Monday, April 14, 2014

"You Wince Some; You Lose Some" Chapter 13 of the Xanthus River Campaign

Our party consists of:

Valerius (Level 2 Warrior)
Absalom (Level 2 Cleric of Justica)
Gwen (Level 2 Elf)
Babu (Level 2 Thief)
Jalani (Level 1 Cleric of Amun-Tor)
Knott (Level 1 Warrior)
Helise (Level 1 Cleric of Justica)
Burk (Level 1 Thief)
Hadrud (Archon of Wince)

After escaping from their imprisonment in the swampy dungeon of the serpent cult, and killing Explictica Defilus, AGAIN, the party returned to the village of Wince, this time with Archon Hadrus. However, weary of their ongoing battle with the agents of the serpent cult, they sought shelter in one of the several farmstead compounds within sight of the walls of Wince. 

The first few farms refused to answer. Eventually, they were welcomed by a farmer named Dunth and his wife Luretia. Dunth allowed them to stay for the night and share a common peasant meal of barley gruel and beer. The party was welcome to sleep in the barn with the animals on one condition: No matter what you hear or see, do NOT go into the root cellar! When asked why, he simply replied, "It is a private matter!"

Late at night, of course loud noises came from the root cellar. Thumpings and bumpings as if something or someone was trying to escape. Remarkably, the party kept their word and did not go near the cellar door. Suddenly, the door burst into splinters. Into the courtyard emerged a frenzied-looking girl in her teens with wild hair, pallid skin, and frightening eyes. She cast about wildly for an exit. Valerius caught her while Absalom went to fetch farmer Dunth. Jalani woke the others. Farmer Dunth was soon out of the house with a lanthorn and pitchfork.

Dunth explained that this was his daughter, Fransca, and that she had recently come under the sway of the vile serpent cult. For the past few weeks, she had left the farm to join the cult in town. He followed her one night into the village temple, but lost her after that, finding nothing but an empty temple within. He said that the cult had changed her, that she had become rebellious, wild, and preternaturally strong. 

Fransca thrashed about in an attempt to break free, "Let me go! Infidels! My mistress calls to me! My brothers and my sisters need me! I must go to them!"

A freak magical storm was brewing over the village. Clouds swirled and eerie green lightning flashed, some striking the temple. Something was obviously going on.

The party decided to tie to a post and keep watch over her, with Dunth's permission. They thought about interrupting whatever was happening in the village, but Fransca cried, "No! No! Leave them be!" After soe debate, they decided to wait until morning. Fransca, hearing this, shouted excitedly, "Yes! YES! Good! Sleep well! My mistress returns! When next you face her, she will be MORE POWERFUL than you can possibly imagine! Ha ha ha ha!" At that point, the party decided to put a gag on her.

The dawn brought a pouring rain. The party had a breakfast of porridge, curds, and milk with the farmer and formulated a plan. They would go through the gate and head straight to the temple and kill anyone that tried to stop them. 

Valerius took the farmer aside. He told the farmer he would like to pay him for his assistance. The farmer requested a paltry sum of 1 silver per person. Valerius paid the man 500 gold coin! Dunth was dumbfounded and confused. 500 gold coins was more money than the farmer would see for a hundred harvests! Valerius assured him of the gift, admonishing him to keep it hidden and secret and to not spend it all at once. 

Leaving for the village, Valerius asked Dunth if they could borrow a wagon, an animal, and some cloaks. Dunth said that all he had was a rouncey merychippus and a cart, but that the party was welcome to take them and keep them! Heck, you could take the daughter, if you wished! The party, silencing Knott, politely declined but took the merychippus and the cart. 

The party, clad in simple homespun hooded ponchos and carrying a bundle in the back of a cart, approached the village gate. The gate was mysteriously closed and no other farmers were seeking entry. At the gate, they called out. A strange voice answered, "The village is shut! Go away! You are not wanted here!"

While Absalom and Valerius distracted the gate guards, Babu and Burk slipped away from the group and scaled the wall beside the gatehouse. They slipped down and Babu activated his short sword, Scute, creating an impenetrable zone of darkness. Babu easily killed the two guards behind the gate, then climbed the ladder and slew the other two guards upstairs as they fumbled about looking for the alarm gong. When the darkness ended, Burk opened the gate and let the others in. 

The party made a dash down the town's main street. The town seemed deserted. Several of the entrance doors of the village shops were torn off their hinges and windows were smashed. Streaks of blood ran out of the entrances and across the covered boardwalks in front of shops. An alarm gong soon sounded from one of the other guard towers. The party turned right and made for the temple. Archers atop the gatehouse of the archon's keep began firing arrows, inuring a few of the slower members of the party. 

