I'm actually looking forward to D&D Next. I think that every edition had some really awesome qualities, and every edition has truly awful design flaws. I don't expect Next to be any different, but if WotC is actively trying to incorporate the good bits into one unified whole, then I do expect it to be worth playing.
Hey guys. No, I didn't die; I've just been really busy with school. Things have been pretty hectic around here, lol. I wanted to get my campaign journal up here the day after our first session, but I couldn't get around to it, and all of the sudden, we'd played our second game, and then it felt like it was just too much to write down all at once. We're about to start our third session, and things are going really well. I know it's late, but I'll let everybody in on the story so far:
The PCs are the founding members of a well-known adventuring company called The Raven Watch (or just "The 'Watch", for short), who operate out of Strasa. The group consists of Akkarin, a Human Staff Wizard whose lust for knowledge and arcane power led him to help form the Watch; Virgil, a veteran Human Sword-n-Board Fighter who once served in the Strassan City Guard; Phaedra, an Eladrin noble-girl who got caught up in a whirlwind romance with a thief named Mal, who taught her how to be a rogue, and ended up framing her for muder when a heist went south; and Victoria, a Kalashtar (in my world, simply psionic humans) Cleric of Kord, who psionically-detected Phaedra's innocence, and saved her from the noose.
The Raven Watch have their own headquarters in Strasa, but most of their "downtime" takes place at a tavern called The Brazen Foal. It's run by an old warrior named Granger, who once led an adventuring party called "The Wild Horses", who were responsible for defeating a Lich that once threatened Strasa. The Foal is actually well-known throughout Strasa as an "adventurer's tavern", where those who live by their swords and sorcery go to unwind, and share tales of their adventures. It's a warm and comfortable place, known for its spiced breads and ale. It's also relatively safe, and free from riff-raff, since it's not exactly the kind of place where you go to start trouble -- everyone being a retired adventurer, you know?
I have three primary plots going at the moment. In the beginning, I essentially let the players in on what each of them would be all about, and allowed them to choose which one they were most interested in following. All the plots continue to unfold, however, even though the 'Watch is only actively traveling down a single track.
The three plots, for example, are like this: one involves the Abiding One, an ancient aboleth that's emerged from the sunless, black seas of the Underdark to Old Lake Strasa. It is the force behind a string of murders, committed by those under its psionic influence. This path is sort of "Lovecraftian" in the way its presented; the second plot involves a growing Lizardfolk threat in the swamplands surrounding Strasa. The warlike, scattered tribes have been uniting lately, under the black banner of Zessith, the self-proclaimed "Chieftain-of-Chieftains". The treacherous Lizardfolk are only a minor threat at the moment, breaking supply lines and kidnapping locals from time to time to sacrifice to their venomous god, Zehir, but their power is growing week-by-week, and all the Council's resources are being poured into quelling this threat before it runs out of control; finally, Granger has reason to believe that the Lich his adventuring company put down years ago is returning. If that's true, then all of Strasa could be at risk. Is the threat legitimate, or has Granger let years of paranoia get to him? If it's true, has the Lich simply willed itself back from oblivion, or is Strasa's Necromantic Academy somehow responsible?
The PCs decided to go down "The Abiding One Path", so that's the direction we're headed. Of course, the other two storylines are continuing to advance while they deal with this threat, so later on, Zessith will have proven that the Lizardfolk's faith in him is well-deserved, by using his tactical brilliance to continuously thwart the Council's efforts to put him down. Basically, he'll be a much more powerful foe. Same goes for Granger's Lich; it is indeed being brought back from the void. If the party had decided to follow this track, they'd have been able to stop it from being fully returned, but since they're going after the Abiding One, the Lich will be brought back into the world, and will be a force to be reckoned with later on.
Maybe I'll do another post now? Break it up a bit?
The first game went pretty well, considering that two of our players were completely new to 4th Edition, and hadn't even played 3rd edition for about 10 years. We play near a computer, so to help set the mood, I used YouTube to play the sound of rain and thunder on a river. Interesting note: did you know that if you type "repeat" after "youtube" and before ".com", and follow it with the URL of the link you want, YouTube will just repeat the same thing over and over? I use that keep it playing the whole game. I think, and the players agree, that the sound of rain in the background helps them get into the story a bit better, so it's something we'll continue to do as long as they party is in or around Strasa.
