Monday, May 30, 2016

FR #9: The Underground Crypt, the Wraith, and the Scepter

19 Mirtul, sunrise

In the early morning, Rumolt surveyed the grounds, solemnly regarding the blackened skeletons that hung morbidly from their pikes while Berwyn and Riwyn pored over the scrolls. When all were ready, they returned to the earthen passageway beyond the secret door. They traversed it slowly, wary of traps, and the dwarves detected a slight downward grade. The sounds heard the previous night were absent, and when Lincoln tossed a continual light-imbued pebble into a wide cavern at the tunnel's end and crossed its threshold, he was pelted with rocks thrown by small, skittering humanoids: kobolds.

A trio of the creatures chased him back into the tunnel, leaping upon the dwarf and scratching at him with tiny claws. With the help of his allies, the attackers were slain, and as the party made its way forward, more kobolds could be seen fleeting into a similar passageway to the north. A makeshift throne of rocks, sticks, and earth adorned a far wall; Arendeth collapsed it with his morning star. A southward corridor was constructed of masonry walls, and led through a set of shattered and dilapidated double doors; the party followed it to a refuse pile which emanated an eye-watering stench.

Beyond the latrine was a narrow hallway ending in an intact, oaken door. After attempts to dislodge it failed and no locking mechanism could be discerned, Berwyn uttered knock from one of the scrolls. The door fell ajar and Arendeth heaved it open, striding into a square, fifty-foot chamber with a raised platform bearing a lidless, stone sarcophagus at its center. Inside was an ancient skeleton draped in decayed robes that were once fine, and a cobweb-covered helm. The glint of gold sparked Arendeth to reach beneath the skeleton's left arm and unearth a scepter encrusted with shimmering red rubies and deep, black opals.

Scepter in hand, Arendeth set his hand upon the helm; a searing pain coursed through the dwarf's body and he fell back. As he stood before the sarcophagus, the skeleton rose, assuming an incorporeal form with a veil of translucent skin stretched tightly over its rotting bones, and hollow eye sockets boring into the dwarf with absolute darkness. The helm rested atop it, and it stabbed fluidly at Arendeth, wielding a black, serrated blade from its coffin.

The party set upon the wraith, Wren attacking with the sword recovered from the orc leader, Rumolt with an ornate dagger from his belt, and Berwyn and Riwyn assailing it with mystic energy from the remaining scrolls. After parrying a handful of strikes, Arendeth fled to the door as Wren impaled the fiend on her magical blade as it began to charge in pursuit. The wraith crumbled to dust, and the serrated sword and helm fell to the stone floor, unmoving.

Arendeth and Riwyn made further attempts to handle the dark implements, suffering damage each time. Finally, Wren bundled the sword and helm in her cloak, binding it with a length of silken rope. The party retreated to the tower, where healing magic was expended.

Rumolt again expressed his approval of the party's efficiency in combat, remarking that such a valuable item as the scepter could not possibly be partitioned evenly. When challenged that the relic wasn't plundered from his dead companions, Rumolt rebutted that the dwarf who so recklessly claimed it did nothing to help fell the creature that would otherwise have taken his life. The tension was eased with a consensus to set the matter aside for now, and the party elected to sleep again in the second floor of the tower.

During Arendeth's watch, Aranos questioned the dwarf's flight from the wraith, doubtful that leaving one's allies to so dangerous a foe was Tempus' way. As they discussed the details, noises were heard from below: the clinking of metal, the grunting of guttural voices, and, finally, footfalls upon the staircase. The duo quickly woke the others, and Arendeth poured his bag of ball bearings down the steps, causing a pair of orc invaders to fall prone, a third creature behind them bellowing to its companions outside.

The tower's ground floor was soon littered with orcs, and as party members took defensive positions with bows drawn, the creatures ignited the thatch bed, piling on deadwood from the grounds. Smoke wafted up the staircase, ere Arendeth charged down, suffering wounds from orc cudgels and burns as he kicked the burgeoning fire to cinders. Lincoln and Aranos followed down the staircase while the elf-kin climbed out a window via a previously-secured rope. Riwyn and Wren circled the tower's perimeter, engaging a trio of guards at range, bolstered by Rumolt's arrows from above. Over several grueling minutes the orcs were defeated, the party left weakened and exhausted of resources.

