Year of the Shadows

Post-Mortem
Reflections

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This campaign started out with a conscious effort to run something meaningful. After a string of false starts with other ventures, we needed something that was going to last. I promised “five levels or 20 sessions, whichever comes first.” As it turned out, we exceeded both benchmarks and then some.

Of course, every campaign starts off with such high hopes, but I think it was really helpful to explicitly set those benchmarks from the start. It kept my focus firmly set on the campaign as we were building up initial momentum, which was really helpful. I think I’m going to try and do that with everything I run going forward. “I want this campaign to last X sessions at least.” “I want this campaign to last no more than X sessions.” Stuff like that.

We also helped our cause quite a bit by using the Creative Casting background generator. It’s not the sort of thing you could use for every campaign (it tends to produce “EPIC DESTINY” type characters not at all suited for more realistic modes), but it gave us lots of meaty goodness to sink our teeth into, for sure. Not all of it ended up getting used, of course, but even the stuff that stayed in the background added to the richness of the game experience for all concerned.

That richness followed through into actual gameplay, with lots of little story threads getting started right away. I think the campaign was also helped tremendously by the fact that I pilfered gleefully from what is by all accounts one of the greatest D&D modules ever published, Night’s Dark Terror. That modest little 64-page module provided material that fueled well over half of the campaign’s sessions!

But what of the threads still unresolved? Well, if we were to revisit the campaign, I would be tempted to return things to where it first got started: the Troll Lands. Sir William is on the verge of 9th level, when he will be due for his own land grant and a cadre of followers. I think it would make a lot of sense for him to get to 9th level and earn his grant by returning to Gondegal’s lair, site of his ignominious captivity, and clear out the monsters that have no doubt infested it in the many months that it’s laid unoccupied.

After that, there’s the matter of going after Gondegal himself. The wily old bandit king is still out there, and no doubt hatching plans for another would-be takeover of Cormyr. Obviously, with Sir William as newly-installed Baron of the Troll Marches, Gondegal will present an immediate threat to his rule and must be stopped!

Finally, in Phloyd’s corner, there’s the little issue of Mad Meerim. What happened to Praetorius and Biddichops, and what role did Meerim play in their disappearance? Meerim swore revenge—when will he return to try and take it? Or has it already begun to unfold? Meerim hardly showed up in this campaign, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite all-time villains to run.

What I like is that none of these are terribly pressing concerns. They are issues that can be resolved should we ever choose to. If not, they will be content to lay still, subjects of occasional conjectural flights of fancy and nothing more.

One last thing I want to address is the question of system. We started this campaign out with Adventures Dark & Deep. That seems like a long time ago now. I wanted to give ADD a spin, and it seemed appropriate here as it mirrors the state of the game circa the late 80s, which is when the original Gray Box came out. And yet…

The return to 2e felt great. We’d had brief encounters before, but this was a chance to revisit the system over the long-term, and in the incarnation we knew best. I was also really pleased with how well my house rules worked. I joked in the final Adventure Summary about how we used them to “cheat” the system’s deadliness, but honestly I think they really lent an epic fantasy edge to the rules, which has long been one of 2e’s biggest problems: it wants to have epic fantasy campaigns but still uses a murder-hobo-era system to do it. The house rules smoothed out some of the system’s most egregious oversights and lent just the right level of peril and deadliness: even with the house rules in effect there were several points where I wasn’t sure if the PCs were going to make it out alive.

That said, I was also reminded of some of my beefs with 2e. The hazy rules, the weird little rules quirks (two different Reaction Adjustment modifiers that do completely different things, including one that’s expressed as a bonus even though you’re supposed to subtract it from your roll!), the reliance on magic gear and healing magic to keep characters competitive and survivable, higher-level magic taking on almost a four-color superhero vibe with the abilities it grants. At the end of the day, I prefer my fantasy relatively low-magic and low-powered. But as a fun diversion from my usual preferences, this worked great.

Looking back, there are lots of fun memories.

For Sir William, the one that perhaps sticks out the most is the epic fight against the skeleton horde in the tomb beneath the Isle of Lost Dreams. The back-and-forth action, as he cut down swaths of skeletons only to have more surge through the door; finally defeating them only to collapse, a few hit points away from death, all of it happening in this creepy, darkened tomb lit only by the glow from Phloyd’s staff. I could picture it so vividly in my mind.

For Phloyd, it’s much more pedestrian, which is sort of funny considering how flashy he was. But I think about that first session and Phloyd pissing away all his buffoonery earnings on gambling—and then to our penultimate session, and Phloyd basically breaking the house playing a game he’d never even heard of before that night. That progression from sad-sack gambling addict to total shark sort of sums everything up for me.

Feel free to share some of your favorite memories in the comments below.

Well done, all!

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Session Twenty-Four Notes
Death in Suzail

The thing about old school D&D is that it’s pretty much impossible to “balance” encounters. I’ve found that to be the case even moreso as we got up into higher levels. This problem is multiplied several-fold when you’re dealing with a small party; AD&D was designed with the assumption that a PC group would be about 5-7 players. Memories are flooding back now as I think about all the rampant cheating that had to happen back in high school in order to make our small-group AD&D games work. Even now, when “cheating” is called “house rules”, said house rules were certainly necessary to sustain the campaign; without them, things would’ve ended much sooner and many times over.

I say all that to say that I’ve had this creeping sense of dread and doom stealing over me the last few weeks, a feeling that a total party kill was just around the corner. I knew it was my duty as DM to challenge the players as much as possible, but I also knew that we were balanced on the razor’s edge. And so…

  • The PCs departed Wheloon as planned and ventured to Suzail, making the trip in one long day of travel. Arriving late, they nonetheless proceeded straight to the palace complex of archmage Vangerdahast, where they were immediately granted an audience.
  • William and Phloyd laid out the situation: the Temple of Mystra in Wheloon was some sort of front for a much more sinister cult. Plans were then hatched. After considering an indirect approach, sowing dissent and confusion among the cultists through a series of infiltrations, the PCs opted for a direct assault. They were set to bring a troop of Purple Dragons from Suzail along with a writ from Vangerdahast and thereby recruit the Dragons in Wheloon for help. Three-dozen strong, they would kick in the door of the Mystran temple and root out the evil that dwelt beneath.
  • With this plan in mind, the PCs headed to the Leaning Post, an inn within walking distance of the palace, and made plans for departure the next day. Sadly, their plan would not have a chance to come to fruition.
  • As anticipated, back in Wheloon Starweaver Fembrys had noted his missing papers and journals. He tapped the preserved heads on his shelf, which bore enchanted glass eyes that recorded everything they saw, including things on the Ethereal plane or otherwise invisible things. And so he too saw Phloyd enter his chamber and pilfer his desk. Consulting with Shan Thar and his connections in the city guard, Fembrys got a good idea of who the gnome was, and who he was traveling with. He then dispatched two of his most trusted assassins, devotees of Bhaal, the god of murder, to track the gnome and his paladin companion. They departed Wheloon three hours after the PCs…
  • Back at the Leaning Post, the PCs booked a room and settled in for the night. Neither noticed an access hatch in the ceiling being pulled back. They dreamt of shadowy bats flying about and clawing at their faces—then awoke to find their room filled with the chirping creatures! The hatch in the ceiling had been replaced; in the attic above, a guano-coated wicker cage now stood empty and the sound of running feet could be heard stomping down the stairs to the level below.
  • Meanwhile, after an ineffectual color spray, Phloyd struggled to the window of his room and flung it wide, trying to shoo the bats out. And just like that, two arrows slammed into the little gnome! Ducking back, Phloyd caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a little human girl on the rooftop opposite, calmly readying another arrow in her shortbow.
  • As this was happening, the door to the room flew open. Beyond stood a hulking man in grays and blacks; even his face was painted gray, such that the whites of his eyes seemed to float in darkness beneath his hood. He looked at William with an almost sad expression and said, “Your time is over.” Drawing a two-handed sword, he moved into the room to attack.
  • William snatched up a shield and sword and, though unarmored, made his stand. As bats streamed out the open window, Phloyd turned himself invisible and then levitated across the road to alight silently next to the archer. She turned out to be a halfling, and she was smiling broadly as she searched for another target in the darkened room—clearly she assumed that she’d killed Phloyd.
  • Phloyd, of course, knocked her out cold with his color spray, then turned to look on in horror as William was driven back, then beaten down by the gray-faced assassin. What else could he do but turn to his trusty wand of wonder? “Zabbalas!” Once again, the wand issued a searing bolt of lightning. It blew out half the wall of the room and charred poor William where he lay, but the assassin managed to dive behind the bed and emerged, dazed and smoking. “Zabbalas!” Yet again (and defying all probability), the wand spat out a lightning bolt. This time the assassin was done in, but all that remained of William was a pile of charred bones.
  • By this time, the whole Palace Quarter was in an uproar, and Phloyd slipped away into the dark. It was child’s play for him to return later, after the sun had come up and the Purple Dragons had cordoned off the street, and retrieve William’s remains. He took them to the Temple of Tyr, and the priests there immediately agreed to try and bring William back. They would beseech their god to resurrect his champion. Everything would be allllllll-right.
  • A half-hour later, Phloyd heard great shouts and commotion. A priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, eyes bugging, sweat upon his brow. “Something has gone wrong!” he wailed. Phloyd rushed back to the sacred altar. There, rising up, was William’s skeleton. It looked about, confused. Several priests tried to banish it, but nothing happened. Acolytes threw down their holy symbols and fled. Phloyd just looked on sadly.
  • Vangerdahast was called in and the whol mess was explained. The archmage had never heard of such a thing happening, and was beginning to suspect a great evil was at work. With Phloyd’s blessing, he took over the investigation.
  • Two tendays later, he returned from Wheloon. He had quite a tale to tell, one of a great black dragon marked by Shar, goddess of shadow, and of a plan to tear a hole in the Weave, the great magical force that kept reality intact, and merge our world with the Demi-plane of Shadow. Vangerdahast, in the end, put a stop to these plans, killing the great black dragon Despayr and destroying the cult of Shar that had been operating out of the Vast Swamp undetected for some time.
  • It had been Despayr’s magic that had interfered with William’s resurrection. With the dragon dead, Vangerdahast was able to undo the foul curse that had rendered William a sad skeleton; he was restored to his full health and vitality by the archmage’s magic.

And that’s where we decided to leave things off. It wasn’t the long-dreaded TPK, but it was close, and it seemed like a natural stopping point, particularly since the PCs lost a lot of momentum by handing off their quest to a more powerful NPC. Phloyd returned to Tyrluk and opened a School for Bufoonery for his fellow gnomes. William remained in Suzail, serving as captain of the palace guard. The PCs are still very much viable characters, and we may yet return to see how their further adventures play out. Until then…

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Session Twenty-Three Notes
Something Rotten in Wheloon

Because a certain player didn’t complete his assigned homework, there was a fair bit of book-keeping at the start of the session—but that’s okay, because that sort of downtime is (in moderation) part of the fun of D&D. Suffice to say that Phloyd finally mastered the quantum/fourth-dimesional difficulties of Leomund’s secure shelter, and there was much rejoicing.

Even more notably, Phloyd researched his very first spell, an arcane variant on the classic priest spell goodberry called Phloyd’s Phower Bhars.

