Friday, January 13, 2012

Carrion Crown: Trial of the Beast pt. 1

The task was done, the problem solved. The haunted prison of Harrowstone was no more. With nothing but crumbling ruins left standing, as a solemn reminder of a grim past, the citizens of Ravengro could now look at the old prison without dread. For the sinister influence had forever been purged from their lands.

The heroes spent seven days and seven nights celebrating their victory, and another week preparing for the next stage of their journey, far into the North and unknown terrain. Among their tasks was returning to Harrowstone in order to gather the masterwork items and sell them for a tidy profit. Even though they had been able to trade a magic sword for the raising of Aldarion, he was still left with two negative levels that had to be removed. Once everything was bought and paid, there was a good handful of gold for each member of the party.
They were not demoralized about this, however, as they knew their next mission would hopefully involve bringing the old tomes to Judge Embreth and Professor Crowl at the university of Lepidstadt. As written in the will, Lorrimor promised a handsome payment of a 100 platinum pieces each, should the books make the journey.

On the night before leaving, Edgar the cleric had a grim vision during sleep;


The Swamp Town of Morast.
12 Months ago.

”Burn it! Send the beast back into the black fires of the Abyss!”
Thus was the first voice, like a murderer in the cold winter night, that thundered in between the trees and sent a flock of chilled birds towards the bright starry sky of Ustalav.
“Burn it!” it repeated, as if the owner attempted to squeeze out the final breath of his lungs. “Get it before it escapes!”
The owner of the voice, a tall, slim man who clothes and teeth had obviously seen better days, clutched his burning torch and aggressively pointed it onwards. It dimly illuminated the glinting snow and the calm swamp water, but also the towering shape that ran with thundering steps away from the roaring mob.
In a carpet of torches, lanterns, pitchforks and shovels, they marched onwards. Every branch was broken on the way to the swamp’s edge. Their bloodlust was unlike anything seen before and served them well. They weren’t intimidated, not even when the shape started tipping over trees in its way.
“You will not get away this time!” another voice howled.
It wasn’t long till they reached the deep part of the swamp. The end of the line. Onwards was only deep marshland. The shape hesitated, took one step into the marsh, and stopped. It was desperate.
“There is no way back, fiend!” the leader said, laughingly. “Your time has come…”

(This is a short segment I wrote up myself. Reading it out aloud while playing the track 'Transylvania 1857' from the Van Helsing soundtrack actually worked okay as a mood setter. I always chose clerics or paladins for this sort of thing, but basically anyone slightly religious could do as well. It's also good for an early introduction of the beast, and on a more psychological level, portray it as a victim instead of a killer. Naturally, the players will know very little about it at this stage).

He woke up by Kendra knocking on his door, bringing him breakfast. She seemed concerned that he was so pale, but the cleric assured her everything was fine. Soon after, the rest of the party entered and they discussed their upcoming journey. Kendra had, as a last act of hospitality, acquire three riding horses and a riding dog that would hopefully bring the heroes to their destination swiftly. The journey on horseback was about four days to the north (again, it might very well be longer or shorter if you start measuring on the world map and comparing speeds of the horse, but since it doesn't serve that much of a purpose doing so, I don't give a damn about it).

They decided to quickly split up, gather supplies, and say farewell. It was early morning once they headed out, so the goodbye-committee was small. It didn't matter much to the heroes. They'd spent a really long time in Ravengro, and had to move on sooner or later. Whereas things had gotten a lot calmer in the small town, they'd certainly also become a lot more boring. Even the adventurous Kendra decided to remain here for half a year, just to see whether trade would evolve once the outside world heard the area was safe once more.

And thus they made their way across mountains, swamps, trails and paths, till they finally crossed the mountains to the north, and found the way down. It had been a quite uneventful journey.

Meeting the Crooked Kind
On their way down from the mountains and into the vast marshland, the heroes approached the late hours of the day. Albeit dusk was yet to come, the grey clouds and gloomy weather told them they'd likely make it to Lepidstadt around evening.

