The last session of the Evokers’ Annual Calling had ended shortly after midday. Since he opted not to stick around for yet another luncheon where he’d be asked to hold forth on the breakdown of algorithms for precise height determination when casting fireballs over allied forces, this meant that Kendel arrived back at Catchbreeze just an hour or two later – in time, if he was lucky, to still get some fresh-baked scones and chilled juice of oranienap before the kitchen started in on serious dinner preparations.
The delightful weather makes him briefly consider sitting down at a table in the estate’s small orchard to work through an intriguing set of arithmancy problems, but he swiftly changes his mind and heads down to the library. Fewer chances of bugs in the inkwell or wind blowing away a loose leaf and also less chance of Sur finding him and trying to convince him to schedule a full re-roofing of the chapel this very instant. The man knew his business, for sure, but finding finances to have the estate kept up to his exacting standards was a challenge Kendel did not relish nearly as much as arithmancy. Come to think of it, he’d start learning divination spells before he’d do any more fundraising.
Just as Kendel sits down at his favorite desk, Petha Amers, majordomo of Catchbreeze, soundlessly steps up beside him. She is holding a tray. “I trust you’ve had an interesting conference, ser?” she says. Kendel rolls his eyes a little. “I don’t think half of them had left their houses at all between this one and the last. They are ink-stained up to their elbows, and have beards so long they trip over them and all I ever hear of them is theoretical mumblings and vague theories of how things might work if the stars aligned just right.” Petha gives the wizard a genuine smile. “Whereas you, ser, are of course beard-free and only ink-stained at the very tips of your fingers.” The wizard grimaces. “You did ask me not to remove any more spiders for the house staff. And it was such good practice. Soon I, too, will be ink stained beyond measure” Kendel retorts, arching an eyebrow at the liveried half-elf. She bows briefly and smiles. “We do so appreciate that you leave this duty to others now, ser. Your dedication to their disappearance was sometimes a little…” she pauses, still smiling, “…fiery.” Kendel shrugs. “We all have to make do. I can’t just pick them up and take them outside like… well.. like some people.” Petha’s expression softens and becomes sympathetic. “There is that, ser. But that is not why I am here. Would you like some iced tea and biscuits?” Kendel fakes a look of exasperation and exaggerates a sigh. “I know what this means, Petha. You want me to check the ledgers again, don’t you?”
“It is time to review spring quarter numbers, ser, and it is custom that a member of the house review the books for final approval.” Kendel sags in his chair, twirling one hand in half-serious annoyance. “Fine, o valued keeper of this esteemed and ancient house. Bring me the ledger and I shall review them, if only because I am apparently the only member of the house who can sit still and look at rows of numbers without suffering psychic damage.”
Some time later, when the biscuits and tea have been disposed of and all the numbers have been added and subtracted properly, Kendel wanders through the herb garden to gather materials for a new ink he wants to make. Then he sees Royce, who leans over a large silver dish that brims with water. The wizard watches his friend for a moment, wondering who he is looking at this time. He has long since stopped asking, but he was glad he’d brought the dish back for the cleric from his recent excursion to Neverwinter. The gift had made him happy, and it gave him something to do beyond hanging out at that temple complex trying to teach some city kids what end of a cudgel to hold.
He feels a little bad at the uncharitable thought. Royce’s magic had always stood them in good stead throughout their adventures, and Tempus had seen fit more than once to send a celestial being their way to help them out of a sticky situation, or into a safe one, like that wonderful expanding fortress that they found. Still, the gap between the divine and the arcane is not so easily crossed. If his friend had been a little bit less upstanding… if maybe his response to seeing Orcus standing in his path had been different… if maybe they had made a different choice somewhere that this god had disapproved of… No. No, magic from a god is a fickle thing. Better to keep it in a spell book.
A small chime goes off. Royce, lost in his scrying, doesn’t hear it, but it makes Kendel turn on his heel and walk back to the house. Almost time for his daily casting of the teleportation spell. He heads down to Catchbreeze’s basement level to prepare.