  • Phloyd had time to engage in spell research because we advanced the calendar by 10 weeks to the Midsummer festival. During that time, the intrepid gnome had exhausted every avenue, both magical and mundane, of investigation he could tap in an effort to discover the whereabouts of his missing teacher Praetorius, and all to no avail. Having access to his master’s library and laboratory, though, did enable him to engage in the aforementioned spell learning and research, so at least there was that.
  • William spent the break ingratiating himself with the higher-ups in Suzail, and even led a small expedition north of Arabel to clear out the booming gnoll population. The gnolls melted back into the highlands of the Stormhorns without offering battle, and the land was pacified.
  • We picked up with the Midsummer festivities in full swing in the streets of Suzail. But our heroes were nowhere to be seen. Phloyd was back in Tyrluk, up in his tower laboring away on his next spell (“Phloyd’s Phantastic Pheast”). William, meanwhile, had been summoned to the private chambers of the High War Wizard Vangerdahast. As horns blared and the shouts of cavorting revelers drifted up from the plaza below, Vangerdahast introduced William to a certain Tunaster Dranek, a cleric of Mystra, Goddess of Magic.
  • Dranek was not a native Cormyrean, but he had sought out Vangerdahast after a disturbing encounter in the town of Wheloon. Dranek had been surprised, on passing through the town, to discover a temple of Mystra had sprung up since his last visit. This was quite noteworthy, as Mystra was not a widely-worshiped goddess in Cormyr and had no temples dedicated to her name in the whole land. Dranek hadn’t heard so much as a peep regarding this new temple, though he was in regular contact with other members of the faith. Furthermore, he had never heard of the temple’s supposed high priestess, one Lady Arthas. Looking in on the temple, he immediately began to sense something was not quite right. The priest he was introduced to, Starweaver Fembrys, in particular gave off a rather odious aura. Trusting his instincts, Dranek ran for it, and was chased off by the temple grounds, arrows at his back.
  • The situation was certainly suspicious, and Vangerdahast felt that further investigation was warranted. Unfortunately, the local head of the Purple Dragons, Constal Tholl, seemed unwilling or unable to turn up anything unusual. Vangerdahast did not suspect Tholl of any wrongdoing. Rather, he was fairly certain it was the local lord, Sarp Redbeard, exerting pressure on the Dragons to go easy on the temple—the Mystrans had already proven themselves a boon to the local economy, and much opportunity for further growth was anticipated. Therefore, Vangerdahast tasked Sir William with going to Wheloon incognito and seeing if he could turn anything up where Constal Tholl had failed.
  • William took on a new squire, an eager young lad named Trod, and rode out for Tyrluk. Phloyd, despite being nearly done with his Phantasic Pheast research, happily welcomed William upon his arrival and enthusiastically agreed to accompany him on this investigation, setting aside his researches for the time being. Fetching his trusty giant lizard, he hit the road with his old friend.
  • By the time the heroes arrived in Wheloon, the Midsummer festival was over and life had largely returned to normal. Phloyd, William, and Trod took a room at the Wyvernwatch Inn and began plying the locals for information about the Mystran temple. There was some talk of strange lights seen at night over the temple, but no one thought much of that—this was a temple to the goddess of magic, after all. The only really negative thing anyone could say about the place was that it had clashed with the two local, established temples, Harvest Hall and God’s Grove.
  • William, in the guise of a regular-joe adventurer type, paid a visit to the Watch House, barracks to the local Purple Dragon chapter. There he met with Constal Tholl, who was rather tight-lipped about the Mystran temple, saying only that he met with a representative named Shan Thar, whom the Constal quite liked. Before William left, Tholl got him to pay for a charter for his adventuring company (their cover story being that they were headed to the Vast Swamp for battle practice), which William decided to call “Phloyd’s Phantasmal Force”.
  • Phloyd had similar ill luck with his visit to Harvest Hall, a temple dedicated to Chauntea. He learned even less than William in regards to the Mystran temple, but did manage to divest himself of most of his copper coins in the name of a passive-aggressive “donation.”
  • The evening concluded back at the inn with Phloyd sitting down to play a local dice game called Dungeon; with Phloyd involved, the game became increasingly high-stakes and by the time he retired, he had fleeced his merchant opponent out of over 1,000 gold pieces!
  • First thing the next morning, Phloyd and William headed out to the far east end of Wheloon, where the town’s second temple was located: God’s Grove, a literal grove of trees dedicated to the nature god Sylvanus. The druid in charge proved a bit more affable than the priests of Chauntea, and volunteered a story about his icy interaction with the priests of Mystra, and his unwillingness to go back anytime soon.
  • Having gathered as much information as they could, the PCs headed back across the river ferry and up to the bluffs north of town, where the temple of Mystra stood. It had been built upon the ruins of an old citadel, which was situated directly against one of the cliffs above the river. A plain figure of a woman adorned with what the PCs assumed was Mystra’s holy symbol stood outside the temple walls, which were patrolled by guards. Deciding on an initially open approach, they rode through the gates.
  • Phloyd’s giant lizard immediately attracted attention, and soon a priest was bustling over, but he was all smiles. The entry to the temple was an open courtyard, its floor covered with black obsidian inset with white, star-shaped tiles. A few parishioners were lingering about the courtyard, come to make offerings at one of the altars there or else just look about. Two more female statues dominated the center of the yard, again presumably representing Mystra.
  • The priest turned out to be the aforementioned Shan Thar, and he was welcoming and forthcoming. He invited the PCs to attend one of the temple’s nighttime services, and, when William hinted that he might be interested in becoming a full member of the church, offered an opportunity “to learn more than the average parishioner, the revealed knowledge of Mystra’s Sacred Trust.” Playing along, William heartily agreed to this idea, and promised to return for an evening service soon.
  • The PCs left the temple and rode until they were out of sight of the guards, at which point Phloyd summoned a secure shelter. Inside the invisible cabin, they formulated a plan: Phloyd would do his usual “stealth infiltration” of the temple that night to observe the ceremony. If everything seemed on the up and up, he and William would openly return the next night and see what else they could find out.
  • And so that night, as the stars came out overhead, Phloyd invisibly departed his invisible cabin and made his way back up to the temple. He found the ceremony being conducted in the open courtyard. About a half-dozen men and women from the town had turned out, and Shan Thar led the ceremony. He was assisted by an acolyte who used simple illusion magic to produce a sort of laser light show in the sky—that would certainly explain the “mysterious lights” that town residents had reported.
  • At the end of the long ceremony, Phloyd saw two of the parishioners approach Shan Thar and hand over some money. Thar then took them to a set of double doors on the far side of the courtyard, which opened at his knock. Phloyd dashed over, just slipping through as the doors closed behind the others.
  • Beyond the doors lay an inner temple, an enclosed colonnaded space tiled in black obsidian, lit by torches. Another priest, one Phloyd hadn’t seen before, emerged from a side chamber and intoned a strange sermon:

“Do you deserve Mystra’s Sacred Trust? Some of you do not, and you’ll be asked to leave during the three days you’ll spend in the petitioner’s quarters. I won’t lie—the next three days will be hard. You may get bored, you may get hungry, but if you persevere, you might just earn the Starry Gnosis, the secret knowledge. If you can’t commit to three days, leave now. Father Shan Thar will return your donation.”

“If you’re staying, put your belongings in the petitioners quarters, and change into the vestments you’ll find there. Stay there until you’re called, contemplating obedience to the goddess.”

  • The two evidently chose to stay, and were led off to a side chamber. The mystery priest, meanwhile, retired through yet another set of double doors on the far side of the chamber. Making up his mind quickly, Phloyd set off in pursuit of the priest. He had to cast wraithform to keep from getting caught in the doors as they were shut behind the priest.
  • These doors were evidently barred from the inside, and had been opened by temple guards. Unlike the guards Phloyd had seen in the courtyard outside, these guards had a strange shadowy aspect about them. Their skin looked strangely dark, and they seemed to cast their own shadows, which melted into the darkened recesses around them.
  • Putting aside this discomforting sight, Phloyd floated along invisibly behind the priest as he descended a wide stone stairway on the far side of the chamber. The stairs seemed to go down a good 30 or 40 feet, past a landing with two black stone statues of a female figure, before ending in a strangely rubble-strewn chamber. Another female statue stood in the center, glimmering with sparkles of moonlight event though they were deep underground. A detect magic spell revealed strong magical emanations. All around the statue were piled shattered bits from other carvings, burned manuscripts, and smashed holy vessels. The priest did not pause here, but went through one of several doors granting egress from the chamber. Phloyd followed.
  • They passed through what looked like a cozy receiving parlor and into what was clearly the priest’s chambers. The smell of formaldehyde assaulted Phloyd’s nostrils and he looked on in horror at the macabre display that dominated the room: eight human heads mounted on the walls like trophies, glass eyes staring from their yellowed flesh.
  • As the priest began getting ready for bed, Phloyd examined the nearby bureau. Several stacks of a papers and a couple journals sat in untidy piles on top of the desk. Phloyd waited until the priest drifted off to sleep before canceling his wraithform_, scooping up all the papers and journals, then using another new spell (_Rary’s mnemonic enhancer) to recall his wraithform and slip away.
  • Back at the secure shelter, Phloyd and WIlliam pored over the retrieved documents. The journals contained mostly notes on taxidermy procedures and rants against “the atrocity of pretending to worship Mystra, while the ‘true one’ must remain hidden.” The papers were mostly random notes and jottings, but there was also a letter addressed to the priest—who turned out to be the “Fembrys” mentioned by Dranik—from the high priestess of the temple, Lady Arthas:

The latest set of petitioners awaits disposition down in the river dungeon—Don’t steal any of these for your sad hobby, Fembrys, or you’ll find your own head on a wall.

  • The PCs had all the information they needed to prove the necessity of further investigation, but they didn’t quite trust the local authorities. Before dawn, they quietly slipped out of Wheloon and hit the Way of the Manticore, heading west for Suzail and a meeting with Vangerdahast…
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Session Twenty-Two Notes
Mad Meerim's Revenge

I was seriously terrified going into this session. With every passing week of game time, I had been making a d100 roll with a cumulative 1% chance that Mad Meerim would come after the PCs. After Phloyd and William became minor national heroes for their role in rescuing Tanalesta and foiling Lord Edrin’s coup, I added +20% to the growing odds. Finally, while the PCs were off galavanting in the Lost Valley, Meerim’s revenge number came up.

So what to do? Of course! Meerim would go after Praetorius as a way of getting back at the PCs “desecrating” his master’s tomb, then lay a trap for the PCs. I used a randomizer to generate Meerim’s available spells and started looking for some killer combos…

It’s been so rare, in all my history of running D&D, that I get to unleash a high-level wizard on the PCs with no qualms. (Part of it has been laziness on my part, as high-level wizards take a fair amount of effort to build, even in old-school systems.) But high-level wizards are freaking scary in what they can do, even with a randomly-generated spell list. I honestly had no idea what to expect…

  • Before we got to Meerim, though, we had business to attend to in the Lost Valley of Hutaaka. The PCs, after poking around the slime chamber where the tentacular beast had made its lair, decided to return to Byxata. They took Kforedz’s charred corpse with them, and the jackal-folk back at the village were thrown into utter chaos by news of their leader’s death.
  • The PCs were left more or less to their own devices as the community mourned, and they used this time to plan and plot. They knew the wealth of the former Hutaakan Empire was somewhere in the Temple of Pflarr, and they wanted to get access to it.
  • They took a day or so to rest up from their fight under the temple. When they awoke in the mid-afternoon, however, they found the village was under attack! A troop of Wreckers and some of their lizard pets were assaulting the walls of the village. Phloyd, invisible, got up on the wall and saw that the Wreckers were being goaded along by more of those armored humans. Zhentarim! There could be little doubt.
  • Meanwhile, the gates of the wall were breached by a lightning strike from the heavens. Sir William was ready, mounted atop Gagejolly. After helping some Hutaakans to dispatch a giant lizard that had gotten over the the wall, he turned to face the Zhentarim who were coming in through the breached gate. It was none other than Lady Yolenta!
  • As the dark priestess’s cronies dispersed to begin setting fire to the thatched roofs of the Hutaakan huts, she rode forth on her giant lizard mount to do battle with William. The two combatants circled, exchanging blows, as ominous clouds continued to gather overhead. Yolenta taunted the paladin mercilessly, and backed up her words by calling down lightning with her enchanted mace, smiting William and nearly doing him in.
  • Phloyd, meanwhile, had been directing the defense of the town walls from the parapet. The Hutaakans, though not great fighters, seemed to be holding their own finally, so he descended from the wall and used his Black Dagger to dispatch one of Yolenta’s flunkies, then color spray to knock out the other. Seeing William being sorely pressed, he now whipped out his trademark wand of wonder. “Two can play at that game, Yolenta!” he shouted to the priestess as she struck William with her summoned lightning. “Zabbalas!”
  • As if on cue, the always-unpredictable wand came through with a lightning bolt of its own. Phloyd had aimed the wand so as not to hit William as well, but even then the bolt only barely missed him, leaving his teeth ringing with an electrical charge.