They suddenly came to a halt, when they heard the sound of arguing voices to the vest. Through the dense undergrowth in the swamp it was hard to catch every word, but it sounded like some men arguing and a lot of high perched voices crying.
Deciding to investigate further, Mutt the barbarian and Grendell the rogue attempted to sneak closer. Grendell, however, stepped on the tail of his riding dog, which immediately made the poor creature howl out in pain (you go natural 1!). The voices stopped and started calling out whoever was there. The heroes didn't reply but instead Mutt made his way, silently, to a clearing. Much to his surprise, he saw five colorful wagons, carrying banners and festive decorations. In two cages, a giant frog and a goblin dog were sleeping, and besides them was a much stranger sight to behold. Besides a wolf-child and a scruffy looking, flea ridden man, a troupe of midgets dressed in clown suits, some of the deformed with more than two arms, were crying loudly. They tried to address a tall albino, wearing a red suit, a whip and a high hat. He was, however, ignoring them, as he spoke to a bearded lady and a troll-looking man.
”Look,” he said ”I'm not going to repeat myself anymore. We just can't set out after her. It's too dangerous!”
”But she's our sister!” one of the midgets cried ”we can't just leave her in the swamp! If we can't help her someone must be able to!”
”You said it yourself. We're in the middle of a swamp. You just expect anyone to come strolling by, offering to help us in such a hostile place?” the bearded lady said. ”Maybe he's right, we ought to--”
At this point, Mutt stepped into the clearing, pipe-smoke rising from his beard. ”It's a god damn cirkus,” he mumbled, before rising his voice. ”We're here to help you!”
”We? We who?” the troll-man asked. To their amazement, the rest of the group made its way there shortly, and a sudden amount of joy and hope spread among the midgets. The albino presented himself as Kaleb Hesse, the ringmaster of 'the Crooked Kin'. A travelling circus, currently heading for Lepidstadt. As he gently led the heroes away from the rest of the group, he told them that mere hours ago, one of their best midget clown, Aleece, had sadly wandered off into the swamp. She'd always been the curious one, but this time it might've gotten her into real trouble. Nasty things were said to reside in the bogg. But none of the kin were capable of entering it and looking for her. So, if the heroes would accept this small task, Kaleb promised them a magical item they recently found.

Kaleb Hesse
After some consideration, Mutt managed to track some small prints in the mud. They were quite fresh and led directly into the south-western swamp, along a muddy trail. Although the heroes were concerned that Aleece might actually have run off by her own free will, never to return to the cirkus, they decided to see what they could learn from finding her.

(Truth to be told, I didn't like the Crooked Kin much. For some time I strongly considered skipping this encounter, but on the other hand it takes up some of the adventure, and it seems really optional whether you should use them later or not. If your players are bad a gathering information or making knowledge rolls, they can be quite essential and can compensate for a lot. Otherwise, you could consider the RP-value of them. I'll likely let them go on with their business and only reappear should the players strongly wish so. I know Grendell the halfling is very eager to see one of their shows.)

The heroes didn't have to travel far into the swamp before they heard a sudden tiny scream ahead of them. But Edgar and Grendell noticed that despite the touch of terror, the scream sounded strangely artificial. They decided to show great caution and move closer towards it. The scream seemed to come from a direction leading right into the deeper part of the swamp, so the party decided to stick together and investigate further. It seemed like the tracks had suddenly started running, before stopping and being dragged towards the watery line?
This was when the Phase Spider struck.

Warping in, it unleashed a nasty bite on Mutt, who was saved by his mighty constitution, as the poison attempted to seep into his veins. Aldarion, able to act in the round of surprise, attempted to conjure up a pit beneath it, but with a +8 reflex save, the spider evaded it. In a blue glimpse, it went ethereal and disappeared.
The battle begun, and the group realized that fighting on the spider's turf was truly a bad idea. The swamp made movement extremely difficult, and the spider made sure to take plenty of time to navigate around the party, warp in, poison them, and disappear. The thick growth of plants and reets around them made hitting the beast from afar difficult, and soon both Grendell and Aldarion began succumbing to its poison. Drinking potions of lesser restoration was the only way for Aladrion to remain alive, in the end. The spider warped in and attempted to poison Mutt once more, but the barbarian was quick to react and inflict a devastating wound on it. With the amount of magic missiles earlier, the spider attempted to flee, and evaded all attacks doing so.
The party was left standing with very low constitution scores, but they made it through.

