Friday, June 8, 2012

Carrion Crown: Ashes at Dawn pt. 1


(This session involved Edgar the human cleric, Vincent the human sorcerer, Colin the halfling paladin, Mutt the human barbarian and Galfur the dwarven inquisitor. The average party level was 10 and they reached level 11 at the end of the session.)

After one long track of side quests and cancelled sessions due to Diablo 3, we're finally back in business with the Carrion Crown adventure path; this time flinging ourselves right into the thick, cold midst of vampire societies and profane rituals. The last time we left our heroes they had defeated the horrors of Illmarsh, regained their sanity, and set course for the Ustalavian capital of Caliphas. Will they finally track down the remains of the notorious cult known as the Whispering Way, or perish along the way?

(We spent roughly four sessions sidequesting in between Illmarsh and upon arriving in Caliphas and none of these are included here as I don't intend to bore my readers down. I assume most of you are here to simply get a feeling for the Carrion Crown series but otherwise I hope to bring you a short article of the side-quests I used, in case you want to spice of Caliphas a bit).

None shall pass!
As the heroes returned to Thrusmoor for some much needed supplies and rest they planned for the next step of their journey. They would travel directly west, following the main road along the coast and hopefully reach the gates of Caliphas within a reasonable time. In the end, they joined up with a travelling caravan that was heading down the coast. Needless to say, most of them were pretty excited about this journey, especially since it involved something else than desolate, small, corrupt settlements. (Come to think of it, besides from Caliphas and Lepidstadt they hadn't seen any major signs of civilization at that time. And after all they had some gold to spend.)

The heroes travelled with the caravan for several days before parting ways and heading the remaining journey towards Caliphas on horse. It took them through some minor hills obstructing the quite peaceful grassland, sparsely dotted with fields and small houses. But they suddenly came to a halt when they noticed a giant, headless rider mounted on a nightmare-steed further down the road. As they approached he called out for their names and demanded to know who he was facing before letting them pass. There was some debate and speculation but eventually they provided the horseman with the information. Laughingly, he attacked.


 Flying around above them, charging straight into the heroes with his lance and utilizing the nightmare's obscuring breath, the knight inflicted some severe damage on the heroes before they were finally able to take him down. Not the toughest of challenges, but enough for them to take him seriously. On his corpse they found a few items, including a new amulet with strong indications of connections to the Whispering Way. As the heroes pushed on they agreed that the knight was likely a guardian left behind to blog their passage.
(It's quite some time since we had this encounter and I therefore remember very little about it. I do recollect, however, that it all depends on how much flying your group has access to. In case of a very earthbound party this could drag out for a very long time, otherwise the rider is not the hardest match if the players are organized. He gets a slight boost in case he manages to drag their names out of them, so do your best to play him in a diplomatic or curious way to get the information he wants).

The Gates to the City
Upon arriving at the gates of Caliphas, the heroes noticed a large queue waiting to be let in. Several of them were merchants but also peasants and farmers being inspected as they went through the main gates to this magnificent, albeit gothic, metropolis. As they waited in line, the heroes overheard some mumbling and pondering further up about the current state of things in the city. The merchants shook their heads and grumbled about the so horrible killings and the lack of initiative from the governmental side.
The heroes asked the guards at the gate and were told that they had indeed chosen a poor time to visit the city. Several bestial murders had been committed of late, all of them also quite mysterious. All the victims had been found in the early morning before sunrise with a stake through their hearts, and as soon as the first light of dawn approached, they would crumble and disintegrate into nothingness. Of course the guards weren't afraid to say what everyone was thinking; someone was making the vampires bite the dust. But yet, the captain of the guard and several of the high-standing members of society displayed a curious ignorance, bordering denial, in regards to the problem.
So far, nobody had been able to find any evidence or the slightest hint as to who the mysterious killer could be, but it certainly was on everyone’s lips these days. From what the guards could tell, the local temple of Lathander was deeply engaged with the case.