The story began in The Brazen Foal Inn and Tavern, on a particularly dark and stormy night. The 'Watch is well-liked at the Foal, because the old-timers like to hear the new stories they bring in, and because they've been doing a lot of great things for Strasa lately, and Granger respects that. For a few days, I explained that each of the PCs have had this feeling of "wrongness" that just won't go away, like an itching at the backs of their minds. It's keeping them from sleeping properly, and everyone's just a little bit on edge, and in need of some relaxation time at the Foal. Everyone else at the tavern seems to be having a great time, but none of them can shake the feeling that something's just wrong.
There's been a string of disappearances throughout the city lately, and everyone's been looking to the 'Watch to set things straight. Even so, they've been unable to slap together any suspects, solid motives, or even patterns to the disappearances. At any rate, given the poverty level in some areas of Strasa, and the rising number of homeless throughout the city that nobody would miss ... it's entirely likely that there are far more people missing than have been reported.
At some point during the night, when lightning crashed and briefly lit up the shadowy streets of Strasa, two of the characters noticed a figure standing just outside the window to the Foal, staring in at everyone inside. They only glimpsed him for a moment before darkness fell on the Raining City once again, and when Virgil stood up to investigate, nobody was there. Later on, a strong gust of wind blew open the heavy wooden door to the tavern, sending game chips and parchments spiraling into the air for a moment. When Victoria stood up from her table to gather up a few things, something dripped down from the ceiling onto her forehead; something warm and wet and thick -- blood.
She and the other players looked up to the ceiling, and saw it dripping down from the rooms up above the tavern. Virgil drew his sword and rushed ahead of the others to investigate. When he kicked open the door to the room, he immediately noticed the streaks of blood indicating that someone was dragged out the open window. He ran over, looked out, and saw that same strange figure from before, dragging a bloodied and struggling man toward the edge of the canal. Virgil shouted out to them, and the figure dropped the man and ran off through the streets.
On their way out the door, the 'Watch informed Granger of the injured man in the street; he told them he'd tend to his wounds, and that they shouldn't waste any time going after the would-be murderer. So that led us to our first Skill Challenge: a chase scene through Strasa's streets and across the rain-slick rooftops to catch this mysterious figure.
During the chase, the world around them seemed to warp and shudder; alleyways yawned open where none had been before, while others slid shut; some of the everburning lanterns that lined the streets took on otherwordly colours, while others extinguished outright. Some of the more Insightful members of the 'Watch recognized the happenings as an Illusion, but were unable to fully pierce it.
Finally, the group caught up to the man they'd been chasing. They threw him to the cobblestones and tossed back his hood. The old man revealed beneath seemed somehow incapable of the feats of strength and speed they'd witnessed earlier; this frail man had no strength in his arms, and the way he choked and gasped for air, it seemed as though his body were about to give out entirely. Still, he shouted in-between labored breaths in a language nobody understood. He spoke the Deep Speech; the otherwordly tongue of nightmares and Those-Who-Watch. Unable to make any sense of his ramblings, Victoria attempted to make Telepathic contact with the man (a move I, somehow, did not expect). Since Telepathy ignores language altogether, she was able to understand him; he repeated one phrase several times: "The Abiding One will come for me."
Victoria pieced together fragments of the man's memory (I figured, "What the hell, why not?") and witnessed a memory of him sitting on the docks, and seeing a strange black mass writhing beneath the water. Just as it was about to breach the surface, she lost contact, and the 'Watch suddenly found themselves surrounded by sodden, twisted figures that crawled up from the canals.
Roll for Initiative!
Since that was the only fight I had planned for the evening, I designed it to be pretty tough. There were a couple of close calls, and I honestly pulled a few punches, because not everyone at the table was totally familiar with 4th Edition, and I didn't want anyone to drop on the first encounter of the first session, lol. In the end, they made it through. but the old man they'd been pursuing died -- his body gave out under the stress of the chase. There was nothing they could do.
That's pretty much where we ended that particular session. In between that night and the next game, we decided that the 'Watch brought the story to the Council of Strasa, and were rewarded for their work. The Council, stretched thin by the growing Lizardfolk threat, authorized the 'Watch to operate with their authority in their investigation of this "Abiding One", whom the PCs believe was involved in the disappearances.
