woods and fought a bone fiend. Wounded they retired to the village for the night to rest and recover. Further investigation would need to wait until morning came ...


Our Cast:

Some time has passed ...

When the group returned to the forest to try and follow the tracks they found instead that the bone pile had been strewn about and all sign of the tracks was obliterated. Somewhat defeated the group returned to the village. Two weeks passed. Sounds in the forest were followed by a pair of missing hunters, and tales from caravaners of missing associates. On the night of the full moon a local hermit came into the town to trade and drink. The locals say he was acting stranger than normal; mad even. Worse still his madness seemed oddly infectious. People were saying the blacksmith had traded with the man and had not been the same since. Most recently a young woman, Betha Cobb, had gone missing; apparently taken from her bed in the middle of the night. Events were souring the once idyllic town.

As the enjoyed an unseasonably warm afternoon while eating lunch they discussed recent events. It seemed as though the world were going mad, and certainly there was talk that some of the townsfolk were indeed descending into insanity. Ruedan and Holgar had both seen to people at the temple but no cure, divine or otherwise, seemed to do more than relieve the symptoms temporarily. The group wondered what malady could cause madness.

Runt suggested that they enter the forest and try and track down whomever or whatever was behind the missing hunters and the odd noises at night. Sage felt that perhaps they could help find the recently missing girl and that perhaps that might shed light on other mysteries. Unsure what else to do the others agreed and the group decided to visit the Cobb family's farm to investigate the disappearance.

The Cobb's were not a wealthy family. Sheepherders, they lived in a small home with a sod roof. Mrs Cobb greeted the group and when informed that they were investigating Betha's disappearance allowed them to investigate the girl's room. Fox, thinking that they may not be allowed in had snuck round to the back and attempted to break in only to wind down his springs in the process. The group were able to block Mrs. Cobb from seeing his inanimate form half in the window to the small room, and after a moment's consideration they chose to re-wind the clockwork.

The tiny room had once been occupied by both of the Cobb sisters, but since her sister's death Betha had been alone in it. The room was tidy and there was little sign of struggle, until they spotted some sandy dirt under the window. Going outside they verified that it did not match the loamy dirt of the farm and Runt decided that eating some would help him identify the dirt. He concluded that he knew the dirt for certain, but couldn't recall it at that instant. They asked some questions of Mrs. Cobb before deciding that they had two paths to investigate. They could check down by the river where Betha liked to spend her free time, or they could investigate Jareth at the graveyard.

Visiting graveyard to question Jareth, the one time betrothed of Betha sister Keena seemed the most prudent action and they quickly determined that it was the correct action when Runt identified the soil he had eaten as being soil from the graveyard! It now seemed that questioning Jareth would be key to finding the girl. Meanwhile Holgar had an odd bit of intuition about Keena's grave and decided to visit.

The group found Jareth, the apprentice undertaker & gravekeeper. He didn't have much the in way of answers for the heroes, and seemed intent on disuading them from their course of investigation. When his master arrived he provided a similarly cool reception.

Runt wasn't having any part of that however, the orc wanted answers and he was going to get them no matter what it took. And apparently all it took was a backhanded slap. Runt sent Jareth reeling backwards before the young man fell to the grass. "I want answers!," he demanded.

Fox, ever the one for mischief, helped Jareth up and used the opportunity to pick pocket the man. Fox wasn't one to be picky either, he simply took the first thing his fingers found; a small slip of paper that was rolled up.
GM's Note: As GM I had to scramble for something. I could have just tossed a die for some minor coinage, but I decided to roll on the interesting things. The first result was uninteresting, but the next one down was ... worthy. 
"Hey everyone, I found this paper and is says ... Croldrdwor?" Fox said, reading the strange word he found written on the pilfered paper. There was a sound like a sheet tearing and sudden intense odor of brimstone as a minor demon appeared. He didn't look very happy, and he demanded to know who had called his name and dared pronounce it so poorly!

Ever prepared for violence, and ever prepared for evil the party leapt into action with Holgar censuring the creature while Ruedan blinded it and the others attacked. With a final blow delivered with a humble shovel Holgar destroyed the demon, or at least banished it back to the void. The gravekeeper simply stood there, his mind shattered by the demon's sudden appearance. Jareth had run however, and before Runt could give chase he vanished in a flash of arcane light.

With no idea where Jareth had gone to Holgar returned to his impromptu exhumation of Keena's grave while the others tried to provide succor to the gravekeeper. Sadly the man was simply too frightened to be of any help. Keena's grave however provided a surprising clue, or rather a stack lack of one; the girl's corpse was missing.
GM's Note: At this point the PC proceeded to Jareth's family home and after describing it as empty and abandoned we wrapped up the session. Everything after this point actually happened during our most recent session...
With Jareth vanished, and an empty coffin it certainly seemed as though Keena's betrothed had some hand in the disappearance of at least one of the Cobb sisters. The group decided to head toward the river and visit Jareth's old family home. What they found was an empty home, boarded over and abandoned since Jareth's parents had passed. Nothing indicated that it had been used recently.

While the other's searched around the house Runt headed down to the water's edge and there he found some old tracks. He recalled mention that Betha had liked to visit the river's banks, and knowing that he decided to follow them. He didn't find the girl, but instead an old root cellar dug into the steep embankment. The orc called out to his fellows, but rather than wait he threw open the doors.

As soon as the doors were opened a pungent smell of rot and decay wafted out and Runt nearly gagged. He moved into the cellar slowly and found a scene of true horror. A pile of rotting organs were piled in the center of the cellar and strips of skin dangled from the ceiling like some kind of grotesque decoration.