(As you may have read in my previous blog on Trial of the Beast, my players never ever got the chance to become acquainted with the Order of the Eye, represented by Judge Embreth. As they almost fled town with the not-so-good-graces it was quite difficult to fit in the order without it feeling shoehorned, so I decided to leave it out entirely and replace it with the Church of Lathander. This can be very easily done with another deity; I only chose Lathander because he seemed fitting and because the paladin worships him. In this case, simply use the same NPC's as introduction. I even think you can make it work with the same events as described in the original adventure, but I chose the direct route and simply let them walk to the temple and begin their investigation of the cult. Alternatively, you can use The Seekers-organization, more closely described in Savage Tide, as this also explains what all the old antiquities and reliquaries are doing in their basement. The important thing is merely to have someone stash away the old gargoyle which will lead on the players to the old mausoleum).

So the heroes set out to experience the rich cultural, and yet dangerous life, of the grand city of Caliphas. At this point they ran into most of the side-quests I designed for the adventure, and for the sake of simplicity they have been left out from here. To put it short, they found a small poster from a child needing help slaying a revenant, overthrew an evil priest, visited the alley of fortune tellers and bought a haunted mansion from a swindler. They also received an invitation to one of the Countess' many grand balls, as she'd undoubtedly heard of their grand accomplishments.

(Why side questing? Is it even necessary? No, far from it. Ashes at dawn is more than capable of standing on its own feet, but if you're remotely like me, you love side quests and sometimes feel self-destructive towards your own campaign for throwing in so many. As Caliphas is really a huge city with plenty of mystery and opportunity for adventure, it seems prudent to add them at this time of the adventure, in which the pacing is rather slow. Compared to Lepidstadt, in which the heroes are pretty much working around the clock, now is your time to introduce something you'd like to try out or catch up on some of the XP, in case they've fallen behind.
The final part of the Ashes at Dawn-adventure adds some great information about Caliphas, which inspired me to write up some of my plots. Alternatively, you can throw in a lot of stuff here. Compared to my original expectations, Ashes didn't really live up to my hopes in regards of originality, at least not in the first part of the book - So let your imagination run wild and do something you find to be fun! )

They decided to find an inn, but on their way found another macabre scene by the unveiled killer. Apparently there was quite a center of attention, as several others were gathered, mumbling and pointing at the corpse occupying the sidewalk of a small alley. Several city guards were carefully inspecting it, about to carry it outside. From what the heroes could see, its heart was pierced by a wooden stake. The captain of the guard, a sour looking man, brashly swept people aside and ordered his men to take great care to keep it out of the sun this time. Of course, as they dragged it along, one of the men tripped and part of the body was exposed to the morning sun, immediately setting it ablaze and crumbling to ash (it usually doesn't work this way, but cinematic are always great). This instilled great rage in the captain and fear in the citizens who immediately hushed and whispered about the evil that was surely walking amongst them.

The captain, Boverde Hoptler, didn't bother to speak much to the heroes, sticking to his belief that this was mere nonsense and someone playing tricks on the city. Vampires had left Ustalav thousands of years ago! The guards, however, once he was gone, were all quite convinced that this could very well be the very first move towards a greater, upcoming conflict.

After finding an inn, the heroes visited the local temple to Lathander and were greeted by two priests in charge. Father Modd and Father Chalest both were glad to see a holy pilgrim and bid Colin welcome (again, simply reskinning the order-members here). As they sat down to talk, Father Modd did indeed confirm the heroes' suspicion; there had always been rumors in Caliphas about vampires residing somewhere in the city. Not just a small coven of them, but an entire society all by itself. Of course one could argue that the slaying of such vile beasts was in fact a good deed, the clergy were all interested in unmasking this mysterious vigilante, at least for the sake of identification. In addition, as Father Chalest pointed out, it was no surprise that such acts would have caught the eye of the elder vampires in the city, one especially rumored to be very old and go by the name Luvick Siervage (in the original adventure, Luvig is not mentioned till later, but name dropping is always good and doesn't hurt the story). If this provocation went unchecked there was no telling what acts of retaliation the vampires would utilize. 

