Friday, May 16, 2014

Return to Ravenloft: Act Four, Session One

And now here we are, back up-to-date with the Return to Ravenloft campaign. If you haven't been reading the previous updates -- and considering the length of all of them, I can't blame you -- let me break it down for you real quick:

In Act One, our original party consisted of five party members: Elarial, Murwen, Marcus, Redemption and Paelias. They all arrived in a small coastal called Holmont Cove, drawn there by the call of adventure and glory and wealth, and quickly discovered the town was being attacked by a vast horde of goblins. The adventurers discovered a conspiracy involving a warehouse full of corpses, an ancient ruin full of undead goblins and an amulet that bestows life after death. Discovering that the burgomaster and his assistant were behind the conspiracy, the party were forced into a conflict with the minions of the burgomaster. The assistant, a powerful sorceress, was defeated -- but Brother Marcus Kotar sacrificed himself to save the town from being destroyed by countless undead. Disheartened by the loss of their leader, Murwen and Elarial turned to other quests while Redemption and Paelias set off after the burgomaster to bring him to justice. The only lead they had was a letter addressed to the burgomaster from a man named "Count Strahd von Zarovich".

In Act Two, the party started as just Redemption and Paelias. A dwarven paladin named Hrothgar arrived in Holmont Cove and led them into the lost kingdom of Barovia to the northeast, far from other civilized lands, in an effort to find the burgomaster. Along the way, the party met Drodis, a man who had escaped captivity at the hands of the goblins. Upon arriving in Barovia proper, the party found a thriving village that turned out to be nothing more than an illusion. The adventurers had been dragged into a dream realm, a fact they were brought to understand by Gustav, a Vistani native to the valley of Barovia, who helped them escape the dream. Having defeated a powerful creature called the Nightmare Eater in order to escape, the party licked their wounds (and the apparent loss of Hrothgar) and decided what to do next.

In Act Three, the party consisted of mostly just Redemption, Paelias and Gustav. The three sought out Madame Eva, a soothsayer of the valley and the old leader of the Vistani, and asked for guidance. It turned out that Madame Eva had become a traitor and now worked for a vampire lord named Strahd, master of the valley. The adventurers were forced to fight Eva, managing to escape and watch as the hag was killed by Strahd himself for her lack of competence. The party were then approached by a werewolf sent as an envoy from a primal spirit known as the Greenspeaker; upon speaking with the Greenspeaker, the party discovered that Strahd had ultimate control over the valley thanks to his having bound other primal spirits to his will. In order to defeat him, they would be forced to find artifacts to use in an effort to free the primal spirits. The adventurers recovered the artifacts but were then forced to defend the Greenspeaker and his werewolf troops from a vast army of undead. The melee was successful and the werewolves were able to escape but the finale saw Redemption revealed as the same shapeshifter who impersonated the burgomaster in Holmont Cove. Redemption was replaced in the party by a powerful werewolf named Jack, one of the members of another adventuring party who had tried to vanquish Strahd once before but failed. The Greenspeaker sent the party out to free the primal spirits, Jack leading the way.


Which brings us to the last session we had. For posterity, here is the cast as of the current date:
Jack Vitous (Werewolf Warlord) - Played by Nick R.
Paelias, The Seer (Eladrin Wizard) - Played by Dallas
Gustav, Vistani Explorer (Human Ranger) - Played by David
All characters are Level 6 to start Act Four.

And Now!

Jack, Paelias and Gustav returned to the cave under the waterfall to rest and collect their thoughts. The reveal of Redemption's false identity was staggering to Paelias, who had known the tiefling for some decades, and especially for Gustav who realized he had never met the true Redemption.

It's not a perfect representation, but it's pretty damn awesome.
Jack explained that the Greenspeaker had imparted knowledge to the werewolf of where the other primal spirits were bound. The Firewalker, the Cloudsleeper and the Deepdrinker were all bound to places of power throughout the vast valley of Barovia but, if the group was smart and fast, they should be able to free them before Strahd could act against them.

