Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"The Whorlstone Tunnels" - Out of the Abyss, Chapter 8


What follows is an illustrated dramatic retelling of my group's play through of the D&D campaign setting, "Out of the Abyss". SPOILERS for anyone wishing to play in this campaign.

CHAPTER 8
"THE WHORLSTONE TUNNELS"

A motley group of strangers
escaped drow captivity
deep below the Earth
and travelled to Gracklstugh,
the "City of Blades".
There, they were arrested
by the Stone Guard and
given a choice: 
find and capture a
derro courier named Droki
or be sold into slavery...

THE PLAYER CHARACTERS
Talorean - Half-drow abandoned at birth to be raised by wolves.
Angolwen - Wizard of mixed human/elven parentage.
Kettle Bearclaw - Halfling baker living among dwarves.
Pain Grille' - Halfling street urchin from Waterdeep.
Virtue - Tiefling paladin and a mysterious wild card.

THEIR FELLOW TRAVELLERS
Hemeth - Duergar trader rescued from Sloobludopp. Leading the party to Gracklestugh.
Ront - Thuggish orc from the surface world. Respects authority and follows Talorean's commands.
Topsy and Turvy - Deep gnome twins. Missing from the group since the cave-in. Possibly were-rats.
Prince Derendil - Elven prince in the body of a brutish quaggoth.
Sarith - Drow guard sentenced to die for murdering a fellow guard.
Jimjar - a roguish deep gnome who likes to wager on everything.
Stool - a myconid sprout that follows Kettle like a pet follows its owner.
"Moon Elf" - a mute female elf, an escaped slave from Menzoberranzan with no name.

THE KEEPERS OF THE FLAME
Soon after the fugitives arrived in Gracklstugh, the duergar trader named Hemeth took Virtue, Talorean, Ront, and Sarith aside saying, "I must report to my superiors. I can only take four of you, so you will escort me to ensure I arrive safely. Be alert."

The five left the remaining companions behind in the Darklake District and crossed through the gates into the Forbidden City of Gracklstugh. They passed through the industrial quarter, crossed a stone bridge over the deep chasm of Laduguer's Furrow and into the high district with its high caste residences and temples. The group traveled up many sets of stairs and landings before arriving at a massive entrance carved into the very back of the cavern in which Gracklstugh was located. They were met at the entrance by a older duergar in red and black robes. The older duergar led the party into a vestibule inside the entrance. There Hemeth and the older duergar shared a whispered exchange.

Afterwards, the older duergar stepped forward towards the group and introduced himself, "I am Gartokkar Xundorn. I am the leader of the Keepers of the Flame, those who attend to to mighty Themberchaud. Hemeth is one of our number. He tells me you helped him return to Gracklstugh after his boat was destroyed. He believes you might be of use to our cause. We agree. You," pointing at Virtue, "My master would wish to speak with you with an offer. Please, this way."

Gartokkar led Virtue down massive corridors further into the complex, emerging into a massive chamber filled with treasure. Sitting atop the treasure was an overweight red dragon, considering the group as they entered.
Themberchaud, the Wyrmsmith of Gracklstugh

Themerchaud lifted his massive head, his fat jowls drooping. "Gartokkar," he boomed, "You didn't say I was having an overworlder for dinner today!"

Gartokkar bowed and turned to the group, "Outlander, I present the Father of Flame, the Everburning, and the Foundry's Heart - Themberchaud, the Wyrmsmith of Gracklstugh."

Virtue bowed.

Themberchaud smiled, "Gartokkar, you may leave."

Gartokkar, looking annoyed and slightly insulted, left the two alone.

The great red dragon looked around, "This is a private conversation and any invisible lurkers will be turned to ash." A few seconds later, the dragon seemed satisfied, "Good. We are alone. How much has Hemeth told you about how things work in Gracklstugh?"

"Very little."

"Tell me about yourself. What is your name? From where do you hail? How do you find yourself here?"

