On All Fronts #4: Letters, threats, and blood

If you’re only here for the narrative, look for the boxed text. My GM introspection is sprinkled between those.

We had finished the previous session with the players finding a trapdoor in Nigel Aldain’s office, which lead to an underground cave with three chests, one of which was already open. We ended the session in between the opening of the two other chests, with the players finding elixirs allowing them to transform into elemental forms.

After separating the potions they found, the players open the other chest, and find three bags of coins, a signet ring, paper, ink, and quills, and two letters: one is written on vellum, and its broken seal is huge, and shaped like a horse’s hoof; the second is written on paper, and sealed with the signet found in the chest, which shows a stylized stars, with a small circle between each of its branches.

Click to make larger

The first note is addressed to Nigel, and exposes a bit of the situation with him. It is also quite agressive, openly threatening his children. The other is Nigel’s response to “Master Carne”, responding to their threats with his own. Then follows a brief overview of the results of his research, and the limits he’s been facing.

The PCs conclude that the entire Undead assault is probably Crane going from threat to action, but are far from certain. They also find it weird that the reply letter was not sent, but do not investigate further.

After reading the notes and discussing what they could mean, the PCs decide to leave the money in the chest: while they’re pretty confident about coming back and taking it, they can’t subtly carry around the many hundreds of coins.

In case you do not already use them, I will suggest that letters and notes are a GM’s best friend. Exposition is boring, but letters which offer exposition AND tension are quite useful. The threats makes the PCs pay attention, but also gives them an idea of who the NPCs are: all the PCs know about Carne is that they’re a violent badass, and that makes them interested.

The PCs start exploring the cave further: they find a very narrow tunnel sloping upward to a masonry wall, and a wider, downward tunnel leading to a wooden wall, held in place by grooves set in the rock on all sides.

Phaldrimi tests the wooden wall by knocking on it to confirm it leads to an open space, and then puts her ear to it: she can hear the sound of water falling on the other side.

After a bit of discussion, the players want to avoid crashing the wall open and water surging towards them: they therefore decide to share one of the water elemental elixirs to be able to pass through cracks in the wall, and, if the other side is water, to swim to safety.

As you know if you’ve played a TTRPG before, when I say “after a bit of discussion”, I mean “after 30 minutes of talking through stuff”. I only half listened, making sure they were understanding the situation correctly and answering their questions, so I can’t relate the entire thing, nor do I think it would be interesting anyway. However, this is for many players (including SL, who plays Phaldrimi, and probably others around the table) the most interesting part of the game, so I let them have fun with it.

The PCs pass through the crevaces of the wooden wall in semi-liquid form, and reform at the entrance of an enormous natural cavern. The first thing the players notice is the smell: not quite vinagry, not quite earthy…

Me: It smells like… you know, when you’ve had a headache for a while, and then at some point you go “hey, my head isn’t throbbing anymore”, and you don’t remember how long it’s been, but you know it used to hurt and it doesn’t anymore.

MG: That makes no sense.

Me: That is absolutely the right conclusion, but Braerann’s brain has concluded that that was what this smell was.

Water is falling from the ceiling in a constant flow, feeding into a basin that dominates the room. The pool is reflecting a starry night sky which isn’t there: even if the cavern was open, the stars and colours are all off.

There is a tunnel leading out to the left, and a finished stone platform, with a wooden door, on the far side of the room.

There are multiple creatures, all lying down and immobile: you can see a few skeletons and a zombie; near the water is Nigel, wearing a chain shirt and a scimitar by his side; finally, there are two weird creatures, half-fish, half-octopus, one lying on the stone, and one floating in the pool.

Here I used synesthesia to describe something as alien. Synesthesia is a disorder that leads your brain to associate stimulus of one sense to another: a friend of mine suffers from it, and associates every number with a taste, meaning when he reads the number 1, his brain acts as if he had a mouthful of honey, but the number 6 tastes like old cheese.

The first time he told me, I just couldn’t really comprehend it: I understood all of the words, but couldn’t add them up. Interestingly enough, another friend went “is that like how all B’s are always red?” and that’s when that friend learned that he too was synesthete.