When asked about the Whispering Way the priests nodded in recognition. It was, after all, an old story. In regards to the vampires of Ustalav, it was well known that when the Whispering Tyrant walked this earth and waged war against the forces of good in the Shining Crusade, the vampiric knights of hell abandoned the tyrant to his fate. The reason being that allying with a cult wishing to turn all living things undead when you need their blood for sustenance hardly seemed like a wise thing to do.
The vampires had since been in exile but the cult kept itself busy, even though Father Modd had thought them gone for good. When explained about their journey here, they both grew solemn and gloomy, agreeing it was indeed a sign of great evil to come if they did not act soon. Sadly, none of them had any ideas as to where the cult could've headed next, although they could recommend browsing through some of the old confiscated, unholy literature kept for safe-keeping in the temple storage. There were also a few old artifacts recovered from their former bases of operation, which could perhaps be of use to the heroes.
Later that night they went down into the storage chamber.

HEY, FREAKSHOW! BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONE DEVIIIILLL'S REEEADYYY!
The storage was a myriad of ancient and strange items stored in everything from crates to glass boxes to massive iron vaults. By direction the heroes quickly found an old bookshelf against the wall and started rummaging through the musty books. In the dim light, Vincent and Galfur took a look around the room, noticing the shiny, bright treasures.

(In case you wish to make this really exotic, to the point of temptation, drop in some major confiscated major magical items for the heroes to drool over. Of course they could never have them. They're confiscated, after all. Trap them with some nasty crap if they don't know that.)

The texts didn't reveal much, but one of the old crates was particularly interesting. Originally this stuff had been recovered and sealed away from one of the old hideouts the cultists used several years ago, now kept away from them. In the crate was an old, grinning stone gargoyle staring right at them. There was an unholy and unsettling feeling to it, but just as they were about to close it up they noticed the small imprint on the statue. It looked like a small round object would fit in and it didn't take long for the heroes to find the medallion from the headless horseman and click it into place. The eyes of the gargoyle were instantly illuminated and a faint voice, coming from the inside, asked:
”What is the fifth catechism of the Whispering Way?”

The heroes, all failing their Knowledge: Religion horribly, stood around like sheeps for some seconds, before a pack of bone devils instantly warped into place, hurling themselves at the ignorant fools.
The battle was long but definitely more devastating to the environment than it was to the heroes. After defeating the devils they returned to the gargoyle and noticed how it projected the image of an old maosuleum, likely somewhere in town. They quickly figured out this to be their next destination and set out.

(I had an off day that evening, after a really long day at work. Didn't play those bone devils the slightest bit correctly, so I can't really comment that much on what to do with them. Spam a lot of ice walls, which seems to work out nicely, and take care of those annoying individuals with invisibility purge and the like).


The mausoleum was at the other end of town and getting into it wasn't as hard as imagined, especially not with the use of a well aimed dimension door. As they made their way down, the heroes quickly realized that this place had been evacuated some time ago. Besides from a few pieces of broken glass and scattered, torn papers, nothing was left here. It seemed like they were too late.

Colin, however, noticed a dark presence in the corner of the room and immediately a gloomy figure stepped forward. He was clad in armor and wore the chilly feel of death, although he held up his hands in surrender.
”Don't attack me,” he said ”I wish to speak with you. I am in severe need of your aid!”
He presented himself as Quinley and that he had been expecting the heroes to show up here. He knew they were on the trails of the Whispering Way and likely needed help to find their next destination. Quinley, on the other hand, needed help as well and just so happened to know someone who'd be able to point the heroes in the right direction. For a price.

Colin didn't approve of this, dismissing the very possibility of working with a creature of darkness. He was sure the heroes would be able to find out this information by themselves, but Vincent wanted to hear Quinley out. The stranger told them of his vampiric heritage and that there was no need to deny it. Still, one dear and very close to him had been slain by this mysterious killer and all he wanted was for him to be put to justice. What he could offer the heroes was a pointing in the right direction, towards the elder vampires of Caliphas, who undoubtedly would know of the cult's whereabouts. If they didn't wish to associate with him that would be fine. Hell, if they wished to go down there and exterminate the lot, he would have no issue with it, as long as they brought the murderer to justice.

The heroes had some reluctance in this regard, but in the end settled for an agreement that they would at least hunt down the killer, but from thereon make no guarantees. A lot of this was due to Colin's straight out refusal to work with the creatures of the night, so this was a good a deal as could possibly be made. Quinley then nodded his head and said that was as good as he could hope for. For now. He then told them that there was a well-known entrance to the vampire-underground at Restoration Park and that, if they asked him, he was certain the killer was vampiric himself. There was a huge concentration of vampire-murders around the park, which was hardly a coincidence. Also, the attacks seemed too organized and structured, often targeting the vampires with several thralls. If the heroes could gain access to the complex and an audience with Luvick Siervage he would likely be able to assist them in their investigation.