Once inside, the party made for the rear of the temple. They checked on the priests' quarters. Three of the four were scenes of violence and bloodshed, but no bodies were to be seen. They went downstairs to where the acolytes lived. The library was burned, the holy relics were desecrated. The acolytes' quarters held evidence of a struggle and bloodshed. The door to the senior acolytes' room was battered but secure, and braced from behind. Absalom called out and was answered by the young acolyte that summoned him in the middle of the night. The acolytes removed their barricades and opened their door. There were four survivors. 

Continuing their search, the party found a scene of charnel hell in the kitchen and dining halls. Several of the bodies of the villagers and acolytes had been prepared and eaten, their carcasses left on the tables, entrails spread across the room, bodies hanging from meat hooks, and other gruesome horrors!

So far, there was no trace of the cult. However, the party followed a trail of bloody footprints on the floor to a secret door hidden in the store-room. Stairs led down.

The party rushed headlong towards righteous vengeance, bursting through the door at the bottom of the stairs! They made short work of the four cultists standing guard at the entrance of the narthex.

A Traffic Jam of PCs!
They opened the door to the right to reveal four ophidian ghouls and four ophidian zombies, the corpses of the dead animated by muscles comprised of living serpents, feasting on the body of an acolyte! The squamous undead left their gruesome meal and rushed the doorway. Valerius, Knott, and Jalani held them at bay, killing each one at a time as they tried to exit.
A blurry shot of Serpent-Ghouls and Serpent-Zombies

When there were but a few left, they pushed into the room so that the remaining creatures could be surrounded and killed. 

Searching the room revealing nothing but a coat-room and simple storage. 

Across the hall, the party found a prison with four cells containing villagers and acolytes. When told of the atrocities committed in the village, one of the prisoners called out "By the Gods! I may be to blame!"

When asked for details, he revealed himself as Karzun, a sage and expert in ancient cultures. He had come to Wince searching for ruins of the ancient empire of Nagina Samrajya. Nagina Samrajya was the empire of the serpent ones, who ruled the earth millions of years ere the rise of man. He found the buried ruins of a city in the swamps a day's journey southwest of town. He even found what he believed to be the buried remains of the god-king and god-queen of Nagina Samrajya. Unfortunately, he was betrayed by the men he hired for the excavation. They stole the remains roughly six weeks ago. Later, he was captured by agents of a sinister serpent cult! They were led by at least two surviving members of the ancient serpent race. Apparently, the serpent race can cast illusions and can make themselves appear human, even specific humans! However, they have a weakness, because of the shape of their mouths, they are unable to pronounce the phrase, "Ka nama kaa lajerama", by this you can know who is human and who is ophidian.

The party asked Karzun about Babu's sword. Karzun said the sword was named "Scute" and was an ancient weapon of Nagina Samrajya. He said that Scute was the only weapon that could permanently kill Explictica Defilus.

The party release the prisoners but admonish them to stay back and be safe. They continue on and find a large room, the chamber of the serpent cult!

Explictica Defilus... AGAIN!!
The God-Queen of Serpents on her Throne

The room was large, nearly seventy feet per side with a twenty foot ceiling. A narthex on the west wall gave the room two entrances. A large raised platform dominated the east wall which was dominated by a large frieze and symbol of Set, God of Serpents. Lounging atop the dais was Eplictica Defilus, the undying God-Queen of the ancient Serpent Race, flanked by two priests wearing green robes: the priest of Justica known as Wethis and the elusive priest from the excavated dungeon whose name was Garliss. In the room were six snake-human hybrids, each armed with two scimitars, and two human acolytes of Set. A mysterious pit sank into the floor in front of the platform.

The party advances... cautiously with eyes closed.
The party split up, with Valerius, Gwen, and Jilani taking the left flank and Absalom, Knott, Babu, and ten-year-old Helise, truly a brave little princess, taking the right flank. Burk stayed behind in the narthex with the acolytes.  Gwen, Babu, and Helise, being ranged fighters, stayed back, avoiding the hypnotizing gaze of the naga queen. The rest blindly rushed forward, literally, their eyes squeezed shut against the effects of the charm. Gwen summoned a magic eagle which flew up and harassed Explictica for much of the fight before being bitten and dying from venom.

The battle bogged down at the stairs leading up to the dais. Valerius was caught in a magical web spell cast by the naga but managed to pull himself free. Shortly thereafter, Valerius, Absalom, and Knott were all three paralyzed by the effects of a dark incantation from Wethis. Unable to move or attack and only partially able to defend themselves, the charge was stopped.

Jilani rushed to the aid of Valerius but was of little help. Helise moved out from behind cover to likewise aid her allies, but in her haste did not close her eyes and was charmed by the queen of serpents. Explictica teased Helise, taunting her with descriptions of the torment of her people, forcing her to look into the well. The pit was clogged with the dying victims of the serpent cult's atrocities. Villagers were flung, living, into the deep pit. Their bones broken. There the poor wretches were left to die, heaped on top of one another like living garbage. Their pitiful moans and feeble cries for help  could not be drowned out by the din of battle that filled the room.