[I looked for a screen cap of Art from The ’Burbs after he gets electrocuted, but I couldn’t find one. But that’s kind of how I pictured William in that moment.]

  • With their leader dead, the Wreckers fled back towards their own village. Phloyd and William bound the surviving Zhent and interrogated him. They discovered, through a combination of hard questioning and ESP, that Yolenta had figured out what Golthar’s secret agenda to discover the lost valley, and retraced the PCs’ steps until she found Endreth’s farm in the Hullack. Phloyd received a disturbing vision of the farm in flames, Endreth and his family dead outside. Their tapestry had provided a map to the valley, and, while the PCs were off saving the Cormyrean throne from a usurper, Yolenta had taken a hand-picked crew up to Hutaaka. Although they had initially planned to simply loot the valley’s treasures, Yolenta instead got caught up with the idea of conquering the valley for her own; to that end, she installed herself as ruler of the Wreckers and stepped up raids on the Hutaakans. Once the valley had fallen into her hands, its many treasures would be hers.
  • Disgusted, Phloyd consigned the Zhent to his fate at the hands of the Hutaakans and the PCs set out for the Temple of Pflarr. Their journey passed unmolested by Wrecker attacks despite passing close by their main town. They brought with them Gagejolly and a giant lizard that had survived the assault and been abandoned; the great beast proved quite docile, and Phloyd took to it as a riding mount.
  • Once back at the Temple, William had Phloyd help him strap the horse and lizard to ropes, their other ends secured to the giant statue at the far end of the nave. A whack on the steeds’ haunches got them pulling, and slowly the giant statue began to rotate on ancient bearings. As it turned, the wall of the niche behind it slid open, revealing a dark passage beyond.
  • Armed with their glowing key, they advanced—and found a chamber, dark and dusty, filled with untold riches, the last remnants of the once-mighty Hutaakan Empire.

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  • Much time was taken with lovingly cataloging the many riches found within the chamber. Most notable, perhaps, was an ebony throne inlaid with delicate mother-of-pearl finishes and semi-precious stones. Also recovered were a rod of cancellation, a scarab of protection, and a bag of devouring.
  • Sir William was highly interested in exploring the remainder of the temple. It had obviously once been overrun with undead, but after Kforedz invoked her ceremony at the altar, that threat had been seemingly neutralized—already, they had seen many bones and other remains of walking dead scattered about the temple. Phloyd was content to stick with what they’d already gained, so William left him to guard the treasure and set out to poke around.
  • William found plenty more undead remains, including some that were clearly mummies, but little in the way of treasure. He also found a room with extensive murals that filled in some of the gaps of the Hutaakan’s history; apparently, they had once ruled an extensive empire built largely on slave labor—the slaves being the so-called “Wreckers” (whom Yolenta had called the Traldar). The Hutaakans had also been quite decadent—murals confirmed that the pit in the floor was a space for lowering sacrifices and that Hutaakan royalty had observed the beast in the pit devour hapless Traldar victims from their secure gallery. So the valley was not the scene of a peaceful civilization being invaded by barbarian marauders, but rather one of former slaves and former masters locked in a death grip of mutual hatred and recrimination, an endless cycle of payback for crimes now long-forgotten by the current generations.
  • After viewing the mural room, upon entering a room filled with books and scrolls, William was stricken blind. He stumbled his way back to the treasure room, anxious that he might have lost his sight permanently. Thankfully, the blindness lifted after an hour’s time. Now Phloyd was especially itching to be off, but William doggedly refused, pressing on to explore the one wing of the temple not yet examined once he had regained his sight. His doggedness paid off as he wended his way down to a set of crypts and, inside a sarcophagus, found a jeweled orb and scepter. (He also found an inert mummy, which, in tumbling out of its casket, gave him quite a start.)
  • Having looted all the parts of the temple they were aware of, we largely glossed over the rest of the party’s time in the valley. The players came up with a good plan for getting the treasure out of the temple and back to civilization, and I didn’t see any need to further delay things with petty annoyances. The Wreckers/Traldar had been cowed for the time-being, and the Hutaakans, leaderless, were in no position to object to the looting of their cultural heritage. And so the PCs had the Hutaakans build them a cart to haul the treasure, then Phloyd levitated it over the wall (along with Gagejolly; his lizard mount scaled the wall on its own just fine).
  • The party skirted the gnoll lands and made its way back to Eveningstar, where William left his throne, orb, and scepter with his mother for safe-keeping, before pressing on, their ultimate destination Suzail, where William needed to report back to the Purple Dragons and tithe 10 percent of his take to the order. But first, a stop in Tyrluk so Phloyd could look in on his master Praetorius.
  • The farmers of Tyrluk intercepted Phloyd on his way to the wizard’s tower. “Old Praetorius hasn’t been seen for a ride’s time!” they said anxiously. None of them had wanted to venture into a magic-user’s domain unbidden, and so the fate of Praetorius stood as a great mystery to the townsfolk.
  • Forewarned, Phloyd and William entered the tower, which was divided into two areas: a large, high-ceilinged hall that took up most of the tower’s height, and a study at the top, accessible by a set of wrought-iron stairs wending up along the interior of the tower wall. It was in this study that the PCs found Praetorius, splayed out on the floor in front of his ever-burning fireplace. He appeared quite dead, although not decayed. Phloyd rushed forward while William hung back to allow his friend some space in his grief.
  • There appeared little that could be done for Praetorius, but Phloyd, standing and wiping tears from his eyes, suggested that he and William should fetch the village priest. Hardly had these words left his lips than Praetorius sprang back to life, flinging a mass of sticky webs from his hands. In an instant, nearly the entirety of the room was filled with a matrix of clinging strings, nearly immobilizing Phloyd and Wiliam.
  • Phloyd, mobility severely limited, still managed to pull out the wand of wonder from his belt. “Zabbalas!” But for the first time, the wand failed to respond to its master. Praetorius cackled maniacally. “Fool!” he spat, before casting a spell at Phloyd. Briefly, the gnome felt his skin stiffen and crackle, but the sensation passed as quickly as it had come. Praetorius cursed.
  • Now Phloyd attempted to loose a color spray, but the incantation failed to go off. He realized he must be standing inside an antimagic shell centered on his master! Praetorius, for his part, muttered a few words and made a circular motion with his hand and, just like that, a hole opened in the floor beneath him. He dropped through and the hole closed.
  • William, meanwhile, had been struggling towards the stairs, which lay only a few feet away. Finally freeing himself, he dashed downstairs, Phloyd’s words echoing behind him: “Don’t kill him! He is not in his right mind!” This message was rather reinforced the next instant when, from the hall below, Praetorius launched a lightning bolt, sending it rebounding off the circular tower wall up towards William. Fortunately, the paladin managed to get his shield up in time, blocking most of the impact.
  • Phloyd, for his part, feared that Praetorius had perhaps read the cursed scroll from Griffon Castle that he had left at the tower. As he freed himself from the webs, however, he found only a book on the floor near where Praetorius had lain: a turgid romance novel of the sort printed on cheap paper and bound indifferently to be sold for a few coppers on the streets of Waterdeep. Not wanting to take chances, Phloyd cast it into the fire.
  • Looking about, the gnome now saw another book that was out of place: it was a spellbook, set on a table near Praetorius’s favorite armchair. But it did not look like any of the spellbooks that belonged to Praetorius, each engraved with his personal mark. No, this one was bound in a different sort of leather and bore a different sigil. Phloyd narrowed his eyes as he looked at the rune, and then is struck him: that was the mark of Mad Meerim!

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  • Down in the hall, William spotted Praetorius and began charging down the stairs to intercept him. The wizard waved his hand laconically and suddenly William stopped—he could not remember why he was running down these stairs. He could not even remember entering the tower, though he remembered approaching it.
  • “William, what are you doing up there?” Praetorius called in a would-be friendly voice. “I…don’t know. We came looking for you…” Praetorius smiled. “Well then, come down and let us talk.” Coming up behind William, Phloyd shouted a warning. Praetorius scowled and cast another spell at Phloyd, who once again felt the uncomfortable sensation of his skin hardening for a heartbeat before it passed, the effects negated by the gnome’s natural resistance. William paused, focusing on the figure of Praetorius. From him exuded a palpable sense of evil intent.
  • William rushed down the stairs and laid into Praetorius, booting him in the chest and then striking him about the head with his sword. The unarmored wizard nearly died on the spot from the paladin’s onslaught. At last, he dropped his guise (healing some of his wounds in the process)—revealing himself to truly be none other than Mad Meerim!
  • With practiced ease, Meerim opened another dimension door beneath his feet and dropped through. The sound of his feet hitting the floor of the study above tipped off the PCs as to where he’d gone. Phloyd cast haste on William, and the super-powered paladin flew back up the stairs, ready to finish what he started.

[Incidentally, I recall Alex saying that William would have four attacks in his first round while hasted, but he’d actually have three: 3/2 attacks per round is the same as 1.5 attacks, which doubles to 3. The more you know…]

  • Meerim had already gathered up his spellbook and was in the process of casting another spell. “You haven’t seen the last of me!” he snapped, before winking out of sight with a slight “pop”…
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Session Twenty-One Notes
The Lost Valley of Hutaaka

[I’m writing this under the influence of antihistamines, so it’s entirely possible I’m going to forget big chunks of the adventure. Apologies in advance…]

At long last, the heroes arrived at the Lost Valley of Hutaaka…

  • …and promptly retreated. They realized they couldn’t leave Gagejolly out on the road on the other side of the gorge and have any expectation of returning to find him still alive. Plus, they’d been going for about 24 hours straight and needed rest and recuperation. And so they left the mysterious valley for the time being and made their way back across the gorge to rejoin Gagejolly.
  • The next morning, Phloyd tied a rope to Gagejolly’s left hock and cast levitate on him; they then pulled the floating horse across like a helium balloon in what was probably the campaign’s most ridiculous moment thus far. I’m not begrudging the players’ decision to do this at all—it was quite a clever use of their available resources, actually—but holy hell, this is when D&D just gets downright silly.

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“Let’s not go there.”

  • Having left behind a secured rope, the PCs easily ascended the wall and pulled Gagejolly down the other side. It was mid-afternoon and the sun was already descending below the steep slopes of the enclosing mountains. An ancient road wound its way among tall grasses, ferns, and stands of evergreens. Scattered here and there were clear ruins of a once-great civilization: shrines, monuments, fountains. At one such fountain, long since dry, they noted footprints that looked distinctly gnollish. Somewhere from off in the distance came the sound of shifting, falling rocks. Otherwise, there was not a sound to be heard in the valley—no bird chirped nor insect buzzed. It was eerily still.
  • The party pressed on along the ancient road, then followed a mountain stream for a bit before reaching a large lake fed by many such watercourses. At one point, William caught a bit of movement among the evergreens out of the corner of his eye, a shadowy form. He didn’t detect any evil about it, and so let it pass on unmolested. The valley was over twenty miles long, but no wider than six or eight miles at the most. About halfway along its length, at a choke point where the valley turned due west, they found a ruined arch spanning the road. Piled up against the structure were three short, bald humans. They wore leather armor and bore spears and axes of worked metal, and they were clearly dead. Phloyd went invisible as William rode up to investigate. The men had been killed by wounds sustained from spearpoint and clawtip. More of those gnollish footprints were about, and many led back up into the rocky hills.
  • At this point, a strange noise could be heard, a noise not unlike a multitude of sucker-pads. Indeed, that’s what it was, for a large group of massive chameleon-like lizards with suckers for toes emerged from the southwest wilds, each bearing as a rider another short, bald man. There was a tense moment where the riders nearly attacked William, taking him to be the one responsible for killing their kin, but William won them over with some smooth talk and appeals to logic. There was much grumbling about “mutts,” and the leader of the group said that he wanted to take William back to meet his leader, but not before they went after the mutts that must still be nearby.
  • William volunteered to ride along, and the still-invisible Phloyd caught him up and climbed aboard Gagejolly’s saddle. The party rode up into the rock-strewn hills and soon came under a mostly-harmless barrage of slingstones. Then a half-dozen jackel-headed men dressed in somber robes popped up from among the rocks, palms extended out before them, invoking some sort of chant. The bald men ran for it, overcome with magically-induced fear.
  • One of the bald men, a strange little fellow with an abnormally large chest and neck, stuck around long enough to unleash some sort of sonic attack upon the jackal-men, using only the power of his voice. The creatures clutched their ears in pain, giving the man enough time to wheel about and flee, imploring William to follow. The paladin, however, stuck around. He had seen jackal statues elsewhere in the valley, and had a suspicion that here were the valley’s original inhabitants.

