Wednesday, March 15, 2017

"The City of Spiders" - Out of the Abyss, Chapter 44


Thora Nabal respectfully approached Ser Valerius Adeques with a problem.

"Boss, we have a problem," she ventured.

"Is it Tamryn?" the paladin replied.

"Yes."

"What is it this time?"

"She's being obnoxious!" exclaimed the exasperated Thora, "Everything reminds her of that assassin with the hare lip. She keeps looking at things and just... sighing! She'll sit there and just repeat his name over and over again! But that's not the main problem. Apparently everything she sees or hears reminds her of his genitals! She saw a broken stalagmite yesterday and called out his name! I mean, it was annoying when he was still alive and pining over him. But now he's dead and she's practically WAILING!"

"Okay. I'll speak with her. But I'm not sure what I..."

"No, sir. I'm sorry. That's not what I wanted to talk to you about. You see, sir, lately Tamryn has been taking double rations at every meal."

"Oh, that's not acceptable."

"No, sir, that's not- I mean to say, that is, what I'm trying to tell you, sir, is that, um, well, she's ah, she's apparently eating for two!"

OUT OF THE ABYSS, CHAPTER 44
"THE CITY OF SPIDERS"

Five heroes scour the Underdark
in order to find the ingredients
of an arcane ritual
that will banish the Demon-Lords
back to the Abyss
from which they escaped.

Having finally acquired all the ingredients.
Now they must deliver them to the drow wizard
Vizeran DeVir who must prepare
a talisman known as the Dark Heart...

THE LEADERS OF THE EXPEDITION
Ser Valerius Adeques - (PC, human paladin 11, male) Defender and champion of the old gods of nature, commander of the forces from the Order of the Gauntlet.
Ront - (PC, half-orc barbarian 11, male) Savage orc of the Iron-Thews tribe seeking redemption for his failures.
Pain Grille' - (PC, halfling rogue 11, male) Wily street urchin from Waterdeep, was turned to stone in Blingdenstone but got better, commander of the Lord's Alliance forces.
Cordon - (PC, human cleric 11, male) Morninglord, Holy Radiant of Lathandor the Sun God, on a holy quest to activate the Maze Engine.

THE SURVIVING MEMBERS OF THE EXPEDITION
Thora Nabal - (NPC, human veteran, Order of the Gauntlet)
Sylrien Havennor - (NPC, human veteran, Order of the Gauntlet)
Elias Drako - (NPC, human veteran, Order of the Gauntlet)
Tamryn Tharke - (NPC, human veteran, Order of the Gauntlet) Gravelly voiced amazon with the hots for Feral.
Olaf Renghyi - (NPC, human veteran, Order of the Gauntlet)
The Shield Guardian - (NPC, shield guardian) a contribution from Lord Zelraun Roaringhorn of the Harpers.
Phwee-toop - (NPC, owl) Willow's familiar.

NOT PRESENT THIS WEEK
Willow - (PC, human wizard 11, female) "the solution is always fireball!"



RETURN TO ARAJ
The expedition began their long trek from Araumycos to Araj, the tower of the archmage Vizeran DeVir. They had acquired all of the components necessary to construct the Dark Heart. Now they needed to return them to the archmage so that he could begin constructing the talisman.

The expedition was escorted to the edge of the lands of Araumycos by an army of myconid and animated zurkhwoods.

Their journey took them to Gracklstugh to repair Ser Valerius' armor. There they encountered an exorbitant toll to enter the city of the duergar. They paid for Ront, Pain, Cordon, and Ser Valerius but  told the others to stay outside with the pack lizards.

Gracklstugh seemed deserted. There was little commerce going on in the streets. The duergar seemed to be staying within the safety of their homes and compounds. Valerius found a blacksmith and arranged for the repair of his damaged armor. The armorer estimated six days. Valerius offered double the pay for three days. The blacksmith agreed.

Meanwhile, Ront was examining some weapons when he overheard several orcs talking. He turned and saw a group of three orcs speaking to each other but in an obviously disparaging way about himself.