Which brings us to Game 2 (I may not be able to write up a full breakdown of Game 2 right this minute, but I'll have it up soon. Also, we'll be playing Game 3 tonight, so expect more soon. Again, sorry for making you all wait so long for this stuff. I've just been really busy.)
Wonderful writeup and fantastic adventure! It sounds like one heck of a time. I really like your design of the different paths.. do they all converge at some point in the future, or run parallel but affect one another in different ways?
Played our third session last night. It was probably our best so far. Each of the players gains a better understanding of their characters each session, and things are really moving along nicely. I'm prepared to post my campaign journals for Sessions 2 and 3, but I don't have time today; Easter, and all that.
Having prevented the attempted murder of one of the Foal's patrons, the PCs report their findings to the Council, who have offered a reward to anyone who can put an end to the recent rash of slayings / disappearances. The 'Watch has reason to suspect that the old man they chased through the city is not the real threat, so they report what they know of the "Abiding One", as well. The Council is, of course, interested in learning more, but are unfortunately stretched far too thin at present, dealing with Zessith and the Lizardfolk threat, so they ask the Raven Watch to continue the investigation, and empower them with the ability to act with their authority while doing so. This gives them access to areas of the city they might ordinarily not have, amongst other things.
Cursory investigation reveals the old man to be named "Caddis", and that he's worked as a fisherman on the poor side of Cecil's Wall for many years. He had no family to speak of, but he did own a humble house boat; the PCs decided to start their investigation there.
During their search, Victoria discovered a journal hidden beneath Caddis' pillow, the final pages of which describe the fisherman's encounter with a writhing black creature beneath the waters, and his subsequent descent into madness. Having looked into the eyes of the beast as they emerged from the dark waters like three great lanterns, Caddis' mind was assaulted with visions: he glimpsed the great sunless seas of the Underdark; ancient, alien ruins, rising out from the roiling surface of a black ocean; and a massive, fiery heart, which beat a savage rhythm through his mind like the sound of a thousand horses, all galloping in union.
That last image stuck with Caddis, because he recognized its location: in the time of his youth, many years ago, he played in the maze-like cisterns beneath Strasa; one older section of tunnels leads to a central chamber that he knew quite well. According to the vision, that was the resting place of this nightmarish heart. Unable to eat or sleep since he encountered the Abiding One, what choice did Caddis have? He had to investigate.
The final entry in the journal describes how he gathered up his strength, and ventured forth into the dark and watery bowels of the Raining City, in hopes of putting an end to the otherwordly rhythm that refused to leave his mind, and was almost certainly driving him to the brink of madness.
At this point, the PCs have more-or-less discovered that Caddis was not a "villain"; simply a pawn of the Abiding One who lost his mind to its formidable psionic strength. They resolve to stop this creature, no matter the cost, so that other innocent men like Caddis aren't corrupted. They decide to follow in his footsteps, down into the city cistern, to try and find the fiery heart he describes from the vision. Perhaps, if they can destroy it (assuming it even exists), they can disrupt the Abiding One's sway over its victims.
So they gathered up their sunrods, acquired a recently-updated map of the cisterns, and headed down.
Following the map toward the central chamber described in the journal, the 'Watch eventually happens upon a large and ghastly collection of dead bodies, stacked alongside the edges of the walkway. They're in various stages of decay and dress, though they're almost all disgustingly bloated, from being half-submerged in water all this time. The hallway smells absolutely foul, but it's the only one that leads to the Heart, so the PCs soldier on.
As they continue, they encounter more and more bodies, and then they hear something that really makes them uncomfortable: the creaking of pipes, and the rushing of water. Drainage grates open up all around them, and the PCs decide to make a break down the tunnel, but up ahead of them in the darkness is a flurry of movement, just beyond the edge of their vision. As they make their way forward, they realize they're coming up on the biggest pile of bodies yet ... and this one's moving; the dead begin to crawl and grasp ahold of one another, forming a wall of bodies to prevent the living from passing into the next chamber.
