Thursday, May 15, 2014

Return to Ravenloft: Act Three Synopsis

It has been long delayed but here it is, the synopsis for Act Three of the Return to Ravenloft campaign. I ended up delaying this post because we had to postpone our weekly session for three consecutive weeks. We finally reconvened this past Tuesday and managed to reach the critical climax of Act Three, which also serves as one of the highest peaks in the entire story arc involving a devious secret being revealed that will change the dynamic of the party forever. Read on to discover what transpired!

The Players Return

While Act Two saw a number of players leave and become replaced with an assortment of other characters, only three remained consistent in attendance and have now formed the core party.
Redemption of Gazeroth, Retired Officer (Tiefling Warlord) - Played by Nick R.
Paelias, The Seer (Eladrin Wizard) - Played by Dallas
Gustav, Vistani Explorer (Human Ranger) - Played by David
I can't remember exactly at the moment but I believe all three characters were Level 5 to start Act Three.

The Play's the Thing

When we last left our intrepid heroes, they had just dispatched the Nightmare Eater, escaped the dream realm and had departed to a hiding place (Varikov's Cave, for those familiar with the Expedition sourcebook) that Gustav had used these many years to stay out of the sight of Strahd and the other denizens of the valley. Taking some time to collect themselves, Gustav introduced himself and gave the party a bit of history about what had transpired in the valley of Barovia over the past decades.

A small party of adventurers arrived in the valley some time ago -- they arrived as a group of five, led by a crazed cleric of Pelor, and immediately set out to destroy Strahd and free the citizenry here. Their quest led them hither and yon across Barovia but their numbers slowly dwindled as the horrors of the valley picked them off one by one. Eventually, the remaining adventurers drew Strahd out of his castle into the town of Barovia itself in an effort to defeat him for good. Unfortunately, all three of the adventurers fell in the fight -- or so Gustav believed -- and the valley once again fell into darkness.

After the adventurers were vanquished, Strahd launched a vengeful crusade across the valley, letting his wrath reach all the inhabitants who aided the adventurers. The Vistani, Gustav's people, were wiped from existence, with only scattered survivors such as Gustav and their leader, Madame Eva, managing to escape Strahd's wrath. When the dust settled, the valley was once again entirely under the control of Strahd, and the darkness truly settled into the corners.

After having that brief history lesson, the current part was not sure how best to continue. Now that they had truly achieved entrance into the valley, the party decided to seek out Madame Eva, the ancient leader of the Vistani, and ask for guidance. Leaving Drodis behind in the cave, the party set off to find the soothsayer.

The hag herself.
Seeking Eva out, she welcomed them into her home which resulted in a very tense exchange. Slowly, the conversation turned sour and the party realized that Madame Eva had sacrificed all of the Vistani in order to save herself. Now an agent, however unwilling, Madame Eva was merely delaying the party so Strahd and his forces could arrive to deal with them.

A melee broke out inside the cabin as Madame Eva revealed her true hag form but the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind spoke to Gustav, telling him that a great undead power was approaching. With a sudden time limit enforced, the party was able to escape just as Strahd himself appeared on the hilltop of the cabin, and Gustav prayed to the Holy Symbol to shield them from Strahd's detection.

The party watched as Strahd and Eva had a heated exchange about something before -- with a flash -- Strahd beheaded the hag with a wicked looking sword. The vampire moved with lightning speed, so fast the party nearly missed the action completely. Luckily, the Holy Symbol's shroud appeared to protect them from Strahd's gaze and the vampire lord burst into a colony of bats and took to the skies once again.

Shortly after this, as Gustav, Redemption and Paelias collected themselves, they were approached by a being that could only be a werewolf. Transforming before their eyes, the beast turned into an elf who beckoned them to quickly follow him back to his camp. Seeing no other viable alternative that wouldn't immediately spell disaster for the companions, they agreed and made great haste through the woods.

The camp they were brought to was almost exclusively inhabited by werewolves. The arrival of the party was met with great attention from the werewolves but the scout brought the companions to the rear of the camp and into a great cave. They were met by two werewolves -- two of the leaders, Dmitri and Jack -- as well as by a dryad who announced herself as Valicia. Jack seemed unimpressed with the party and stormed out of the cave as soon as they arrived.

Originally Valicia was supposed to be a crazy
water nymph and the werewolves were an evil pack
under the control of Strahd. I... re-envisioned them to fit
my story a bit better. Dryads for the win.
Valicia announced herself as the herald of the Greenspeaker, a primal spirit who appeared to be bound to a great stone pillar. The spirit spoke to the party and explained the plight of the valley in full: Strahd had bound the primal spirits of the land to his will, leaving the vampire lord with ultimate control over all aspects of the valley. The Greenspeaker had been freed by the previous adventuring party that had arrived in the valley those decades ago and had been leading the werewolves in a rebellion against the Count ever since.

It was also revealed that Jack, the unimpressed werewolf leader, was one of that original party.

The Greenspeaker told the party that, for the time being, Strahd was powerful to the point of being untouchable. The only way to truly vanquish him would be to travel to the places of power where the other primal spirits were bound and find a way to break Strahd's control. But doing so would not be easy and the party would need great artifacts on their side in order to exert their will on these places of power.

