Monday, June 8, 2015

Idalium Game 22: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

Session date: Monday, May 4, 2015
Game date: Saturday, March 30, 208

Tod P. Quasit, Jr., Fighter 2, hp 14, xp 3105/4000
Gulleck Stonefoot, Dwarf 2, hp 10, xp 2571/4400
Caryatid, Magic-user 2, hp 8, xp 3599/5000
Vito Aneti, Thief 2, hp 10, xp 1516/2400

Brother Jibber, Cleric 1, hp 5, xp 1155/1500
Rutger, Fighter 1, hp 9, xp 614/2000
Ylil, Thief 2, hp 5, xp 1273/2400
Brother Jedidiah, Cleric 1, hp 1, xp 24/1500

This was to be the last session before a three week hiatus, as I was going on vacation with my family, so I told my players to make it a doozy. And while I'm not sure it turned out the way they hoped, it certainly left the campaign on an interesting cliffhanger!

Tod, Gulleck, Caryatid, and Vito reunited at the Rusty Lantern, ready to head back down to the catacombs in search of the necromancer Gregor Snapespindle and the brazen head he had stolen from the Runcible Trading House auction. Rather than bring his retainer Sprat along, Vito invited Brother Jedidiah to come with them again, with the idea that two clerics would be extra useful in the undead-ridden crypts below the city.

When they arrived at the Rusty Lantern, they found the tavern occupied by the Night Walkers, an unfriendly NPC party whose relationship with the PCs had escalated from rivalry to venomous hatred. Led by a pair of arrogant elf brothers named Death Watch and Cobweb, the Night Walkers mostly consisted of equally cutthroat and mercenary scoundrels, except for two dimwitted but good-natured dupes. One of those dupes was no longer with the party now.

"Ah, the 'Rat Catchers'," quipped Death Watch grimly. "It seems you have lived up to your name and caught a rat: our dearly departed friend George." It transpired that the Night Walkers had found Vito's offering of wine, that he had tainted with rat poison, and the elf brothers had ordered George to be their taster. "I hope you are proud of yourself. We shall abide by the rules of the Adventurers' Guild up here, but make no mistake - we shall have avenge our comrade."

(This was honestly all the result of a series of random die rolls that I make at the top of every session to determine if anyone else is at the tavern and what their situation is, but it fit so perfectly with the events of prior sessions. Sometimes the dice just seem to "know"!)

Leaving the Night Walkers behind, the Infestation Managers descended into the ruined city of Ancient Idalium. Down along now familiar corridors went the party, making their way to the plaza of the dead. They were cautious, in case the temple was still claimed by the bandits they had skirmished with a few days prior. In the plaza they encountered a group of giant bees, lapping at a sticky puddle of spilled wine. They seemed groggy and sluggish, and the party was able to pass them at a distance and move on by.

In the vestibule of the temple, Gulleck's attention was quickly drawn by a drop of blood which fell from ceiling to floor before him. He looked up, and discovered a flock of stirges clinging to the ceiling, bloated and sleepy. Blood dripped from their ruddy beaks. They seemed satiated, and did not stir as the group crept nervously beneath them.

In the hall of the temple, the group beheld a dreadful sight. Roughly a dozen knockers were dragging a dead human body deeper into the temple. The body was pale and dessicated in appearance, but they recognized it as being George, formerly with the Night Walkers.

"What do you think you're doing?" yelled the party at the horrid, shriveled gnome-like creatures.
"We come for the bounty," hissed the lead knocker, and they continued with their grim funereal procession.

The party argued briefly over whether to kill the monstrosities out of respect for George, but curiosity overruled that urge, and they cautiously followed the knockers into the chapel. In the chapel, they encountered a terrified bandit, presumably from the gang they faced several days before. His face was aghast at the sight of the knockers and their horrible cargo.

"You still here?" snapped Gulleck.
"Uh, we don't want any trouble this time!" whimpered the bandit. "The Night Walkers tricked us. This place isn't safe at all! We're just trying to get out of here."