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  • The jackal-men recovered from their state of shock and regarded William coolly, remaining poised for a fight—until Phloyd materialized out of thin air atop William’s head, brandishing the gold needle! At this, the jackals issued a collective gasp and immediately let their guard down. Introductions were made, and the jackal-men insisted on taking WIlliam and Phloyd to their fortified town of Byxata, where they could meet the high priestess of Pflarr, Kforedz.
  • By the time Byxata came into view, the sun had set and the sky overhead was growing dark. The jackals hastened their step, claiming that the valley was not safe at night, though not explaining much more. Byxata turned out to be a modest settlement of several dozen one-story stone buildings surrounded by a 20-foot stone wall. Many jackal-folk were about, and they all stopped to stare curiously at William and Phloyd. It was obvious that outsiders rarely came to the valley, although the escort had mentioned something about another group arriving a couple months prior and taking up with “the Wreckers” (as the jackals called the little bald men), since which raids had increased.
  • William and Phloyd were introduced to Kforedz, a stately priestess with silvery fur. She answered more of their questions, explaining that once her people had kept a horrible beast in check within their sacred temple grounds. With the coming of the Wreckers from lands beyond, however, the jackal-folk had been driven from their temple and the creature had subsequently escaped. “Many more horrors now stalk these hills as well,” she said portentously.
  • At this point, the gate lifted and another patrol of jackals returned, this one bringing a Wrecker prisoner. Kforedz took a few minutes to dispatch orders as to how to deal with the prisoner, leaving William feeling distinctly uneasy. “What are you going to do with that prisoner?” he asked when Kforedz returned. She dodged his question, instead inviting the PCs to accompany her and her priests to a nearby sacred shrine, where she hoped to enact a ritual that might bring a bit of relief from the nightly depredations. The PCs agreed to come.
  • The ceremony was interrupted at midnight by a large group of shambling dead, a mix of skeletons and zombies, both jackal-folk and Wreckers. The priests deserted Kforedz and fled back towards Byxata, but William easily turned a good number, and then he and Phloyd dispatched the rest with a combination of skill at arms and magic missiles from one of Phloyd’s looted scrolls.
  • As morning came, Kforedz was dejected—she knew her ritual had done nothing. She lamented that the true ritual was contained only in a book entitled Secrets of the Elders, a book that lay beneath the Vault of the Elders. She had a key, she said, but did not know how to operate it, and so the vault remained sealed. The PCs, naturally, volunteered to give it their best shot.
  • On their way back from the shrine, however, the party was intercepted by a dawn patrol of Wreckers mounted atop their strange giant lizards. With them, also lizard-mounted, was a full-sized human wearing chain armor and a horned, masked helmet. They paused only briefly before charging down the rise, clearly intent on dispatching the party. Phloyd acted quickly, withdrawing one of his scrolls and intoning the lightning bolt spell written thereon. He angled the spell so that it would bounce off a nearby boulder and catch the group in the flank, and he pulled it off in such a way that every last man and lizard was fried to a crisp in a twinkling. The thunderous reverberation echoed down the valley as Tim lamented Alex’s choice of specialty. (“Why not an Evoker? Whyyyyy…?”)
  • As they approached the village, the PCs noted the body of the Wrecker prisoner that had been brought in the night before. Unceremoniously dumped in a gully about 50 yards from the walls, it bore unmistakable signs of having been tortured to death. William felt increasingly uneasy about allying with these jackal-folk, and he and Phloyd sadly ruminated on the nature of genocidal wars and moral gray areas and so forth.
  • At her hall, Kforedz presented the key, which turned out to be a metal cylinder with runes etched along its length. Phloyd used his cryptographical skills to discern that it was actually a magic scroll of sorts, and that it contained versions of knock and continual light. Kforedz dispatched two of her recalcitrant priests to accompany the heroes, who set out once again in the late afternoon after spending most of the day resting.
  • The vault was a small shrine with a black marble altar. There was a stone trap door in the floor behind the altar, set flush and with no visible handles or hinges. Phloyd cast knock from the metal “scroll” and the trapdoor slid to the side. He then cast continual light and just like that had himself a little flashlight. At the sight of the musty, gloomy stairs leading steeply into the earth, however, the two priests turned tail and ran away—clearly this was shaping up to be a pattern!
  • The PCs descended by themselves and found a 20-foot-square room at the bottom. On the far side was an ancient tome, a necklace, and a ring upon a shelf. In the center of the room, lying on the floor perpendicular to the shelf, were the mummified remains of a jackal-person. Phloyd assumed wraithform and invisibly floated across to the tome, but he would be unable to grab it until he became corporeal again, and the PCs knew well enough to anticipate the mummy would not remain still for long after that happened. William hefted his Headsman’s Blade and stepped inside…
  • Sure enough, as soon as William entered the room, the mummy sprang to life and launched itself at the paladin. They collided violently, and seconds later the mummy crumbled to pieces, its head removed by William’s magical blade. William, however, was now sporting a nasty wound beneath a tear in the chainmail protecting his armpit, and the wound was rapidly turning black. Mummy rot! Phloyd materialized and grabbed the book and the treasure, and they were soon hustling back to Byxata.
  • Along the way, they spotted a massive trail of slime crossing the road. Kforedz had spoken of the “Thing from the Pit” that had escaped the Temple of Pflarr and now haunted and hunted the length of the valley. Surely this was its spoor! Hastening on, they made it back to Byxata by dark. Kforedz was [retroactively…ahem] able to heal William of his mummy’s curse by calling upon the power of Pflarr.
  • With the book and its ritual in hand, plans were made to venture to the ruined Temple of Pflarr. It was situated uncomfortably close to the Wrecker’s home base of Ronkan, so Kforedz proposed heading out after dark—the Wreckers were known to be superstitiously terrified of the night, and would not be patrolling outside their walls. There was a greater risk of running afoul of some of the valley’s less wholesome residents, yes, but the temple was not far away. The PCs agreed to this plan and set out that night with Kforedz and two acolytes.

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  • The temple was a magnificent ruin, silvery in the moonlight. Entering the front set of double doors, the party was immediately assaulted by a group of jackal-headed zombies and skeletons. William and Kforedz stepped forward, the former brandishing his symbol of Tyr, the latter merely her upturned palm. Half the shambling undead were turned to ash by the power of their divine invocations, and nearly all the rest fled. Those few that remained were easily cut down.
  • From the small antechamber, the party ascended a wide set of steps to anoter double-doorway. Coming through, they entered a massive chamber, its high domed ceiling letting in amble ambient light through several massive cracks. More light was provided by a circle of blue flames some 10 feet high that ringed an unnaturally dark pit in the center of the chamber. Over the pit was hung a man-sized iron cage. On the far side of the temple, the nave contained a 30-foot jackal-headed statue carved of onyx, looking down on a massive black marble altar.
  • As the PCs poked around and kept an eye out for trouble, Kforedz and her acolytes ascended to the altar and enacted the ritual. No further horrors disturbed the group, and the ritual was completed in due course. Kforedz was smiling as she came back down from the altar. “The dead of the valley are now at peace,” she said. “But the Thing from the Pit still roams free—this ritual has no power over it.”
  • The solution was obvious: the PCs had spotted the Thing’s trail earlier that day. They needed to track it and kill it. Kforedz agreed, and they all set out, still taking advantage of the night and the Wreckers’ superstition, especially now that the valley was actually free of roaming undead.
  • As they left the Temple, however, Phloyd noticed Kforedz looking back at the massive statue. Following her gaze, he saw that the statue was set upon a circular slap in the floor—almost as if the thing was meant to rotate on a pivot. Phloyd said as much, but Kforedz dismissed the idea immediately. “It’s a huge statue! There’s no way it could be moved.”
  • The trail was easily found (it’s hard to miss a 10-foot-wide track of goo) and followed into the hills. Presently, it disappeared into a natural cave opening. “The whole valley is criss-crossed with these ancient caves,” said Kforedz. “The Thing must use them to move around unseen.”
  • With their “flashlight” in hand, the party entered the cavemouth and began following the twisting, turning passages. The slime trail guided them whenever they reached a split or junction, and, after a half-hour or so, they emerged into a large cavern. The floor was ankle-deep (or knee-deep in Phloyd’s case) with slime. There was a hole in the ceiling ringed with blue flame, and a strange sort of observation gallery protected by a double bank of iron bars off to the side. Phloyd surmised that this had been the Thing’s original chamber, and that they were under the main temple itself. Sacrifices would have been placed in the metal cage and lowered down through the pit, while priests observed from the safety of the viewing gallery. Kforedz took umbrage with this theory, protesting that her ancestors could never have engaged in such barbaric activities, but there was little time to argue: in that moment, four tentacles burst out from the very tunnel the party had emerged from earlier!
  • The Thing had managed to double back through a side tunnel and ambush the party. William, Kforedz, and the two priests were all ensnared in the monster’s grip, and were being dragged through the muck back towards a slimy, yawning maw. Phloyd cast color spray twice, managing to stun the creature on his second try, but not before one of the priests met a grisly death in the Thing’s mouth, the horror’s acidic saliva dissolving the priest’s flesh before he could even die of repeated chomps.
  • As soon as the Thing recovered from getting sprayed, it flung out its tentacles again. William and Kforedz hacked and bashed their way free, but the other acolyte was crushed to death by the tentacle’s rubbery grip. Phloyd, too, was caught up this time, but he had drawn his wand of wonder and aimed it squarely at the Thing’s mouth. “Zabbalas!” In an instant, the Thing was encased in a ball of pure darkness. This did not seem to perturb the monster one bit, however, and Phloyd was mere feet away from being pulled into the mouth. William watched helplessly as Phloyd disappeared into the dark sphere now surrounding the Thing. Then he heard a gnomish voice: “Zabbalas!”
  • The wand had this time launched a fireball point blank into the Thing’s mouth, and that was the end of that. It was also the end of Kforedz, sadly, as she was caught full in the face by the backblast, but somehow both William and Phloyd escaped, albeit considerably singed…
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Session Twenty Notes
Gnoll-ified

When we were first talking about this campaign, there was some concern expressed regarding longevity—we’d just come off of two failed campaign concepts. In order to assuage these concerns, I promised to not give up on the campaign any sooner than 5th level or 20 sessions. Well, this is the 20th session, and the average party level is just a bit over 6th, so I’ve hit both those goals.

Of course, this means the campaign’s warranty has effectively lapsed, so now we’re all a bit nervous that everything’s going to come crashing down. I have every intention of seeing this campaign through to a logical stopping point (and have the material queued up for just such a purpose), but the ever-present threat of a TPK now seems to loom ever greater…

  • The timeline advanced six weeks as Sir William soaked up his role as hero of Cormyr and high officer in the Purple Dragon, attending a whirl of feasts and galas at the behest of the Queen and his new Dragon peers. He was formally inducted into the order. He received his ceremonial coif and affixed his helmet with a dragon crest, and accustomed himself to a regular regimen of training and prayer, as befitting his new life as a holy warrior of Tyr.
  • Phloyd, meanwhile, spent his time back in Tyrluk, studying once more under his master Praetorius. This time things went much better, and Phloyd added several new spells to his book—although the quantum intricacies of Leomund’s tiny hut continued to evade him.
  • As spring began to shade into summer and the weather finally turned consistently pleasant, Phloyd and William corresponded between Tyrluk and Suzail and made arrangements to finally undertake their postponed journey to the Lost Valley of Hutaaka, located somewhere north of Arabel in the Stormhorn Mountains.
  • After a few days of Sir William being feted and fawned over by friends and family in Eveningstar, the duo departed for Arabel, where they (finally) stocked up on some exploratory essentials (rope, pack horses, torches), and then rode out. With them was Sir William’s new squire, an aspiring Purple Dragon affectionately called Little John.
  • Riding along the banks of the Sword River, they passed by wide expanses of fields burgeoning with green crops; then the fields turned to pastureland; then the pastureland gave way to wild, rolling plains, only occasionally dotted by small woods, the domain of hunters and trappers…and creatures of much darker mien. Once they were out in the Wild, the party began to spot traces of an ancient road paralleling the river. Here and there, crumbling paving stones could be seen among the grass and bracken—the road was old, far older than Cormyr.
  • After three days of travel, the party spotted the remains of a campsite, its ashes still smoldering. It had clearly been attacked by raiders, and the campers’ bones now lay in the dwindling embers of the fire. No skulls could be found of the hapless trio, and their possessions had been ransacked. With some trepidation, Phloyd and William speculated that the attackers may have been gnolls—the Stormhorns now loomed on the northern horizon, and these parts of the mountains were known to shelter many tribes of those foul creatures.

