Sunday, June 28, 2015

Idalium Game 24: Heart of Darkness

Session date: Monday, June 15, 2015
Game date: Saturday, April 13, 208

Tod P. Quasit, Jr., Fighter 2, hp 14, xp 3129/4000
Gulleck Stonefoot, Dwarf 2, hp 10, xp 2664/4400
Tyrriel, Elf 1, hp 3, xp 2743/4000
Caryatid, Magic-user 2, hp 8, xp 3692/5000
Vito Aneti, Thief 2, hp 10, xp 1540/2400

Brother Jibber, Cleric 1, hp 5, xp 1167/1500
Gaspar, Fighter 1, hp 3, xp 36/2000
Wilhelm, Magic-user 1, hp 4, xp 1102/2500
Ylil, Thief 2, hp 5, xp 1320/2400
Sprat, Thief 1, hp 3, xp 254/1200

Today we had a full house of players, for the first time in quite a while! Emboldened by their numbers, the Infestation Managers set forth with a mission: To claim the Beating Heart in the Hero's Tomb. But first, they had to find the Hero's Tomb. Happily, they now had three people in the party who could read Ancient Idalian, and so they intended to spend some time researching the records room in the caretaker's quarters.

They traveled through the streets of buried Idalium without encountering anyone, and made their way through the temple of the dead without event. They descended into the catacombs and cautiously made their way to the caretaker's rooms. The living room was still draped in dried webs from the giant dessicated spider corpse that still lay in this room. As the party looked around the room, Gulleck noticed the painting on the wall of the harbor south of the city of Idalium at the shore of the Great Sea, and remembered a reference in the caretaker's letter to "the treasure beyond the sea". Carefully, he lifted the painting down from the wall, and discovered a crudely bricked up cavity in the wall. The mortar was old and crumbly and it took little time to chip it away with a crowbar, and pull the bricks from the wall. Inside the cavity, they found several sacks full of silver and gold coins, and a small velvet pouch containing four very nice gems. Very pleased with their success, the party tucked the coins and gems away and proceeded to the records room.

In the records room, Tyrriel, Wilhelm, and Vito, who were all able to read Ancient Idalian, set to work looking through the card catalog containing the index to the records of the deceased. The rest of the party guarded the closed door. After half an hour or so, Vito discovered a map of the catacomb system. It was water damaged and faded, but they were able to add a few areas to their own map. Tyrriel and Wilhelm, meanwhile, were looking for information on heroes of Idalium. Most references did not seem relevant, but eventually they found a reference to a General Sevintius, who led vast armies into battle to expand the mighty Empire of Idalium. He had been buried with honors in a tomb in the catacombs. They cross-referenced the location to their newly-found map, and quickly headed out to find it.

When they got to the location indicated by the map, they found that there was no tomb door there. Before they could address this puzzle, a half dozen bodies rolled from the crypt niches further down the corridor. The corpses pulled themselves to their feet and started to lurch towards the group. One of the zombies flailed at Tod, wounding him, but he retaliated by slicing its arm off! Then Brother Jibber raised his holy sun disc and spoke a fervent prayer that drove the zombies back, while the others pelted them with sling stones and crossbow bolts until they fell senseless to the ground.

Tyrriel now turned to examine the wall very carefully, and discovered that the entrance had been bricked up and plastered over so skillfully that there was no sign of there ever having been an opening there, unless you knew to look for it. Gulleck and Tod brought out their crowbars and began tearing away the plaster and then pulling bricks out into the hallway. This made a tremendous noise, triggered a wandering monster check for every turn that it took them to bring down the wall. First three giant beetles approached. They were not immediately hostile, so Gulleck kicked across the arm that Tod had chopped off of the zombie. The beetles eagerly began to tear at the decomposed flesh, and Tod and Gulleck returned to their work at the wall. Next, the noise attracted an enormous pack of several dozen ordinary rats). Gulleck and Tod gingerly flipped the rest of a zombie body over in their direction, and were pleased to see that the rats as well were content to feast on the ancient corpse. Several of the party lit torches to brandish at the rats should they approach.

Eventually, the bricks were cleared from the wall, and the party cautiously stepped into the secret tomb. A large stone sarcophagus occupied the center of the room. On the lid was painted the image of a man in repose, a beautiful sword laid atop his body. The walls were painted with scenes of General Sevintius leading an army of Idalians against a horde of barbarians, wielding a sword that glowed with an bright light. Gulleck walked around the sarcophagus, and discovered behind it a three-foot square area on the opposite wall that had obviously been plastered over. He stuck his crossbar through the plaster and found that it penetrated easily into an open space. Proceeding to tear away the plaster and lath, he soon opened up the entrance to a tight crawlspace. Crouching down to peer along the crawlspace he could see that it extended perhaps thirty feet before opening up into a small room that was lit by an eerie red glow. And as he looked, he became aware of a faint thumping coming up the crawlspace, a sound like the beating of a heart.

