Monday, April 27, 2015

"The Crying Swamp" - Chapter 2 of Dwellers of the Forbidden City

The party escapes and hides in the jungle. After returning the rescued virgin to her family, they decide to track the lizard-men to their home deep within the Crying Swamp. There they must find shelter from the rising tide and fend off an attack from shambling mounds of lianic matter. The night is haunted by crying ghosts.

The Group:
  • Aline, a Thaumaturge of half-Human/half-Sylvan* parentage (Wizard 7)
  • Gravy, Human Priest of Thumina (Cleric 7)
  • Lodar, Prairiefolk** Barbarian (Barbarian 7)
  • Inza, aka "The Shadow", Human Shadow-Warrior (Thief 6/Sorcerer 1)
  • Randalf Azul, Human Abjurer (Wizard 7)
*Elf
**Halfling

A Thrilling Escape!
When we left our party, they had just interrupted the city Thither's annual sacrifice of a virgin to Anuran, the toad-demon of the Crying Swamp.

It was the spring equinox. The sun was setting over the mountains to the west. The sky was streaked with orange and red. The tide was out and the normally flooded mangrove forest of the Crying Swamp was now a muddy mess. The Temple of Anuran was a walled compound built on an island at the edge of the swamp. Within the compound was a tall signal tower used to summon the giant toad-god each year during the spring equinox. It was on this day that the toad-god rose from his winter hibernation. Tradition states that in ancient times, the god would raze the newly built city of Thither each year on this day.

The Sacrificial Compound

An ancient pact made with the toad god protected the city from destruction so long as the city provided a single virgin sacrifice. For the last seven hundred years, a virgin sacrifice has been chosen by lottery and given to Anuran atop the gatehouse of the temple built across the river from the city. So has it been for generations. The day has become a celebration of the death of winter and the rebirth of spring. The giving of the sacrifice has become an annual institution and has taken on the trappings of a carnival and party, attended by the elite members of Thither society and ending with drunken bacchanals and orgies.

Standing on a platform at the base of the signal tower, 120 feet from the gate-house were:
  • Archon Kepha, his three wives, and his adult children.
  • Six armored knights to serve as the Archon's bodyguards.
  • The high priest of the cult of Anuran.

Guards:
  • Four guards carrying spears in the tower 90 feet to the left of the gatehouse.
  • Four guards carrying spears in the tower 90 feet to the right of the gatehouse.
  • Seven guards, including the armored captain and two veterans, in the courtyard within 30 feet of the gatehouse.

Cultists:
  • Twelve cultists stood in a double column within 30-60 feet of the gatehouse swinging censers of incense and singing an eerie chant.

Bystanders:
  • Sitting on stone bleachers and milling around the courtyard were assembled several hundred nobles in brightly colored fancy silks and wearing gaudy hats.

Outside the compound:
  • Forty lizardmen and forty bullywugs, including shamans and warriors, who had accompanied Anuran through the swamp.

Round Zero: Randalf cast Misty Step and appeared on the platform between Anuran and the sacrifice. He cast a spell of banishment on Anuran. Anuran disappeared!

Anuran failed his saving throw by one! Rassin-Frassin! 
Randalf must maintain concentration for one uninterrupted minute (ten rounds) for the banishment to hold. Should he take damage at any time, the banishment fails and Anuran returns. I made sure the following events were tracked precisely! 

Round One: There's a moment of stunned silence as the surprised throng gathered to witness the sacrifice processed what just happened. Even the lizard men and bullywugs outside the compound recoiled in surprise at the sudden disappearance of their deity.

Inza and Gravy rushed out of the crowd and climbed the ladder leading to the top of the gate house. Lodar ran inside the gate house to guard the passage to the outside. Aline grabbed her flying broom and shot into the air. She descended quickly to land next to Randalf.

Round Two: The high priest shouted, "They're attempting to stop the sacrifice!" The Archon shouted, "Stop them! Arrest them! I want them captured alive!" The stunned crowd murmured in confusion and the guards on the ground moved towards the ladder. The guards on the towers ran down the wall towards the gate house.

Meanwhile, Inza shouted at Lodar to climb the ladder. Lodar left the passage way, climbed the ladder, and Inza pulled the ladder up behind him. Aline grabbed Randalf and put the elder wizard on her flying broom. She flew up, carrying him to the top of the gate house. The entire party now closed ranks around the sacrificial victim atop the gate house. The guards on the ground had no immediate means of gaining access to the top of the gate house short of climbing another ladder in one of the towers.