That feeling of understanding all the parts, but not what they mean, is exactly what I want players to feel like when they interact with stuff from another plane, and I found this to be a perfect tool to do so. I assume that the way I portray it is wildly inaccurate from a medical standpoint, but in terms of storytelling, it does exactly what I need it to. Plus, the image you conjure nudges the players towards the tone of the scene: in this case, I did not want them to see the pool as a threat, and therefore set up a positive scene.

Also, the fish creatures, you might have identified from the picture as Aboleths, but they’re not actually Aboleths: I just needed something aquautic, alien-looking, and not too threatening. I took that picture of an Aboleth and modified it a bit.

The players start exploring the cave. First, Braerann checks Nigel. The elf is dead, a gaping wound in his chest, the flesh around it rotten, the telltale sign of necrotic energy. However, they find a blood-covered note in his hand: a message of love for his children, and a… less positive one for his wife.

Arodenn, Pendleton, Mykellia,

Please remember that I love you. I always have, and I always will, dead or alive. I just would have liked you to see the world the way I did when I was your age, before the humans tore down the forests, pierced the mountains and chained the sea.

I'm sorry I have to use you this way. If it makes you feel better to think that I love you, you can have that. I hope you understand that I used your fortune for a far better cause than you would have-

As much as they disliked Hammaria in the interactions they had with her, this letter broke the PCs’ hearts, and there was a long discussion about whether they’d show it to her. In the end, they decided to tear the paper in half, and play it by ear later on.

After making sure everyone else was dead, the PCs started investigating the water. While everybody avoided touching it, Braerann decided to bottle some up, and, in doing so, let some of the water touch his skin. When he did, he had a vision of a ball of light being torn into 4 smaller orbs, one for each element, and for a brief moment, he froze and felt a deep, overwhelming sadness.

Yvarge wanted to know if that vision was unique to Braerann, and touched the water as well: he had a similar experience, but rather than a ball of light, it was the Koru Behemoth his tribe was living on that he saw torn apart and become 4 orbs.

Eliel and Phaldrimi decided not to touch the water: whatever it was, the didn’t want any part of it. They decided to go investigate the door on the far side: it was barred from their side, and once open, it led out into a long tunnel, too long for them to see. Braerann came to investigate with them: as a former smuggler, he knows a thing or two about secret tunnels.

While they’re looking at the tunnel, Yvarge is still playing around with the sky-water. After a few minutes, the rest of the party hear a deafening BOOM, and see a flash of light: when they turn around, the basin is now clear water, and Yvarge is standing on the shore, soaking wet, his right eye looking like a multi-faceted mirror.

So… I love making PCs weird. I love the Goblins comics, where a barbarian is slowly turning into a demon, a goblin has a golem-ish arm, or the villain is somehow half-tree. Or to give players blessings/titles, and accompanying special abilities, when they achieve something major. I LOVE these things, and I was talking with KJ (who plays Yvarge) about those just the week before that game. When he saw the vision-giving water, he put two-and-two together. A few private messages and we were off to the races.

Now I would have been 100% okay to have the players avoid the water completely, and that’s important. I did not tell KJ “hey, please do X”, nor did I force the issue, but I left this there and they made something happen. I also don’t know 100% where this thread is going. I told KJ he’d discover its impacts over time, but I am working with him to see where the line is, and make sure I don’t go against what he wants for his character: I think it would be disrespectful to force his character somewhere without his OK.

After a few minutes of questioning Yvarge about what happened –and he blacked out, remembering water coming up his leg, but nothing after that–, the PCs hear from far away the rumble of thunder, followed by piercing screams of agony. Looking around, they realize that both the slain zombie and Nigel’s corpse are… gone. Oops.

Without time to spare, they find a trail of Nigel’s blood and follow it into the estate’s basement proper (after having found a door blasted open), and there are the two corpses, dragging themselves across the floor towards a staircase. When the PCs try to talk to Nigel, the only think they get back is a snarl. Braerann unceremoniously smashes his skull in, and Phaldrimi does the same with the zombie.

Yet, the screams continue, coming from upstairs. Climbing the stairs towards the top floor, where the rest of the NPCs were locked up in the vault, the screams get louder and louder, and the PCs can hear a strong wind, as if air was pulled up to that floor. The smell of rot is also getting stronger and stronger as they the steps.

When they get to the top floor, the scene is quite different from when they left it. The vacuum and screams are coming from the shrine: the room seems to be emitting thick shadows, covering that side of the corridor in darkness.

