Thursday, May 29, 2014

Return to Ravenloft: Act Four, Session Three

When last we met our intrepid heroes, deep in the heart of a volcano, they had vanquished a contingent of duergar and their dragon lord Antül, long atrophied in the luxurious confines of a pit. The party had discovered the resting place of the primal spirit of the Firewalker; freeing the spirit from its confines, the players turned to return to the surface, only to see the volcanic dragon of Antül rise again from the lava and bellow forth a roar in challenge. What will happen next?

Our Cast
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.

We Now Return You To Your Scheduled Programming...

As Antül emerged from the lava, his atrophied wings now replaced with wings of magical flame, the Firewalker imparted some of its power into the heroes, restoring them to their full fighting capacity. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, however, the whole party turned and fled up the stairs they had used to descend to the level of the lava. Their exit was punctuated by another blast of flame from the dragon behind them, which then rumbled into a great quaking around them as the entire mountain seemed to tremble. Not wasting any more time, they turned and raced up the spiral staircase as quickly as they could muster.

Their ascent was interrupted, however: halfway to the top, it felt as though the entire pillar holding the fortress aloft was shaken by an impact, and the party had to quickly brace themselves in the staircase. The roaring of Antül in the cavern outside and the proximity of the impact told an easy tale to decipher: Antül was attempting to topple the fortress to stop the party from escaping.

Doubling their pace, the party made it up to the cavern with the pit where Antül had previously made his home. As they arrived, another shuddering impact shook the fortress and caused a noticeable tilt in the fortress' orientation. The exit was on the far side of the cavern but the entire room had tilted to one side, leaving a small incline to reach the door.

Rushing headlong across the room, another impact caused a larger tilt; Paelias used his magical abilities to teleport up to the ledge and turned to assist his companions. Jack, the most athletic of the bunch, rushed forward and made an epic leap to the doorway above, managing to catch on just barely and began to pull himself up. Gustav, on the other hand, took a running leap and came up short, causing him to use Jack for leverage and causing them both to fall.

Paelias noticed the concussive force was starting to tear the fortress of basalt apart as a large crack appeared in the wall behind him, so lowered the others some rope to accelerate the ascent.Gustav was able to make it up to the ledge just as another impact shook the fortress, then turned to urge Jack to hurry.

The large man first tried to hoist himself up while Paelias held the rope; Gustav had to act fast to stop the eladrin from toppling over the edge back into the cavern. Deciding Gustav might be the better candidate to brace the rope, Paelias handed the rope to him just as Jack took another pass at a jump; instead, Jack grabbed for the rope and pulled it through the hands of both of his companions, causing him to fall back down regardless.

Now at a severe deficiency of time, Jack urged his companions to leave him and allow him to find his own way up. Deciding against that, Paelias instead took Gustav's rope and froze it in place in one of the cracks behind them; the strength of the ice was plenty to hold Jack's weight and the man was able to pull himself up just as another impact shuddered through the fortress.

Rushing up the stairs, the party retraced their steps into the hallway above only to find that it had tilted almost entirely on it's side, causing them to run on what had been the wall. This also meant that the hallways running perpendicular to their exit route were now drops down into the rest of the fortress. Getting a running jump, Jack and Gustav easily cleared the first gap, only to watch Paelias fall short and fall into the pit, sliding down the incline into a set of double-doors below.

Jack lowered him the rope yet again: the eladrin was able to climb halfway out of the pit before another impact from Antül knocked them all off-balance and caused Paelias to swing out wide from the wall. Crashing down onto another door, the wizard found himself in sleeping quarters with a door on the other side of the room. Urging his companions on, the eladrin picked his way across and opened the door, revealing another hallway/pit that connected to the exit route above.

Using a magic missile to blow open a door across the hallway/pit, Paelias leaped into an office on one of the exterior walls. Inside, the exterior wall had a large chunk missing, revealing the cavern outside. The perspective had changed but Paelias found his bearings easily enough, but was instantly disturbed by the revelation that the stone bridges used to connect the fortress to the exterior of the cavern (and thereby the exits) were completely destroyed.

Heading back to the hallway/pit, Jack lowered another rope to Paelias and hoisted the eladrin up. The three companions, fully reunited, continued up to the main level of the fortress. Upon arriving, another impact from Antül dislodged large chunks of basalt above their heads and tilted the fortress so it was fully on it's side.