He called them out and they repeated their insult that Ront smelled like a human. Ront demanded to challenge their leader for supremacy of the tribe. They called out their boss, Scridmak, outside.


Scridmak was the leader of the mercenary band of orcs currently in the employ of a duergar merchant. Scridmak was annoyed by the interruption and checked on the commotion. Scridmak was prepared to reply to Ront's challenge but a sharp rebuke by his employer, as well as the appearance of dozens of duergar city guard, stayed his hand. Scridmak was forced to back down and endure the taunts hurled at him by Ront as well as the disappointment of his soldiers.

Since they were going to be here a few days, Ser Valerius relented and agreed to let Ront pay for the rest of the expedition to enter the city gates and rest at the inn.

Later, the heroes considered their next moves over a mug of Darklake Stout at Ghrolborn's Lair. The dour serving wench exhaled a heavy sigh. Pain asked what was wrong. She said that with the current situation, there were few merchants in town and business was bad. Pain was curious and was about to ask for more information when Valerius grabbed his wrist.

"No! No more side quests! We're here for three days while my armor gets repaired. I don't care what's going on here! I hate this goddamned city! We're not going to leave this inn, got it? We're not going to talk to anyone, we're not going to get involved! When my armor gets fixed, we are leaving! Am I clear?"

Pain meekly nodded.

Three days passed. Valerius picked up his restored armor. The expedition chartered a lake boat to take them to Jewelshine-on-Darklake.

The voyage to the Svirfneblin outpost was unremarkable. There was a narrow passage with another boat coming the other way but that was resolved by the duergar crew. There was also an attack by cloakers but they were easily overcome.

The stay at Jewelshine was brief. The expedition continued on their way to Araj, bypassing a visit to Blingdenstone.

Ser Valerius, Ront, Pain, and Cordon left Willow with the rest of the expedition and the pack lizards as they navigated the narrow defile leading to Araj, the Tower of Vengeance. They entered the dark tower and proceeded to the top floor. There they met the drow wizard Vizeran DeVir.

DM Note - We joke around a lot about Vizeran and his decadent and exotic epicurean desires. So when they arrived in his audience chamber, they found it empty. Cordon used his magic seeing monocle to look around only to see the invisible Vizeran enjoying decadent carnal pleasures with the death slaad Kleeve. The interruption led to an awkward moment and ruined Vizeran's surprise finish.

They dropped off the accumulated ingredients. Vizeran explained that it would now take ten days to prepare the Dark Heart. In the meantime, the expedition was to travel to Menzoberranzan to retrieve the spell-book of Gromph Baenre, archmage of that city. The book was called Zhaun'ol'leal - "the Book of the Eight". It provided incantations necessary to perform the ritual and control the Dark Heart, plus other important notes.

Vizeran told the heroes that he had created a secret route to Menzoberranzan that would bypass patrols and other distractions. He assigned his apprentice, Grinn Ousstyl, to show them the way and act as guide in the subterranean city. He told them that he had allies within the city and that they should seek out the aid of the Council of Spiders, a group of male dissidents who seek equal representation on the all-female city council. They would help them.

MENZOBERRANZAN
The 72-mile journey from the tower of Araj to Menzoberranzan via the secret tunnel of Vizeran DeVir took six days. The tunnel was smooth and square with chambers and beds for long rests. Grinn remained laconic for the entirety of the journey.

Pain, noticing the drow's reticence, attempted to engage him in conversation. Something about Pain's genial grin and honest demeanor got through to the quiet drow. Grinn opened up to Pain.

DM Note- Pain's player asked, "What's the matter, Grin? Is  somthing wrong?"

Natural 20 on the Persuasion skill check.

I replied, "I'm glad you asked. Let me tell you..."

Valerian's player flailed his arms and interjected, "No no no! We don't care! Ah- Dammit!"