The Firewalker was bound deep beneath a mountain to the northwest, in a fortress long abandoned by the dwarves who constructed it. The Cloudsleeper was bound high on a mountain to the east, in a great spire that once belonged to a mage who served the von Zarovich court. The Deepdrinker was bound deep under the water, at the bottom of the Tser Lake in the center of Barovia, and the only clue on how to reach it was: "Look to the heart".

Considering their options, the party decided to first seek out the Firewalker, hoping that the primal spirit of fire may be able to aid them on their quest to recover the other spirits. Gustav, knowing the valley a bit better than the others, led them to the northwest, travelling mostly cross-country to avoid conflict. The party decided to bypass the ominous Lysaga Hill, the site of many past battles and rituals, and headed further to the northwest.

Upon arriving in the mountains, Jack and Paelias took the lead, searching for signs of civilization, or at least hints they were on the right path. Paelias, reaching into the ether, detected that one mountain in particular was giving off a slight magical aura, one that read primarily as fire in nature. Jack managed to find a number of cave mouths in the side of the one of the nearby mountains but one in particular drew the attention of the party.

Upon further examination, the party discovered that the cave mouth was not natural; it was, in fact, expert craftsmanship chiseled to resemble a natural rock formation. Paelias, his father having taught him in the way of architecture and dungeoneering, was easily able to identify the craftsmanship as dwarven -- thus, the party believed they had found their entrance into the mountain.

Entering the cave, the party traveled for some distance before the cave began to slope downward. After a few hundred feet, the cave started to lose the natural qualities of a cave and gradually came to resemble a staircase leading down to the heart of the mountain. The walls were carved with intricate runes and murals, all depicting dwarves performing various tasks of repute, but none of the party were literate in the language of the dwarves and were thus unable to translate the runes. The party also found a noticeable increase in temperature the deeper they delved but pressed on unheeded.

Magma, magma everywhere!
About half of the way down the staircase, the entire staircase -- and what felt like the whole mountain -- seemed to quake under their feet. Gustav, having intricate knowledge of the valley, remembered that there were tales of a mountain in this particular range bursting forth with fire and brimstone -- relaying that to the party as a whole, the others took it in stride and decided to soldier on. A short distance later, a window carved in the side of the staircase revealed a grand sight:

A huge cavern opened up, some massive dimension of size, revealing a black fortress suspended atop a thin pillar of stone that rose out of a lake of magma. The fortress was massive but the pillar holding it aloft seemed very slender at it's base and widened as it raised up. Four slender rock bridges stretched to the fortress from the sides of the cavern, each thin and open to the elements. Gustav quipped that they must have found the place, and Jack urged them on. The party descended further, encountering even greater heat, and found themselves in a guard post of sorts. Paelias utilized some of his magic to conjure ice to cool down his companions, casting a Ray of Frost into the air above them and allowing the moisture to fall around them.

Further into the guard post, the party encountered two dark-skinned dwarves playing a game of tiles. When the party attempted to greet and reason with the dwarves, they were met with crossbow bolts and a hammer to the gut for Jack. The party retaliated, making short work of the dwarves -- even managing to stop one of the dwarves from raising the alarm, thanks in great part to Paelias' magic and the reveal of Jack's transformative abilities as a werewolf.

Through the next door, the party found themselves faced with a long run across the unsheltered stone bridge that would lead them to the black fortress. The heat across the bridge was near unbearable but, with some more help from Paelias' spells, the party was able to make it across -- though not before being spotted by a sentry at the gate. The party was forced to ram the door off it's hinges in order to enter the fortress. They quickly dispatched the sentry inside and were able to hold the alarm from being raised yet again.