The hallway/pits were now straight drops down dozens of feet, posing an even more serious danger now. The party continued on their path down the hallway ahead, clearing the pits underfoot with ease, but realized the main exit was no longer viable -- for one, it would now be halfway up the exterior wall in the open courtyard; for another, with the bridges destroyed, there would be no use going to that door anyway. Deciding to follow their current heading, the party started up the staircase that would lead them to the interior parapets of the fortress, figuring it was their best bet to get on top of the fortress and get their bearings.

Throughout this entire sequence, Gustav had ever been the voice of dismay. "We're totally going to die!" he would comment often, leaping over 50+ foot drops and inching through the fortress. Jack merely gritted his teeth and soldiered on, while Paelias -- old as he is -- did his best to keep up.

Antül, born again from the heart of a volcano!
Climbing up onto the side of the fortress (which was now the top) through a huge hole in the design of the fortress, the party observed Antül raging about before dive-bombing towards the party. Veering off at the last minute, the dragon instead collided with the fortress under their feet and caused a complete collapse of the basalt building. The party all deftly managed to find basalt stones to cling to (Jack very nearly simply falling to his demise) as they plummeted down through the ruin of the fortress below. Crashing through the courtyard and into what had been the Great Hall, the party fell down towards the lava below, all three of them offering prayers to their deities as they fell to what they believed would be their demise.

Instead, the basalt -- still imbued with the heat resistant magicks they had detected before -- kept them afloat as they reached the lake of lava. Managing to gather their wits, the party stood to just as Antül came swooping towards them. Letting loose a torrent of flame from his belly, the Firewalker stepped forth and diverted the fire away from the party and down into the lava itself.

That seemed to be the final spark the volcano needed; with a growing rumble, the party suddenly felt an uptick in pressure and heat and watched as the lava around them started to surge upwards. Suddenly, they realized their situation:

The volcano was erupting with them still inside.

Seeing no other recourse, the party turned to deal with Antül. The party was forced to leap from stone to stone of the crumbling fortress above them to maneuver about the battlefield. The basalt, even with the magicks on the stone, only lasted a few extra seconds before melting and joining the molten rock below; as such, the party was forced to continually navigate about the battlefield in an effort to not fall into the lava below.

While Jack ran forward to engage the dragon head-on, Gustav and Paelias maintained their distance to utilize their ranged abilities. While Gustav was relegated to using his crossbow, firing bolt after bolt at the fiery lizard, Paelias brought all of his arcane might to bear in rather ingenious ways: starting off with a Ray of Frost cast deftly into the lava at the feet of Antül, he instantly created a patch of steam that forced the dragon to start the encounter blinded as the cloud raised into his eyes.

Following that up with a Freezing Cloud, it became very evident that Antül was susceptible to damage from cold attacks. While Paelias did his best to maintain that type of damage, Jack was doing his best to keep the dragon distracted while maintaining some semblance of cohesion with the rest of the party. He traded blows with Antül, always trying to stay out of the range of the noxious fumes still emanating from the creature, and mostly served as a distraction for the dragon. One such blow, however, connected so solidly as Jack Led the Attack that the others could do nothing but feel encouraged to match the ferocity of Jack's attack and struck with even more fury.

A Balrog isn't a dragon, but I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that
this analogy was made during the session. Go Paelias!
Paelias, having another brilliant idea, targeted his Icy Rays spell towards the fiery wings keeping Antül aloft, hoping to freeze them at the source and force the dragon out of the air. One of the rays missed it's target but the other hit with solid force and instantly extinguished the fiery wing. The dragon's weight was too much to carry on a single wing, made of magical fire or not, and Antül descended until he was half-submerged in the now rushing lava. The volcanic dragon, used to this environment, seemed immune to any effect from the lava, but that blast was enough to draw his attention away from Jack and towards the others in the party.

Always moving, Gustav soon dropped his crossbow in favour of drawing his scimitars and striking out at he now swimming dragon. Having severely reduced Antül's mobility (in no small part thanks to the constant barrage of Ray of Frost spells Paelias was throwing at him), the ranger was able to deftly step in and out of range and slice at the dragon's hide, causing bleeding wounds and slicing at delicate tendons in the legs.

All the while, the lava rushed higher and higher, accelerating the party up through the remains of the fortress and closer to exit passages. The party originally thought they might be able to maneuver themselves to leap into one of these passages and make their way to the surface again but a quick consideration of the situation (this time paying close attention to the rate at which the lava was accelerating upwards) caused them to rethink their plan. Instead, they decided they would have to ride out the eruption, come what may!