The balmy dawn promised a gorgeous early summer’s day and Naismith was climbing up the short, steep cliff that forms the border of Castle Ward and the estate called Catchbreeze – home to him and his friends. He was drunk and exhausted, but the climb was familiar to him, and he scaled the rocks without effort. With a bit of luck, he thought, he’d be able to catch a wink or two in Jero’s hammock in the rose garden as the sun came up. It would be his best chance to get some sleep
The night had been long and boring, starting with some drawn-out dinner because Ilian would have to travel for a bit, to do… well… something. Naismith shrugged as he climbed. She’d be back soon. She’d looked uncomfortable about the formal affair, and surely would not mind that he’d snuck away as soon as he could.
He’d spent the night in Skullport, two miles below the surface of Waterdeep. There too, things had been disappointingly quiet. Not until he’d gone down to the Dredge had Naismith found his mark: a group of down on their luck slavers who looked just desperate enough. He’d made his rounds around the Scupperden then, cracking a joke here, sharing a laugh there until, finally, he was noticed by the gang. They had assumed he was what he pretended to be: some bored Waterdhavian kid with exaggerated stories and a flashy, dull blade. Once he was certain he was their target, he’d left, allowing them to follow. He’d let them chase him as he dipped into narrow alleys, trotted across suspended catwalks, and lead them into cul-de-sacs from which they believed his escape was impossible, and then faking clumsiness as he evaded their grasp by inches.
Eventually the gang had become winded, so he let them catch up. Once he was surrounded, he’d drawn his rapier and take them on. Not that they were really a challenge. His only challenge was being quick enough to avoid notice of the Skulls and coming up with yet another disguise to prevent being recognized. Well, that, and waiting until one of his contacts would get back to him with the information he’d so furtively been searching for since coming back.
Just as he reaches his hand over the low wall atop the cliff that marks the end of Catchbreeze’s private garden, a hand comes down upon his wrist and begins to pull him in.
Startled, he looks up. “Ho, Ilian.” Hells! He wishes he’d sounded a bit more sober. In less than a second he is over the wall, standing in the garden at the heart of the estate. The half-elf looks him up and down. “Secret staircases not secret enough for you, Naismith?” He opens his mouth for a rebuttal, then changes his mind and shrugs. A large pack leans against the wall he just climbed over. He gestures at it. “And you? More formal dinners?” He aimed for a joke, but it falls flat. He sighs and shrugs apologetically. She shakes her head. “It’s alright. Spare me a few minutes? I’ve barely seen you lately. ” “You see me more than most.” he retorts. “My rooms were next to yours, Naismith. I would wake up.” The rogue looks at his feet. “I just have a lot to think about.” “That’s not what I’d call it. Look, man, it’s no surprise any of us have nightmares. That we’re still haunted by… well… by everything. And I really didn’t mind keeping you company at night.” Naismith clenches his jaw even tighter. “You worry too much. They’re just dreams. And why are you talking about everything in the past tense? You’re just traveling, that’s all. It’s not a big deal!”
Ilian frowns, grabs her pack, takes Naismith by his arm and moves further into the garden. She pushes him down on a carved stone bench, reaches behind him and pulls out a jug, which she uncorks and hands to him. It’s coffee. She stands in front of him and folds her arms. “You barely sleep at night. You have constant nightmares. You wake up screaming and swear up and down that there is a medusa standing in the corner of the room. During what little sleep you get you talk of Lulach this and Lulach that and beg not to be sent away. Nobody has any idea of the state you’re in! You go on excursions to Silvanus-knows-where looking like some North Ward popinjay. You come back with cuts and bruises you refuse to let me tend. And now I have to go away and I can’t look out for you and I have no idea if I’ll ever be back and I can’t decide if I should tell Royce on you or shake you like a rag doll until the truth falls out of you! It is a big, bloody, godsrotten deal!” The little ranger spits the words at his feet, raising her chin as if expecting a punch
Naismith, feeling like he’s just been punched himself, stares at her wide-eyed. “D-don’t tell Royce. Or anyone.” After a while, she relents “I won’t, then. But you’ll take Petri.” “I… No. I couldn’t. She’s your basilisk. And you know what happened to Fosse. I killed him.” “And I killed Fluffy. And Achtoë. And Sunflash.” Ilian says, curtly. “I don’t say this for Petri’s sake, but for yours. I want you to have her. She’s a fierce little thing, and she can be your friend if you let her. She’ll guard your room when you sleep and keep you company when you can’t.” She pauses briefly, then continues. “ And I wasn’t asking. You keeping her is my price for your secrets.”