With the water quickly rising, and dead fingers grasping out toward them, the 'Watch had only moments to act. I presented this encounter as a Skill Challenge, basically. I think it went pretty well:
Virgil did his best to just hack his way through the wall with his longsword, but for every rotting limb he cleaved apart, another reached out to block his path; Akkarrin used Area-of-Effect Cold spells to try and snap freeze the drainage grates shut, and was pretty successful; Phaedra located a central drainage mechanism, and did her best to jam it with her Thievery skill. On about round 3, Victoria did something I didn't expect, and she really turned the tide of the encounter: she used Turn Undead on the wall, forcing them back, and scattering them all throughout the corridor.
They were pretty close to the end of the Skill Challenge anyway, so I ruled that the move earned them the extra successes they needed to win it. Everyone thought that was pretty cool.
So then they made their way into the central chamber, where they encountered the fiery heart described in Caddis' journal. The water there was foul and thick, like mucus, and it seemed to bubble up and almost reach for the PCs as they walked near the edge. The chamber itself, unlike the rest of the cistern, wasn't completely dark; the Heart itself illuminated the area with a malevolent, fiery light. It burned above an altar of sorts, errected on the opposite end of the chamber, and before it were a collection of Bullywugs, seemingly worshipping it like a God.
When they noticed the 'Watch, all hell broke loose.
Roll for Initiative!
I placed a couple of Blue and Red Runic tiles on the board in several locations, and at the start of every turn, alternated them (Blue became Red, Red became Blue). Blue Runes did nothing special, but the Red Runes dealt Fire Damage to anyone standing on them at the start of their turn. So, the way they were set up on the board, the players had to really think about their positioning, and the direction they wanted to head.
I re-skinned some Kobold Slingers, describing them as Bullywugs, and had them use their Glue Pots on anyone standing on the safe Blue Runes, so they'd hopefully be stuck there when they shifted to Red. I also re-skinned a Hobgoblin Warcaster to be another Bullywug, and used his push powers liberally to knock players back onto Red Runes.
All in all, that encounter was pretty fun. I'm excited to do more stuff like that in the future.
As it turns out, Virgil speaks Primordial. He says its because I said that Bullywugs were a common problem in the swamplands surrounding Strasa, and that he wanted his character, as a former member of the Guard, to be able to speak their language. Fair enough. Once the group was down to just one bloodied enemy, Virgil got ahold of it and rolled a Natural 20 on an Intimidation check. The Bullwug ended up revealing to them that the Heart in this chamber is, indeed, a source the Abiding One's power. So far from the seas of his birth, it requires these fonts of power to focus its psionic energies. There are 3 such Hearts in Strasa, though he admits to only knowing the location of this one.
Appreciating the information, Virgil shows mercy on the Bullywug ... and ends his life quickly.
Using their knowledge of Arcana, and a judicious amount of brute force, the 'Watch dissipates the Heart, casting shadows throughout the chamber once again. When they light up their sunrods, they notice that the mucus-y water has been instantly cleansed.
And that's pretty much where Session 2 ended. All in all, I think it went really well. Session 3, however, was the best yet. I can't wait to write that one out again. I tried some different DMing approaches, and I think the players really liked it. In fact, Virgil's player called me the next day and said he had just about the most fun he's ever had playing D&D.
Also, just wanted to point out that I know the Abiding One shouldn't really require fonts of magical energy to focus its psionic powers. Unfortunately, the players are only Level 2 at this point, so an Aboleth is so much more powerful that it's not even a contest. I needed to figure out ways for the low level group to somehow affect this ancient, other-wordly creature, without actually, you know ... fighting it. So they've dealt with its agents, and now they're learning that it needs these fonts of power to focus its mind, since its so far away from the seas of its birth. Those are things the 'Watch can handle right now, you know?
They have no hope of defeating the Abiding One directly, but if they can weaken it by destroying these Hearts, maybe they can force it back into the Underdark. That's a start, at least. When they're higher level, they'll have the option of taking the fight to the Abiding One on its home turf, which could be really interesting.
Also, I really wanted to play up the Abiding One as this creature of unimaginable power. I want the players to fear it. I want it to warp the world around it with illusions, and give people who encounter it nightmares. I want it to be unique, I guess. So I never even describe it as an aboleth. In my version of the world, maybe it's the only one of its kind, you know what I mean? I don't imagine an underwater city where hundreds or even thousands of these things live. That's just ... way overboard.
If it's a single, unique monster, who's terrorized the world since the race of Men was young, that's a lot more memorable, I think.