Gustav revealed that the party had already retrieved the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, to which the Greenspeaker was greatly pleased. The other artifacts -- the Sunsword and the Tome of Strahd -- were still out in the world but, to find them, they would have to speak to Jack as his old companions were the last individuals to bear the artifacts.

Jack revealed that Marvin, a powerful cleric, and wielded the Sunsword, while Usopp, a gnome illusionist, was the bearer of the Tome. Last he had seen Marvin, the cleric had fallen to his demise in the well of Barovia. Usopp, on the other hand, had turned coat and joined forces with Strahd. The gnome kept his own quarters in one of the mountain ranges nearby; Jack urged the party to find the wizard and kill him. "Don't trust anything he says; just kill the traitor and come back. If you can."

Nasty-looking suckers, aren't they.
Valicia blessed some of the items the party carried, imbuing them with the power of the Greenspeaker, and
they took off into the wilderness to find the artifacts. They delved deeply into the well inside Barovia and found the remains of a skeletal figure, crushed under a rockfall, the Sunsword still in the bony grasp. They recovered the sword and set to return to the surface but were forced to defeat a small colony of rock-like insects. Redemption was forced to use the Sunsword -- a sentient artifact that spoke to Redemption, similar to the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind -- to crush the queen under another rockfall and the group was able to escape.

Journeying into the mountains, the group eventually found the quarters of Usopp and, though they approached quietly, they were discovered by the wizard and invited into his humble abode. Inside, the party tried to negotiate with Usopp for the Tome of Strahd. The wizard was powerful -- he first conversed with the party while invisible, then was able to showcase his magical prowess by showing off magically-powered vignettes of Usopp's greatest victories. He constantly changed the layout of his home, leaving the party somewhat confused as to it's true layout.

An important note was that Usopp revealed that he and Paelias had corresponded in the past -- Paelias belonged to a council of wizards and intellects who all communicated via pen names. Usopp had been known as the Illusionist, while Paelias was known as the Seer. Usopp also revealed that he had killed the man known as the Scholar at the behest of Strahd, because the Scholar was about to draw too much attention to Barovia. Paelias was understandably furious at this knowledge and wanted nothing more to do with Usopp.

What better representation of an illusionist's home than Escher?
Through their conversations, Redemption realized that Usopp was unhappy with his current arrangement with Strahd and tried to play on that. Usopp agreed to give them the artifact they sought if the party agreed to complete a single favour for him at some point in the future. Paelias balked at that prospect and Usopp offered for the party to stay the night as his guests as they mulled it over.

The next morning, Usopp approached Paelias singularly and asked to have a word with him privately. The two wizards retired to Usopp's library where the gnome tried to reason with Paelias. Paelias was able to get Usopp reveal that the favour they required was to retrieve an item that Strahd had stolen from him; if they could return that to Usopp, the gnome would gladly help the party in order to get out of Strahd's control.

Redemption and Gustav, who had been caught in an illusion, were brought forward. Paelias explained the situation to them, they all agreed to Usopp's terms, and left the illusionist's home with a page from the Tome of Strahd -- the one important piece that would give the party the knowledge they needed to defeat the count.

That's a lot of zombies.
Returning to the werewolf camp, the party noticed smoke on the horizon. Approaching the town of Barovia, the companions noticed that a large group of figures were burning the husk of the town to the ground, razing it completely from the map. Redoubling their efforts to return to camp, they arrived just in time to hear word that a great legion of undead were being driven into the woods heading directly towards the camp.

The Greenspeaker asked for the aid of the party; without their help, the spirit feared that the undead would overwhelm the camp and may even capture the Greenspeaker itself. Redemption balked at first, wanting to seek out the other primal spirits as quickly as possible, but eventually relented and agreed to help. The party devised a plan to flank around the army of undead to strike at the generals leading from the rear. While this was going on, Jack would be leading a force from the front to delay the enemy while Valicia and the Greenspeaker -- having possessed the form of Dmitri -- retreated with the noncombatants.

The Sunsword proved to be a huge boon
fighting against the vampires.
The plan went off smoothly and the party was able to strike hard and fast into the vanguard of the generals. They brought two dozen werewolves with them and a great melee broke out; the party squared off against three very powerful vampires, all of whom proved to be quite the vicious combatants. It took every trick the party had, every power each character could muster, but they were able to dispatch the vampires at long last. (One, a crazed bearded vampire, was able to escape in a haze of mist, but the other two were dispersed into ash.)

But this victory was not without cost. A great number of werewolves fell during the battle and, worse still, Redemption had suffered a grievous wound to his hand. In a way, this wound proved to be his undoing...

When they rejoined with the Greenspeaker, all the heroes were welcomed back with open arms and congratulations -- from everyone except the Greenspeaker itself. The spirit, still in the body of Dmitri, stared daggers at Redemption and demanded: "Who are you?"

Redemption was at a loss, not sure what the spirit meant. The Greenspeaker explained that whatever shroud had once been over Redemption had since fallen and that this person was not who his party believed him to be.

