Monday, January 5, 2015

"The Great Stone Head of Zothalech", Chapter 2 of The Fates of Kalmath

This week, two members of the company will perish! Who will survive the deadly Great Stone Head of Zothalech!

The Company:
Ser Valerius, Armiger Errant, Executor of Justicia (Human Level 5 Paladin)
and his Celestial Lion Mount.
Absolom, Justicar (Human Level 4 Cleric/Level 1 Monk)

Gravy, Priest of Thumn (Human Level 4 Cleric)
Balatan of Clan Brocktaw, Bronze Draconic Priest of Bahamut (Dragonborn Level 4 Cleric)

Aline, a Thaumaturge of half-Human/half-Sylvan parentage (Level 4 Half-Elf Wizard) 
Thaddeus, Under-City Scout from Swallow (Human Level 5 Ranger)
First, Some Personal Stuff
I apologize for not updating this blog much. I got a bad case of cellulitis, a type of skin infection, in my right leg in early December. This put me out of commission for several weeks. Then, after that, we had Christmas and New Years. As a result, we have not gotten together to play D&D since December 5th. I am happy to report that my leg is nearly completely healed and Christmas went very well. I hope everyone else had a happy and safe holiday season.

Aline left Swallow on her long journey to rejoin the company. On her way, she took a detour to the cave that once belonged to the ogre that menaced a young farmer. The cave was on a ridge with a magnificent view of the lower Xanthus river valley. Mist constantly blew up from the humid jungles below. Braxton Hicks had once proclaimed that he would one day retire to this cave.

Aline took the clay jars containing the last remains of Braxton Hick and placed them within the cave. She then performed a magic ritual to cast a spell onto the cave's entrance. From this day forward, any time anyone approached the cave, a voice would proclaim, "Welcome to the cave of Braxton Hicks!"

She paused for a moment to admire the view, then turned and continued her hike to Flinch.

How Much for Your Dragon?
Dawn broke over the desert city of Horek, eastern-most city of Kalmath. Valerius and the company rose and prepared to leave the hospitality of the satrap of the city. A messenger informed them of an invitation to the court of the satrap, they accepted.

The court of the satrap was populated with courtiers, advisers, gnomes, a few dwarves, some dragonborn traders from the north, and tieflings from the southwest. The satrap rose from his high seat and approached the company. He walked past Sablius, inspecting him and admiring him like he would a horse for purchase.

The satrap asked which of them was the owner of the magnificent beast. Valerius politely responded that Sablius had no owner but that he considered himself himself the dragon's guardian.  The satrap offered 50,000 gold pieces for the purchase of the dragon. Valerius politely refused. The satrap pressed, offering slaves, land, fortresses, even offering a male winged saber-toothed dragon-tiger (an offer that made Absolom whisper into Valerius ear to at least consider), finally asking what could he offer that would change Valerius' mind. Valerius continued to politely and respectfully decline.

Seeing that no sum would sway Valerius, the satrap acquiesces, "I see there is no price that I can pay. This is a city of commerce. I am a man of honor and I recognize the ownership of property. The ownership and transfer of property is the root of trade.  You may take your leave.

The company was informed they could stay in Horek until sundown at which point their passports would no longer be valid. With that, Valerius and the company left the court of the satrap.

Princess Murti Makes an Offer
The party exited the city and stopped in the hostel and inn known as the Drunken Merchant. There they reunited with Balatan and Princess Murti, who was disguised as a simple slave girl. Also present was Aline, who had traveled from Swallow to Flinch, learned of the company's plans to go to Horek, and had finally caught up with the company this morning.

Princess Murti met the company in a private room. She thanked everyone for helping her reach Horek. She has found her secret cache of gold intact and instructed Ashlor to stand guard over it. Ashler is prepared to pay 1000 gold pieces to the company for helping her reach the city.

"However, I have an additional offer. Help me free my royal guards from the Prison of Zothalech and I will reward you with an additional 2000 gold pieces!"

The company agreed and asked for details.

"While I was in Horek, I did some research, consulting some trusted sages. The prison of Zothalech used to be an ancient fortress. It was built on the ruins of an even older fortress. Its roots run deep below the city. The fortress is today used as a prison. It is run by the gnomes of and houses both common debtors and noble prisoners.

"The prison is surrounded by a twenty-foot thick outer wall and a forty-foot wide moat filled with vicious carnivorous fish.

"The only way into the dungeon is as a prisoner or a supply wagon. The only prisoners it takes are those unable to pay their debt to the gnomes, the strategically important, relatives of nobles who are willing to pay to commute a death sentence, be more valuable alive than dead, or otherwise receive a sentence other than beheading for whatever reason.

