[UPDATE 1/6/21: I no longer support spending money on products that benefit Zak S, or giving him positive attention and connection. The short version is that I find credible claims that he has engaged in unacceptable behavior and not made up for it. For more detail, see here for the core of the accusations. To get Zak's side of things, he maintains this separate blog from his main one to post updates on the legal status of these complaints.
Please consider these claims and make your own decision on their validity, and the implications thereof, before either supporting or shunning Zak.]
So, after a two week hiatus due to my visit to the exotic orient for school, we resumed our regularly scheduled game on Monday. Everybody, not least of all myself, were a little bit rusty, and a few players had connection issues and/or reasons to show up late and leave early, so it was a bit rocky, but overall a good time. Probably even more kibbitzing and joke making than usual, including a rather inappropriate one involving ents that had the whole group rolling, but is best left unrepeated.
The thing I've noticed about campaign prep is that no matter how much time is taken, you never get everything you want ready. I have great faith in my ability to improvise in just about every activity in my life, but I'm discovering that my D&D improvisation benefits from some robust support. There are just so many cool things I want to incorporate from what I've seen online, read in published material, or stolen from heavy metal songs. Oh well, the important thing is that the game keeps going so I keep having a chance to use this stuff and improve.
We picked up with the characters getting ready to high tail it away from outside of the giant cave after their fight with the trolls. They decided to risk being surprised and injury/damage on the mountain path to move faster, not slowing down until they made it into the woods. I spent a lot of my prep time coming up with some random adventure sites, focusing on the wilderness areas between the giant cave and Silverdelf, and overall I'm really happy with what was added. The Kraal is a crazy awesome crowdsourced hex map of an arctic area, and I've stolen a lot of good stuff that has really started to make the wilderness feel like a living place, not just a vehicle for burning rations between marked locations on the map. I still need to flesh some stuff out, but I like what's there so far.
Speaking of which, as the group was coming to a stopping point near dusk, they spotted the ruins of a small inn and trading post, apparently as ancient as the Volsungril mine and probably serving the traffic that used to pass that way. They burned some torches and got their hirelings in a police line and searched the place pretty thoroughly, but didn't find much. Then, during the night, Yllgrad the dwarf was on watch and heard a faint scratching sound. Investigating, he found a trap door buried under some rubble, and when he opened it, he found a cellar. He impetuously jumped into the cellar after sending calling for the rest of the party to wake up, but didn't wait for their help. He found a wine cellar, then a storage room and around that time everybody else showed up.
So, they're checking out the nondescript storage room with an enticing strongbox when BAM! a huge, disgusting undead beastie bursts through the cellar wall and attacks! Now, I made this monster up myself (rules below) because all I knew before they found this place was that there should be something creepy there at night. I was all excited to run this (I thought) scary monster against unprepared and largely unarmored (!) characters, but you know what? They wasted it in like 3 rounds, with only a scratch to the dwarf, damage-wise. And that was without their minions. I really need to work on my sense of challenge scale.
I've actually arrived at a new philosophy due to this, and other experiences: your players can handle it. Anytime you're wondering if you should spring something on the group, repeat that mantra. It might take desperate creativity, multiple character deaths, and unorthodox solutions, but they will totally wreck every dangerous thing you throw at them. So don't pull your punches.
Anyway, after dispatching this fat nasty thing with a gaping maw, they break open the strong box, finding a fair amount of gold ,and then our alcoholic former nobleman checks out the wine and determines that he's maybe heard of the vintage, somewhere, and it ought to be worth some money. So they drink one bottle, then haul the other 159 out and take some special precautions to transport it, and hope to get some money for it.
After that, they start out again for Silverdelf, and one of the clerics (Caleb, cleric of Hrokr, the Crow Father) uses his favorite spell, speak with animals to try to get some info about the area. I ended up doing a lot of animal impersonations this game (squirrel, sparrow, owl). I try to give each animal a personality based on what they're like, vague memories of Redwall characterizations, and what seems fitting at the time. I also make it a point that they're, you know, animals. They can have perfectly intelligible conversations, but they don't care about the same stuff we do or make the same distinctions. They don't have the same concepts of distance or time, they care a lot about food. That sort of thing. The more 'supernatural' the critter (like crows and cats, maybe) the more person-like their thoughts and conversations will be. At any rate, they heard about some Great Owl that "knows things" and decide maybe that'd be cool to find, so they vaguely set their course in the direction indicated by a helpful sparrow, but mostly keep heading for Silverdelf. The next night of camping, they end up encountering the Great Owl. Now, they had learned from one of the animals or another that it will answer questions, but only a limited number (turns out it was 3). Earn (Cleric of Dwyn, the Oak Mother) wastes the first question with "What's up?" and gets the response "the sky". The owl won't engage in conversation besides answering questions, and mostly just stared at the party. They ended up asking about the Volsungril mine and mostly just confirming what they already knew about it (I wish I had thought of more details to make it even cooler, I hate to waste a cool mystical question answer about something the players are already invested in), and then about what Trolls fear (fire, being bested in a deal, and their gods). Then it mysteriously flew off to the Northwest. They hope to find it again sometime and maybe learn some more things, and I think that's cool. I need to work on more connections across the map so things feel interrelated and point in different directions.
They made it back to Silverdelf and commission some wine racks for their new haul, and otherwise stock up on provisions and set out the next morning for Mickleheim, giant captives still in tow. I *really* need to be making them more of a pain in the ass. So far all they've done is eat extra rations. I ought to come up with escape chances and increased likelihood of wagons breaking down and all that jazz.
So, the road to Mickleheim has been established as pretty safe, so I let them get there no problem, but we call it a night as we were coming up on our time limit (midnight, my time). I've adopted from Zak S. the incredibly wise procedure of stopping play about to go somewhere/start something rather than after resolving something. This allows me to go "hey guys, what are you planning on doing next time?" Now, sure, often this changes or is just vague, but it allows me to triage prep time most effectively. I certainly don't try to plan out what they're gonna do when they get places, I just try to make sure there's stuff there for them to interact with, and I have enough of a rough idea of everything else that I can wing it for a session or so, it just might be a little flat.
At any rate, this discussion led to the decision to go check out the volcano on the newly detailed and awesomed map. I think I discovered a principle of refereeing: Checkhov's Volcano. "If there is a volcano introduced on the map, players will go there eventually". It's the one thing our usually fairly "along for the ride" player has strongly pushed for, so I want to do it justice and really bring the awesome. I also see it as my chance to do my first real stand alone dungeon entirely from scratch for this campaign. I've used lots of geomorphs, random generators, pieces from published adventures, and otherwise mostly kitbashed stuff rather than doing it from scratch. And where it has been from scratch, it's mostly been as part of Fellhold, which has its own stuff going on. So the chance to do a stand alone, strongly themed dungeon of a decent size as a complete unit is new and both exciting and scary. I just have to have enough for one night's worth of play ready for next Monday night, and I want it to be awesome.
For rules, the Disgusting Undead Abomination the players made short work of in the basement:
Disgusting Undead Abomination
Attacks: Claw/Claw, Special: Bite (1d6/1d6, 1d8)
Saving Throw: 12
Special: On a natural hit of 16+, grapple and bite for 1d8 damage and drain 1 point of CON. Anyone reduced to 0 CON dies, and anyone killed by damage or CON drain raises in one round as a ghoul that will eventually turn into a Disgusting Undead Abomination
Number Encountered: 1
Challenge Level/XP: 7/600