Naismith gulps more coffee. Eventually, he nods. “I’ll take her.” Ilian deflates with relief. “Good. Then get up and say your farewells. I’m leaving.” Naismith splutters. “Surely not now? And besides, you’ll be back soon, right?” Ilian gives him a dark look as she straps on her pack. “You can walk me to the gates. Tusker is waiting there with my guide.”
Clinging to the jug of coffee as if his life depends on it, Naismith walks with her through the courtyard, the dining room, the library and the lush gardens out front. When a last copse of trees stands between them and the gate, she stops and puts an arm around his shoulders. “Sorry if I was harsh just now. I just worry.” Naismith squares his shoulders and aims for the best of his reassuring smiles and his most jovial voice. “Don’t. It’ll be fine. I’ll fatten up your lizard while you gallivant across the country and you and mister pig will be back before you know it.”
Suddenly she squeezes him fiercely and plants a kiss on his cheek. Before he can respond she’s let him go and stepped through the trees, in full view of the gates. Naismith watches from the foliage as she wipes her face with her sleeve and spends a long moment fussing over the already perfectly adjusted straps of her pack. She calls over the big boar and finally hails a tall figure in green robes who stands outside the gate holding a pair of horses. They’re gone so swiftly he barely manages to catch a glimpse of Mielikki’s holy symbol on one of the saddles.
Mordrock hastens home through the narrow, dusky streets. Give it an eighth bell and the lamp lighters would be out and about. The cobbles he walks on aren’t slippery yet, but soon they would be, and it would be hospitable to put some sand on the steps for this visitor he was supposed to receive. Veras, one of the senior priests in Kelemvor’s temple at The Plinth, had mentioned that the man, though no noble himself, was associated with a fine estate in Castle Ward, and that there had been a request for a consultation.
Halfway between annoyance at having his routine interrupted and curiosity about the nature of the request, he had left his duties in the City of the Dead earlier than normal to make sure he could receive company. Not the best of times. So close to midwinter it was important to keep an eye on things.
Trudging up the steep alley that leads to his rooms, he keeps an eye out for his furry friends. Nosey he had already spotted near the now-empty spot for the fishmonger’s cart. Sashay would be ensconced near the row of boarding houses – the crowd that occupied those louse dens was usually drunk enough to drop food or even vomit up what they’d just eaten. Mouser and Whisky would be strutting up and down between Goosey’s Kittle Housie and his front door. Skeeter would normally have hidden high up, between the crooked chimneys and laundry lines but not anymore. She stayed indoors now.
He eyes the worn stone steps that rose off the alley, then grabs the shovel out of the communal sand bin. Once the steps are well covered, he climbs them, feeling for his key. Light shines behind the windows to the right and left of his front door. Must have been a quiet day at the quayside if both neighbors were home already.
His rooms are up two flights of stairs, right under the eaves of the tenement. Some might not like the amount of climbing it takes to get there, but he enjoys the extra light that the elevation brings him, as well as the privacy of not sharing a front door. Plus, his neighbors are not the kind of folk to call the city guard for unusual noises or the odd experiment that got a little lively.
Once inside, he hangs his bearskin mantle on a hook and puts his boots on a reed mat to catch the mud. He pokes at the fire and adds a log, then uses a thin splinter of kindling to carry a flame over to the brace of candles on his table. Before he can light the last one, he is interrupted by a knock on the door downstairs.
Mordrock goes over to where he hung his mantle and pulls on a thin cord until he hears the latch lift. That would be Dewen, the ale boy from Kishfettle’s. “Bring it up here, lad. You can set it on the table, as you please. Light footsteps come up the stairs. “Was it four quarts tonight, ser Ironpost?” “No serring me, Dewie, but yes. Four quarts. Seems I might have company.” Dewen, a scrawny human boy of maybe twelve years old, appears in view with a wicker basket and an earthenware pitcher which he places on the table. Before the boy darts out again, Mordrock tosses him a copper piece.