Grinn told Pain that he was once a student at the Academy in the Tower Sorcere. Ousstyl was a minor house but noble nonetheless. He was attracted to the Council of Spiders and joined their ranks. He became careless and his membership was discovered. For his crimes he was banished. This would be his first time back to Menzoberranzan. On the one hand he was happy to be returning home, even under covert pretenses. On the other, he was worried that he would be recognized and executed for violating the terms of his exile.

He then explained that he was specifically concerned about Vizeran's plan to summon the demon-lords to Menzoberranzan. He said that Vizeran had withheld some facts. The Dark Heart could be placed anywhere. Vizeran simply wished to destroy Menzoberranzan as an act of vengeful spite.Although he lived in exile, Menzoberranzan was still his home. He had no wish to see it destroyed.

Pain assured Grinn that they would find another location in which to summon the demon-lords. Menzoberranzan would be spared. Grinn was relieved but warned the others not to inform Vizeran of the change in plans. Vizeran would surely change his mind.

The expedition arrived soon afterwards, emerging from a secret door in the wall of a deep canyon known as Westrift. The bottom of the canyon was a dark carpet of spider-webs. Above was the ceiling of Menzoberranzan high above, illuminated in crimson light. Everyone donned drow cloaks called piwafwi to help blend in.


They climbed the canyon and emerged onto a rubble-strewn plain dotted by the ruined remains of once-great stalagmite homes. They started to make their way towards town when they were accosted by a drow patrol.

Grinn froze. He stammered and fought the urge to run away. Cordon grabbed the drow by the elbow to steady him. Pain stepped forward and answered in Undercommon, apologizing for the tresspass. Pain explained that they were slaves accompanying their master back to Tier Breche. He explained that his master's voice had been damaged in the demon attack and that Pain must now speak on his master's behalf. The patrol accepted the story, and moved on.

They moved through the residential district of West Wall and approached Tier Breche. There they saw the great wide stairs that led to the three towers that dominated all three aspects of drow life - devotion to Lloth, martial prowess, and dark sorcery. The top of the stairs were guarded by two giant statues of spider crafted of jade. Grinn explained that no non-drow could ascend the stairs. Though he had never seen it, the spiders defended the towers. Indeed, the spiders, it was said, could see all things, even invisible or ethereal intruders. Other spells prevented flight and teleportation.

A frontal approach was out of the question.

The party asked about slaves. Grinn admitted that he never really paid attention to slaves but he was sure there were some, perhaps serving below the towers. There had to be a slave entrance but Grinn had no idea where.

The party decided to find a way to sneak in as slaves. Grinn suggested they seek out the seedy part of town where many slaves could be found. Perhaps they could make contact with the black market and be smuggled in through the slave entrance.

"Great," said Pain, "Where's that?"

Grinn led them to Duthcloim, a drow word which, according to Grinn, meant "Manyfolk"

Duthcloim turned out to be a location for merchants, traders, inns, lodging for visitors, etc. It was not, as it happened, at all seedy.

Grinn took them to a pleasant establishment that served "tea" made from the "leaves" of something called a "bush" from the Overworld.

Pain held his face in his palm, "A tea house, Grinn?"

"Yes! Isn't it scandalous! They serve a bizarre concoction here made with Lemongrass. LEMON GRASS! I mean, what IS that? Is it a lemon? Is it grass? It's some kind of wizard's twisted chimera! It's like an OWLBEAR!"

"It's a tea house, Grinn! This is your idea of a seedy part of town? This neighborhood is NICE!"

Grinn admitted that because he was of a minor noble house, this was about as seedy as he got when he went slumming with the other young drow from the Academy. There were commoners here and everything!

THE PLOY

The heroes quickly decided on a Plan-B. Since they were in Duthcloim already, they sought out a stonemason.

They found one nearby. Pain asked the stonemason for a pedestal, pointing out that it needed to be delivered to Tower Sorcere, "No questions asked."

"No questions? Oh, is this connected to Council of Spiders?" inquired the mason, conspiratorally.

"Maybe?" replied Pain, hesitantly.

"Well perhaps we could arrange a delivery- no questions asked," added the mason.

Pain's eyes narrowed in guarded confusion, "Yes. We could. That's- what I said."