Taking a moment to collect themselves, they observed their surroundings: the massive black fortress appeared to be made of some sort of glass-like stone that resembled perhaps obsidian or basalt. Stranger, however, was that the interior of the fortress was very cool -- almost to the point that the breath of our adventurers generated steam in the air. The walls were icy cold, almost painful to the touch; Paelias detected great magic coming from the walls, something that registered as fire in nature. Regardless, the party was happy to be out of the heat.

The fortress appeared to be entirely enclosed on itself; where other castles would have courtyards that are open to the sky, this one had a roof of that same basalt material. Various torches and braziers lit their surroundings, though it was far more dim inside than the light the magma offered in the cavern. Having Paelias perform a ritual to repair the broken door, Jack and Gustav kept watch and explored the courtyard.

Peering into a large set of double-doors, Jack and Gustav discovered what appeared to be a ritual taking place. A single dwarven cleric appeared to be leading a number of others in a chant of some kind, worshipping at a statue of a strange, almost formless deity. Deciding not to disturb the ritual, the party set off down a side passage and discovered a set of stairs heading down. Trying to maintain a sense of stealth, the party was able to ambush a single dwarf before descending.

On the second level, the party was forced into a larger conflict when they tried to ambush a group of four of the dwarves. While Gustav and Paelias dispatched three of the four (despite a formidable display of fire magicks at the hand of the dwarves), Jack was unable to catch up to the fourth who managed to alert a larger number of dwarves to the intruders. Barring the door behind them, the party took off and rapidly descended down to the next level, now racing against the coming threat of the evil dwarves.

Probably something like this...
The next level was dark, with no lights anywhere to illuminate the path. The exterior walls seemed to taper in, narrowing as the party descended the interior of the central pillar, and it appeared as if there were no constructed walls to define rooms on this floor. Instead, a great rumbling came from deeper within the chamber and two great fiery eyes appeared in the darkness. Jack laid a hand on Gustav's shoulder and offered a meek, "Don't be scared" before...


This session was a return to the classics for me: while almost the entirety of Act Four is a fabrication of my own making (meaning it's only barely based on the original source material and is mostly my own creations), this session in particular was a classic dungeon crawl which is something that hearkens back to some of my first days playing D&D.

The Firewalker fortress started as a pretty solid concept but actually morphed a bit as we played. For instance, I hadn't taken into account the heat of the interior of a volcano; if it was so hot outside the fortress, wouldn't the interior be as warm -- if not hotter? Stone isn't exactly the best insulator against heat; if anything, the interior of the fortress would be boiling like an oven. A quick retcon added some cool flavour and even had the party considering the ramifications out loud.

"So the magic reads as fire?"
"So... Is it so hot that it feels cold? But that's why it kind of hurts?"
"Wow... Maybe!"

This was also the first time that we saw our new werewolf character in action. I'll talk about the full breakdown of how I decided to design a werewolf character in D&D4E but it came across pretty well in a gameplay situation. I'm concerned that Jack may seem a bit more overpowered compared to the other characters but everyone seems to be holding their own at the moment, which is great.

Even though the werewolf has a bit more mobility and utility in a straight-up melee, Gustav is still consistently putting out more damage and Paelias has much longer range. All in all, I think a werewolf taking the class of Warlord gives us a decent Leader/Defender character with some bits of Controller thrown in there. It's a good mix of a lot of different roles, which really helps given the already reduced size of the party!

The ending of this session was also completely improvised. We were running a bit low on time and I needed to come up with a succinct way to end it while still leaving everyone satisfied so, instead of the planned (mostly normal) third level of the fortress, I presented them with a cliffhanger facing down an ominous enemy in the dark while an army approached them from behind. It gave a pretty excellent cliffhanger, I think, and will start us off with a bang next time.

So yeah, that's the first session of Act Four! I'm excited to continue playing next Monday and to keep the adventure going! I was eager to get going again because I expect Act Four to be the craziest thus far -- perhaps even more-so than the finale. But we shall see!

Stay tuned for the next session. Until then, dear readers!

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