The others arrived and while Ruedan and Sage stayed outside, Fox and Holgar joined Runt to search the cellar for clues. It Runt's willingness to dive into the pile of refuse to find anything of use, a human face, removed from the head and discarded like an old mask. Runt couldn't figure out who it was so he draped it over Fox's head to try and get a better shape to it. Still he could not puzzle out the face, though was was fairly certain the person had been dead for some time.

Driven outside by a fit of fear, Fox stumbled out into the light where Ruedan and Sage caught a glimpse of the improvised mask. Sage, drawing on her magics, was able to discern the identity of the face. This was Jareth, the undertaker's apprentice! Had he been attacked and skinned? No the remains were too old. Perhaps the Jareth they had spoken to was a skinchanger, or a doppelganger. There was little time to ponder the meaning of this discovery because at that moment they began to hear screams coming from the direction of the Blackstone Ford!

Without wasting a second thought Runt and Ruedan made best speed for the ford where several townsfolk were gawking at undead pulling themselves from the waters of the river. A pair of Wights already had a villager in their grasp and before Runt or Ruedan could act they drained away the man's life force. Meanwhile a Chainbound was waddling out of the water, its foul stink washing over the area.

Since the battle was quite long and I didn't take hyper detailed notes I'll just provide a breakdown.

  • Runt charged the wights with the intent of protecting the townsfolk (gained Fortune). 
  • Ruedan stood his ground against the chainbound as he was suffused with divine ecstasy! (oracle background)
  • Sage's Necromancy spells made short work of the chainbound over the first 4 rounds with two exceptional uses of Splinter blowing the creature into shreds. 
  • Between the wights' victims reanimating and those freed from the chainbound about 6 animate dead joined the battle which really taxed the characters toward the end.
  • Fox acted with selflessness and interdicted the second wight to allow the remaining townsfolk to get to safe distance.
  • Holgar was able to provide some much needed health to the party but couldn't connect with his "demon slaying shovel, Doug"
  • The animate dead took down Ruedan and Holgar before the town guard could arrive and help Runt and Sage clean them up
  • Sage learned a new power of the Crimson Bone Dagger, that it could allow her to wrest control of undead via a challenge of wills.

In the end, as the last of the undead were being slain Fox saw a figure across the ford. It was hard to make out, but he was certain that it was "Jareth" he saw heading into the ruins south of the Blackstone Ford. Exhausted, and depleted the group decided to rest and recuperate before chasing down the mysterious "Jareth."


After Session Notes:

Since our previous attempt (back in Jan.) at this session got cancelled and I had more time to prep some Threats for the campaign as a whole I decided to jump time again so that I could introduce the first wave of manifestations (see my blog for my discussion on Threats & Manifestations). This also played well with the character's advancement to level 2. We also agreed to start a little earlier and end a little later (if needed) so we could try and get an entire adventure's worth of content in one session.

I also looked back at my notes from last time and picked two spots I was feeling were "weak" and decided to fix those this session.

The first was with regard to Fortune, which I felt I was not awarding often enough, in part because I found the mindset change of rewarding Fortune for player actions during play strange. During these two sessions I think I "leaned in" too heavily, as there was comment that I gave out so much it felt somewhat meaningless. Whoops! Time to try and center the pendulum I guess!

The second area I wanted to improve on was combat, which I felt needed to be run a little quicker and cleaner. I always find it difficult to find the sweet spot in a new combat system, and in a system where deadliness is present normally it is possible to err too far toward player safety (and neuter some of the horror survival aspects) or too far toward a quick TPK (and while TPKs happen, they shouldn't be on the table at all times IMO). The first session was low on combat but when it did come up I made an effort to farm out rules questions to the players who had already acted, and focused on making the combat interesting (it was over in only 2 rounds so it never had a moment to bog down).

The most recent session was about an hour of RP and investigation followed by a massive combat (intended to really put the players to the test) that took about 90 minutes. I think having multiple enemies and a lot going on early helped, but I still feel like maybe it took a little too long to wrap up (10 rounds/1 minutes after which I stated the town guard arrived to help with the last of the animate dead). This'll be something to try and figure out later, as I hate the idea of combat taking so long, but at the same time combat needs to challenge and threaten the players. More work is needed to find the sweet spot I think.

I also got feedback that some of the challenge rolls I called for felt less impactful than others. I'll cop to this as I try to not drop huge chunks of information for simple success. As a correction I am going to tell people what they are testing for, i.e. "make an Intellect challenge roll to see if you recognize this symbol." This will provide clarity so that the players don't expect that said roll will fully identify the symbol, or otherwise provide more (or less) information than I am planning to give.

Memorable Quotes (as recorded by the players; 1st session only)

"Please leave these souls in their graves." Fox to Sage during a visit to the graveyard

"Something seems wrong about this grave."
"I didn't dig it up..." Sage gets defensive.

"WHat just happened?" Ruedan after a demon appeared and was banished.

“The Crystal is the Key to Sage’s Heart” the magic crystal is a key after all ...

"Holgar had better be right, or this looks really bad," -- Runt
"If I'm not, then it'll be a dead end," -- Holgar
Cemetery humor at its "finest"

"Hey everyone, I found this paper and is says this, Croldrdwor" Fox says reading a strange word from a pickpocketed slip of paper.
"You need time to roll a d1000 on the Webster's Dictionary?" -- Brian
"Is it time for me to roll a new character?" -- Andrew
"I'm surprised the crazy necromancer doesn't know dark speech." -- Troy
various reactions to Fox's rather impetuous discovery of a demon's true name

"Using my dwarven sense, I know I have one foot to go" -- Holgar knows just how deep that grave is