August 9th, 2015

Boromir battle

For Demons They Sure Look a Lot Like Kobolds

Woke up at oh-dark-thirty from the most explicitly Lovecraftian dream I can remember having– not just in the sense that it contained otherworldly monstrous horrors (which it did), but also in that the true horror was not at what the dream showed as what it implied. For all the corn of reading a Lovecraft story, that sh!t's pretty darn scary when it feels real and primal and in your face like that. And like Lovecraft, now that the dream's over, "I cannot and must not recall" is a pretty apt description of my feelings about it.

So instead, let's talk about gaming! Last night was the first session since January of jamesbarrett's game in which I play drow bard Obsidian. I was a bit confused as to how long it had been: I'm not sure why but my notes on the things we encountered and the loot we acquired was clearly dated July of 2014, but as my LJ indicates, it was actually January. Not sure what's up with that. Anyway, last night's session was mostly a link, between what had happened before and what is intended to come, but it was better than nothing and apparently gave Jamie's creative juices a bit of a jolt, so hopefully we can build on that momentum.

Meanwhile, sirfox laments that I haven't posted a summary of my last session yet. I hadn't actually intended to, but who am I to say no when apparently the audience is eager for something? ;) Unfortunately it was a few weeks ago now, so a lot of the details are hazy in my mind. But I can hit the high points.

When we last left our heroes they had been through several harrowing fights to make their way into the flooded sewer-catacombs under the late (now vampire) Captain Ballak's house. (Think the knight's tomb under Venice in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade except with statues of Orcus instead of Christian crusader iconography and you'll be on the right track.)

There was basically only one obstacle remaining between them and the final assault on the vampire's lair, which was a more deeply-flooded chamber (as in, chest height for humans, rather than the knee height water they'd been wading through) that had rapid currents leading to a vortex drain. At that depth, and with such a strong current, there was a real danger of being sucked into the whirlpool and lost. The result might not be fatal, but it certainly bad: I ruled that a character who got pulled down the drain would take 4d10 damage and be washed into the river five minutes later. The rules for suffocation in 5E are generous, but not completely trivial, and even for the barbarian that could be a one-way trip.

The party, realizing just how hazardous this could be, all tied themselves together, using the dwarven cleric as the anchor in front, and the 19 Str barbarian as the anchor in the back, and started to carefully make their way across– except for Morgo the Magnificent, who didn't want to get his robes any more ruined than they already were (nor did he want to be making Str checks the whole way) and spider climbed his way across the room. We can only assume he used mage hand to keep his robes from turning inside out and dangling over his head as he walked across the ceiling.

It turned out the party's paranoia was even more justified when a water weird, looking like a skull-headed version of the thing from The Abyss, reared up and started attempting to pour itself down laurie_robey's throat whether she wanted it to or not. A tense fight ensued, with the water weird attempting to pull people under, various team members losing hold of the rope and being pulled towards the vortex, having to catch themselves on outcroppings, and unsavory water tentacle face-squeezing action. Luckily, they were able to best the thing and escape without anyone going down the hole.

On the other side of the city's sink trap, a short passageway ended in a chamber empty except for a rather incongruous free-standing full-length mirror. Given the way the vampire had been scrying on the party through mirrors the whole time, their immediate instinct was to smash the thing, much to my consternation. That this would be their reaction had not occurred to me, but made perfect sense in context. Unfortunately, in the scenario as I had conceived it, this mirror was the only conduit between the vampire's "pocket dimension" lair and the prime material plane. While smashing the mirror would have sealed away the vampire, it would have also permanently trapped all its kidnapped victims with it on the other side, which would have been a pretty downer ending.

So I gave Elsa a chance to make a Wisdom check, on which she rolled a 16. Normally one of her flaws is that she acts without thinking and runs headlong into a situation, but this time she was actually the cautious one, saying "Why is there a mirror by itself down in this hole? Are we sure we want to just smash this thing before we know what it's about?" Reluctantly, the rest of the party agreed that she had a point and went over to investigate, finding that instead of reflecting the caves around them, the mirror showed a vista of swirling mists. Morgo groaned, saying, "We're going through that mirror, aren't we?" Short answer: yes.

Stepping through the mirror deposited the party on a narrow bridge made of bones, suspended in never-ending, swirling mists. Shadow realm? Some backwater spot on Orcus's level of hell? They had no idea and no real way of finding out, but Morgo decided they were somewhere in hell and announced it as such with perfect confidence either way. The party followed the bridge to a tower, also made of bones, upon which lurked winged demonic creatures, and in front of which stood more of Captain Ballak's mirror men. The vampire taunted them to "Come into my parlor..." and they decided that it was time to tear him up.

They charged forward, obliterating the mirror men in short order. Several of the creatures atop the tower, which for all their horns and creepy iris-less yellow eyes, looked suspiciously like winged kobolds, swooped down to join the fray, shooting at the party with demonic bows that shot arrows of fire. The kobolds from hell actually hurt the party more than the mirror men did, prompting the party to flee into the tower to get under cover. Of course, in the tower, they found Captain Ballak, a CR 4 dwarf vampire spawn wearing plate armor and able to draw on the Legendary Actions of a full-fledged vampire, as well as two more mirror men and some zombies, just to keep things interesting.