They left the pathetic bandit behind and followed the knockers behind the large statue of the skeletal reaper and set eyes upon an even stranger sight. The great iron doors to the catacombs had opened, and a party of walking skeletons had emerged. The skeletons handed a few tarnished grave goods to the knockers - a copper urn and a bronze torq - and then took up the body of George and carried off down the stairs into the darkness. The knockers likewise retreated back out of the temple, glaring at the party as they did.

After taking a moment to collect themselves, and newly concerned about Snapespindle now that it seemed he was paying a bounty for corpses to the knockers, the group descended into the catacombs. The giant rats were still scurrying around the room at the bottom of the stairs, squeaking and hissing at the adventurers. Coins still lay scattered throughout their nests of shredded shrouds. Several of the party lit torches to frighten the rats away, and then Vito had an idea to put his remaining rat poison to its intended use. Gulleck had some rations in his backpack, and they quickly sprinkled the rest of the poison powder over the food and then tossed it towards the rats.

But then, a terrible thing happened. While they were taking the time to mess around with the rat poison, a wandering pack of ghouls approached from the western crypt hall. So many things went wrong here. I rolled arguably the most dangerous monster on the wandering monster table, and then rolled the maximum number appearing (six). The PCs were scattered around the room rather than in a tight battle formation in a doorway or hall. And then they lost initiative for the first round. On the bright side, the rats scattered in fear of the ghouls and didn't seize the opportunity to pile on as well.

The ghouls fell upon the party, tearing at them with tooth and claw. Rutger and Caryatid were struck before they could react, and were stricken with a paralyzing fear, and every muscle went rigid in their bodies, as though they were trapped in the sort of nightmare where you are being chased but you can't move or run. The rest of the party attempted to regroup into a proper formation and fall back to the foot of the stairs where they could fight the ghouls one or two at a time.

Brother Jedidiah raised his holy symbol aloft and uttered a nervous prayer. Though terrified, he mustered enough faith to ward off one of the savage beasts, which retreated back to the crypt hall, snarling and hissing at the elderly acolyte. Brother Jibber took a more direct approach and rummaged through his backpack for his vials of holy water. He hurled the blessed water at one of the ghouls, and it recoiled in agony. The dead flesh on its face rippled and melted where the water had splashed it, and the unholy creature fell to the ground in spasms, and then was still.

Gulleck, in desperation, dug in his belt pouch for the paper-wrapped fruitcake (labelled "Eat Me" with chopped nuts) that they had found in the bank vault many weeks ago. He quickly chewed and swallowed the small cake, and suddenly he felt terribly odd indeed, as his body doubled in size and suddenly there was an eight foot tall dwarf standing in the hall. This gave the others behind him a bit of protection, but Gulleck himself quickly fell under the paralyzing fear that had gripped Rutger and Caryatid. The ghouls crawled and squeezed past the bulky dwarf to get at Vito and Ylil behind him. They too were quickly rendered immobile.

Brother Jedidiah took one last pot shot with his sling, as he watched his entire party of employers go stock-still and silent, and then turned tail and ran up the stairs, with a final cry of "God be with you!"

All was quiet for a moment. And then the ghouls turned towards their immobile prey with a look of hunger and anticipation on their savage faces. The air filled with the sound of ripping flesh, cracking bones, and snapping teeth.

So... Total Party Kill? I took a bathroom break and considered my options while the players joked about who their next party should be.

Now, I'm certainly not afraid to let PCs die. I don't see much point in having any "danger" in the game (like combat) if it's not "real", with the actual risk of losing your character. And when I'm a player, I take a PC death as an opportunity to try something new and fresh. So I'm certainly not interesting in pulling punches or fudging dices. But TPKs are a bit more problematic. By cutting off the continuity of the party, it can really take the steam out of a campaign. Sure, you can start over with a new party, but it's basically going to have to be a new campaign at that point. So, how can this defeat move the story forward rather than bringing it to a screeching halt?

I returned to the table.