Round Three: Aline cast a greater illusion spell, making it appear that everyone in the party was engulfed in a massive column of blue magical flame! Lodar cut the virgin's shackles with his magic blade Magmatar. The approaching guards momentarily hesitated. The crowd recoiled, gasping in fear and awe at the brilliant display. A few even clapped, believing this to be some kind of performance.

Round Four: Aline replaced the fiery blue explosion with the illusion of an empty roof, making it appear as if they had teleported away. The high priest shouted, "It's a trick! I want you men to search that gatehouse thoroughly! Find out where they've gone!"

The guards approached slowly and warily. One of the guards, while poking about with his spear, stumbled into the illusion! Before he could shout out, he was hit by Inza's stunning strike and knocked unconscious with the flat of Magmatar. The guard was carefully caught as he fell, dragged into the illusion, then quietly gagged and bound.

Round Five: The other guards recoiled in shock to see one of their fellows disappear, then began to slowly advance on that spot. Aline, thinking quickly, added a giant blue flaming sphere to her illusion. The guards backed away quickly. The high priest, atop the platform at the base of the signal tower, narrowed his eyes in suspicion.

Round Six: The leader of the lizard men outside the gate called out, "Archon! Archon! We would speak with you!" The archon sighed heavily and marched towards the portcullis inside the gate house accompanied by his body guards. The high priest, in a shocking breach of protocol, ran past the archon crying "No! It's a trick! It's a trick!"
Guards taken aback by the appearance of a giant blue fireball

The high priest, believing this to be nothing more than an illusion, attempted to dispel any magic atop the gate house. Randalf countered the high priest's action with a simple gesture. The illusion remained.

I was impressed. Randalf was built to be a counter-magic wizard, and was living up to that promise. Lodar's player kept remarking, "Good hire!"
Randalf Azul

Round Seven: The archon, insulted by the high priest's action, pushed past him and continued to the gate house. The high priest sputtered and fumbled in confusion. He regained his composure and tried again to dispel any magic atop the gate house. Once more, Randalf countered the priest's spell with nothing more than a wave of his hand. Once again, the illusion of the giant blue flaming sphere remained.

I thought to myself, how many spell-slots can the high priest have for dispel magic? The answer is two. Then I thought, how many spell-slots can Randalf have left for counter-spell? The answer is apparently also two. Also, counter-spell requires only a somatic component (hand gesture) and does not break concentration. So the image of Randalf countering the spell with a mere gesture was just awesome!

The archon reached the portcullis and addressed the lizard-men and bullywugs. "I am Archon Kephra of Thither! We are not responsible for what happened here. We had no knowl..."

The lizard-man shaman interrupted, "The pact has been broken, Archon! We will return to our home and Anuran will be re-born. We will come back and we will lay waste to your precious city. You are doomed, archon!"

The lizard-men and bullywugs then turned and marched off through the mud exposed by the low tide. The archon sighed and turned around, announcing to his people, "The festival is over. The sacrifice is cancelled. Return to your homes. Prepare for an invasion."

Round Eight: Aline caused the blue flaming sphere to burn out, leaving them invisible atop the gate house. Inza set the ladder against the outside wall of the gatehouse. Before they left, Inza gave the unconscious guard a bag with five gold pieces to compensate him for any trouble he might be in. The party then invisibly descended the ladder outside the walled compound.

Round Nine: They moved as an invisible group, carrying the drugged virgin sacrifice behind a clump of mangrove trees. Off in the distance, they could barely hear the sounds of alarm as the unconscious guard was discovered and revived. No doubt he had finally informed the others of the invisible interlopers.

Round Ten: The group continued to hide behind the clump of mangrove trees. The spell was completed. Anuran was successfully banished!

Guards exited the compound through the portcullis in order to search for the party. The party remained invisible and managed to escape into the muddy forest.
It was at this point that the players informed me that they were going into the swamp to find the city of the swamp-dwellers and destroy Anuran before he could attack the city. I said, "Wait! I have a great idea!" I ran upstairs and grabbed my copy of the old AD&D module Dwellers of the Forbidden City
Lodar's player (Jeff) wearing the D&D bow-tie from Lootcrate while Gravy's player (also Jeff) looks on)

The Victim is Returned
A short time later, the party was deep in the mangrove forest following the muddy tracks of the swamp-dwellers. It was now fully dark. The only light came from Magmatar and Gravy and Aline's magical cantrips. The tide was beginning to rise but the party could still move from mangrove cluster to mangrove cluster through the drained waterways.