The smell of roasted meat begins to fill the air. Mordrock swallows. As he rummages through a low cupboard for a second trencher and cup, he hopes his guest will not be late.
Sur Hennerly is never late. Just as the temple bells strike Evenwatch, another knock falls on Mordrock’s door. This time, he makes his way downstairs to open the door in person. He looks up at a young, red-haired human male, clean-shaven and in simple garb.
As calloused hand meets calloused hand, the men take each other’s measure. “Sur. Of Catchbreeze. Pleased.” “Mordrock Ironpost. Come in. I was to sit down for supper. You can join me and talk while we eat.” The human nods, steps inside and begins to unbutton his wool coat.
Soon, the men sit opposite each other at the table. Mordrock serves out the food and ale. Sur reaches into a leather satchel and pulls out a bottle of wine. “Gift from the house.” Courtesies thus fulfilled, there is a quiet moment as the men devote themselves to the food. After a while Mordrock – mouth full – gestures for Sur to state his business. He does so, between bites. “Catchbreeze. It has been empty some time. Only recently staffed in preparation for a re-deeding. You familiar with the place?” Mordrock shakes his head and swallows. “Back when I lived in Castle Ward with my old lot it was already empty. Never saw much but the fence.” Sur looks at the dwarf with a bit of surprise. “You lived there? When was that? “Och, some twenty years ago, I think? Eventually most of them had… other business that took them away from town. I decided the place was too big for me. Downsized a bit.” He gestures to the rooms around him, which, though clean and in decent repair, do not compare to even the most modest house in Castle Ward.
“Well, the place is set to no longer be empty.” Sur says “A staff has been assembled to prepare it for this group called Drow’s Bane. Heroes who did something in the Underdark against the demon lords. Haven’t heard the details. They’re still in Gauntlgrym at the moment.” Mordrock nods with a half smile. “Familiar story. I’d heard something was going on down there. Some of Kelemvor’s order had their fair share of visions about it. So it’s a bunch of rat catchers that gets to live above their station, eh? And you to clean the place up for them?” Sur chuckles. “Like that, yes. Heard they’re alright folk, though. One of them is actually a proper North Ward kid. One of those old elven families.” Mordrock grimaces. “Those starchcollars need to unlace their corsets every now and then. It must’ve sent them all in a tizzy to have one of their own run off and do something other than sip cordial and compose poetry.” He takes a swig of ale. “Be that as it may, what do you need my counsel on?” “Catchbreeze has an old plot. All family graves of a century or two. The land has shifted over the years, more than I’d expect. I want advice on how to determine the cause and how to restore…” Sur pauses “… proper order.” “Rehallowing is your best bet. Can do that for you in a jiffy. Regular order’s rates, too. But that’s only if nothing is already rumbling there. Noticed any unusual mounds or small depressions? Animals avoiding the area? I take it there are no walkers yet?” Sur shakes his head. “Nothing yet. Just want to make sure.”
“I’ll be happy to come by. After midwinter, though. There’s much for me to do this time of year.” “Understood.” Sur says. “Leave a note for me at the carpenter’s guild two days before you want to come. List of supplies too, so I can get those, and your fee slip. No order prices though, I want your own rate. The high one. City foots the bill. Oh, and sup with us that night. We’re on the grounds already and Jero knows his way around a stove.”
Sur gets up, preparing to take his leave. As he glances about the room, he sees light reflect off of a row of dragon scales set on a shelf. His eyebrows raise a bit. As he puts his coat back on, Mordrock gets up as well. The day’s digging made him a little stiff. He walks his guest downstairs. Sur steps through the door into the freezing night, then turns back and extends his hand once more. “Glad you’ll be helping out.” He pauses. “And thank you for your service. My father used to tell stories of you and your companions to my sister and me.”
Mordrock shakes his head after he closes the door. Nice to know someone remembers. Guy seemed decent. The money would come in handy too.