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  • Not long after leaving the wrecked campsite, a thick mist began to rise up from the river. Soon, the party was riding through fog so dense, it was starting to bead up on their cloaks. Gradually, they became aware that they were in the midst a veritable forest of sharpened pikes stuck into the ground. Most of these featured an impaled gnoll in varying stages of decay. They spotted two fresh gnoll bodies, and nearby three human heads. It was eerily quiet, save for the occasional sound of rattling bones…
  • Then, off in the murky distance, four figures poked up from out of the mist, sniffing the air curiously. With a strange, inhuman howl, they began loping towards the party. Ghouls! Sir William pulled his gold holy symbol from under his breastplate and held it aloft. “In the name of Tyr, begone!” he bellowed. The symbol shone brightly, illuminating the grounds, and the ghouls hissed in terror before turning tail and scurrying into a burrow dug into the ground.
  • Sir William peered through the mist, trying to sense any further evil lurking about, and felt a powerful wave coming from further in among the pikes. He uttered a warning to Phloyd just seconds before his whole body seized up. Little John, too, was afflicted with paralysis, but Phloyd’s gnomish physiology shrugged off the curse. As William and LIttle John slipped from their saddles (Phloyd using his staff to slow William’s descent), the buffoon looked back in the direction William had indicated. Sure enough, about 10 yards distant, a stoop-backed gnoll festooned with bones and stitched-skins was waving a strange skull fetish in their direction.
  • Too far away to use color spray, Phloyd activated his ring of invisibility and slipped away, downwind of the gnoll shaman, as the party’s horses fled in terror. Three more gnolls, acolytes of the shaman, appeared, and the whole group began advancing towards the prostrate forms of William and Little John, their murderous intentions only too clear. At that point, Phloyd struck, launching two color sprays that took out the three acolytes. In return, the gnoll shaman cast darkness on Phloyd and scampered away. Phloyd used levitate to get out of the darkness, seeing the shaman duck into a crude hut in the center of what Phloyd now realized was a sacred gnoll burial ground.
  • Descending, he scampered over to William and Little John, who were just regaining the use of their limbs. Meanwhile, the beating of drums began to reverberate across the wide, shallow valley. Sir William and Little John quickly gathered the horses, William then riding into the darkness where the gnoll acolytes were coming out of their stunned state. An expert blind-fighter, William quickly located and dispatched the confused, howling trio, and then the party beat feet, riding north along the river, before the shaman could return with reinforcements.
  • As the sun began to set behind the Stormhorns, the party could see black smoke rising from a multitude of signal fires to the west and south-west of their position—clearly the entire local gnoll population was in an uproar over the defilement of their sacred burial grounds. Darkness descended over the valley and a silvery moon rose, illuminating a small war party of gnolls now in pursuit of the party.

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  • The terrain was growing rougher as they approached the Stormhorns, and Phloyd only just managed to spot a small group of gnolls waiting in ambush among the tangles of a briar patch atop a nearby rise. He sent a color spray into the bushes, which was answered with a volley of spears. The party dug in their spurs and galloped on, weathering a second volley which, sadly, brought down the squire Little John.
  • Desperately, the PCs urged their steeds onward, but soon Gagejolly slowed to a trot—the warhorse, bred for strength over endurance, was blown. They kept on, however. The pursuing warband was beginning to catch up, and was now close enough that the party could discern ogres in the midst of the dozens of howling gnolls.
  • Knowing that they would soon be overtaken, the party stopped to prepare a special sort of ambush. Phloyd took out his deck of illusions and selected the Red Dragon. [Incidentally, I realized this session that the deck is supposed to only work with random draws, but fuck that noise. How is that at all useful? Pssh.] Casting the card to the ground, a massive red dragon rose up—the heroes could smell its odor, a mix of brimstone and reptilian funk; could feel the heat emanating from it, could see the grass quiver as it beat its wide wings. The gnoll war party saw it too, and came to a screeching halt. Quietly, the PCs slipped away into the night as the gnolls prepared for battle against a foe that wasn’t even there.
  • The drums continued to echo through the valley, but soon the party was in amongst steep-sided gulleys as the mountains closed in around them. Continuing to follow the river, they saw up ahead a magnificent tableau: a massive waterfall, over 300 feet high, its mighty roar finally drowning out the sound of the gnoll drums.
  • The ancient road was much more visible in the gorge, and the PCs could see that it led into a wide, high tunnel carved out of the cliff face, just off to the side of the waterfall. The floor of the tunnel was caked with mud, and bore no signs of recent passage by man or beast. Leading their horses, the party entered the tunnel.
  • Gradually, ascending broad, wide steps that turned 90 degress every 100 yards or so, the PCs climbed. The tunnel finally opened out onto a massive stone bridge that crossed the very top of the waterfall itself. The moonlit vista was spectacular, and William remarked that he would like to build a castle there one day.
  • The bridge was guarded by a squat stone tower built at its middle point. Three gnoll skeletons provided mute testimony to some unseen threat, but the party pressed on to the door, an ancient bronze portal depicting motifs of needles and threads. Digging in his pack, Phloyd extracted the silver needle and gold thread and then William pushed open the door. Within, the tower was choked with rubble from its collapsed roof. There were also two steel statues of jackal-headed men in robes, disturbingly reminiscent of the jade statues that had thrown William such a beating at Xitaqa. Sure enough, as the party entered, the statues animated and began to advance—until Phloyd brandished the silver needle, that is. The statues returned to their plinth, then actually bowed the PCs on.
  • The party did move on, but not before Phloyd stopped to liberate another skeleton (either human or elven) of its wand and scroll. Perhaps this luckless adventurer had been the one responsible for bringing down the roof of the tower?
  • Passing through to the far side of the bridge, the PCs could see that a road had been cut into the side of the mountains and wound its way deeper up the river gorge. Taking a few minutes to secure each other with ropes, and the horses with leads, they pressed on.
  • The road rose swiftly, and soon the travelers were hundreds of feet above the fast-flowing Sword River. Small rivulets and streams ran down the cliff face, carving channels through the rock and (sometimes) the road itself, necessitating slow and careful progress in the moonlight. At certain points, parts of the road had even crumbled away, and much time was spent negotiating these treacherous passes and coaxing the horses to follow along, making sure none of the steeds slipped on the wet stones.
  • After some hours of travel, the party reached a massive gorge some 200 feet across. It was spanned by a once-magnificent stone bridge, now fallen into disrepair. Even as they looked on, a couple bricks came loose and tumbled into the dark depths below. Phloyd would be able to cross the bridge with no problems, thanks to his wraithform spell. William elected to take Gagejolly across at a gallop and hope for the best.
  • Despite the poor condition of the bridge, it held up, and William then crossed back and took up the reins of the two pack horses, leading them back across. At about the midpoint of the bridge, however, the gorge resounded with a familiar screech. Looking about wildly, William saw two griffons swooping towards the pack horses, the moon at their backs.
  • As the horses screamed in terror, William ran for it. Gagejolly, too, was panicking, but Phloyd managed to grab hold of his reins and calm him. The pack horses, sadly, were not so lucky, and were each swept up by a griffon and borne away, their frenzied whinnying slowly fading into the darkness.
  • Down to just William, Phloyd, and Gagejolly, the party pressed on. The road began following a curve in the mountainside as the gorge began to widen, and so the PCs did not see the evidence of a recent rockslide nearly blocking the road until they were right upon it. Picking their way among the boulders and stones, they triggered another, smaller fall, and William was buffeted by two large rocks, saved from having his brains dashed out by his armor.
  • The road continued to curve ever more sharply, and quite suddenly the party hit the end: another massive gorge, once spanned by a bridge now long since crumbled away. On the far side, a 40-foot cliff wall rose up. Set into the wall, a pair of 20-foot gates, a stone jackalman standing in a niche on either side.
  • The stone pylons of the bridge were still intact, and William and Phloyd knew they’d be able to get across that way, but this was the literal end of the road for Gagejolly. Sadly, William fettered the horse and put his feedbag over his muzzle, promising to return and hoping those two griffons would be well-fed on the pack horses until he could make good on his word.
  • The knight and the buffoon then picked their way across the ruined pylons, reaching the door as the sky overhead began to grow brighter with the approach of dawn. The two stone statues began to animate at the party’s approach, but once again a display of the silver needle pacified them. The doors, however, presented a greater challenge. They were carved with intricate abstract designs that would provide ample handholds, and the cliff wall overhead was similarly cracked and weathered, but Phloyd knew his stumpy gnomish limbs were not up to the challenge.
  • Sir William, however, felt like he had a shot. Taking off his armor, he began to climb. Phloyd watched nervously, but the paladin managed the ascent perfectly. He dropped a rope from the top of the tower, and brought up first his suit of armor, then Phloyd himself.
  • And then, as the sun rose behind them, they turned and beheld, for the first time, the Lost Valley of Hutaaka…

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Session Nineteen Notes
Long Live the Queen!

You know, we’ve never really done a classic “rescue the princess” scenario in all our years of playing D&D, have we? Well, now we have…