DM's Commentary

If Arendeth feels fortunate to be alive at this point, he should. His actions in the crypt were nothing short of foolhardy, though well-played and revealing much about the dwarf's character. Against the orcs, Arendeth's actions were treacherous once more, but executed out of necessity and potentially lifesaving to the party. Had the orcs established a bonfire at the base of the tower steps, the result could have been disastrous, as only the party's elves and half-elves were lithe enough to fit through the narrow windows. Arendeth showed true bravery in this instance, nearly falling to his wounds on multiple occasions.

I'm exceedingly glad in this campaign that the players are able to see my rolls. The wraith needed only a 9 on 1d20 to hit Arendeth with the serrated blade, and had those around the table not witnessed my rolls of 1, 4, 4, and 5 on its attacks, they may not have believed them. Each hit from the wraith would have drained one full experience level from its target, a vicious attack capable of negating months of in-game achievements at a time. Furthermore, energy drain in AD&D allows no saving throw and is nearly irreversible, making powerful undead some of most fearsome enemies to behold. It's not an ability that I employ lightly, but one that's paramount to the very real danger of AD&D games.

Another point worth mentioning is how much I rely on dice rolls to make determinations about how events unfold in the game. This is highly contrary to Ravenloft, where game events often have specific triggers to ensure that the plot unfolds in a predetermined way. Triggers of this nature can be written as "Such and such happens on the second night following this event," or "Whenever the PCs go to this location, such and such will happen." The problem with these is that they wrest control away from the party; the players find themselves riding along on the adventure, rather than creating it themselves.

In any case, in this campaign I've tried to ensure that randomness helps drive the game forward, eliminating a portion of my bias. For example, after the party routed the orcs in the previous session, I decided that, eventually, the surviving monsters would attempt to return to their lair. This made sense as it was an established and defensible location, and the orcs still had nearly half of their original numbers remaining.

What I didn't want to do, however, was choose the exact timing of the orcs' return. Knowing what the PCs were doing at any given moment, I wasn't in a position to make an unbiased decision (consciously or otherwise). I ended up rolling for how many nights the orcs would spend in the wilderness (one), and the time of day they'd make their way back (the last few hours before midnight).

Similar rolls were made at Brithem to determine how and when the dragons would attack the fiefdom. The mindset I've found myself adopting is to make reasonable decisions when far enough removed from the party, but involve random chance when I have immediate insight as to what will happen to the PCs if I make the choice myself. Of course, many creatures and NPCs have predetermined agendas that make rolling dice unnecessary, but it's still an interesting element in the game that helps keep everyone, including me, guessing.

Also of note, whenever it's not obvious which opponent an entity should attack in combat, I determine that randomly as well. This session, the wraith attacked Arendeth for obvious reasons, but for the majority of the battle against the orcs, melee opponents were determined randomly before attack rolls were made. I think this definitely heightened the tension as Arendeth hovered close to zero hit points while defending the stairwell.

Last point for this section: I've taken to running PCs extra conservatively when their players are absent. When Adam had to leave early, I chose not to attack or cast spells on his behalf, and had Berwyn perform actions that seemed most likely to keep him out of harm's way. I don't want any character to die under my control; while Berwyn might have been able to use summon swarm against the orcs (assuming he had it memorized, which I didn't know), that would have put him at undue risk. This is a good thing for everyone to keep in mind when a player needs to step out.

XP

I have a running tab of XP gained over the past two sessions; right now it's over 10,000 points to be divided among the group. That said, I'm not going to award anything until the party reaches safe harbor and makes a few decisions regarding the items it recovered. Also, since these few sessions have been one continuous adventure, any PC that dies won't receive a share of the allotment.

It's worth noting that the sword carried by Wren is a longsword +1. The only scroll remaining of the six found is levitate, though points will still be awarded for all of them.

Regarding the Tao XP system that I've been talking about for awhile, as much as I like the idea, the damage tracking proved difficult this session as the game wore on. The spreadsheet I'm using is helpful, but it's too easy to forget to mark damage dealt by the PCs (as opposed to damage taken, which I have to mark against their hit point totals anyway). Experimenting with the system has provided insight to how it works and how much XP it awards (once again, Arendeth stood to gain a good deal more than any other character due to the damage he sustained), but I plan to stick with traditional XP tracking for the foreseeable future.

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