Like their previous fight in the ghoul shrine, the vampire's regeneration was a big problem for them this time. Being in plate armor, he was very difficult to hit, and they had to hit him hard enough and often enough to out-damage his regeneration (or shut it down). This task wasn't made any easier by the fact that demon kobolds were still hitting them with fire arrows; but the real problem was that the vampire had captives scattered around the room and could use Legendary Actions to basically move or act almost every time one of the PCs did, meaning he could simply keep running around the room sucking blood out of his victims to "top off" whatever hit points the regeneration didn't return.

This is where preparedness made all the difference: upon learning that they were going to be going down into a vampire's lair, sirfox had decided to head to the temple and pick up several vials of holy water and distribute them among the group. The party began lobbing said vials at Ballak like hand grenades. Several of them missed, smashing uselessly to the floor, but enough of them hit that Ballak started taking radiant damage almost every round, which shut down his regeneration. This caused the vampire to become a lot more aggressive– and being a skilled tactician (former captain of the Red Gauntlet, after all) he went after the glass cannon first, i.e., Morgo. He latched onto the wizard and began sucking blood for all he was worth, rapidly draining Morgo's life away. Morgo, in return, let loose with all the arcane fire he could muster, pouring damage into the vampire like it was water. By this time, Mei and Elsa had dealt with all the minions, and the party ganged up on Ballak.

By the time half of Ballak's face was burned off, he came to the conclusion that he'd taken a lot more damage than he intended to that day, released Morgo, and fled in his creepy spider climb-y way up the walls and across the room, heading for his "escape kit" stashed at the far end. Before he got there, however, sirfox hit him with a sacred flame that rolled max damage, blasting away the last of the vampire's hit points, immolating him. He fell from the wall and hit the floor, curling up into a blackened ball like a bug set on fire. Elsa then used one of her javelins as a makeshift stake through the burnt up cinder that was Ballak's heart, just to be sure.

High-fives all around.

The party grabbed what loot there was to find, including Ballak's scorched and gruesome plate armor, which sirfox claimed as a trophy, and escorted Ballak's prisoners (various other people involved with the trial that led to Ballak's execution, including Gimlet's one real friend in the Mintarn) back to safety, very carefully taking their time at the flooded vortex room. As a reward for their heroics, including the rescue of the judge (an important personage in the Argentine court), the party was summoned to meet Princess Adallin, the Duchess of Welltide.

Tylow seemed dubious, claiming that princesses don't really exist. When she turned out to be a shortish, frumpyish no-nonsense woman in her late thirties who said of their fight with the vampire "That must have been quite exciting, eh?" Tylow decided maybe princesses did exist after all. Princess Adallin was very interested in all the details of both Ballak's trial and his return from the grave; she had also been given reports of the party's activities in Welltide by Lord Sildar and was quite impressed by the group. She said that she wanted to give them a suitable reward but really didn't have any ideas, asking for suggestions. Only Gimlet had one immediately, which was that Ballak's plate armor be cleaned up, re-fashioned, and given some kind of enchantment, to which the Princess agreed, saying it would be done by the time the group was on their return trip from Starhold.

While in town, the party commissioned a few other magic items, including Elsa who reluctantly handed over her heirloom greatsword Zweihänder to get enough basic enchantment on it that she could hit things like vampires and not have the damage negated. The party then headed for the mountains, to continue their intended mission of delivering Brannar Diamondheart's request for mercenaries to Starhold.

My post-mortem? Refactoring the adventure was definitely the right call. The adventure as I had initially designed it would have been needlessly deadly, but worse it would have been grindy and dull. My original plan when I first crafted the scenario was to have another regenerating statue in Ballak's lair and several more mirror men, mostly to keep the minions up and fighting longer, as well as having Ballak being a full strength vampire spawn instead of a CR 4 variant buffed up with Legendary Actions.

I also had various different ideas originally about what to have in the vortex chamber, focusing on various floaty monsters like grell that would be immune to the vortex effect, but most of the things I thought of would have been too much for what the room was supposed to be. It was supposed to be an exciting "hazardous challenge" sequence, where the danger of the room was the real scare rather than the monsters in it, and as such the water weird hit just the sweet spot.

As far as how the final battle played out, it was purely the luck of the dice, but I was pleased that Gimlet got to land the killing blow on Ballak, since the vampire was intended to be an almost literal "twisted reflection" of the dwarven-mercenary-turned-cleric (hence the mirror motifs, which also tied in nicely with his vampire nature). Each character in the party has at least one NPC campaign villain set up to be a nemesis/dark reflection sort of character, of varying levels of redeemability and/or correspondence. Ballak was the most obvious "negaverse" version of one of the PCs, but also, due to his nature, doomed to be the one with the shortest in-game lifespan. Now what will Gimlet do for an arch-enemy? Guess he'll just have to piss someone else off. ;)

-The Gneech

PS: That mirror is still down there. Just sayin'.

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