Virtue recounted the tale of her capture and escape from drow captivity, her encounter with the demon lord Demogorgon in Sloobludop, and her travels through the Underdark on the way to Gracklstugh.

"Yes, Demon lord. Interesting." Themberchaud said dismissively, "Virtue, allow me to properly introduce myself. I am the Wyrmsmith- Themberchaud. I keep the city's smelters and forges ablaze. I am paid an exorbitant sum for my services. Treasure, meals, my every whim met. But I want more. Why should I be simply paid for my services when there is very little preventing me from ruling this entire city. I am unable to trust the duergar for obvious reasons. Even the Keepers' who serve me simply attend to my needs. They are in truth loyal to the Deepking. I need my own agents, outlanders, to work on my behalf."

He looked at Virtue with one big yellow eye, "I want you, Virtue. You will serve as my personal agent in Gracklstugh. Report what you see and hear to me. You will report to Gartokkar and the Keepers of the Flame, but you will always report to me first. If you fail me, I will indeed enjoy overworlder for my dinner. Do I make myself clear?"

Virtue gave a subtle nod.

"Excellent." the red dragon called for his keepers to return, "Gartokkar, return!"

The robed duergar reentered the chamber.

"Gartokkar, Virtue will be joining the ranks of the Keepers of the Flame. Outfit her with a badge. She will be perfect for that mission we discussed earlier."

Gartokkar nodded and led Virtue into an adjoining chamber. There he gave her a gold brooch in the shape of a dragon's head, "This badge will allow you to enter the Forbidden City with a Stone Guard escort. It will also grant you a limited amount of immunity from Stone Guard interference."

Virtue nodded and asked, "What is the mission the dragon spoke of?"

Gartokkar looked at Virtue with suspicion, "What did the master tell you?"

"Again, very little."

"The master and his servants enjoy a certain degree of power and influence in Gracklstugh, thanks in part to our monopoly on the maintenance of the forges and smelters in the city. There are factions that are jealous of our power and wish to break our monopoly. One of those factions is the Grey Ghosts, a group of rebels and anarchists. They would like nothing better than to see Gracklstugh descend into chaos. We believe that they have recently come into possession of a red dragon egg. Their plan is to hatch the egg and raise a competitor to our master, eliminating our - his monopoly and destabilizing our power."

Gartokkar continued, "We need you to find that egg and bring it to us. We believe the Grey Ghosts have a hideout somewhere among the derro caverns in the West Cleft district. We don't know where. In addition, we duergar are forbidden from entering the West Cleft district. To do so would violate a pact with a derro and begin a war. That is why we have enlisted your aid. As an outlander, you may enter the West Cleft. Your presence there will be obvious and unwanted but it would not start a war and it is the best we could do."

"Our only lead is a derro courier named Droki. You will know him by his distinctive head wear - a floppy hat adorned with two displacer beast tentacles. We suspect he has been working for the Grey Ghosts. Your mission is to find Droki, follow him to their hiding place, rescue the dragon egg, and bring it back to us. Am I understood?"
Virtue

Virtue nodded.

"But beware. We have sensed a great disturbance in the Underdark - like a hole has been torn throughout the world. It is having an effect on our people, and they are behaving strangely. Be on the lookout for strange behavior."

Virtue said, "On my journey, I encountered the wakening of Demogorgon in the Darklake. Could this be connected?"

Gartokkar dismissed the question, "Possibly, but that is unimportant. Finding and returning the dragon egg is your priority."

Virtue was given her badge and returned to her companions. The group was then escorted past a gate that had been recently demolished by a rampaging stone giant and into the Darklake District. There they obtained rooms in the Ghohlbrorn's Lair and were finally able to rest.