Knott fell to Garliss. Wethis, confident that the north flank was secure, moved over to the south flank and began to slowly choke the life out of Absalom, taunting him and declaring Justica a dead goddess and that all justice was false. Valerius had lost all faith and was ready to declare defeat. The battle seemed lost.

Babu activated the darkness of Scute and rushed forward to Absalom's aid, only to be covered in another web spell. The darkness was apparently ineffective against the dark-vision of the Naga Queen and her minions. However, Babu made it to the steps of the platform and Wethis, confused by the darkness, was killed by Babu and Scute. Babu, however, was cut down on the steps by a snake-human hybrid.

However, killing Wethis ended the paralysis. Valerius and Absalom broke free. Absalom rushed the north steps of the platform, followed closely behind by Jalani and now Burk. Jalani uttered a prayer and paralyzed Explictica Defilus. At the top of the platform, Valerius drew Duirn's Dwarven Dagger and began stabbing the naga in the head. Burk was charmed by the Naga and began attacking Valerius. Valerius was finally able to blind the Naga. Jalani crawled over the twisting coils of the blind Explictica to reach the other side of the platform, where she grabbed Scute. With a final blow from Valerius and Jalani, Explictica Defilus was killed.

Explictica Defilus' corpse slid off the platform and into the pit, where it exploded into a geyser of glowing blood like liquid sparks that rained from the ceiling of the chamber.

The god-queen of serpents was dead!

Meanwhile, during the confusion of the final moments, Garliss, who had been constrained by webs and ignored, managed to transform himself into snakes and slither away, again.


 Post-Game Analysis
My original plan was to use the teenage girl to provide the party with some intelligence on the cult, and bait to get them to destroy the cult once and for all. You see, Explictica Defilus had to be resurrected by Garliss each time she was killed, each time requiring a human sacrifice. The party had a small window to destroy the cult while Explictica was still "dead". Had they taken the bait, the assault on the temple would have been quick and easy. Two priests and a few acolyte guards.

Unfortunately, the party didn't take the bait and played it safe so I amped up the planned encounter as well as the consequences of their inaction. Explictica was returned, and this time more powerful than before, with a bigger hit die and +1 to her spell check. Emboldened, the cult then went on a rampage throughout the town, killing and pillaging most of the villagers. Garliss reanimated many of the corpses of the villagers into snake zombies to guard the walls.

The fight itself was very touch and go for the party. Paralyzing Valerius, Knott, and Absalom was almost a game-ender. I rolled REALLY well! Fortunately, paralysis is very loosely defined in the DCC rules. I gave the PCs the same benefit I gave the monsters when they were paralyzed by Absalom or Jalani: they could not move or act, but they still got their AC, minus their Agility bonus. In retrospect, I should have treated their Agility as 0 (-3).  Anyway, the paralysis was very demoralizing for the players and I had to encourage them to keep going.

Later, I looked up how paralysis worked in 3rd edition, and had I used THOSE rules, it would have been game over for the party. My paralysis is more forgiving, but I apply the same rules to the monsters, so there.

Gwen was a non-participant in the fight. She's still at -5 to all actions after losing Cake, and as a result Gwen's player was disengaged. I gave him Helise to play, but that was a mistake since no one wanted to endanger the ten-year-old orphan princess, despite her now being a first-level Cleric.

Finally, Scute's darkness ability is over-powered. The ability is poorly defined in the DCC rulebook, saying only that the wielder can create 20' of darkness at will. Can the wielder see in the darkness? Do creatures with darkvision see through the darkness? We decided that Babu could see fine in the darkness and that creatures with dark-vision could see fine. However, I am reconsidering changing that so that Babu can't see in the darkness but neither can darkvision.

Finally, the players are very concerned with the death spiral of taking on a permanent -1 penalty each time they are rolled over from death. We are having fun with these characters and the death-spiral mechanic is not fun.

I'm all about my players having fun. So I'm replacing that mechanic (we kept forgetting about it anyway, so it's never been implemented) with a permanent disfiguring scar table. Each time you survive a mortal wound, you receive a gruesome scar.

Finally, my players are worried about getting Luck back. As a result, I will be implementing the Luck guidelines from Kill it with Fire. However, I will be using the guidelines to make flat awards of 1-5 Luck per session, rather than forcing them to roll for them.

Does that make me a more forgiving GM? Yes. I'm not quite as harsh on the PCs as DCC suggests. We are telling a fantastic story, having fun, and enjoying our characters. If I need to increase the survival rate a little bit so that the players are having more fun, then I'll do it. If they're not having fun, I'll stop.