(I've played with phase spiders in 3.5 but I was honestly surprised at how nasty they are. Not sure how much they've changed in Pathfinder, but this encounter favors them environmental-wise. According to the adventure, the players are in dense undergrowth, meaning each square of movement is quadropled and provides 30% concealment. Most creatures won't move far in this swamp, but since the phase spider travels ethereally, it has no problems navigating to just where it wants, and utilize its large size reach to get to its prey. And then there is, of course, the poison. I'll admit: I nerfed it. I really did. Otherwise I would have at least two dead players in this encounter alone, perhaps three. DC 18 fortitude save for 1D2 constitution might sound like so and so. But, add into it the equation that this runs for 8 rounds and requires two consecutive saves to remove (I changed it to one). That equals 12 constitution damage on average. If you hate your players, you're gonna love this. On the other hand, one of them openly exclaimed 'Oh BUGGER, I had two antitoxins?!?' after the fight. So in a way, I don't feel that sorry for them : P They burned some lesser restoration potions and wand charges, so it was a somewhat expensive encounter for them).

Searching the nearby swamp-water, the heroes found some scattered loot and a dead midget. She had obviously been poisoned and killed by the spider. When they brang her back to the Kin, ringleader Kaleb grew sorrowful but promised to break the news to his crew by himself. The heroes had already done more than enough. As a payment, he presented them with a +1 humanoid (shapechanger) bane dagger.
The heroes said their goodbyes and returned to their horses, heading to Lepidstadt before nightfall.

Arriving at Lepidstadt
Though they made good speed, the heroes didn’t arrive in Lepidstadt before evening. But even though dusk was approaching fast, the entire city was dimly illuminated by torches, lamps, and several bonfires as if some kind of celebration was going on?

Quickly they made their way to the gates at which two very happy guards were stationed. They saluted them and bit the heroes welcome to the glorious city of Lepidstadt.
“I hear laughter and joy on the other side,” Edgar said. “What is the cause for celebration?”
“Haven’t you heard, my Lord?” the guard answered. “It’s The Beast! The Beast of Lepidstadt. It has finally been caught, just a week ago. After 20 years of terror, we’re finally going to see the end of this monstrosity. Truly, that is a cause for festivities!”
Mutt scratched his bearded chin for a moment. “The Beast, eh? I’ve heard about it. Said to’ve been terrorizing the countryside for several years, yes. Abducting, killing and maiming many an unwary traveler.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard,” Aldarion said. “I’ve also heard the tales. And those told by strangers of how a mighty shape suddenly appeared at night, helping those in need of aid. Or those attacked by bandits or wild life.”
The guards grinned and shook their heads. “Make no mistake, Sir elf. The beast, and the tales, are indeed real. And in the following three days, the abomination shall stand trial against our most noble prosecutor, Otto Heiger. A true hero of the people. He will see to the beast ending its days in the burning man. Mark you my words!”

The heroes passed through the gates and were greeted by a panorama of stalls, streets, people and cheerful crowds, albeit; all twisted with a bitter taint of vengeance. In one stall, people were winning prizes by tossing small dolls of The Beast into a pyre, and next to it, strong people would hit an artificial wooden head of The Beast with a large hammer. All while the children were laughingly gathering more and more wood for the huge burning man, in which the creature was to end its days.
There was no doubt about it. The citizens of Lepidstadt were prepared for murder.
They WANTED murder.

Making their way through the crowd, passing down exotic temptations such as “Fried Beast on a stick” and “Justice Ale”, the heroes made their way towards the nearest inn. They found ‘The Golden Cat’ and managed to get a table in the far corner, in which they had a discrete conversation. They agreed that they’d wait and see how the trial turned out the following morning, and in the meantime retain a low profile. A drunken merchant at the table next to them happily explained that The Beast was captured but a week ago, as it smashed its way through the eastern university wall, making its way towards the department of antiquities. Besides from the obvious destruction, only a single item was stolen and still not recovered. Some sort of small statuette or something. The merchant didn’t care much. What was important was that The Beast would be prosecuted for three crimes it’d committed in the last year. Abductions, killings and arson.