FULL DISCLOSURE- 
The scene with Virtue and Themberchaud was embellished and retroactively enhanced a bit from what actually transpired between me and Virtue's player. In the real world, I took Virtue's player into another room and we quickly role-played the audience with Themberchaud. I had the book with me but the details regarding the Keepers of the Flame, Themberchaud, the Grey Ghosts, and why they'd want Droki are spread out in multiple sections throughout the chapter. So I missed a lot of the detail you see above and simply had Themberchaud enlist Virtue in capturing Droki and bringing him back so that he could be interrogated in order to find out where the Grey Ghosts kept the dragon egg. 

The plots are a lot more complicated and nuanced in the book. It's just a shame that they're so poorly organized. Anyway, I have informed the player of the "new continuity" above which incorporates the greater complexity. 

SHIFT CHANGE
Kettle and Pain slept on an actual cushioned bed for the first time in over a month. Despite being insulated from the noise of the city, they could feel the vibration of the constant hammering through the carved stone walls of their room. Their rest was ended when a dour duergar maidservant notified them of the changing of the shift. They rose and joined Angolwen and the moon elf in the common room.
Angolwen
Angolwen was grooming her new familiar, an owl that she had summoned just before the shift started, while trying to get the moon elf to choose a name for herself, a task made difficult by the mute slave's complete and total acquiescence to every idea Angolwen suggested. Angolwen enlisted Kettle's help and the pair began to argue over the choices. The argument soon drew in Pain and, as whenever Pain and Kettle begin to argue, the two began to compare life experiences. Pain asked Kettle about his youth, a time of warmth and family that Kettle remembered fondly, only to have Pain angrily remind Kettle of his own formative years surviving alone on the cold streets of Waterdeep.

Virtue came into the common room and the group exchanged greetings and caught up on the various events of the previous.. what was the duergar word? "Rotation?"

They told Virtue that after being released from incarceration by the Stone Guard, they decided to postpone their meetings with the Stonespeaker and Werz Saltbaron in favor of obtaining much-needed rest. Besides, it seemed that, given there were only three "times" kept in Gracklstugh, appointments were nebulously defined at best and punctuality was not an issue.
The Moon Elf

The team worked out their plan for the shift. They would first go to the Shattered Spire to give Werz Saltbaron the promised blades, then they would meet with the Stonespeaker. As they got up to leave, the moon elf subserviently gathered their dishes to take to the kitchen. She was immediately shouted out of the kitchen by the duergar patrons. Kettle and Angolwen hurriedly escorted her to the protection of Prince Derendil.

GM NOTE- Timekeeping in Gracklstugh
My players and I worked out a timekeeping system for Gracklstugh. We figured that the duergar were very industrious folk with a very strong work ethic. Given there was no day/night cycle, there would split time into "shifts". Each shift was roughly eight hours long. Each duergar was expected to live according to a set rotation of shifts - known as the Hammer, the Anvil, and the Forge. 

One shift would be devoted to work, the next shift to the hearth and home, and the third shift to sleep. Each shift would have a mid-shift break for a short rest and a meal. Time is kept by a large machine with a three-sided column called a tridon. The turning of the tridon would sound a gong to signal a change in shift. 

A full turning of three shifts is called a "rotation" and corresponded to a single day. We started substituting "rotation" for "days" in the game and referring to shifts, mid-shifts, quarter-shifts, etc. 

We figured the duergar had no sense of hours or minutes. When you made an appointment, you made it for any time within a given shift and you showed up when you showed up. 

THE SHATTERED SPIRE
When the fugitives arrived in Gracklstugh last Hammer shift, they were extorted by the corrupt gate warden Gorglak. Gorglak only allowed them to enter on the promise that they would deliver to him the drow swords that Kettle had named "Jelly" and "Jam". Gorglak had instructed them to deliver the swords to Werz Saltbaron during the next Forge shift. They later arranged to meet Werz at the tavern known as the Shattered Spire at the appointed time.

The tavern known as the Shattered Spire was built of interlocking zurkhwood logs and dried mud atop a massive broken stalagmite emerging from the black waters of the Darklake. A bridge made of woven steeder silk rope connected the tavern to the nearby quay.