Standing in front of the darkness is the Grave Knight they had met earlier. On the other side are four skeletons carrying the unconscious dwarf they had saved earlier, and, next to them, a deformed, feral version of the halfling rogue they had defeated earlier.

I had a bit too much fun on Photoshop over that week. I wanted to make sure that the players recognized Yllara from her token, but also could tell right away that she was now undead, and not that she was an ally of theirs from the beginning.

It worked VERY well.

As the party gets in view of the undead, the Grave Knight raises his stone-tipped spear and points it towards Phaldrimi: she feels this oppressive force, this dark fate. On the large stone tip, Phaldrimi’s full name appears, as if instantly engraved. Under it are two numbers: her birthyear, and the current year.

An intense melee ensues: stuck between the Grave knight on one end, and the skeletons and Yllara on the other, the PCs have to handle two fronts. Using the staircase to funnel the skeletons, Braerann tries to hold the pressure away from Eliel, but they don’t have much room. The ranger is focusing fire on Yllara: “I killed her once, why does she think she’ll get out this time?”

On the other side, the Grave Knight fires off a cone of necrotic energy on the group, and engages both Yvarge and Phaldrimi. Quickly, they need to take rounds off to Rally and recover some health points. As soon as she can, Phaldrimi drinks the Elixir of Stone, hardening her skin and limiting the Grave Knight’s mobility as the floor starts to meld with his boots.

While Braerann is holding off the skeletons, the former halfling spits black sludge towards the dwarf who hates her from the bottom of his heart.

Me: So 19 hits, and you get a mouthful of this dark, foul mucus which burns your face and part of your beard. That deals 8 necrotic damage. Now, is… 11 higher than your Dexterity?

MG: I have 12!

Me: So the muck does NOT get in your mouth.

Entire table: EWWWWWW!

As time advances, the screams from the shrine are getting louder, and the shadows are getting thicker. Skeletons are starting to come out, and Yvarge gets free from the Grave Knight to engage them. After a few rounds of being saved by the Elixir, Phaldrimi’s defenses are finally pierced as the spear draws blood: despite a glancing blow, that intense feeling she was feeling turns to pain as her name is erased from the spear’s tip.

After a few rounds of status quo, the Ghoul is tired of getting hit with arrows: she jumps over the railings of the stairs, and gets in melee with Eliel, slashing at her with its claws. Braerann manages to finish off the skeletons by pushing the last one down the stairs, and rams into it, separating the two. Eliel manages to get loose, and despite very close quarters, takes a shot towards Yllara, killing her once again.

Putting all of her faith and energy in a powerful blow, Phaldrimi’s flail connects with the Grave Knight’s skull: staggered, the undead stares at her, bares its fangs, and yells. As it raises its left hand, and closes it, one of the skeletons engaged with Yvarge crumbles to dust, and a dark cloud of energy leaves it to merge with the Knight, giving it a second wind.

As the shadows get even deeper, the skeletons’ swords become bathed in shadows, and with every cut, Yvarge can feel the burn of his skin’s decay, corroded by the energy of death. While he manages to do short work of them, he is hanging by a thread.

Braerann and Eliel having handled the dead on their front, they go and help Phaldrimi: together, the three of them manage to defeat the Grave Knight. The Paladin’s flail connects one last time, turning its armour and body to ash, leaving only its shield and spear, and a dark orb of negative energy floating, starting to fly towards the shrine.

Before he can think about intercepting it, Yvarge’s mirror eye emits a quick ray of rainbow energy that hits the orb, which instantly dissipates. Confused, but postponing questions, the PCs delve into the shadows, only to see the shrine, walls covered in red sinew, air filled with ash, and the urn they had seen earlier floating in the air, emitting an enormous gateway to a barren wasteland, hands fighting each other to get a grasp on the edge and pull themselves out.

The portal, nearly reaching the ceiling, is getting smaller and smaller by the second. Yvarge, afraid those hands might be the Blackrose or their guests, tries to pull them out, only to be clawed at as the portal closes, the screams and wind end, the shadows, ash, and sinew dissipate, and the urn crashes back to the ground.