Suddenly, as the heroes finished their conversation, they noticed a young man standing at their table. He was expecting them.
“Are you by chance the heroes of Ravengro?” he asked.
“That we are, though not our chosen name, I might add” Edgar answered. The young man smiled. “My Lady greatly desires to speak with you as soon as possible. I am sorry, but I can not reveal any further information. Just trust me when I say that this is of great importance!”
He wore the sigil of an official emissary, hidden below his cloak. “I’ll meet you outside in 10 minutes” he said, and quickly disappeared into the crowd. The drunken merchant quickly pointed out that this was one of judge Embreth’s boys. One of the three main judges in the Beast-trial.

After some collaboration, the heroes decided to take the offer and meet the young man outside. He led them downtown, towards a tall building close to the city hall.

(This is an adventure-mechanic, in case the players do exactly what mine did. Ignoring the plot to just wait and see. In that case, Judge Embreth will make sure to contact them swiftly. It’s not entire illogical that people have heard a bit about them already).

Going to an early court
Once more out of sight from the masses on the street, cheering and in a choir singing “Burn the monster! Burn it!” the heroes entered the mansion, in which they were led to the grand hall. In front of the fireplace sat an elderly lady with a stern, but worried, gaze. As they entered, she quickly got up.
“I apologize,” she said “I am sure this is not your idea of a warm welcome, but do understand there was no other way. I believe, first and foremost, you have something for me?”
“Judge Embreth, I assume?” Aldarion said.
“Yes, that is correct. You have some books for me, which the old professor borrowed years ago?”
There was a certain amount of sadness in her eyes as she mentioned Lorrimor. A sadness that vaguely hinted to Edgar that perhaps, in a distant past, the relationship had not been entirely professional. Asking the old judge about her intentions with the books brought them no other answer besides “it is my own business, but if you must know I intend to return them to the university. Eventually. But now, on to the business at hand. I am sure you are all eager to know why I’ve summoned you here. As I am certain you have noticed, this town is on the other side. Just a week ago, our proud university was attacked at night by nothing else than the Beast of Lepidstadt itself. Sergeant Yesslev and his men were on the scene, and managed to subdue the creature and clad it in irons, dragging it all the way to its current cell, in the basement of the city hall. As I am sure you have also noticed, the fate of the Beast is sealed already. There is hardly any point in having a trial; people want to see blood flow. It’s nothing more than procedure now. And this troubles me. Everyone deserves a fair trial, and I have heard stories about travelers being saved by the Beast. People who’ve been in trouble, but were rescued in the last moment by the towering shape in the night. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to track down any of these witnesses, and we are running out of time. The Beast stands accused of three official crimes, the first beginning tomorrow at 10am. And I have a feeling that something in this trial is not as it seems. I haven’t been a judge in this city for so many years, just to see procedure ignored because of old grudges. I want someone, someone objective, to look into the evidence and check if this creature is truly guilty.” She paused for a moment and looked at the heroes in turn. “I want you to aid the Beast’s defender; Barrister Gustav Kaple. It suits me ill to mention this, but it is hardly coincidental that the best prosecutor and worst defendant in town has been chosen for this case. Poor Gustav will lose this case, should nobody step in to help him. I’m urging you; look into this. See to it that this poor thing gets the trial it deserves. It’s not just a thing. It’s sentient. It talks.
Do this, and I will double the amount of money I am about to give you. Another 100 platinum pieces each. Even if you discover the beast is guilty, I will still pay you. At least I can rest easily then. What say you?”

Judge Embreth
“Exactly what IS this beast, Miss Embreth?” Edgar asked.
“I believe it’s a flesh golem of a sort. But on the other hand, as I said; it seems sentient. Conscious. Almost…sorrowful. I am sure if you speak with Mr. Kaple that he will introduce you to it.”
“This seems like an important task,” Grendell said “we must help this poor thing.”
“But know this,” Embreth said. “once you reveal your true colors to the citizens, you will face the consequences. And in any case, I will deny any connection to you. That is for the best.”
“We understand, “ Aldarion said. “And I do think we’ll take the job…”

Meeting the Beast
Gustav Kaple were pretty much what the heroes feared, when they later visited him in the city’s courthouse. The very nervous defendant cautiously let them in, originally expecting them to pull a prank on him. But once they explained their intentions to him, he calmed down and began explaining the case.