Gulleck and Tyrriel nervously crawled into the crawlspace, a rope attached to Gulleck in case he needed to be pulled back in a hurry. At the end of the tunnel, they found a small shrine. Strangely carved wooden icons stood on a small altar, upon which they discovered what looked like a large human heart. It glistened in the eerie red glow that pervaded the room, and as they watched it, they saw that it was visibly beating, and the throbbing thumps were loud in the small room.

Gulleck gingerly reached a hand out and prodded the heart. It was squishy like flesh. He carefully picked it up. Suddenly, from back along the crawlspace, there was the sudden scraping of stone upon stone, and then came Brother Jibber's unmistakable shriek of fear.

Back in the tomb, the lid of the sarcophagus was suddenly pushed aside from within, and a withered body sat up in its coffin. It was practically mummified, thin skin stretched tightly over bone. As it emerged from the sarcophagus, the atmosphere in the room suddenly became chill and dim, and the PCs all felt a panicky terror welling up inside of them, as if their very souls were being tugged away from their bodies.

The creature quickly threw its legs over the side of the sarcophagus and stood up. As it did so, a sword in its scabbard clattered onto the stone floor of the tomb. Gaspar backed up and sent an arrow into the thing's chest, but it didn't seem to bother it at all. It seemed to leer at him and then grabbed the arrow and snapped it off. Caryatid quickly spoke the words of the Magic Missile spell and a glowing golden arrow shot deep into the thing's chest. This time it staggered and seemed wounded.

Tod lunged for the sword on the ground, but the horrible creature turned towards with a grimace. It reached forward and seized Tod by the shoulder, digging its cold fingers into his collarbone. Tod's face turned pale as he felt his very essence being sapped by this unholy fiend. It released him with a snarl and he staggered back, slumping against the wall.

Meanwhile, Tyrriel and Gulleck were frantically trying to destroy the heart with axe and sword but couldn't manage to hit it. (I made them roll attacks vs AC 9, since even though it was a stationary target they were rattled and rushed.) Tyrriel swears to this day she saw it twitch away from her sword.

The thing in the tomb room turned towards Ylil, reaching a hand towards him. But Caryatid spoke the words of Magic Missile again, and a second arrow flew unerringly into the creature's chest. The unholy spark in its eyes faded and it crashed to the floor. Solo kill for the magic-user! The cold, oppressive atmosphere immediately lifted as quickly as it had fallen.

The party hurriedly regrouped in the tomb. The heart had stopped beating and Tyrriel put it in a sack tied to her belt. After carefully lifting Sevintius's body back into his sarcophagus and replacing the lid (apparently dead war heroes still command some respect even after they've turned into hideous undead monstrosities), the party set out, making haste to return to the Rusty Lantern.

They were almost out of the catacombs when a handful of skeletons emerged from the niches along the walls of the hall. As they approached the party, Tyrriel could feel the heart begin to throb in the pouch on her belt, and began to grow warm. The sound of its beating filled the hall. "Aaaah, you take it!" Tyrriel yelped, and thrust the bag into Gulleck's hands. Gulleck tried to silence the heart by smashing it against the wall, but it kept beating and the skeletons began to lunge forward. Suddenly, as if driven by an inner wisdom that came from somewhere unfamiliar, Gulleck drew forth the beating heart and held it aloft. The skeletons stopped and seemed to gaze at it in rapture. Then they all prostrated themselves in front of the party, bowed over in a kowtow posture.

"Go back where you came from!" Gulleck boomed, and the skeletons meekly retreated into their crypt niches. "And stay there for a thousand years," Gulleck added hopefully.

Excited by this new power over the undead, but wary of what horrible cost on their souls it might exact, the adventurers quickly continued on their way out. On the way, they encountered the horrible nine foot grublike monstrosity that had paralyzed Gulleck last week. It didn't attack immediately, so at first they were going to just keep walking away. But Tyrriel decided she wanted to acquire its paralyzing tentacles to sell or research or make some kind of use of, so a quick Sleep spell from her rendered the enormous beast motionless. A quick blow of a sword killed it, and Tyrriel sliced off the eight tentacles around its mouth and carefully packed them into some empty flasks she had been carrying around for this kind of thing.