When the noxious fumes Antül was emanating started to grow in radius, Paelias used his Dispel Magic ability to cause them to return to their normal disgusting range, then continued to pepper the dragon with his Ray of Frost ability. Gustav switched back and forth between his crossbow and scimitars, striking out time after time to finish off the great best. Jack, having maintained his human form for the majority of the battle (mostly in an attempt to help better the attacks of his allies) turned into his werewolf form and began to savagely attack Antül with everything they had left. They were running out of time and stamina: the top of the volcano was already cracking under the pressure but they were fast approaching it, riding the basalt ever upward.

Finally, Paelias summoned Bigby's Icy Grasp and used the hand of ice to attempt to strangle Antül. The fiery beast, on the verge of defeat, began to freeze from the neck up as the hand crushed down on it's throat; moments later, when he collided with the top of the volcano, his head shattered into millions of pieces as the ceiling burst forth into the open air above.

Searching Google for "Fighting a Dragon" is pretty awesome.
Relieved though they were that they had finally vanquished the beast, the party had no time to collect themselves: instead, each of them clung to the piece of basalt they were riding and rode the stone like sleds as they cascaded down the mountain. The three of them encountered various obstacles and debris on the way down but were able to avoid any further serious harm.

Coming to a stop somewhat near each other at the bottom of the mountain, the party regrouped and looked up to watch the eruption continue; molten rock was cascading down the mountainside and black brimstone and ash was shooting into the sky above, causing the valley to fall even darker than before. Deciding to leave, the party turned to do so -- but not before Gustav could feel the Firewalker step forward and take control of his body.

The primal spirit of fire turned and used his powers to instantly harden the lava cascading towards the party and reversed the spout of the ash cloud, stopping the eruption dead and sealing the mountain back up. Turning to regard the party once more, the spirit relinquished control of Gustav's body before speaking to all of the party:

"I have ceased the eruption and saved the valley from further disaster, but Strahd will surely know of your presence here and my newfound freedom. We must depart, and quickly, if we are to avoid his gaze."

It was evident the Firewalker had exhausted himself with that show of power but the party had no time to rest yet. They turned tail and fled back towards Gustav's cave hideout, avoiding Strahd's forces on the way. They then took some time to wash up and rest before setting off to find the next spirit.

And There You Have It!

This session was probably the best combat I've ever run and definitely ranks as one of the most enjoyable sessions I've ever had. There was very little roleplaying (besides some small inter-party stuff) but the skill challenges to get out of the toppling fortress were excellent and intense, and the actual combat while riding the volcanic eruption was exceptionally fun. Never before had any of us had a combat encounter in the heart of an erupting volcano -- it was classic medieval fantasy at it's greatest! Afterwards, all three of the guys at the table said that they enjoyed it immensely and most agreed that it was one of the best sessions we've had thus far -- to have that sort of reaction at the table definitely makes me feel good! I just hope I can maintain that result!

I had to write up some custom rules on how to have a combat amidst a volcanic eruption, including rules on how to transfer from stone to stone, that I think came across very well. I also designed rules for the finale scene where the party was riding the stones down the side of the mountain, which I feel were also pretty solid. (I can share these, if anyone would like: I have them in a Google Doc!) Admittedly, the finale was a bit rushed; after having defeated the dragon, it was already fairly late in the evening so I skipped some of the stuff. But it was originally meant to be an additional part of the encounter!

As it was originally written: Antül, near death, would survive the eruption of the volcano and would pursue the party down the mountainside. The characters would be forced to engage him at range (or somehow get close enough to strike at him) while they slid down the mountain on their stones, and then the environment would act against them on a separate turn in the initiative order (as with the environment in the volcano). But the party was able to dispatch Antül before the eruption actually happened so some of the extra stuff was cut. However, that brings me to my next point...

In stark contrast to the previous session, the party managed to rack up somewhere close to a dozen critical hits in this fight alone. I admit, it was a long combat which meant lots of dice being rolled -- and probability dictates that rolling a natural 20 would be bound to happen from time to time -- but it was absolutely amazing how much damage the party was dealing! And the ingenious attacks from everyone (especially Paelias, effectively clipping the mobility of the dragon by freezing his wing) really made this an epic and cinematic fight.

So yes: all in all, an excellent session! Next time, the party has to choose between venturing to the resting place of either the Cloudsleeper (atop a mountain) or the Deepdrinker (at the bottom of the lake). I believe the party has solved a riddle to find the Deepdrinker, so they may head there first, but we shall see next time!

As always, thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the next session report!

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