Park of the living dead
The heroes agreed to meet Quinley later that night, after sunset, at the park. They needed some rest and preparation.
That night they went to the old railing around the lush park and made their way on to the trails and had some looking around. At night the park was eerily empty with the tall, dark statues staring empty into the thin air. At the far end of the park, and old greenhouse was placed. But there was no sign of Quinley.
Instead the heroes searched around a bit and to their surprise found some old drains outside the greenhouse, apparently leading down a bit before being heavily blocked by iron bars. They pondered about this for a while but Colin could sense the faint radiance of evil coming from within the greenhouse. From what Galfur could identify with his darkvision, a group of shriekers were also placed right inside the door to the greenhouse, so the heroes decided to dimension door in, in the far corner.
They appeared successfully and attempted to orient themselves to the surrounding. The vegetation was dense, several plants and vines covering the floor, some of them very high. Silence dominated the room and as they carefully stared down the vegetation, Mutt noticed a bat hanging from one of the branches. It looked at him, almost as if smiling.

Then he was told to make a will-save.

And failed.

Mutt was instantly dominated and commanded to chop up his nearest ally. As this was against his nature he was allowed a second save and failed that too (gotta love those barbarian will saves).

A female vampire dropped from the branches, hissing with thirst for blood, and great deals of the vegetation suddenly came to life.

(In the original book, this encounter is not particularly challenging for a well organized group. As mine also included a fifth player, I constructed it for heroic-mode and added three giant fly-catcher plants instead of just one).

In the first round, Colin, Galfur and Vincent were all grappled. Mutt chopped off a huge part of Edgar, who immediately cast Freedom of Movement and got the hell away from the plants. Vincent dimension doored to the far corner of the greenhouse and Galfur used his dimensional step to teleport to his aid. The vampire flew to Vincent and slammed out some negative levels, eagerly wanting to grapple-suck his blood soon. Colin failed his grapple check and got pinned inside the mouth of the plant for the rest of the fight.

The plants followed Edgar and kept hitting him for moderate damage, now they weren't able to grapple him. Mutt charged the cleric and landed a power attack, downing him in one fell swoop.
Vincent dimension doored out to reposition himself, leaving Galfur with the vampire who immediately began tearing at him with energy drain. The plants moved up and began pounding.

In the third round Vincent cast improved invisibility and prepared to move in. Galfur took a full round of beating, watching his health dropping rapidly and on the fourth turn, in which Vincent dimension doored in, Galfur was slain by the overwhelming amount of damage.

In a desperate attempt, Vincent dispelled Mutt's domination effect. The vampire aggressively attempted redominating him but this time the barbarian made his will save and began tearing things a new one. Vincent unleashed lots of aoe-damage, enabling his Wild Magic as he did so.
 
(Vincent has a personal plot in which he has developed Wild Magic; an element that can potentially pop up whenever he rolls a 3 or lower for every spell he casts. When this happens, one of the 100 wild magic effects from Baldur's Gate, including a few personal ones, will set in. Some of these are really good, some harmless and some downright bad.)

Popping an additional lightning bolt and some other good stuff, Vincent and Mutt killed the vampire along with the flowers and brought their fallen comrades back to their feet. Galfur had to be raised from the dead, and as they did so, Vincent noticed that his wild magic surge had this time turned him into a woman.
From here on in the campaign, he has taken name-change into Kia.
Although we all agree that Vinnie might be just as good.

They cut off her head and anointed it with holy water, which destroyed the infernal being once and for all and from there on agreed to go home and rest it out till the following day.
The Descend...
When they arrived on the following day, they all teleported through the drains outside and ended up in some old sewers underneath the greenhouse. They had clearly been lived in for a bit, which was clearly represented by the two symbols of stun and their associated alarms. The heroes made sure to trigger them both, of course. They encountered a bunch of vampire spawns as well and killed them, before they found a mighty wooden door opening up to a long tunnel, apparently leading further downwards to the vampire warrens.
And thus the heroes glared down into the darkness. They felt it glared into them as well.

To be continued next Wednesday.

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