Once he is back upstairs, he sees a sleek grey bundle of fur on the table, sniffing at the remains of the roast chicken. “Clever lass to stay up in the rafters while that fellow was over, Skeet.” In response to his voice, the small cat crouches and looks back, prepared to jump off the table if he moves too fast. Other than her eyes, which are clouded over, she looks completely ordinary. Mordrock moves very slowly, keeping up a low-voiced stream of soothing talk. “Wouldn’t want to startle him. How about I get you a wing of that nice bird, eh? Maybe we’ll give the rest to your outside friends. They need it more than you now.” Still suspicious, the milky-eyed cat backs away from the platter but stays on the table. Mordrock is able to reach the chicken now, and breaks off the wing, which still has some meat clinging to it. He pushes it a little into the direction of Skeeter, then picks up the platter with his other hand. He would keep the remaining leg for breakfast. The rest could go to the outside cats.
As he goes downstairs for the third time that night, he thinks about Skeet. She wasn’t really supposed to have been an experiment. She was just the most friendly of the little colony of Corkscrew Alley cats. Had been for years. When he’d found her struggling a year ago, trying to give birth to an oversized, two-headed kitten, it had seemed kindest to just give her a grain of his most powerful sedative and let her pass without any more pain. But then, after he’d carefully removed the kitten from her limp body, the idea of not having her around had been unbearable. First his mother’s letter about the debtors still hounding her years after the closing of the family foundry, then the last of his old friends moving away. Not getting the warden job at the City of the Dead. A man needs a friend in times like those, and if a little grey cat was all he had, then that’s what he would pray to Kelemvor to keep.
Hammer (month 1) through Kythorn (month 6), the Sword Coast
The Drow’s Bane have been ‘pop’ stars in the months since their epic victory overthrowing the demon princes of the Abyss, saving the Underdark and Faerun. Besides much needed rest, each character has been invited all over the Sword Coast to accept awards, give speeches, and be sculpted or painted. Bards across the Sword Coast are singing songs about the glorious victory and the trials and tribulations of the characters’ lives down under.
Two of the most esteemed awards to be received are the title of Emissary and Royal Advisor to Laeral Silverhand of Waterdeep and Emissary and Royal Advisor to King Brunnor Battlehammer of Gauntlgrym. As emissaries to Waterdeep, Laerel gifts them occupancy to the estate known as “Catchbreeze” in the Castle Ward. As emissaries to King Battlehammer, they are assigned a residence in Gauntlgrym known as “Hwemenocter” in Vault of Kings. The expectation and new responsibilities as royal advisors require the characters to spend time between both places on a constant basis.
But as the Drow’s Bane settles into their new residences and responsibilities, the ranger Ilian and her companion Tusker are recruited by the Emerald Enclave for special assignment. She cannot share details with her comrades, who are now family to her, but the farewell feast is a hearty, joyful and tearful one.
Nong Sung Roc continues to struggle with hearing the voice of the Wand of Orcus in his dreams and constantly fights off Royce to open the bag of holding to have a little look at it, maybe even pet it slightly (i.e. imagine Gollum and ‘My Precious!’). A few days after Ilian’s departure, Nong disappears from Catchbreeze with just his personal belongings. Royce feels deeply disappointed but understands Nong’s affliction. With Nong absent, the wand becomes a constant burden to Royce; it subtly tempts Royce to join forces with it for ultimate power and authority…even greater than Orcus himself.
A modest, but comfortable city estate, easily recognized by its copper roof and ivy-covered red stone walls. It lies at the edge of Castle Ward, with its facade shielded from onlookers by a garden full of evergreens and rose bushes, and its heart well-protected by a steep drop in terrain, which provides a dynamic view of Dock Wards and the sea beyond.
The building is a former finishing school which was converted to a private residence after the idea of sending adolescents away to be educated fell out of fashion with Waterdhavian nobility. The building’s origins can still be found in the over-sized library, the large kitchens and store rooms and random bits of graffiti carved into the wood beams that support the lower floor.
These days, the estate has been lovingly refitted to accommodate half a dozen permanent residents. Both the grounds and the design of the building allow for much privacy, but the receiving rooms (former lecture halls and teachers’ common room) are well-appointed and can be used to host gatherings and soirées for visitors of all sorts.