"Of course," continued the mason, with a long pause.

"Rrrrright," replied Pain.

There was a long awkward silence as the stonemason stared intently at Pain.

The stonemason reluctantly broke the silence and, in a voice of resigned disappointment, said, "Right, well, I supposed I have a nice pedestal made of onyx. It's just the thing. Let me go get that for you."

The stonemason left through an exit in the rear, no doubt to retrieve the pedestal from an adjoining storeroom. He was gone for several minutes. When he finally returned, he was accompanied by two svirfneblin slaves carrying the pedestal which was now wrapped for transport.

"Well, here it is," the mason paused once more, "Are we sure this is- all?"

Pain glanced sideways at the artisan, "I- think so?"

Ser Valerius, growing more and more impatient at the entire exchange, finally interrupted, "Oh for fuck's sake! He's asking for a bribe! Ront! Pay the man 100 gold!"

Ront produced a small pouch with 100 gold coins.

The stonemason picked up the pouch, "Oh, excellent! I'm um- I'm glad we finally came to an arrangement!" The stonemason looked nervously towards the rear exit of his shop.

The svirfneblin slaves looked towards the party for directions. Valerius instructed them to deliver the pedestal to the slave entrance of Tier Breche and that they would accompany them. The svirfneblin shrugged and trotted off.

The party exited the artisan's shop only to encounter a drow patrol.

"Stop! This shopkeeper informed us that you had business with the Council of Spiders! We have orders to take you directly to the Matron Mother for questioning. Come with us!"

THE MATRON MOTHER
The party was taken to the far side of the city and into an imposing castle surrounded by fortifications. They were escorted into an audience chamber and made to wait. They were warned to not speak and to only answer questions when directly addressed.

A herald announced the impending approach of Quenthel Baenre, the Matron Mother of Menzoberranzan. The Matron Mother appeared at the top of a staircase. She descended smoothly as if gliding. She was standing on a carpet of hundreds of large spiders that carried her. She never moved her feet.

The spiders delivered the Matron Mother to a high throne carved from smooth black marble.

Quenthel Baenre told them that they were detained because of their mention of the Council of Spiders. She recognized Grinn and reminded him of his exile. She asked Grinn why he had returned with these Overworlders. Grinn was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Pain and Cordon both sensed Grinn's anxiety but managed to keep him from blurting out everything he knew.

Instead, Pain asked for and received permission to speak on behalf of the group. Pain explained that the group had a plan to destroy the demon lords currently loose in the Underdark. In order to do this, they required a book that belonged to Gromph Baenre. The book was located in the Tower Sorcere. They were simply seeking access to the tower in order to retrieve the book.

The Matron Mother approved of the overall mission but told them they would never be able to approach Tower Sorcere by themselves.

Instead, she offered an exchange. She explained that Gromph Baenre was her brother and that he had gone missing soon after the appearance of Demogorgon in Menzoberranzan. She believed that he had been captured by the Council of Spiders, which is why she brought them here today.

She wished to leverage Grinn's former connection to the Council of Spiders. She commanded them to find out what the Council did with her brother and return that information to her.

In exchange, they could travel freely through Menzoberranzan. In addition, she offered an end to Grinn's exile and she would even grant them access to the Tower Sorcere. The interior of the tower was beyond the reach of her authority. Once they were inside, it was up to them.

"If, the next time I see you, you are not able to tell me where I can find my brother, I will have you all executed as spies! Am I understood?"

They agreed.

DM Note- Our group has a thing they call "the Quest Cart". It's a metaphorical cart where they throw all their quests and objectives. Sometimes, during the course of this campaign, the Quest Cart can fill up as new quests get piled on. 

Valerius' player, in his continuing effort to keep things simple as we head into the endgame of this campaign, ordered that the Quest Cart be covered with a heavy tarp. 

When they were first led to the Matron Mother, Valerius' player asked, "Alright, who lifted the tarp off the quest cart? There's a corner exposed!"

Later, after their audience, Valerius' player said, "Dammit! The entire tarp is gone! Did it just blow completely away?"