The Beast stood accused of three events during the last year. First, the disappearance and abduction of 10 citizens in the nearby swamp town of Morast, about a year ago. Next, the killing of several children in the former religious community of Hergstag and finally the arson attack on the Karb Isle Sanctuary. In each case, witnesses were about to step forward and present their story. If no counter evidence could be acquired, the Beast was surely doomed. What Kaple needed was capable people able to investigate each case by its own, review the evidence and witnesses and find potential holes or missed clues. People such as the heroes.

Since the first case concerned the swap town of Morast, Kaple suggested that they journeyed there this very night. The swampers were not known for their hospitality, but would undoubtedly answer some additional questions. As long as they remembered that these people, like so many others in the area, carried a big grudge towards the beast.
In addition, if they could spare the time, Kaple suggested to the heroes that they investigated the attack on the university closer. Perhaps some kind of clue could be gathered from there?

But first, he would like to offer the heroes an opportunity to meet their ‘client’…

Deep below the upper floor of the city hall was a dungeon of unknown proportion. On their travel down, the heroes passed several security points in which Kaple had to identify himself as well as his new companions. Once they finally arrived, the heroes were stunned by the looks of the towering creature in the middle of the room.

A towering abomination was sitting in an iron chair, bound with no less than a dozen sets of manacles. Stitching held together the grotesque patchwork of flesh and bone, beast and man, though the wires were so taut they looked as though they could fly apart at any moment. Its mouth was twisted in a permanent sneer, and a shock of lank, dark hair clung to its scalp. The creature slumped in its chair with a despondent expression upon its monstrous face. Barely noticing the new people in the room.

“Does it speak?” Edgar said. “Oh yes,” Kaple answered “just not much. In fact, I think it is capable of saying a lot more. Problem is, he doesn’t want to.”
Grendell walked up to the Beast and smiled at it. It looked back at him.
“Hello, Mr. Beast,” he said smilingly “can you talk?”
The voice of the beast was deep, rumbling and dark. Yet, it carried a certain…desperation.
“Yes, yes, there, there. We know that. We just want to talk to you?”
“It seems like he didn’t do it.”
“Shut up.”
“Mr. Beast, do you know anything about missing children?”
Suddenly the beast slumped together. His shoulders were suddenly making small spasms, rhythmically, as his face moved gently up and down.
“That’s what we get when we mention the children,” Kaple said. “He starts laughing. Doesn’t really look on for our case.”
Edgar’s eyes narrowed. He shook his head gently.
“He’s not laughing,” he said and lit a cigarette “he’s crying. Look closely.”
They all observed the Beast for a moment.
“I don’t see any tears?” Mutt the Barbarian said.
“That’s because he’s a golem” Aldarion solemnly answered. “Golems rarely have tear ducts. This could very well change a lot. Mr. Beast, what do you know about these children?”


Crime scene #1: The university
Before heading to Morast the heroes made a short journey to the Lepidstadt university. While not topic in the trial, Kaple still thought the heroes could learn something from there. After all, this was where sergeant Yesslev captured the Beast just a week ago.

While the antiquities department was still being rebuild, the destruction was evident. Something huge had smashed through the eastern metal door, continued through the hallway into the opposite wooden door, smashing into the auditorium and through to the workshop. In here total devastation had ensured, smashed pottery and debris was everywhere on the floor. When talking to the guard, he told them that the Beast attacked around 1AM a week ago. No witnesses had spotted it on the way towards the university.

They spoke shortly to professor Crowl who was optimistic about the situation. Yet, the news of Professor Lorrimor’s death hit him hard. He reluctantly accepted the books from the heroes, and told them that while the damage to the university had been severe, only a small object known as the Seasage Effigy was stolen and had yet to be recovered. Everyone assumed the beast had taken it, but Crowl was convinced it would soon show up. It was nothing but a small worthless, green statuette. He didn’t even know where it came from. As far as he could remember, it depicted a grotesque tentacle creature, likely with origins in the Dark Tapestry.

Searching through the place, the heroes learned that something huge had smashed through the iron door from the outside, and triggered an alarm trap in the process (since they found a piece of string and a tiny silver bell). Large drag-marks had been made in the newly polished floor, likely from big metallic boots. The creature had made its way through the auditorium, below the glass dome which was intact, and again scratched the wooden floor that was newly coated in bee-wax.