"Normally, the only way out of the dungeon is to serve your sentence, have your ransom paid, or death.

"There are three known dungeon levels beneath the fortress. The level closest to the surface contains pens for commoners, the perimeter is lined with dungeon cells for nobles. The lower level contains oubliettes for prisoners given "life sentences". They are lowered into a pit and left to die a slow and horrible death.

"The lowest level is known as the 'crypt'. Prisoners are told that somewhere within the crypt is an exit to the outside. Any prisoner may choose the crypt over their current sentence. Should they do so, they are lowered into a pit from which they are never head again. It is not known if there is, in fact, an exit or if it a cruel lie. No one has ever escaped the crypt to confirm the story.

"I have learned from trusted sages that, according to legend, the crypt does, indeed, contain a secret escape route built by the original inhabitants of the fortress. The secret route is a hidden teleport gate that connects the crypt with the under-city beneath Horek. I have learned the location of the gate in the undercity and the magic phrase that activates it: 'Sesallah-Setah'.

"My royal guard number 100 men. They are being held in two pens with the commoners in the level closest to the surface. I leave it to you to plan the best route of entry and escape."

The company discussed their options and decided to enter via the secret route through the crypt, ascend the various levels, free the royal guard, and escape the same way.

While the company purchased supplies, Aline consulted the crystal ball in the privacy of a room in the inn in order to scry on the satrap and on the prisoners.

She saw a vision of the satrap speaking to a courtier, "I must have that dragon, do you understand?" The courtier responded, "I understand, my satrap. I will make it so. I already have agents following them outside the city." The satrap eyed the courtier warily, "Know this, if you plan on doing anything dishonorable, I don't want to know about it!" The courtier replied with an evil grin, "Of course, my satrap."

Changing focus onto the prisoners, she saw the interior of the prison of Zothalech. A hundred well-muscled men of noble bearing were held in two large cages in a chamber supported by thick columns. Guards occasionally patrolled between the cages carrying rings of keys.

Looking away from the crystal ball, she noticed that her mouth was unusually dry and her throat hoarse.

Into the Under-City
Willie and Drew
Valerius took Sablius to a livery stable that friendly to the Order of the Gauntlet.  He placed Willie and Drew in charge of his safety. Absolom gave them a potion of diminution, instructing them to shrink Sablius in case agents of the satrap came to take him. As an added measure, Valerius left his celestial lion to stand guard with the two comical men-at-arms.

Using their passports, the company re-entered Horek, passing Princess Murti as a slave. Valerius hired ten water bearers and donned common burlap tunics and wrapped their heads and necks in keffiyeh scarves so that they would blend in with the bearers.

The disguised company, hidden among the water-bearers, then followed Princess Murti into the Under-City. Stairs led down from the street to an underground labyrinth filled with people, slaves carrying amphorae filled with water, peddlers offering the crushed root of the Red Lotus, smugglers, and others on daily business. The hired water bearers broke off from the group at various points, leading potential followers on a wild goose chase.

The princess led them to the great cistern, vast chamber filled with millions of gallons of water. The ceiling high above was supported by massive columns. The architecture of past ages was visible everywhere in haphazard strata. The company hired a skiff and crossed the cistern, taking a flooded tunnel. The tunnel led to an abandoned passage blocked by bars. Valerius and Balatan easily pulled the ancient rusted bars out of the wall and they continued. The passage was moist and covered in roots and mold.

They ultimately entered a round chamber, a hemisphere, the walls of which were covered in ancient symbols. Roots and moss dangled from cracks in the ceiling. A silver disk was embedded in the floor, surrounded by arcane symbols. As agreed, Princess Murti would return to the surface while the rest of the company continued. The company entered the chamber and said the magic words, "Sesallah-Setah". The room was filled with light while glowing motes swirled around. The company vanished.

The Crypt
The company was transported to an identical room. Balatan, using his magic dwarven warhammer, could tell that they had descended from their previous location and were about two hundred feet below ground. They left the chamber and entered a wide corridor that stretched left and right. The door into the chamber was made to blend into the wall and be hidden. Valerius marked the door with chalk.

The company went left and after a short corridor found another round chamber with a silver disc and arcane text in the floor. There was one exit to the right. While holding open the entrance as a precaution, they tried unsuccessfully to open the far door. They returned the way they came.

The company found a room used by priests to prepare for ceremonies. Doors on the opposite wall were engraved with the bas relief of a great angry face. They opened the door and found a large chamber. A great stone head with the angry face stood on a raised platform against the wall to their right. Half a dozen white marble statues stood in various poses across the room, all figures captured in a moment of terror, frozen in mid-scream as they looked upon the great stone head. They carefully closed the door and tried another exit from the priests' room.