I have to say that this is probably the coolest combat encounter I’ve ever had in any TTRPG. It was tense, got serious very quickly, had a lot of awesome moments, a lot of emotions. It was SO. Great.

Digging into the encounter design a bit, I think a few things worked towards making it so awesome:

  • The party being stuck between two fronts: I definitely would not recommend it to every group, but having 3 melee fighters in one group really made this setup shine.
  • Ghoul-Yllara and Phaldrimi’s name on the spear made it personal: Both led to strong emotional reactions, and made the PCs care about what would happen.
  • Cool effects on the monsters’ side: Yllara’s spit and the Grave Knight’s second wind by killing an ally were strong moments, not because of the mechanical impacts (the first didn’t trigger, the second healed the boss for a measly 7 hit points), but because of the imagery.
  • But also for the PCs: Braerann was 1 point of damage short of finishing off the skeletons, so I offered him a Strength check to push the last one down the stairs; Eliel had her second kill shot on Yllara, as she just manage to wrestle free from her claws; Phaldrimi’s multiple Smite Evils meant she was dishing out absurd amounts of damage, and SL was giddy when she dealt the final blow; finally, Yvarge’s laser eye was unexpected and came at a dramatic moment.

The enemies themselves were custom made: the Skeletons were standard skeleton mooks, but started adding 1d6 necrotic damage to their attacks once the Escalation die reached 3.

Yllara started as a standard Ghoul. First, I applied the Lunk modifier to lower her defenses but increase her hit points. Second, to follow the Rogue motif, I boosted her Initiative and kept her halfling disengaging abilities. Third, I gave her the Spit attack, which basically was equivalent to her Claws, but at range. Lastly, instead of triggering vulnerability on a natural even hit, I made it happen on a roll higher than the target’s Dexterity score.

The Grave Knight (stat block below) started as a Medium Black Dragon. Like Yllara, I made it Lunk and switched its natural roll triggers to key off of PC’s ability scores. I reflavored its acid breath to necrotic damage, and changed its acid resistance to the standard Undead traits. I also changed its damage from static to a roll: while I like static damage, I prefer rolling it for named enemies. I changed the Draconic grace to the Riposte: I thought it would be somewhat similar, probably giving it an extra 2 or 3 attacks over the course of the battle. The ranged attack and Marked for Death abilities come from his magical spear. The Devour ability is just there for flavour: knowing he’d use it on a Skeleton, it would only be a +7 hit point boost, and would take one of its allies out.

I had planned for Yllara to come back up DURING the fight, not before, but given how long they had spent downstairs, I decided that the effect that animated Nigel and the zombie below had also affected Yllara. I had also prepared an effect from the portal every round, with reinforcements and the terrain changing, but given how much trouble the PCs were having, I only used half: more mooks coming in on round 2, and extra damage starting on round 4.

After taking a minute to catch their breaths, the PCs hear commotion coming from the other side of the corridor: THE VAULT! The Blackrose, their staff and guests, were hidden in it with the dwarf!

They run there, to find the vault’s door torn off its hinges. While no one seems injured, everyone is frozen in fear, in shock.

“The screams… they stopped… Is it… over?”, Arodenn struggles to ask the PCs.

The party comforts everyone as well as they can. They inform the family of Nigel’s death, and give the children their half of the letter: they’ll keep the other half for themselves for now.

After emotional and uncomfortable discussions, the PCs circle back to get the Grave Knight’s spear, Arodenn’s shield, which she gifted them, and Nigel’s chest full of coins. They also find, affixed to the Grave Knight’s bone shield, a scroll case containing a letter:

Yes, the name on the scroll differs from the one in the stat block. I’m sure you’ve seen your boss call the new guy Matt instead of Mike, right?

We ended on them identifying the items and reading that last letter. Speaking of, here are the items:

Between the players getting interested in the letters, excited over the loot, the exploration of the cave, the emotional interactions, and the AMAZING combat encounter, this might be the best TTRPG session I’ve ever run, out of several hundreds.

The only thing that I’m disappointed in is that now… I’m not sure what to prep for the next session. I’m assuming the PCs will hang out at the Estate some more, probably talk to the guard? They might also go back to the nearby city to try and sell the jewelry they “retrieved”, and talk to other people. Or they could decide to investigate that secret tunnel, see where it leads.

Which is a tiny blip on an otherwise superb session.

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