Staff quarters are present and are all located on the lower level, adjacent to the kitchen and larder with wine storage. The majordomo has a small apartment to allow for receiving tradesmen, while a further 3 members of house and kitchen staff can be retained in individual rooms.
Residents quarters exist of apartments that have 3 floors, making the most of the different nature of each floor. The lower level has access to private washing facilities, and place for a dressing room or study. Each room has doors that open up onto a covered courtyard which has in the past been used as a place for physical exercise, as well as for hosting large, informal gatherings. While most of this floor lies below ground level, carefully enchanted windows allow daylight to come into the central covered courtyard, while being indistinguishable from the rock in which they are embedded from the outside.
Note that two hidden exits from the residence are on this level. The one accessed via the outer wall exits at the bottom of the steep drop that forms the estate’s border, landing the user on a small, unnamed alley in Docks Ward. The one next to the majordomo’s apartment exits on estate grounds inside the mausoleum of the Dessavere family – the founders and long-time headmasters and -mistresses of the once-famous school.
The garden level of the main building contains the entryway, library (continues on the balcony level via its own staircase) a music or drawing room, a salon and formal dining room, along with washing facilities for guests. The dining room, as well as residents’ quarters on this level all lead out onto an enclosed garden that shields against the strong winds and harsh climate of Waterdeep. A small fountain, various low-growing fruit trees and many flowering plants make for a lush retreat with ample opportunity for private conversation.
The balcony level is the most private, and yet the most open. Long, outward-facing porticoes allow residents to enjoy the ocean breeze and look down on city life as it spills out beneath them. Other than the second level of the library (no exits on this floor), there are no public spaces on this level, and house staff can use the exterior staircases to access quarters if needed.
The grounds, while small due to Catchbreeze’s central location, have some outbuildings. There is a dedicated guest house that offers two suites for visitors of various size and preference. The chapel is small, but lovely and sits among a carefully planted grove of fragrant besom trees. It has a small plot on which there is room to inter one’s loved ones. There is a groundskeeper’s cottage nearby, which features three rooms underneath a thatched roof.
Last, but not least, a stable offers room for riding horses, a pair of coach horses and coach, as well as room to house smaller animals such as hunting dogs or birds for falconry. Do note that Waterdeep does not permit hunting within the city limits, unless by guild-permitted rat catchers.
The estate covers its expenses by means of some acreage of field and forest outside the city limits. The fields are on a long-term lease to the cattle drivers’ guild, who rent out portions of it to local farms with small herds of either dairy goats or the local variety of longhorn sheep (prized for their delicate wool), and keep the other part in reserve to receive large herds of livestock from the backcountry prior to butchering or shipping. The forested parts of the estate’s grounds are currently under lease to the neighboring Bleutenger family, who use it to expand their recreational hunting grounds. This lease is soon set to expire and re-granting it could be a good way to curry favor.
Majordomo – Petha Amers, a half-elven woman of excellent repute. She is a middle-aged spinster who has worked in service all her life and was invited to administer the estate ages ago due to her flexibility when dealing with unorthodox residents. Her human origins lie in lands far to the east, and she claims wood-elf ancestry. While she would never gossip, she is a font of information about the city and its history. She has a sister, Esthra, to whom she writes and who she visits during her annual leave. Her sister has children, which are full humans, and she speaks of her nephews and niece fondly. The elder nephew, named Doro, has recently become a sailor. The younger one, Semre, is recently apprenticed to a cobbler, although it seems he can be found haunting the taverns more than usual for a boy his age. Petha’s niece is called Kasha, and she is still in school. It appears she has a little magical talent, and Petha wonders if she should give up some of her savings to get her niece into a proper magical academy once she is the right age.Petha is quite formal with most people, but once she has developed a sense of trust with her employers, she will show her innate sense of humor. She feels closest to Kendel, both because she enjoys his attitude and because he is the most traditionally ‘lordly’ out of the bunch. Her tasks are financial management of the house, arranging maintenance, acquisitions of household goods including food and wine, menu planning and serving at large or formal meals. She will be delighted if she finds that any of the estate’s residents has any interest in this work, and she believes that input from the owners is invaluable to the optimal running of a proper house.