Pain's player said, "No, look! Ront's wearing the tarp like a superhero cape!"

Ront's player mimed a heroic pose.

"Dammit, Ront!"

BREGAN D'AERTHE
Grinn led them to a safe house he used to frequent when he was affiliated with the Council of Spiders. The safe house was decorated like a hangout for bohemian radicals. It was well stocked with comfortable seating, books and scrolls of forbidden philosophies, games to pass the time, and exotic mind-altering beverages. Grinn made contact with a former friend of his and requested to meet with the Council of Spiders. They were told to wait there.

Eventually, a drow warrior came and asked the party to follow him. The messenger  led them to the moldering ruins of House Dro'Urden. They were led into a large hollow stalagmite and into a dark parlor. There they met a dashing drow with a wide-brimmed hat and an eye-patch. He introduced himself as Jarlaxle, leader of the Bregan D'Aaerthe mercenary company.

"We want to speak with the Council of Spiders," said Valerius.

"Yes, well, I am not they," replied Jarlaxle, "But they ARE clients of mine and they have asked me to represent them. I understand that you are trying to infiltrate the Tower Sorcere. Why is that?"

Grinn couldn't take it anymore. Cordon tried to step on Grinn's foot but he was too late to stop the drow from blurting out, "We need to speak with the Council of Spiders! I have to find out what they've done with Gromph Baenre! OUCH!"

Pain and Valerius hid their faces in their palms and sighed.

Jarlaxle was taken aback, "My brother? What does he have to do with this?"

Since the cat was out of the bag, Pain spelled it out plainly, explaining that they were working with Vizeran DeVir on a plan to banish the demon-lords to the Abyss and that the Matron Mother had tasked them with finding where the Council of Spiders had hidden Gromph.

Jarlaxle chuckled, "Vizeran? I thought that old jackal was dead! I would not trust him if I were you. In any case, I could not tell you where Gromph is currently located. It's a mystery! As for the demon-lords, I can tell you, they have already reached the surface. Even now, they ravage the countryside and gather their demonic armies. It is only a matter of time before they assault the cities and reclaim all of Faerun. I enjoy the surface. I have no desire to see it ruined so. That is why I wish to assist you."

Jarlaxle said that the Council of Spiders would provide them with spell scrolls that would allow them to pass invisibly between the jade spider guardians for they could not sense the presence of invisible intruders within a sixty-foot span directly between them. In addition, they would be told a secret password that would allow them to enter into the tower without activating the magical wards that protect it.

All they had to do was find a hand mirror located somewhere in Gromph's chambers. The mirror would be covered by a cloth. It was imperative they not look into the mirror.

"Will you do this?"

The party agreed to return to Jarlaxle the crystal he described.

DM Note- and another quest was added to the Quest Cart.

TO BE CONTINUED...


DM Notes-

This was a fun week. No fights, all role-playing. Lots of improvisation.

Grinn just kind of worked out to be someone who crumpled easily under the slightest pressure, which made him terrible at keeping secrets. His backstory seems to support that. It also allowed me to redirect all the role-playing to the players. There's nothing I hate more as a DM than having two NPCs interact with each other. NPCs should interact with players only.

I really improvised a lot of the Menzoberranzan political machinations on the spot. In the original book, once the factions know what you are doing, they just decide to help you. That's it. I wanted to make it deeper, more layered. I wanted the factions to be scheming against each other and I wanted the PCs to get caught up in that - or not as they saw fit.

So I added the quest that the Matron Mother is looking for her brother. She believes that her brother was secretly a member of the Council of Spiders and that the summoning of Demogorgon was part of a plot to destabilize the matriarchy. She wishes to interrogate her brother and arrest his co-conspirators and eliminate the Council of Spiders once and for all. 

I also added Jarlaxle's quest for SPOILER reasons. 

We're heading into the end-game. I want the finale to be a full-session battle royale. This means I'm going to pad out the Menzoberranzan schemes for another full session before that. So we're probably looking at two sessions left in this campaign.