It was at this point that Redemption removed his gauntlet. When he did, he found his ring finger had been severed by that grievous blow, a solid silver band wrapped around the severed digit.

Doppelgangers are nasty bastards.
The tiefling was grabbed by werewolves as his party looked on. Gustav and Paelias were at a loss but, when the Greenspeaker dispelled the magic and the figure of Redemption revealed himself to be a shapeshifter, they were aghast.

The doppelganger revealed himself to have been the same figure that had impersonated the burgomaster from Holmont Cove, a fact that only Paelias paid any attention to, but that Strahd had ordered him to replace Redemption in the party when the tiefling was trapped in the dream realm of the Nightmare Eater. The real Redemption had been stolen and locked away in a place the party would never be able to retrieve him. He then began to go on about how Strahd would kill them all and that it was already too late to stop him.

Catching the doppelganger monologuing, the Greenspeaker ordered Jack to execute the doppelganger before he could dishearten the party any further. The vengeful man followed the order gladly, retrieving the Sunsword and running the doppelganger through. Afterwards, the Greenspeaker ordered Jack to lead Gustav and Paelias to find the places of power and unbind the primal spirits. Jack agreed reluctantly and the remnants of the party took off into the wilderness to find the other spirits.

Hindsight Is 20/20

A lot happened during this act, though most of it can be boiled down to one word: exposition. David (as Gustav) was able to inform the other guys of the history of the valley between the previous campaign and now. Meeting with Madame Eva gave some insight into how Strahd operates even with his own minions. Meeting the Greenspeaker gave the party some direction as to how best to continue. Retrieving the artifacts and actually talking with Usopp, instead of trying to wipe him off the map, gave further insight into Strahd's plans, his history and even a bit on how to properly defeat him.

This was all punctuated by intense battles, of course. The melee with Madame Eva was fairly scary for the guys; they were in close quarters, something most of them weren't comfortable with, and the hag proved to be more than a match for them. They were able to escape just in time before Strahd arrived and were able to watch his handiwork. It was a good visual impact scene, I think, and the guys left the table after that a bit blown away -- especially David. Madame Eva is always a really important part of the Ravenloft adventures and to see her dealt with so finally was a bit of a shock, I think.

The battle in the well was mostly improvised but proved to be pretty excellent and very intense. It was even tighter quarters than the cabin (they did most of their fighting in a 5-foot wide tunnel with enemies on both sides) and they only barely escaped with their hides intact. Still, it was a good fight and a good introduction to some of the greater power the Sunsword can bring to bear.

The big battle in the forest was also nasty but in a different way. Each of the characters ended up facing a single vampire lord, each of them having to think tactically and use the environment and their abilities to the best advantage possible. This was also the first fight they had after getting their latest Daily powers, so the guys were excited to try those out -- to mostly great effect! Redemption nearly died outright but was able to pull it out just enough to stay alive, though he did suffer that nasty wound.

Which brings us to the twist, which overshadowed everything else in the entire act: the reveal that Redemption, the tiefling warlord and de facto leader of the group, had been replaced with a shapeshifter for the entirety of Act Three. It was only the severing of Redemption's finger, and the protective ring thereupon, that revealed his presence to the Greenspeaker.

I intentionally kept this a secret from everyone -- including the player who controlled Redemption -- and it came across to great effect. During the debriefing with the Greenspeaker, I verbally attacked Redemption, demanding he reveal who he was. Meanwhile, Nick (the player behind Redemption) kept looking back and forth between me and the other players, looking for an explanation. When I asked for his character sheet, he handed it over with great confusion (and much disbelief from the other players). "Did I just die?" he asked, staring at the sheet in my hand.

After a few moments of explanation, I told Nick to take control of Jack and kill the doppelganger. He picked up the Sunsword and ran him through and I think it was then that he understood. You see, Jack was Nick's character from the original Ravenloft campaign I had run; I had originally wanted him to control Jack from the beginning of this revisit but realized that it wouldn't mesh with the rest of the campaign. This reveal, however, worked very well: not only was everyone surprised with a huge twist in the story but it created heightened tension; just when the party was celebrating a huge victory over the forces of Strahd, they were brought low again as they discovered one of their party members was actually an agent of evil.

I'm sure some people will disapprove of my methods -- making such a huge decision on behalf of a player and effectively eliminating one of his characters is a big no-no from every lesson I've learned about being a GM. But Nick is the most seasoned roleplayer I know -- he's been at it even longer than me! -- and I was ultimately giving him control of one of his own characters. He was surprised at first but rolled with the punches incredibly well, trusting that I had a reason for weaving the story that way.

Ultimately, the players loved the twist. I got high-fives from Dallas for an "amazing story, dude", and both David and Nick really enjoyed the big reveal as well. If my players enjoyed it that much, I think I did something right! That being said, I'd love to hear any comments you have on the topic. It was a pretty controversial move so it's definitely something worth discussing. Just drop a comment below and I'd love to talk it out with you.

With this synopsis we are almost caught up with the current game! Stay tuned for the next article which will be the first session of Act Four, where the stakes get raised even higher and the adventures get even more epic. As a teaser of what comes next, I give you two words: "dungeon crawl".

See you next time!

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