Another lantern light flickered on the walls of the room. A cold voice commanded, "Leave the rest of them, my pets." A man in plate armor stepped into view, accompanied by several more ghouls, which lurked near him like guard dogs. It was Gregor Snapespindle, but his eyes now burned with malevolence. "Well, well, well. What shall I do with you? My pets would like nothing more than for me to allow them to feast on you, but I wonder if you could be more useful to me alive. You are going to come with me, and we shall have a little conversation, and then you will decide your own fate. Serve me, or be left to the tender mercies of my pets." And here he idly stroked the ragged, filthy hair of one of the ghouls, creeping everyone out.

"Bring them!" he barked, and led the way out of the room. More ghouls seemed to crowd in around the PCs, grabbing and pulling at them. Still helpless and unable to move a muscle, the party members were dragged roughly along the flagstones and cobblestones of the crypt, through grim halls lined with wrapped bodies. Eventually they were brought to an empty tomb and bound with rope. Snapespindle said he would return once they were able to converse, and he left them there, watched by several ghouls that he warned to restrain themselves from devouring them.

The minutes passed anxiously, and one by one the PCs regained control of their bodies. Gulleck's enormous visage deflated back to his stout but diminutive norm. Now that they were able to look around themselves, it was discovered that Gulleck's retainer Rutger was no longer with them. Alas, there is always a price to paid when the DM converts a TPK to a more interesting plot twist, and in this case it was the loss of a randomly rolled retainer.

There was some discussion between Tod and Gulleck over whether they could take Snapespindle and his ghouls, but sanity prevailed and they decided to play along with Snapespindle until they could get out of this accursed place. Snapespindle soon returned to them, guarded by several more ghouls. He was clad in blackened plate armor and carried a wicked looking warhammer at his belt, whose head was forged into a leering skull.

Gregor Snapespindle declared calmly to the adventurers that their lives belonged to him now. He told them that there was some source of malevolent power in these catacombs, that was disturbing the sleep of the dead. He sought that source of power, for he believed it would grant him power and control over the dead and bring him forbidden knowledge of the nature of death and how to transcend it. He believed the adventurers could help him find that source of power. He gave them a Hobson's Choice: serve him loyally, or be fed to the ghouls.

He told them how he had stolen the brazen head because the legends told that it was able to answer questions that no one else could. "Shall we go and perform the ritual now?" he asked the group. Surrounded by ghouls, they could only nod and cheerily reply, "After you!"

"How, uh, how do you control them?" Tod asked as they walked, nodding towards the ghouls.
"They know me to be a kindred spirit," replied Snapespindle. "They serve me, and I feed them."

Snapespindle brought them to an empty tomb that he had repurposed as a sort of study. Bookcases held various leather-bound books and scrolls. On a small table in the center of the room sat a silver platter, on which was a life-sized brass head, constructed of riveted brass plates. Its eyes were shut. In the corner of the room lay the body of George, looking still worse for the wear. Snapespindle took up a ewer and a curved knife, and then slashed at the neck of George's corpse and let his blood drain into the ewer. This he mixed with oil from another urn, and poured the combined liquids over the brazen head. He recited a series of incantations from an ancient book over the head, including words in a disturbingly alien language. Then he lit a wooden splint on a candle and touched the flame to the oil and blood in the platter.

Blue flames leapt up around the brazen head. Its brass eyelids snapped open, revealing what looked like living human eyes inside, which darted back and forth frantically.

Brother Jibber's involuntary scream pierced the air.

"Speak," croaked the head, its brazen jaws moving stiffly.

"I seek the source of power that awakens the dead in this place. Where is it?" implored Snapespindle.

"You seek the Beating Heart in the Hero's Tomb." And then the brass eyelids snapped shut, and the flames died out, and all was again still.

"The Beating Heart in the Hero's Tomb," repeated Snapespindle. "Now you know what your aim is. Go now, seek it out, and bring it to me. So long as you are loyal to me, you shall be allowed to live. But do not think to betray, for my servants will be watching you. Return to me when you have what we seek."

He ordered several of his "pets" to escort the party back out of the catacombs. Once they were safely at the top of the stairs in the temple of the dead, they fled as quickly as possible back to the Rusty Lantern tavern, relieved to have been spared a horrible death indeed but deeply disturbed by the Faustian deal they had made.

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