Werz Saltbaron
There they met Werz who thanked them for saving his life during the Hammer shift. He gave each of them an obsidian gemstone as a gesture of appreciation.

Kettle then presented Werz with the swords.

Werz looked confused, "What are these for?"

"When we arrived, the guard, Gorglak I think, extorted us. He told us to bring these to you and that you would give these to him."

Werz expressed disbelief that a duergar would be so corrupt. They re-framed the exchange as the presentation of a gift to Gorglak, a transaction Werz would finally accept.

Werz was so impressed at Kettle's devotion to his word that he offered Kettle a job. He asked Kettle to deliver a sack full of raw gemstones to a deep gnome named Kazook Pickshine in Blingdenstone, no questions asked.

"Sure. How much will we be paid?"

"I said NO QUESTIONS ASKED!"

(laughter)

"I will pay you 50 gold pieces now. Kazook will pay you 50 when you arrive. Is that acceptable?"

Kettle agreed. As the group left the tavern, they could hear an argument turning into a fight. They left as fast as they could.

CAIRNGORM CAVERNS
The fugitives went to the gate to the Forbidden City where they showed the guard the pass the stone giant had given them two shifts ago. The guard nodded and escorted them into the city to Cairngorm Caverns, home of the stone giants of Gracklstugh.
Stonespeaker Hgraam
There they are taken to a meeting with Stonespeaker Hgraam. The Stonespeaker asked them to recount the story of how they met Brother Chthonn, the stone giant they encountered lost and insane in the howling caverns of madness. They did so. Kettle and Virtue worked together to draw out, to the best of their ability, a rough map leading to the area.

The Stonespeaker thanked them, saying that Chthonn had fled into the wilderness nearly twelve rotations ago. He had been presumed dead and so he had forbidden his apprentice Dorhuun from mounting a rescue party. He summoned Dorhuun and informed the apprentice that the outlander's story had changed his mind. He was to mount a rescue expedition at once.

In exchange for their contribution, the Stonespeaker presented the group of fugitives with a nineteen inch shard of quartz wrapped in grey silk. He called the shard "the Stonespeaker Crystal", the tool of stone giant sages and philosophers.

Additionally, he gave Kettle a warning in the form of a cryptic augury: "Be wary little warrior. Something evil stirs in the Underdark. The rock itself cries in pain and horror, and a madness creeps from the blackest depths. Pay heed to the signs surrounding you. A cave with two faces. Rock devoured, and the land overgrown. The pebble believes itself flesh. Teh earth rejects its wards, and the tunnels shake in fury. By these portents you shall know of evil's presence and of evil's face. This is what the stones tell me."

The stonespeaker then stood and silently walked away, leaving Dorhuun to escort the fugitives out of the cavern. Although Dorhuun was unable to elucidate the mystery of the augury, he was able to repeat it, allowing Kettle to write it down.

At the entrance to the caverns, they were met by their Stone Guard escort, waiting to accompany them back to the gates of the Darklake District.

WEST CLEFT DISTRICT
On their way out, as they crossed the bridge over the furrow, they asked the guard where they could find the West Cleft. The guard pointed to the massive wall sealing the furrow to their left.

"Behind that wall lies the West Cleft. That is the domain of the derro, ceded to them after the uprising." The guard indicated a gate at the bottom of the furrow, "No duergar is allowed beyond that gate."

Pain flashed his black skull badge, "We have orders to go there, authorized by the commander herself."

The guard simply stopped, "That is none of my business. If you wish to do so, you may take those stairs there. They lead to the bottom of the furrow."

"Okay, thanks! We'll see you later!"

The guard returned a non-committal grunt.

Pain and Kettle bickered a they descended the stairs until, moments later, they stood before the gate to the West Cleft. They flashed their badges at the guards and requested entry. The guards shrugged as if to say, "It's your funeral." and allowed them to enter.