The Foiled Gas Trap
The wall of the adjoining short corridor caught Gravy's eye. On closer inspection, he noticed a loose brick which Thaddius removed with his thieves' tools. Behind the brick was a hole, large enough for a man's arm. The hole turned down about elbow's length. Wary of a trap, Aline cast a spell known as "Mage Hand" to explore the hole. Just past the bend, the hand encountered a small metal wheel attached to a valve. She turned the valve to the right until it stopped. There was no other effect.

The company opened the next door, noting that the door attached to a spring to close it automatically and was built to form an airtight seal. Thaddius used pitons to spike the door open. They entered the long corridor beyond. Halfway down the corridor, the door strained to close and a gasp of air was released into the room. The company had bypassed the gas trap by turning off the gas before entry.

Beyond the far door, the company encountered another round room with a silver disc and magical writing. This time, believing that only one door could be opened at a time, they allowed the entrance to close. The moment they did so, they were surrounded by light and glowing swirling motes and vanished from the room.

The Chamber of the Zombie Snakes
They appeared in a niche in a nondescript hallway with several other niches and doors and other corridors. They explored a path to the left, eventually coming into a large chamber filled with thousands of rasping zombie snakes, the sound of which resembled thousands of pieces of sand-paper being rubbed together. They stood on a platform in a corner of the room, stairs led down into the writhing mass. Similar platforms could be seen in two other corners. The fourth corner contained a passage.

Balatan called upon his god, Bahamut, to banish the zombie snakes. Half the snakes in the room crumbled to dust. Aline and Gravy used magic to zap some remaining pockets, but as they did so the snakes from the other half of the room began to fill in the cleared area. Valerius suggested that since this would take forever and since they didn't know if they needed to cross this chasm, they should go back and try one of the other doors.

The Great Stone Head
The company retraced their steps and took another door. They soon found themselves in the chamber of the great stone head and the frightened statues. They carefully entered the room, wary of the statues. Suddenly, the eyes of the great stone head began to glow. Thaddius, Absolom, and Aline looked at the statue and found themselves frozen in place. Meanwhile, Valerius, Balatan, and Gravy managed to avert their eyes or were otherwise not looking at the statue's eyes.

Suddenly, three of the statues came to a jerking scraping life with the sound of scraping stone. The statues closed on Balatan, Valerius, and Gravy and attacked. Aline cast two fireball spells at the great stone head, causing it to crack then explode into chunks of debris. She found herself suddenly free of the freezing grip of the statue's gaze. The remaining two statues froze in place, the source that controlled their actions now destroyed.

Unfortunately, Thaddius and Absolom had lost their fight against the magic of the great stone head. To the dismay of the rest of the company, they remained statues of white marble.

The surviving members of the company briefly discussed their options. It was clear that should this mission succeed, the its secret route would be discovered and would be sealed up forever. There was no way to save their companions. They pressed on.

They took another exit and explored a short passage. They opened the door at the end onto a large dark chamber. Pale white blind beings with long scraggy hair, beings that were once human, turned from their feeding from a font of black ichor, bearing sharp twisted teeth and hissing.


After Thoughts
The gun is good. The penis is evil.
The Great Stone Head was described as looking like the angry stone head from Zardoz. It was depicted on the table with an Olmec head figurine purchased from the pet store as an aquarium decoration.

The way it worked was anyone just looking at the head from outside the room had no effect. Once you entered the room, you made a save. Each player got to choose: Dexterity (to look away), Wisdom (for quick thinking), or Intelligence (to know what was coming). The DEX save had a difficulty of 20. The WIS save had a difficulty of 16. The INT save had a difficulty of 12. However, I didn't tell my players what the difficulties were and that, I feel, was a mistake on my part. Some players chose DEX because it was their best bonus, but had they known that INT had the lowest difficulty, they might have chosen that. As a result, Thaddius and Absolom were turned to stone.

What I now realize I SHOULD have done was either make all three saves the same difficulty or told the players up front what the difficulties were and allowed them to choose.  Ah, hindsight.

Once you started making saves, the only thing that would save you was the destruction of the Great Stone Head, which was a large stone object with an AC of 17 (for its hardness) and 27 hit points, with resistance to fire, piercing, and slashing; vulnerability to thunder; and immunity to necrotic, poison, psychic, and radiant.Destroying the Great Stone Head stops the need for ongoing saves but does not save anyone already turned to stone.

Because I felt bad for not telling them the difficulty, I had a vial of Potion of Great Restoration located within the head so that the players could choose one character to bring back to life. However, both of the players who lost a character protested! They felt that their characters' deaths were justified and added to the drama of the story, and that bringing one or both of them back would be wussing out. They said without the threat of death, there was no sense of danger. So I obliged and withdrew the potion.