  • The PCs knew where they had to go: the mysterious castle on the banks of the River Laine that Phloyd had seen in the mind of Sir Bracken. William had been able to figure out approximately where that was, and they set off.
  • After an uneventful cross-country trek, the reached the wide and mighty Laine and began following it north, looking for a suitable crossing point. They eventually found a ford, but also found that it was guarded by a knight and his attendants.
  • As the party crossed the river, the knight rode up to the far bank. He was dressed in a black surcoat but bore a large gold medallion with the lion symbol of Duke Bhereu. “Turn back or else face me in single combat!” he called. William took the challenge, and a joust began.
  • William finally put his lance to good use, unseating the rival knight on the first pass. The Black Knight, undaunted, drew his sword, and William dismounted to continue the fight on foot. What transpired was an epic fight that culminated with William disarming the knight. “You are beaten. Now let us pass.” The Black Knight seemed to consent, but then, true to stereotypical black knight behavior, he signaled for his four attendants to open fire with heretofore-concealed crossbows as he dove back for his sword.
  • The crossbow volley was ineffective, and Phloyd put the men down with a couple blasts of color spray. William, meanwhile, found himself in a desperate battle against the enemy knight. Even with Phloyd joining the fray, they only just managed to defeat him, leaving his shattered body bleeding into the clear rivers of the Laine.
  • Unfortunately, the fight had taken so long that two of the men Phloyd had knocked out had regained consciousness and were fleeing to the northwest. William mounted one of the remaining horses, a light and swift breed, pulled Phloyd into the saddle, and whistled for Gagejolly to follow him. The chase was on!
  • William caught up to the men after 10 miles of hard riding, and Phloyd sent a blast of color spray their way; they did not survive the falls from their horses. By this point, the terrain had become much more hilly and wooded, and the spires of a mighty castle could be discerned on the horizon about a half-mile distant.
  • After Gagejolly caught up, and with everyone badly in need of rest, the party found a sufficiently isolated copse of trees to camp in out of sight of the castle. Their night went undisturbed save for a party of dwarven miners—the same party they’d encountered some days previous, by the looks of things—walking up towards the castle the next morning. Small world!
  • Phloyd did a repeat of his infiltration of Eagle Peak by going invisible (using his new ring this time) and assuming wraithform to slip past guards and through closed doors. The castle showed signs of isolation, but also of recent renovations. Within its walls, Phloyd discovered four bodies in the dungeon, men in pilgrim’s garb that had been left to die of thirst—Phloyd surmised they were members of the Princess’s party—as well as Duke Bhereu and his half-elven lover (whom Phloyd did not recognize) and a rather nasty-looking half-orc bodyguard in a nearby tower complex. But most importantly, he found Tanalesta, near death herself from ill treatment and paltry rations in a private chamber. He returned and gave his report to William.
  • That night, the PCs returned, using Phloyd’s levitation spell to get to the top of the tower where Tanalesta was being held. Phloyd’s color spray incapacitated the guards outside her chamber, and the PCs spirited her away into the night. They were momentarily pursued by the castle’s eponymous griffin, but sacrificed the riding horses they’d acquired from the Black Knight in order to distract it and get away cleanly.
  • After riding about five miles, they made camp again. Tanalesta was given food and water and gradually began regaining her faculties. She was full of questions: she did not know about her father’s death or the plot against her. The PCs gave her the run-down, much to her horror. At this point, a rustling came from the nearby bushes and a man stepped into the clearing. “Allow me to ease your pain, Princess,” he said, just before hurling a dagger straight at her face—it was the assassin from Eagle Point!
  • Fortunately, his knife just missed its mark, cutting off a lock of Tanalesta’s hair instead. He then vaulted into the midst of the party, inhumanly quick, and took a swipe at the princess with another poisoned dagger, but she managed to dodge out of the way. Then Phloyd and William were upon him. They managed to avoid getting stuck with the poisoned blade, and dispatched their foe after a brief fight.
  • The next morning, with William laying hands on Tanalesta to give her enough strength for the journey, they rode out for Fontmere Abbey. After three days of cautious travel, giving Eagle Point a wide berth, they arrived at the abbey only to find that, tragically, it had indeed been brutally sacked and pillaged, as feared. Among the ruins they found the decaying remains of William Menote, head of the abbey.
  • They elected to press on along a path through the Stormhorns that would take them into the heart of Cormyr. Keeping off the main road, they made for Espar and the Three Feathers Inn, the one remaining “friendly” place in the country. Entering the quaint town, they saw Lord Edrin’s raven banners hung from every major building in town. Yet, as they made for the inn, the people of Espar, having recognized the princess, mobbed them, cheering and crying tears of joy. Vangerdehast was there, too, as if he knew the PCs were coming. He welcomed them back, beaming.
  • The following few days were a whirlwind of celebration and feasting, first at Espar, then at Suzail. Lord Edrin was arrested and executed for treason, and Duke Bhereu, now known to all of Cormyr as Bhereu the Infamous, fled the country. A national holiday was named in honor of the new queen’s return, and Sir William was finally given official rank in the Purple Dragons, named a Constal of the order. All’s well that ends well.

[There was some interesting discussion after the session regarding the much-reduced rate of level advancement we’re now encountering. Phloyd leveled up as an Illusionist, but there are tens of thousands of XP to accrue before the next such advancement for either character. This might just be a function of this level of D&D gameplay—we’ve rarely had campaigns get this far—but I’ve given it some thought, and I’ll be making some adjustments to XP awards in the future. Namely, in addition to XP for defeating monsters and gaining treasure, as well as the occasional story award, I’m also going to award XP for neutralizing threats through stealth or cleverness; I think the PCs deserved some Experience for the way they got out of fighting the griffin and Duke Bhereu and his flunkies. It seems unfair to punish players for creative problem-solving over hack-and-slashing, and with a small party, it’s even more wise to encourage plans that avoid potential Total Party Kill scenarios. I’ve made a note to adjust XP awards from this session at the beginning of the next; it’s not anything huge, but every little bit helps.]

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Session Eighteen Notes
In the Name of Tyr

Oh man, this was one of those sessions where it looked for a time that everything might be over, but then it turned out not only that the campaign was continuing on, but that it had taken a dramatic turn that made things even more awesome than ever.

  • So we picked up with Phloyd, William, and Theran fleeing High Horn at full gallop, tearing off down the high mountain road. The Stormhorns loomed up to either side of the party as they fled, a chill mist hanging in the air.

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  • They’d been riding no more than a quarter-hour when they spotted a large group of riders coming up fast behind them. A pursuit party from High Horn! They rode light warhorses and were closing the gap quickly. Knowing from previous experience that, with Sir William and his destrier, they’d get caught out eventually, the party reined in and prepared for a fight.
  • As the riders drew closer, Phloyd produced his wand of wonder yet again and pointed it in their direction. His ringing cry of “Zabbalas!” was nearly drowned out by the loud farting noise that blasted from the tip of the wand, along with a massive cloud of sulfuric yellow gas. The pursuers rode right into the lingering gas cloud, and only six emerged from the other side. Those who made it through drove their horses on, and William hefted his lance and counter-charged. Phloyd drew back, anxious to protect Theran, who was still quite weak from his ordeal.
  • William’s charge proved ill-advised, as the Baron’s men had spears of their own. Steel clashed on steel, and William was quickly in over his head. Phloyd, nearly out of spells, was desperate. He brandished his wand one more time. “Zabbalas!” With a slight “pop” Phloyd turned invisible. Interesting. Could it be that the wand was trying to tell him something?
  • Phloyd told Theran to ride hard, and sent his donkey along with the monk, then watched, unable to do anything, as William was hacked down before his eyes. The cavalier fought the good fight, but these were some of the Duke’s best men, after all. The stinking cloud was beginning to dissipate, and the balance of guardsmen (including their Purple Dragon captain) rode up. Sparing William’s corpse only a moment’s contemptuous glance, the captain ordered his men on: “We must find the gnome and the monk!” Phloyd read the captain’s mind as he rode by and discerned that he was going to ride as far as the Three Feathers Inn at the foot of the pass.
  • Rushing forward, Phloyd found William in a bad way. His plate armor was covered in blood, and blood was forming a swiftly-widening pool beneath him. Flipping up the visor on William’s helm, Phloyd saw the knight’s face was paper white. This called for healing skills well beyond what he was capable of. One destination fixed itself in the little gnome’s mind: the Shrine of Nevron. As much as he wanted to make for Fontmere Abbey, he knew it was too far away, especially with the main road no longer safe. However, he was quite sure that the Shrine very close by, just on the other side of these peaks, in fact.
  • With Gagejolly’s help, Phloyd managed to heft William’s dead weight up over his saddle. He then led Gagejolly carefully up into the mountains. It took hours of following ravines and canyons, often having to double back at dead-ends and drop-offs, but, finally, Phloyd was looking down onto a clearing and a cave mouth.
  • Leaving Gagejolly and William for the moment, the still-invisible gnome stole down into the clearing. He saw a well-traveled footpath on one end of the clearing, and a massive bronze sculpture of a set of scales on the other. About 20 feet beyond the monument was a modest cave opening. All around, the rock had been inscribed with visitors’ runic inscriptions; sometimes just names, other times prayers offered up to Tyr. Phloyd approached the cave mouth and listened. He could hear the sound of dripping water, but nothing else.
  • Judging the clearing to be safe enough, he returned to Gagejolly and carefully led the horse down the steep slope. A lesser steed would have balked, or lost its footing, but Gagejolly undertook his task with aplomb. Phloyd led the horse, still bearing WIlliam’s dead body, into the cave. It was high-ceilinged and long. At the far end, a great mass of crystals grew out of the limestone wall, and a deep pool rippled at the formation’s feet. Still more inscriptions were carved into the rock wall all around, and icons and symbols of Tyr had been crammed into every nook and cranny. Cautiously, Phloyd led Gagejolly to the pool’s edge, then pulled the knight down from the saddle.
  • Filling his skin with water from the pool, Phloyd tipped the liquid into WIlliam’s mouth. Although he could not swallow the water, the knight’s pallor began to fade and his eyelids began to flutter. Phloyd gave William another sip, and now the knight, who had been lying dead just seconds ago, was alive again, drinking the water down. It was a miaracle!
  • William sat up, blinking and looking around, confused. Phloyd realized he was still invisible, and canceled the effect. “Welcome back, my friend!” said the gnome. He could immediately see a change had come over William. His eyes seemed kinder, his features less severe. As he stood up again, he carried himself differently—somehow prouder, more commanding. He even looked a bit stronger and more powerful.

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  • [Mechanically, I gave Tim the option, since he was drinking from a spring sacred to his god and had a compatible alignment, to switch from Fighter to Paladin. Tim was on it like white on rice.]
  • As Phloyd and William were still marveling at the miracle that had taken place, the crystal formation began to glow with a soft white light. Then, a shaft of light shot from the crystals towards the ceiling, illuminating the whole chamber. A soft voice, neither male nor female, spoke inside their heads:

Listen seekers, for I am the Oracle of Nevron and I know why you have come. You seek the true heir to this kingdom. She is in grave danger. Look for her in the west, where the waters flow…where the bird meets the lion.

  • As it was growing dark and William was still quite weak, the duo elected to overnight in the cave. Phloyd was still nervous, but William was quite sure they’d be safe and secure from any threats while inside. He was right, and when he awoke in the morning he felt nearly back to full health. He had even learned that he could channel the divine blessing of his god to speed his recovery. This, combined with burning some of the healing incense they’d bought in Arabel, set the knight back in Gagejolly’s saddle, Phloyd clinging on behind, ready to continue the quest.
  • The PCs had discussed what the oracle could have meant. They felt that the bit about the “bird meeting the lion” had to refer to a griffon, but they could not discern the significance of this reference. However, William was aware of a small keep called Eagle Peak located out in the Marches along the main road to Proskur. That might be a good starting point.
  • Gagejolly picked his way down the footpath, which ran in switchbacks through the pine-forested foothills for about 10 miles before coming out at the foot of High Horn Pass. Situated at the intersection of the main road and the path was a fortified inn: the Three Feathers. Of Theran or their other mounts, there was no sign, but three horses and a mule were hitched to the post outside.
  • As they approached the inn, William began to get a pain in his temples: he could now sense that someone with evil intentions lurked within. Not wanting to press their luck, the PCs elected to give the inn a miss and continue on to the south.
  • Their travels took them along a desolate trade road with little in the way of civilization in evidence. They rode all day and still had not seen any sign of Eagle Peak, so they moved off the road and found a small box canyon among the base of the foothills in which to make camp. William allowed Phloyd to sleep the balance of the night, as Phloyd had done for William in the cave the night before. Just before dawn, William spotted flickering candle flames floating up out of the dark, about four feet off the ground. He awoke Phloyd, and they listened to the noise of heavy footsteps and clanking gear get closer. Then Phloyd heard words he recognized, words spoken in the Dwarven tongue. “Claim jumpers!” one was saying. Phloyd lit his staff and saw 10 hill dwarf miners squinting back. He quickly explained the circumstances of their camp, and how they meant no harm, and the dwarves let the PCs go on their way, watching impatiently as they struck camp.
  • The party thus got an early start on the day, although they did stop again so that Phloyd could memorize his spells. By noon, they had spotted the spire of Eagle Peak on the horizon. They stopped and William and Gagejolly waited in an out-of-way dip in the ground as Phloyd went on ahead to scout things out.
  • The gnome made himself invisible and, crossing the keep’s drawbridge, also took on wraithform. Slipping past the guards and through the downed portcullis, Phloyd saw the livery of Duke Bhereu everywhere. He began exploring the keep, moving through barracks and storerooms and mess halls. He ventured down into the dungeons and saw two men, apparently peasants, in the holding cell but did not reveal himself to them. He went to the top of the keep and looked out from its turreted towers, which gave a commanding view of the surrounding plains for many miles in every direction.
  • He also noted one of the turrets seemed a bit different from the others, as it was accessed by a short stairway quite separate from the usual parapet entries on the other turrets. Intrigued, he investigated the door of this turret and found it to be barred from the inside. Using his slim-jim, he un-barred the door and opened it. Two crossbow bolts flew over his head from inside!
  • Phloyd dodged out of the way and tumbled into the room. It was richly appointed: a large canopy bed sat opposite the door. Against the south wall was a three-foot-high, glass-doored cabinet. Atop the cabinet was a small chest. Against the north wall was a desk and chair. An open footlocker was positioned between the desk and bed. Looking under the bed, Phloyd spotted two small crossbows set an angle in the floor—the source of those deadly bolts. Strings ran from the crossbow triggers up onto the bed. Someone had purposely fired the crossbows!
  • Looking closely at the bed, Phloyd could just make out the shape of someone sitting among the down comforters, remaining very still and quiet. Without another moment’s hesitation, he cast color spray, then whipped out his wand of negation and zapped the bed’s occupant with the wand’s cold, gray light. The color spray knocked the man out, and the wand canceled his ring of invisibility’s effects.
  • Phloyd was looking at a human male dressed mostly in black, quietly slumbering now. Even in his unconscious state, he exuded a palpable aura of deadly menace. Phloyd quickly pulled him off the bed and tied him up in a chair, a gag in his mouth. His first instinct then was to flee, but he decided to remain and go through the room’s contents. In the small chest, which he unlocked using a small key taken from a string hanging around the man’s neck, he found a fairly large bag containing a couple heavy metal objects, which he didn’t look at just yet. Using his detect magic spell, he found two small vials hidden in the desk’s drawer. He also determined that the man in black wore magical garb: bracers, his cloak, his dagger, and his ring, which Phloyd had taken already. He also found a box with 10 poisoned crossbow bolts, as well as several cloaks and a set of throwing daggers. Clearly this was not a nice man.
  • Stripping the man of his remaining magical gear, Phloyd set up the two crossbows, newly-loaded with poison darts, so that their triggers would fire if the chair the man was tied to was moved at all. He then headed out onto the parapet and leapt off directly over the drawbridge, using his staff of feather fall to slow his descent. Still invisible, he scurried back to William’s hiding spot.
  • Looking in the bag, the duo emitted a collective gasp: it was nothing less than the Royal Scepter and Orb of Cormyr! These relics were always housed at Fontmere Abbey and were used in royal coronations; without them, by tradition, no one could be crowned monarch of Cormyr. “I wish I’d killed that guy now,” muttered Phloyd, truly shocked. Nonetheless, the man had provided one key morsel of information: before leaving, Phloyd had read his mind with ESP and discerned where the princess was being held. He had seen a small castle near a fork in a river, a griffon perched upon one of the towers. When he told this to William, the paladin made an educated guess that this “griffon castle” was located at a fork of the Laine River just south of the Farsea Marshes. The PCs made ready to depart on this, the most deadly portion of a quest that had already technically killed one of them…