As the gates opened, they were overwhelmed by the odor of thousands of unwashed bodies, raw sewage, and liquid decay. The sound of thousands of breaths, the scratching and shuffling of a multitude of bare feet, echoed silently inside the chamber. They strode forth into a completely dark chamber, the light from the open gate behind them reflected of hundreds of large glassy eyes staring at them. The gate closed, plunging them into darkness.

Kettle quickly lit a torch just in time to see a group of several short pale humanoids stealthily approaching, their heads clownishly large in proportion to their bodies. Each possessed thick tufts of white hair, beards, and moustaches. Their eyes were large and glassy. They wore rags and looked unwashed and disgusting. Most of them carried strange hooked weapons, like an over sized fireplace poker crossed with a shepherd's crook.

From what little Kettle could see, the walls of the district were covered in hundreds of warrens dug into the rock. Rickety scaffolding and rope bridges hugged the walls and crossed the chasm every few dozen feet. The walls stretched upwards hundreds of feet into darkness.

The advancing derro paused at the edge of the light. Dozens of desperate voices whispered an unintelligible word that passed through the district like a wave. The lead derro whispered in common, "Food. Want food."

The "leader" approached while the others stayed at the edge of the torch light. He began pawing Kettle's pack, "Want food."

Kettle waved his torch at the derro as a warning. The derro became enraged and tried to trip Kettle with his crook-poker. The other derro immediately began shouting and hooting and gibbering.

Angolwen tried to fool the derro by creating an illusion of food away from Kettle, but the derro were undeterred. They rushed in and a fight ensued. The fugitives, worried about a fight against hundreds of derro, began to back up towards the gate.

Suddenly, the gate opened. A derro wearing a wide-brimmed floppy hat trailing two displacer beast tentacles hopped through, saying, "Oh my! No time! No time! Very late! Stupid stupid Droki! They will be so angry! No time, no thyme, no rhyme, not mine! Coming through!"

Droki moved as fast as a rabbit! Each member of the party tried to grab him as he ran past, but to no avail. Virtue ran after him, almost catching him, but he slipped away when a derro tripped her!

Droki ran into a large drain pipe emerging from the cavern wall. There he quickly removed the bars, set them aside, moved into the pipe, and replaced the bars behind him before disappearing into the pipe.
Droki is very late!

Pain ran up to the pipe and gave chase, followed in short order by his companions who were fighting their way past derro harassment.

THE WHORLSTONE TUNNELS
Pain followed the pipe for a few hundred feet before it opened into a strangely glowing chamber. The stone walls of the chamber were appeared translucent and shimmered an inner luminescence that swirled and spiraled all around, creating an eerie dim fluorescent illumination.

Another pipe opened in the cling, an elbow pipe lay discarded on the cavern floor.

Pink glowing footsteps marked Droki's passage through the cavern's only exit. Pain saw Droki disappear into a side passage to the left. The sound of running water echoed down the passage beyond and another side passage led to the right. Pain waited for the rest of the party to catch up before following Droki into the side passage.

Droki's footsteps led to a patch of blue and purple mushrooms growing out of a small fissure in the wall. The footsteps stopped in front of the patch, became very small, then disappeared into the fissure.

Pain and Virtue examined the mushrooms. Pain ate a blue mushroom and immediately shrunk down to six inches tall. The rest of the party followed suit, with Angolwen and Sarith becoming a foot tall and Kettle becoming six inches. Virtue wisely harvested a few purple mushrooms before eating a blue mushroom and shrinking down. Stool had no desire to eat a mushroom and decided to stay behind.

FULL DISCLOSURE- I changed how small they shrunk.
In the adventure, medium creatures become three-feet tall while small creatures become a little over one foot tall. I wasn't thinking of that and is hastily described them as six inches and a foot. Only later did I realize my mistake. I explained the error to the players but they preferred the imagery of being Barbie-sized so we stuck with it. 

In spite of their reduced size, the fissure was still a tight fit. They emerged after what felt like hundreds of feet later into the same passage they left earlier, only this time the running water was visible as a waterfall and pool, now a small lake, to their right. A forest of blue and purple mushrooms spread before them. Droki's tiny glowing footprints continued past the forest of mushrooms, headed down the passage to the left and disappearing into a side passage to the right.

