Last Sunday was Session 15 in our Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition campaign. I’m the “Dungeon Master”, and the players are my 20-year-old son and his chums. They were looking for an immersive “old school” campaign experience, so that’s what I am trying to deliver for them.
I started out playing D&D in 1982, in heady, role-play rich games that were infused with the influences of Tolkien, Moorcock and Zelazny. Saving the world in these games happened in dark crypts, storm-shattered battlefields, and crystal-lit ballrooms. Characters had to be able to “do battle” both physically, mentally and politically, lest opposing forces of Evil undo their Good works. Evil Tyrants and their Dark Masters mercilessly tried to exploit the weaknesses and Achilles’ Heels of the characters; the greatness of the stories we collectively told was found in the humanity of being the Good Guy anyway.
The setting for the game I am running is called the “Duchy of the Mists”. It’s an Australia-inspired* fantasy-medieval penal colony proto-nation, rife with intrigue and danger. The Characters have all recently opted, for a variety of reasons, to take up the risk-filled life of a Frontier Adventurer. Realizing that their native home is a dangerous place, they decided to cut their teeth as Caravan Guards for an affluent, silver-haired Caravan Mistress hiring a bit of extra muscle.
* For the record “Australia-inspired” is an understatement; it’s like a horrifying Frankenstein’s monster of Australia’s wild life, Canada’s climate, Germany’s landscape and South America’s nack for poison/venom. It is truly terrifying. — Player of Fighter-Rogue Dolf Lungglen
Her story is that she is expecting a bit of aggravation from a rival, and so she is hiring a few Frontier Adventurers to essentially send the message that messing with her is a fool’s errand. She already is accompanied by a young and talented bodyguard, so with the addition of the 3 characters, she is surrounded by a substantial amount of firepower. She fully expects that the 21-day trip to the North East corner of the Duchy will be boring. However, if the Characters have to actually pull their swords on any given leg of the trip, she’ll double their pay.
The pay is reasonable, the risk is low, and it’s travel on the road through a series of towns and a city none of them has been to. The Party is colourful and diverse, with dreams of power, treasure and greatness:
- Fey-Warlock Chronormu Bastet Von Fey de Luna II, AKA “Chromie”, a Lawful-Evil Half-Elf Spy who is 2nd Generation children of criminals
- Fighter-Rogue Dolf Lungglen, AKA “Eyes”, a Neutral-Good Hill-Dwarf Sailor who is 1st Generation children of criminals
- Priest Hoi Heartorb, AKA “Heart”, a Lawful Good Human Sailor who is 1st Generation children of criminals
The first hint that something is amiss is that Dame Stibliea, the Caravan Mistress, tells them on departure day that her personal Bodyguard has been injured and will not be joining them on the trip. Then, there is an ambush of bandits waiting for them at a popular Caravan campsite on the road, two days from their starting town. The fight is brutal, with the enemy aggressive and using flanking manoeuvres and surprise. Afterwards, the Party search the area and find the campsite the “Bandits” were using. There, they find written orders from the head of a local Thieves Guild describing the Caravan Mistress, with orders to kill her and bring back the “Black Coffin”.
At the next town, the Caravan Mistress hires another guard:
- Ranger Elyas Wolfsbrother, AKA “Wolf”, a Chaotic-Good Wood-Elf Outlander who is from the North Country on business
A week later, on the border between two Provinces, another incident occurs. A pair of Ogres attack the Caravan, and after a savage fight, the Party yet again finds that the two evil creatures were acting under orders as hired muscle to stop the Caravan and “bring the black box to the creepy-magic man”.
With interactions and role-play each night with their Patroness, the members of the Caravan, and others they meet in the towns and places they stop, it becomes more and more clear to the Party that “Dame Stibliea” has not been entirely honest with the Party as to what is going on, nor who she is. With a sense that the situation is spiralling out of control, the group make camp at yet another popular Caravan Waypoint.
A new Character joins the group at this point; an Elven Barbarianess, sent by the Clan Matriarch as a favour to the Regent of the Castle-Town of Crierton to escort the Caravan the couple of days remaining to the town.
- Barbarian Grizelda, aka “Raven”, a Lawful Neutral Wood-Elf Hermit who is 1st Generation children of criminals
After a bit of initial paranoid suspicion, Grizelda wins everyone’s trust and becomes part of the Party. Then, the Dwarf and the Ranger spot an odd geological formation on a cliff overlooking the small lake they are near. Some investigation reveals it to be an ancient statue, Elven in origin. However, what is disconcerting is that the Dwarf can handily tell, via his Stone Cunning ability, that the weathering on the stone means the statue has been here for more than a hundred years; which means that it pre-dates the Duchy by at least a quarter century.
This is impossible, by all convention. The Duchy was an undiscovered, unpopulated, uncivilized wilderness that it has taken tremendous effort to begin to tame over the past 75 years. When they Party shows the Elven Harvest Statue to their Patroness, Dame Stibliea, she visibly pales. Clearly upset, she orders them to cover it up to its previous condition, and never speak of it again. Better yet, forget they ever saw it.
When the Caravan reaches the Castle-Town of Crierton, everything seems to be business as usual. Grizelda’s Clan has already returned to their Clan-Hold, so she opts to remain in the loud and busy town for a couple of days with the Party. Over the next two days, the Party becomes very convinced there is something Very Wrong going on in Crierton. Working in pairs, the group uncovers the work of an infamous Apocalypse Cult that uses the Undead as tools and weapons in their plans.
Then, what seems “inexplicably”, as the original party returns to the Caravan on the second night, they are greeted by chaos and panic. They are told that the Elven Barbarianess Grizelda has kidnapped Dame Stibliea. A trio of town guards trying to stop her was beaten unconscious. She then fled into the Catacombs District of the Castle-Town; right where the rest of the Party have determined the Cult of Aethanarax are based out of.
The group hastily loads up and launches a pursuit, and follows the trail of the fleeing Barbarianess to the door of an old Crypt. The door opens with little resistance inside, and the group finds evidence of a dramatic battle. At the back of the Crypt, a hidden door leads downwards.
The Party presses on, to be immediately attacked by a trio of venomous giant spiders, obviously used as Guard Dogs by the Cult. The battle goes badly, and the Party retreats to regroup and heal their wounds before redoubling the effort an hour later.
The Party battles their way past Giant Centipedes, fire-hurling Gargoyles, a then an open grave-room of Zombies and a Ghoul. They narrowly avoid being ambushed by a Mimic and immediately have returning couple Cultists blunder into them. Before the Party can control the situation, one of the Cultists manages to raise the alarm, alerting the others nearby in the Underground Lair of the invading Adventurers.
Another pitched battle ensues where the Party are nearly laid low, save for an Invocation of Divinity by the Cleric that gets everyone back on their feet in the nick of time. The Fey-Warlock presses ahead alone, to discover the Villainess and her Lieutenant in the process of some unholy Ritual, about to sacrifice a town girl. Realizing there is nothing he can do to save the girl, but determined to stop the Ritual from being completed, the Fey-Warlock kills the girl with a blast of Eldritch energy.
The Villainess curses and rages, and vows that she will use the Warlock as a replacement. She and her Lieutenant charge after the fleeing Warlock, who is unwittingly and unerringly leading the two dangerous foes back to the chamber where the rest of the Party are just getting back on their feet.
In the next instalment of “What Just Happened”, I’ll review what has been going on with Barbarianess Griselda and Dame Stibliea from the point of the “kidnapping” onwards.