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…