Virtue was about to run off down the bank of the passage wall and through the forest but was grabbed by Pain. Pain pointed beneath the canopy of blue and purple caps. Beneath the mushrooms was a carpet of yellow fuzz, "Yellow mold." he said.

The fugitives, now the pursuers, hopped across the mushroom caps, jumping from cap to cap, to avoid the yellow mold. Several of them noticed the skeleton of an armored duergar underneath the mold and mushrooms and made a mental note to come back later.

The followed the footsteps down the passage to the right only to discover another mushroom forest. These mushrooms, however, were trillimacs and barrelstalks as massive as trees, at least to the doll-sized adventurers. In between were every kind of mushroom imaginable, from massive barrelstalks to flowing nightlights to strange unnerving fungi that resembled tongues and noses.

Kettle used his tracking skills to lead the way through the forest, following the signs of Droki's passing, when they were suddenly attacked by swarms of giant centipedes!

GM Note - 
I called an audible, altering the encounter on the fly. I had the shrunken people fight dozens of giant fire beetles while regular sized people fought two insect swarms. I had each 4 hit point giant fire beetle equal 1 hit point of insect swarm.

Angolwen ate a purple-capped mushroom and instantly became regular sized again, casting thunderwave and fire spells against the swarms that beset them. Virtue soon joined her in becoming regular size in order maximize the damage of her spells. Meanwhile Sarith, Kettle, and Pain fought the bugs in melee combat. More bugs came, wave after wave. Eventually, all the bugs were destroyed. The group continued on their quest to capture Droki, ignoring the side passage to the right.

Noting that Droki's glowing footsteps had become regular size again, the remaining tiny heroes each ate a purple-capped mushroom and returned to their normal size. They followed the footsteps down a long corridor that wound sharply to the left. They ignored a side passage to the right and eventually found their way into a large, very tall chamber.

The glow of the walls faded into darkness a few hundred feet up, shrouding the ceiling of the chamber in darkness. a massive stalagmite rose in the center of the chamber, almost reaching the ceiling. The stalagmite had been sheared off, revealing a flat top. The sound of murmurs, whispers, and the clanking of metal could be faintly heard emanating from the darkness of the ceiling.  Footsteps led to another small fissure to the right, shrunk, and disappeared within.

The party consumed some more blue-capped mushrooms, became miniature, and followed. The fissure twisted and turned for several hundred "feet" before opening near the ceiling of a large passage leading left and right. A gargantuan carrion crawler was feasting on the body of a dead grimlock to their right, blocking their ability to follow Droki's glowing footsteps.

The pursuers each emerged from the fissure eating a purple-capped mushroom. Thus returned to regular size they soon defeated the tentacled oversize worm-thing. Sarith, however, watched the course of the battle unfold with amusement from the safety of the fissure before returning to normal size.

Droki's regular-sized footsteps led to a door set into the wall where the cavern made a sharp turn to the left. The footsteps appeared to emerge from the door and head off down the left.

Virtue made the call, "We've GOT to check it out."
Pain Grille'
The door was locked so Pain was brought forward to use his picks. The door was soon opened and they advanced. They met a foul stench of manure and decaying plant matter down the tunnel ahead, so they took a side passage to the left leading up into a lit room. 

There they found a well stocked alchemist's laboratory with table, chairs, a dome-shaped furnace and stone crucibles. A zurkhwood ramp led down an embankment that split the cave into two levels. Two beds were located on the lower level. The far wall of the lower level was constructed of fitted stone blocks and set with a zurkhwood door.

As they examined the room, the door opened. A duergar wearing the robes of an alchemist entered, putting down a bag of supplies. He looked up and saw the party standing on the upper level, looking back. There was the briefest moment, then the alchemist shouted, "Guards! Guards! We have intruders!"

TO BE CONTINUED...