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Session Seventeen Notes
The King Is Dead!

“You have selected regicide. If you know the name of the king or queen being murdered, press ‘1’.”

  • The tone for the evening was set with a bit of logistical dice-rolling right up front. I had told the players that there would be a bit of in-game downtime, but to brace themselves for a big event coming up. I then left it up to the dice to decide when that event would occur. As it turned out, the PCs had a six week break after returning to their home towns, plenty of time for Phloyd to study a bunch of spells under his master, Praetorius. Unfortunately, Alex chose all non-Illusion spells, which meant that Phloyd, as a specialist, only had slightly better than 50/50 odds of learning a given spell. Still, statistically speaking, that should have seen him adding three spells to his book. Instead, Phloyd only managed to learn one, and it was the weakest one on the wishlist: locate object.

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  • The sadness of this failure parade was only enhanced when the big news did arrive: all across Cormyr, word was spreading like wildfire that King Azoun IV, after more than 20 years on the throne, was dead! Killed in a hunting accident, it was said. Every Cormyrian village and town built great bonfires in their squares and threw bundles of incense into the flames, the scented smoke meant to spirit the dead monarch to his afterlife. Black flags hung from sills and poles, and there was great sorrow.
  • Back in Eveningstar, Sir William (who had been learnin’ his letters during his downtime) caught sight of a raven alighting on a willow tree outside his mother’s tavern. The bird give a cry, dropped a rolled-up piece of parchment, and flew off. Curious, William retrieved and unfurled the paper and used his newly-acquired skills to read the scrawled message, which was addressed to him! “If you value the memory of our king and the cause of the Purple Dragons, come to the Three Feathers Inn as soon as you are able.”
  • William had heard of the Three Feathers—it was in Espar, about two days’ ride from where he was. Anxious to get back on the road, he decided to follow the letter’s instructions, but not before swinging by Praetorius’s tower in Tyrluk (handily on the way to Espar) to look in on his friend Phloyd.
  • Phloyd, naturally, was game to go as well. He bid his master farewell (somewhat gratefully—it hadn’t been easy failing to learn all those spells under his stern gaze), and off the duo rode for “the balcony of Cormyr.”

[Sidebar: are we just going to assume Phloyd left Bidichops at Praetorius’s tower? He’s been less and less of an asset as your collective power has grown, and I often forget he’s even supposed to be there.]

  • Arriving at the Three Feathers, William was pleasantly surprised to find one of his old war buddies, a stout fellow by the name of Rolfe, had taken his war winnings and bought the establishment and was now running it. The two comrades-in-arms shared a warm reunion in the nearly-empty common room as Phloyd eyed the only other occupant—an itinerant tinker in a hooded cloak—suspiciously.
  • As William and Phloyd settled in over a “shepherd’s lunch,” they discussed the death of Azoun. Coming so soon after the death of Alusair Nicacea, they couldn’t help but wonder about the possibility of foul play. “Enemies are everywhere,” said Phloyd, pointedly looking at the tinker.
  • At that point, the tinker rose and threw back his hood. It was no tinker, but rather Vangerdahast himself! The High Court Wizard of Cormyr, it transpired, had been the one to send the letter, based on a recommendation from his friend Praetorius. Vangerdahast, too, shared the PCs’ suspicions, and was looking for folks who were both loyal to the crown and low-profile enough to do some snooping, yet also capable of getting themselves out of any jams they might end up in.
  • Vangerdahast had a theory that Azoun’s brother, Lord Edrin, was behind the king’s death—although judged an accident, the arrow that struck him clearly carried some sort of baneful enchantment—and, furthermore, that Duke Bhereu, Marshall of Cormyr, was in cahoots with Edrin. Princess Tanalesta, the king’s heir, had departed on a pilgrimage to The Shrine of Nevron to pay honor to her departed sister, and Azoun had died just two days later. It was too much to be a coincidence, especially as Edrin had attempted to assert his claim on the throne immediately after.
  • With Duke Bhereu backing Edrin, the Purple Dragons were split in their loyalties, and the Royal Council lacked the muscle to banish or otherwise neutralize Edrin, so a compromise was struck wherein Edrin would function as regent until Tanalesta returned from her pilgrimage. Now Vangerdahast was worried that Edrin would see to it that the princess never returned. He wanted the PCs to first assess his own suspicions regarding Duke Bhereu, and then find the princess and return her safely to Suzail. As the Shrine of Nevron was located not far from Bhereu’s fastness at High Horn, the PCs would be ideally placed to do both.
  • Vangerdahast cautioned that no one save Rolfe and William Menote of Fontmere Abbey was to be trusted, and told the PCs to seek refuge either at the Three Feathers or at Fontmere should the need arise. The heroes agreed to take on the quest (Sir William quite enthusiastically so) and made arrangements to depart at once.
  • It was the middle of Ches, nearly the equinox, and spring had come to the lowlands, but as the party followed the road up towards High Horn, the weather got progressively colder and more unpleasant. Four thousand feet up, it was still winter.
  • Arriving at Bhereu’s fastness, Phloyd registered with the guards at the front, giving false names and claiming to be from Sembia, just passing through on mercantile business. Entering the muddy bailey, the PCs headed for the central citadel, a massive 60-foot stone keep, sturdily fortified. Phloyd surreptitiously went invisible as they crossed the courtyard, so that only Sir William seemed to be presenting himself to the stern-faced Purple Dragons that guarded the reinforced entrance to the citadel.
  • William stated that he wished to come and pay his respects to Duke Bhereu on the loss of the king; the guards merely laughed, especially when William described himself as a “former” Purple Dragon. Just then, a knight with close-cropped blonde hair and icy blue eyes opened the citadel door, inquiring as to the meaning of William’s visit. Sir William restated his case, and the knight let William in, Phloyd slipping in behind him.
  • The PCs were sensing that they may have just walked into a trap, particularly when the knight, walking ahead of William, turned down a side hall rather than proceeding on to a grand staircase up ahead. Their fears were well-founded: like lightning, the knight spun around and threw a net at William, one that struck him with disproportionate force and quickly bound his limbs to his sides, causing him to topple over.
  • The knight summoned more guards, and they conveyed William through a trap door, down a spiral stair, and into the chamber of the citadel’s jailer. The knight, identified as Sir Bracken, told the jailer to “throw this one in a cell like we did the other one—when the Duke gets back, we can decide what to do with them.”
  • As the guards moved to take off the magical net and divest William of his equipment, there was a tense moment where William very nearly reached for his sword. Phloyd, still invisible, looked on horrified, afraid that his companion might try and take on a half-dozen Purple Dragons at once. The moment passed, and William reluctantly allowed the guards to take his stuff.
  • William was conveyed to a torture chamber and thrown into a stinking cell carved into the weeping limestone bedrock. Phloyd noted that two of the Dragons took William’s gear through a secret door, while the rest followed Sir Bracken back up the stairs. So too did Phloyd. He used ESP to scan Sir Bracken’s thoughts, and picked up something about the Duke intercepting the princess. Clearly, Bhereu was away because he had set off to kidnap Tanalesta!
  • Returning to the chambers below, it was child’s play for Phloyd to retrieve the keys from the slumbering jailer, then free William. They looked for and quickly found the “other” prisoner Bracken had referred to. He was a white-robed monk, and he was very nearly dead. His robes were stained with dried blood, and he was essentially comatose, well beyond the amateur healing efforts of the knight and the gnome.
  • William suggested using the now-confiscated healing elixir he had purchased in Arabel, and a plan was hatched to retrieve his goods; not only would they get the elixir, but William would get his armor and weapons back. Passing through the sliding panel in the wall, Phloyd and William followed a long corridor that ended in a steep flight of stairs and a trapdoor in the ceiling. Phloyd used his magic to become an invisible wraith and seeped up through the trapdoor, which turned out to be covered by a heavy animal pelt rug. Coming out from under the rug, Phloyd saw that he was in the barracks for the castle guards, men loyal to Bhereu who wore his gold lion as their livery.
  • The half-dozen guards were sitting at a long table, some resting their feet on an iron-bound chest underneath. It looked large enough to hold all of William’s possessions, and Phloyd elected to get proactive. Dropping both his invisibility and his wraithform, he became visible and cast his trademark color spray—which, despite rolling a d30 for the number of targets affected, only knocked out one guard. Suffice to say, Alex was fairly certain this was to be the end of Phloyd.
  • A brief fight ensued as the guards jumped to their feet and drew steel, shouting to raise the alarm as they did so. Two more blasts of color spray as Phloyd nimbly dodged through their legs, avoiding their swings, and the barracks were once again silent. William rushed up and helped Phloyd bar the two doors. Reluctantly, they killed the slumbering guards, and then they quickly retrieved the trunk and headed back to the torture chamber.
  • Without magic, there was no way to bar either the trapdoor or the sliding panel; it was only a matter of minutes before guards would come pouring down the secret passage and into the torture chamber. Quickly, they administered the healing elixir to the dying monk. “No time to talk, we have to move!” whispered Phloyd as the revived monk blinked bemusedly.
  • With shouts from guards echoing down the corridor, Phloyd drew out his new deck of illusions and threw down a card depicting a knight and four retainers. And, verily, a knight and four retainers appeared before them, completely believable in every way. “What are you lookin’ at?” grumbled one of the men, and Phloyd laughed delightedly.
  • With nowhere else to go, the PCs were obliged to kick down the door to the jailer’s chambers and attack him. William, true to his cavalier ways, felt naked without his harness on and had wanted to suit up first, but his plate armor would have delayed them far too long, even with Phloyd’s assistance putting it on. As it turned out, the jailer put up a decent fight but was no match for our heroes, so William needn’t have worried. As the jailer sank to the floor, blood gurgling from his rent throat, the sound of angry shouting came from the torture chamber beyond—the guards had come through the sliding panel and found what they clearly assumed to be the culprits behind the murder of their brethren, and a standoff was ensuing.
  • Ascending the stairs and peeking out, the PCs saw guards running to and fro in the halls of the citadel. William and Phloyd, with the monk (who was named Theran) in tow, carefully slipped up the grand staircase to the second floor of the citadel. They found this area deserted, as all guards had been called to secure the grounds, and they stole through the Duke’s private bath, study, and dining hall, looking for a way out. In the study, Phloyd pocketed the Duke’s records of account as well as two scrolls: one that was musty and crumbling and obviously long-neglected, and another, fresher scroll found in a concealed drawer.
  • As they made their way through the chambers, Theran informed the PCs that Fontmere Abbey had come under attack from an army of brigands. William Menote had dispatched Theran on the abbey’s swiftest horse to carry word to High Horn, but Theran was nearly killed during the breakout when he was struck by a bandit’s arrow. Arriving at High Horn a day later and near death, he found not succor and aid but instead a cold jail cell. This tale confirmed Duke Bhereu’s treachery, despite William’s reluctance to believe it.
  • After failing to break into what they presumed were the Duke’s private chambers (stymied by a magically locked door again!), Phloyd used his glass cutter to excise a nice big part of a fancy stained glass window at the end of the main corridor. The trio slipped out onto a ledge about 40 feet above the courtyard and inched along until they were above the stables. Several guards in the bailey spotted them and the alarm was raised. Phloyd had his companions take hold of each end of his magic walking stick…and they jumped.
  • The stick proved able to support their weight, and they floated gently down even as a party of castle guards led by a Purple Dragon rushed to intercept and arrest them. Ah, but Phloyd had another trick up his sleeve! With a flourish of his free hand, he withdrew his wand of wonder and intoned the power word, pointing the wand at the guards. They were indeed stricken, although this time not by a lightning bolt. No, instead, they stopped in their tracks, screaming in shock and pain, as leafy buds began erupting all over their bodies.
  • Phloyd, William, and Theran rushed into the stables and secured their horses, mounted up, and galloped out, sparing a glance back at the now leaf-covered guards writhing in the mud of the courtyard. Cries were raised from the towers, but it was too late: the heroes made their escape, clattering out across the stone bridge of High Horn and bound for the West Marches and the Shrine of Nevron. Hopefully, it wasn’t too late to rescue the princess…