They made it back to the Rusty Lantern safely, elated to have discovered the Beating Heart, but deeply uneasy about possessing it, and looking forward with some dread towards their inevitable confrontation with Gregor Snapespindle, who had charged them with finding the Heart but whom they knew could not be allowed to take possession of it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Idalium Game 23: Comfortably Numb

Session date: Monday, June 1, 2015
Game date: Saturday, April 6, 208

Gulleck Stonefoot, Dwarf 2, hp 10, xp 2593/4400
Caryatid, Magic-user 2, hp 8, xp 3621/5000

Gaspar, Fighter 1, hp 3, xp 0/2000
Ylil, Thief 2, hp 5, xp 1284/2400

Another thin crowd on game night, so the Dynamic Duo of Gulleck and Caryatid set out on their own again. Well, not entirely on their own: Gulleck recruited Shorty "The Mouse" again, hoping to make use of her magic undead-slaying sword. Shorty was willing to join the team again, but this time asked for an upfront minimum payment of 1,000 silver shekels (since the last time was a complete bust in the treasure department). Gulleck also hired a new retainer to replace the tragically lost Rutger: a fighter named Gaspar, of rather ordinary strength but unusually nimble.

Back to the catacombs they went, in the grudging service of the horrible necromancer Gregor Snapespindle, whose wrath they did not wish to incur. On the way they met a group of nervous gnomes. The gnomes were high-strung because, as they told the party once they settled down, they had barely escaped with their lives from an enormous slug-like monster. They said its lair was strewn with thousands of coins and also a very shiny battleaxe, but when they went in to collect the treasure, the horrible beast emerged from a hole and nearly devoured them. They gave Gulleck some vague directions to the lair, and the two groups went on their way.

Gulleck and Caryatid wanted to doublecheck the records room they found in the caretaker's quarters. They were hoping to find some sort of reference to "The Hero's Tomb" or the map that the enciphered scroll had referred to. They made their way to the caretaker's quarters, and Gulleck carefully opened the door and looked in. In their absence, the room had been filled with gigantic sticky webs, and a giant glistening black spider across the room turned towards the door and began striding across the floor towards them.

Gulleck attempted to quickly close the door, but the spider was too quick for him. It rammed its head and part of its body into the doorway. Alas, I rolled a natural 20 for the spider's attack roll, and the venomous fangs of the black widow pierced deeply into Gulleck's arm. Gulleck's player chose to roll the big green d30 for his saving throw, but even with those odds (and his exceptional dwarven saving throws) he failed his save vs. poison! He was a dead man walking, but not down yet.

Gulleck plunged Shorty's magical sword into the spider's head before it could bite again, but the damage was already done. Gulleck limped with the rest of the party back out of the catacombs. No one was sure what they could do to save him, but the question was rendered moot, for just as they made their way back up the stairs leading out of the catacombs, Gulleck dropped to his knees, foaming at the mouth, and then collapsed against a wall, blue in the face and breathing no more.

Caryatid and Ylil picked up Gulleck's body between the two of them and the group moved as quickly as they could through the buried streets of Ancient Idalium to the temple of hedonism, where they knew they could pass through to the mystical pool that could revive the dead. They made their way uneventfully to the temple, but when they got to the hallway that led to the staircase down the second level they discovered that the crystal guardian statue had reformed! (It had been shattered by unknown persons the last time they were here.) There was a brief debate over who, if anyone, still had the robes of the temple that would allow them passage, but then Caryatid got tired of dithering and simply blasted the statue with magic missiles, shattering it into tiny fragments.

They made it to the pool without mishap, and they lowered Gulleck into the slippery waters. A few anxious moments passed, and then the dwarf's arms came splashing above the surface, and they pulled him out. He was ruddy of complexion again, and the wound in his arm had completely disappeared. Gulleck felt better than he had in months (since the last time he had taken a dip in this pool, to be precise!).

Now that that was sorted out, the party headed back again to the catacombs. They moved carefully through the halls, but disturbed the rest of a dozen skeletons, which chased the party through the halls until they ran into the caretaker's quarters and slammed the door shut behind them. They found the records room, but without anyone who could read Ancient Idalian, they were unable to made heads or tails of the obscure filing system.

Abandoning this line of inquiry, Gulleck suggested they pursue the treasure the gnomes had told them about. It had been so very long since the party had acquired any significant amount of treasure! It seemed the skeletons had lost interest and wandered off or returned to their rest, so the group set out again, heading west. They passed through more narrow catacomb halls lined with funerary niches, and into smoothly carved stone corridors with occasional elegantly carved mausoleum doors. ("The upscale side of the catacombs, I see!") Eventually, they came to an intersection where a hall to the west produced a terrible foul odor of active rot and decay. Creeping along the hall, they found it to open up into a room filled with rotting corpses, scraps of meat, vegetable matter, and other less identifiable debris. On the floor glittered thousands of copper and silver coins, and a shiny battleaxe glimmered in the lantern light.