In the workshop there were some interesting discoveries. Not only had the culprit avoided a significant part in the northwestern corner, in which an empty pedestal stood. Next to it, several valuable pots and urns stood, intact, revealing nothing valuable had been stolen.
Edgar also noticed, that while the three windows to the south had been closed for ages, one of them had recently been opened by someone really strong. When investigating further, the heroes found a tiny golden chip, resembling a part of some construction.

Talking to sergeant Yesslev revealed nothing more. The dwarf told they arrived at the scene to find the raging beast, but managed to subdue it easily and drag it off. He claimed to know nothing about the window, but the heroes felt he didn’t tell them everything he knew.

With their evidence, they quickly sat out on horse, towards the swamp town Morast.
(Some comments here. Sergeant Yesslev and the golden chip are purely my own doings. Without spoiling anything for anyone, I added these to have some witnesses to interrogate (my players actually missed a clue in this regard) and some hard evidence to use later on. For now my players haven’t looked further into it. But you can just as easy run the adventure as written and skip these elements. In the original adventure there are no golden chips and the players can talk to some other guards who don’t know much.

A little hint for those of you running this adventure; A common question the heroes/players might ask is; How did a lowly bunch of guards manage to subdue something as powerful as the Beast of Lepidstadt? A good question. But as a lot of people on the Paizo forum said; it’s likely that the Beast was raging once they arrived, but it makes sense that it eventually slumped into despair, basically giving in.)

Crime Scene #2: Arriving at Morast
Morast was a small community of farmers and swamp dwellers, some miles away from Lepidstadt. The heroes arrived in the cover of darkness, around the middle of the night. They were suspiciously greeted by a farmer, who listened to their case and eventually led them to Lazne, the village elder. He gladly told them the story of how the Beast, just one year ago, managed to show up at the outskirts of town and kidnap 10 citizens into the swamp. But one night they outsmarted it and set up a trap. Once the Beast appeared, a towering dark abomination, they ambushed it. An angry mob of fire and pitchforks followed it through the undergrowth, till it reached the swamp and headed for their former rest lands. Following in boats, they drove it all the way to the graves, at which a huge blood caiman. A special kind of crocodile. The caiman locked its jaws around the beast’s shoulder and dragged it beneath water while the crowd was cheering. They assumed the beast was dead, but realized that the massive wound had splattered blood all over the holy ground, so they eventually reallocated the rest lands. It’d been almost a year ago since anyone went there, but when they heard The Beast had been captured, Lazne gladly approached the court as primary witness.

Whereas Lazne seemed adamant in his conviction, the heroes decided to sail to the rest lands to check out the scene for themselves. They hired a scout and arrived at the tiny isle, some distance out in the swamp. The grass was tall, an old tree rested there, and several graves were still evidently present. But before the heroes could touch a single straw, a savage roar broke the silence of the swamp. Emerging from the star-filled night sky was a bloodthirsty manticore, whose nest had just been disturbed.

Manticore (By Stephen Crowe)
The scout screamed in terror and took cover, and the beast unleashed a hail of spikes from its tail, turning Grendell into a pincushion. While howling the manticore stayed airborne and unleashed pain from the sky, keeping Edgar very busy healing.
Mutt groaned and pulled out a small vial from his backpack. As he sipped it, a pair of ethereal wings flashed from his back, and with a jump he became airborne and charged into the flying beast, with magic missiles and projectiles from his party members flying around him. He clashed with the manticore, hammered his weapon deep into its skull with a fierce smash the sent the sound of broken bone across the swamp. The monster lost flight and hit the watery swamp in a boggy explosion.
Silence settled for a few seconds. Then Mutt resurfaced, carrying his halberd in one hand and the torn off head of the manticore in the other.

“That’s one less…” he mumbled.

And from there we decided to call it a night.
(The manticore is another monster I’ve used a couple of times and was kind of surprised at how painfully dangerous it was. Had the barbarian not been in possession of the potion of flight, I don’t think they could’ve taken it. The hail of spikes can hurt so insanely much and the creature still has a lot of hit points. If your party is not up to speed in the ranged department, this is one of those encounters in which they can stand very little chance, unless they prepare for it early.

And so ends the first chapter of Trial of the Beast. This has been beyond doubt the longest entry of them all, but that’s investigation for you. Next week, I imagine there will be less setup. So I apologize for the long story, but still hope you enjoy it!)

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