The sacrificial victim emerged from her drugged stupor. She was surprised to learn of her fate. When asked about her prospects back in the city, she revealed that she was the daughter of a simple tanner with little means. Her father could not afford to purchase an exemption from the lottery. Inza gave her several hundred gold coins and Aline flew her back to the city under the cover of darkness. She was told to escape with her family and find another city. Afterwards, Aline returned to the party in the swamp.

The Tide Also Rises
A few hours had now passed since sundown and the tide was quickly filling all the muddy water-ways. The party found themselves trapped on a small island covered in trees, vines, and crumbling ruins. They were on the outskirts of the ancient city of Sinopia, the ancient Agarthan trade hub that was destroyed by divine judgement at the end of the Age of the Uuani, when the gods of the Aslak rose up and destroyed their predecessors and all who worshiped them. All around them, they could hear the distant sound of hundreds of children crying.

While searching for shelter, they were ambushed and surrounded by three shambling mounds of animated plant matter: one large and two medium sized.

Lodar and Randalf engaged the large one on the right flank while the rest of the party fought the other two on the left. Aline, meanwhile, took to the sky on her flying broom.

It was a tough battle. The large  lumbering mass seemed ignore much of the damage from fiery Magmatar. Inza used ki strikes to temporarily stun the smaller creatures hoping to allow his teammates the ability to maneuver away without impediment, but much to Inza's annoyance his teammates failed to take advantage of the maneuver and stayed close in spite of his help.

At one point, all three shambling mangrove creatures were lined up in a neat row. Aline let loose a destructive lightning bolt spell against all three! However, instead of being damaged by the bolt, the creatures appeared to be invigorated by it! Luckily, the large creature was prevented from benefiting from the lightning bolt thanks to Randalf's Crypt Touch spell.

We have all played D&D for so long that, despite me never calling them such by name, everyone knew exactly what these creatures were: Shambling Mounds. Everyone also knew that shambling mounds were healed by electrical damage. It was common knowledge. As I DM, I thought I'd never ever see a wizard use lightning bolt on a shambling mound.  
 Everyone knew this, that is, except for Aline's player Lucinda. Lucinda played D&D back in the eighties, and with us for the last year, but she had apparently never fought a shambling mound. When she declared her intention to use lightning bolt, my eyes got huge with glee! I had to keep myself from shouting, "REALLY?!?!"  I hid my terrible poker face behind a book until I got it under control, took a deep breath, and calmly said, "Very well, you may continue."
Nobody else apparently thought of the implications of this because they said nothing. Inza's player, Scott, knew exactly what was about to happen, but to his credit, he knew his character wouldn't know so he kept his mouth shut. 
She rolled damage and I rolled saving throws. The big mound technically made his saving throw and I joked, "I choose to fail." It didn't matter because Randalf's "Crypt Touch" (a better name than "Chill Touch") kept it from regaining any hit points that round.  
I was so pleased when I saw the look on Lucinda's face when I said the mounds appeared to be invigorated by the blast. It made me so happy. After the game, I gave Lucinda a big hug and thanked her for that. It made my night.

Eventually, with the water lapping their ankles, the party was finally able destroy the animated creatures. They quickly moved to some nearby elevated ruins to seek shelter from the rising tide. There they made camp for the night.
Ambush in the flooded ruins

The Crying Swamp
The ruined city at night was haunted by dozens of ghosts of small children. The spirits could be seen wandering the city, sobbing. They appeared to be searching for something. At one point, one of the hollow-eyed specters approached Randalf. In a sad voice, it asked, "Are you my mommy?" Randalf warily said no and the ghost moved on, continuing to cry as it searched the flooded ruins.
The tide receded at dawn and the party broke camp. In the light of morning, they could see a two-hundred foot high ridge of obsidian rising from the swamp. The ridge formed a circle around the center of the center of the old city. Therein lied the forbidden city of the swamp dwellers, and the key to destroying their squamous god Anuran once and for all!

TO BE CONTINUED

Next week - the party searches for a way into the Forbidden City!