But as the group entered the doorway, a freakish creature emerged from a burrow on the opposite side of the room. It resembled an enormous caterpillar or grub or centipede, with dozens of legs, but it was roughly three feet in diameter and at least nine feet long! Its faceted insectile eyes stared blankly at the adventurers, and around its chewing mandibles was a ring of bizarre tentacle-like growths, waving hungrily towards its prey. It moved with remarkable speed, crawling up onto the wall and ceiling and it scurried towards the adventurers.

Gulleck and Gaspar held their ground in the doorway as the horrible beast approached. Shorty managed to nick the thing's carapace with an arrow shot from over Gulleck's head, but it kept coming. It lunged at Gulleck, and multiple tentacles wrapped around the flesh of his arm and face. He felt a cold stinging sensation, and then suddenly his entire body went limp and numb, and yet again he slumped down onto the dirty dungeon floor.

Caryatid drew forth the magical wand they had discovered in the hall of records some weeks ago. She stepped forward past Shorty to point the wand at the crawling horror and released the power within the gnarled stick. The beast reared back in panic, and then, moving faster than ever, it scurried back along the wall and into its burrow, its long bulk wriggling into the wall and vanishing from sight.

Caryatid poured oil around the entrance to its burrow and lit it on fire, in the hopes of further discouraging the creature's return. The adventurers then turned their efforts towards scooping as many coins as possible into their backpacks. There were clearly too many coins to carry out in one trip, but they gathered as many as they could fit. Most of the coins were just copper bits, but they were mingled with the silver and there was no time to try to pick out only the more valuable coins. Gulleck regained control over his body about twenty minutes later, and took up the shiny battleaxe, beautifully made and clearly of dwarven craftsmanship! It was perfectly balanced in Gulleck's hand, and he looked forward for a chance to put it to the test.

Having gathered as many coins as possible, the party quickly fled this stinking room and made their way back out of the catacombs. Just as they got near the stairs out, a group of hideous undead monstrosities heaved their way out of the catacomb niches in front of them, and the air was filled with the sickly sweet stench of the ghouls. The adventurers flinched, ready for combat, but the ghouls seemed to recognize Gulleck and Caryatid, and stepped aside, allowing them to pass, even while snarling and hissing at them.

"What the heck was that?" said Shorty after they had emerged at the top of the stairs leading out of the crypts. "Why didn't they attack us?"
"Uh, I don't know," lied Gulleck.
"Maybe it's that new axe," suggested Caryatid. "Who knows what powers it has?"
"Oh, maybe," said Shorty, a bit doubtful.

Gulleck was in no hurry to reveal to his friend and rival that he was in fact working for an evil necromancer. But Shorty didn't push the issue, and they made it back to the Rusty Lantern without further issue.

Monday, June 8, 2015

House Rule: Firing Into Melee

Basic/Expert D&D doesn't have anything to say about firing into melee. A lot of editions level rather punitive penalties against this (AD&D had you randomly determine your target before rolling to hit!) with the result being that people generally don't even attempt to use missile weapons in a close combat.

I don't care for that for a variety of reasons. First, B/X is lethal enough as is and the PCs could use the extra help of a back line of archers. Second, I'd rather give the players in the back ranks something to do while the front rank fights hand-to-hand. Third, I've never heard of any version of D&D allowing for the melee weapon equivalent of "friendly fire". Why subject archers to a significant risk of hitting their friends when the guys in front can wave their swords around wildly and never worry about hitting the wrong person?

So what I do is apply a -2 penalty to the missile attack roll for every ally between the attacker and their target. This could be modified if the target is significantly bigger or smaller than the allies in the way. My assumption is that if the attacker can't get a clear shot because of allies in the way, they will simply hold their fire. I allow for the possibility of friendly fire only if the attacker rolls a natural 1. If that happens, I randomly determine which ally was targeted instead and then have the attacker roll another attack against the ally's armor class.

This never came up in play until session 21, when Ylil's player rolled a natural 1 for his sling attack. Of the three allies between him and his target, I randomly rolled that Brother Jedidiah was the unfortunate accidental victim. Ylil's player rolled very high on the second attack roll, and the end result was that Brother Jedidiah took a sling stone right in the back of the head at close range and expired on the spot.

It's a tough job, adventuring...

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.