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Session Sixteen Notes
The Fall of the Tenebrous Hand

It’s a fact that events can unfold outside the PCs’ realm of knowledge. It’s a living, breathing campaign world, after all, and sometimes all that’s left is to try and put the pieces together to figure out what happened. And sometimes paths cross and threads get tangled up. The PCs aren’t the only adventurers in the world, you know…

  • The session started with the PCs facing a decision: they were fairly certain that Red had been kidnapped by the local thieves’ guild (which, they would come to learn, styled itself “the Tenebrous Hand”), and which may or may not have consisted of wererats. The only real choice, then, was whether to involve the local Purple Dragon garrison in her rescue. In the end, they elected to try and pull off the caper themselves; Sir William had been looking for an opportunity to gain a bit of glory and renown in the eyes of the Dragons, and this seemed like an excellent way to do it.
  • Phloyd, invisible, set out on a scouting mission to Folgor Isle. He found it to be a small, 10-acre island situated in the middle of the Sword River, connected to the rest of Arabel by two stone bridges. He toured the narrow streets and alleys of Folgor, finally determining that the most likely location for the Hand’s headquarters was a block of mixed residential and commercial buildings. For one thing, the block boasted a tavern called The Rat Bastard, and the local guild certainly loved their rat imagery. For another, every single building on the block had barred and shuttered windows, a feature not shared to that extent by any other block on the isle.
  • Pholyd then demonstrated what a badass mage-thief he’d become by employing a combination of invisibility, wraithform, and levitate (along with his feather fall staff) to infiltrate the block of buildings. He observed a gated courtyard with five guard dogs—the beasts were apparently slowly starving out in the cold, as they’d already eaten one of their own—and then, in the corner warehouse from which flew a blue flag, found a rat-faced man hanging from a noose of his own devising down among the stacks of crates. He also had some sort of master key on his belt, which Phloyd promptly ganked before returning to report his findings.
  • Having settled on a target, a good chunk of the session was spent in planning the break-in, which makes for a fun experience at the time but doesn’t lend itself very well to exciting recapping. Suffice to say that Phloyd paid one more visit to Orphast Ulbanath and picked up a few more potions, as well as an elf-made deck of magical cards, and that plans were hatched for how best to get past the hungry dogs in the courtyard, as well as which building in the block to hit first.
  • After two days of scouting and planning, William and Phloyd set out for Folgor Isle, both under the effects of an invisibility spell. The snow had largely melted from the main streets, and they were able to pass undetected. Phloyd once again used his magic to get to the roof of the warehouse, from whence he cast color spray down into the courtyard, silencing all five dogs with a single blast. He then floated down into the courtyard and put the dogs out of their misery, one by one, creepily whispering to them as he did so.
  • Undoing the bar that held the warehouse backdoor shut was child’s play, and Phloyd dragged the dog carcasses inside as William, still invisible, had a look around. The contents of the warehouse seemed typically mundane and perfectly legal—no signs of contraband goods or anything exciting like that.
  • Acting according to their plan, the duo then broke into The Rat Bastard through the courtyard door. They made a bit of noise doing so, and found themselves in the tavern’s small kitchen, which was obviously used for frying up bar food and little else. From beyond the swinging doors, they heard someone moving around, probably coming to investigate the noise, so they darted through a large trapdoor in the floor.
  • The trapdoor led to a steep set of stairs and thence to a flagstone cellar. The room was filled with an acrid stench, and a big section of the floor was stained with black goo. Fearing the goo might be somehow malevolent, they lobbed a torch into its center of mass, which accomplished nothing more than creating a foul-smelling cloud of smoke as the torch burned and sizzled in the goo.
  • With the goo apparently inert, the PCs moved into the cellar and began searching around. Near one of the ale casks, Phloyd found a keyhole set into the wall. Using the master key he had pilfered from the hanged man, he unlocked the secret door in the wall, which turned out to be a conventional door that had been plastered over to look like the surrounding flagstone.
  • Beyond lay a long stone corridor that eventually led to another flagstoned room, this about twice the size of the cellar. The stench in here was even more powerful, and the room bore signs of a brutal and desperate fight. Patches of black goo intermingled with pools of dried blood. The walls, too, bore bloody splatters, and there were even hacked-off hands and legs visible amongst the wreckage of tables and chairs scattered about.
  • The room also had multiple exits: three corners of the room led to corridors blocked by iron gates (though the winches were on the PCs’ side); there was a corridor in the south wall; there was a door in the fourth corner of the room.
  • The corner door led to a long corridor that terminated in an iron ladder leading up to a trapdoor. Phloyd surmised this would come out under one of the buildings on the south side of the block.
  • The corridor on the southern wall also led to a door after a bit. Phloyd spotted a hidden trapdoor in front of the door, and the door itself bore two locks that clearly would not fit the master key. After inching their way past the trapdoor, the PCs examined the door more closely. William surmised that the door likely needed two separate keys, each of which needed to be inserted and turned simultaneously. And so, in the light of Phloyd’s staff, they set to picking both locks at the same time. William’s youth as a street urchin served him well, and he and Phloyd managed the task, being rewarded with the satisfying chunk of the locks disengaging. Unfortunately, the door still wouldn’t open! Something else was preventing that.
  • Phloyd assumed wraithform and squeezed through the tiny gaps around the door. Coming out the other side, with his darkvision he could see that he was in some sort of catacomb complex. He began exploring, quickly getting lost in the maze of passages and alcoves. What he found, however, excited him greatly: room after room of strange and wondrous loot! Picking through stacks of boxes, crates, barrels, and tables weighed down with piles of junk, he spotted an odd jade demon mask, a ring made of glass, a polished skull with a hinged lid, a silver crown, a scroll case, and a bronze key with the number “99” engraved upon it.
  • A plan formed in Phloyd’s mind: he would materialize and loot these catacombs to the best of his ability, then assume wraithform again and slip away. He took physical form near the scroll case. As soon as he did, however, something else in the room began to stir as well. From within the piles of junk in the corner, a hideous creature that was once a man rose up. Its hands had been replaced by pincer claws, its head by a cone-shaped mound bulging with boils and half-formed eyeballs. From the tip of the cone emerged a long pink tentacle, which now whipped around, tasting the air for Phloyd. The gnome slipped back into the shadows and used his magic to throw his voice into an adjacent chamber. The ventriloquism worked, and the misshapen Thing lurched off to investigate. Much to his dismay, Phloyd saw other creatures of the same description moving towards the noise as well—and from other rooms, he could hear creatures stirring, rising up from the beds they had made among the junk piles.

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  • Phloyd decided to try and grab what he could. Moving into the next room, he snagged the silver crown, but now more creatures were coming up out of the junk piles, and still others were entering from adjacent chambers! Phloyd barely managed to assume wraithform before the creatures converged on him, claws clasping immaterial vapor instead of fleshy gnome. Phloyd floated out as quickly as he could, noting the catacombs were now swarming with at least a dozen of these foul things.
  • On the far side of the door, Phloyd gave his report. The creatures could be heard on the other side, some even banging on the door, but they appeared to be as unable to come through the passage as the PCs had been. A brief discussion was held. Phloyd had a spell in his books that would allow him (probably) to open the magically-locked door. William felt that he could do a repeat of his battle against the skeletons in the tomb beneath the Lake of Lost Dreams, using the door to cancel out the Things’ numerical advantage. The only question was whether it was worth camping out in this creepy cellar for the amount of time it would take Phloyd to commit the spell to memory—about 12 hours, total. Sure, they hadn’t seen anyone from the Hand so far, but that didn’t mean they were safe. And they still hadn’t found Red…
  • In the end, they decided to press on, tackling the unbarred corridor first. Ascending the iron ladder at the end of the passage, they came out into a cupboard under a stairway. William, still invisible opened the cupboard door, finding a spacious hallway beyond. At the same time, however, a door on the opposite wall, a bit further down the hall, also opened. Phloyd attempted to hide, but was spotted by the dusky-hued man coming through. He called out to Phloyd, who decided to attempt a parley.
  • The man was accompanied by three others. They all had the look of hard-bitten adventurers that had been living rough, particularly the fourth fellow to come through the door, who literally looked like a corpse. William did not have a good feeling about these guys, and attempted to communicate such to Phloyd, but “The Four” quickly cottoned on that there was another person in the hall. To show his good intentions, Phloyd dispelled William’s invisibility. One of The Four began casting a spell of his own; Phloyd, making a split decision, bell-beefed a loud fart, the noise of which was amplified in the empty hall and proved sufficient to distract the wizard in the many-hued robes. In fact, The Four began laughing, quite in spite of themselves.
  • It seemed that The Four had heard of the Tenebrous Hand and its headquarters seemingly going “dark” and had come to see what was going on for themselves. Feeling like they had dodged a bullet, Phloyd and William excused themselves from the premises, leaving further explorations to The Four, asking them to keep an eye out for a red-haired young lady or else a dark-haired cleric of Bane, and to please let the former know that they were looking for her.
  • On the way back to the Blue Mace, the PCs discussed their options. William was quite sure Red had been spirited away by the Zhentarim and was most likely in a cell beneath the Citadel of the Raven by this point. There was still the matter of the Lost Valley of Hutaaka, as well. What to do?
  • Phloyd hit upon the idea of making a side trek to Tyrluk to consult with his master, Praetorius, for guidance on where to go from there. William, too, looked forward to seeing his family in Eveningstar again after nearly two months’ absence. And so the PCs packed up and prepared to depart Arabel.
  • As they did so, they spotted a wanted poster going up: by order of King Azoun IV, the infamous adventuring party known as “The Four” was to be banished from Cormyr upon pain of death. A reward of 10,000 crowns for the band’s capture or death was also offered. With that ominous note hanging over them, the PCs headed out of Arabel, bound for points west.

One final note: we didn’t address this, but I’m just going to assume you guys would have figured out a way to dispose of the two doppelganger corpses in your former room at the inn. I don’t think there’s any need to play through that, as you guys have proven yourselves more than capable caperers at this point. ;)

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