Cook – Tarrus Ropewell, is one of the Hin (i.e. Hafling). A relative newcomer to the Waterdeep food scene, he made a grand entrance by challenging the long-time family cook of Kendel’s parents to a cook-off of a number of exotic dishes some months ago. While Tarrus’ cooking cannot be faulted, Kendel’s mother was not impressed with his style of showmanship (or his swearing), and decided the sailor-turned chef would perhaps be well-suited to serve at the estate which now houses her son. She arranged for Tarrus to be escorted to Catchbreeze with a glowing letter of recommendation and a complement of guards, which would not leave Petha’s quarters until she had promised a position to the young upstart. He now cooks pungent dishes from a variety of locales and origins, and has only stopped trying to serve his ‘Gracklstugh Mushroom Special’ to the party after Royce and Naismith once held him at knife-point.
Tarrus mentions neither friends nor family, only referring to his past in the vaguest of terms. Under what circumstances he lost his ear, is as of yet unknown. He likes to sing while working, but the words to any song are invariably changed to something raunchy. Tarrus can neither read nor write, which he will do his very best to hide. If he is ever found out, he will do everything he can to ensure his secret is kept, up to and including bribery and threats of grave bodily harm.
Djanni Morvillis is a young human woman who came to Waterdeep as a child when fleeing the conflict in the southern states. Now she lives at the estate and is responsible for the management of household tasks and chores. If needed, she can serve as valet or lady’s maid for formal occasions, but her best work is in arranging domestic tasks and services. She has deep roots in the community of professional service workers, and Petha, with whom she is fast friends, often relies on her to find additional serving staff for formal occasions. Most of Djanni’s pay goes to her parents, but she also tithes to the temple of Selûne, the deity she claims helped her and her people escape the war. She has two younger brothers, Aiken and Daran, who both work on the docks. Djanni’s most treasured possession is a fur coat: a present from lady Ervienne Melanctha, for whom she used to serve as lady’s maid. She is currently being courted by Domenco Melanctha, a younger cousin of lady Ervienne’s, but she is hesitant. While she likes the man well enough, she isn’t inclined to give up what she sees as the independence and freedom of a well-paid position for the relative bondage of life as the wife of a minor noble in the status oriented and hierarchical city of Waterdeep.
Joscellan Vegho is an older human male with an extensive resume in service, both as valet and household staff. He is extremely straight-laced and private, preferring not to share anything of a personal nature with those for whom he works. This reticence can easily be mistaken for rudeness, but it is really part of a sense of professionalism that represents an older ideal of service, no longer in vogue in households such as these. Joscellan occasionally laments the olden days but is also grateful for the improved standing of serving staff, and the rather loose approach that Catchbreeze’s current owners take with regards to propriety. It allows him leeway to take care of his oldest child and only son, Guilleme, who has fallen upon hard times after a failed business venture and needs both money and his father’s broad shoulders. Should Joscellan’s private concerns ever be discovered, he would greatly value discretion, but would feel obligated to accept any help offered if it benefited his son. In return, he would share information about his three daughters: Ermena, who has a small sheep farm outside of the city with her husband Denno and children Cara and Morro, Temera, who has recently made first mate on a trader ship, and Deleine, who works as a weaver in the wool district and has recently engaged herself with a young woman named Mayka and is set to marry come spring.
Jero Argario and Sur Hennerley, both human natives of Waterdeep, have worked on the estate since early adulthood, and have shared use of the groundskeeper’s cottage for almost as long. Some years ago, Sur’s sister Andra died in childbirth. When the baby also died and Andra’s husband had to return to sea, Sur took in Andra’s surviving daughter Yonica. She is a teenager with dark hair and eyes, who takes after her father, both in looks and temperament.
Jero serves as gardener, and he is exceptionally proud of the state for his rose bushes (along with tea roses and peonies he grows a unique purple variety, which is just now showing great results) and his ability to keep alive an oranianap tree in the sheltered house garden (they are rare and are native to much warmer climes). Petha allows Jero use of the house kitchen when the estate’s fruit harvest comes in, and so the house is always well-stocked with jams and marmalades. He will talk anyone’s ear off about gardening and botany and he will always treasure a gift of anything relating to plants and how to grow them. He doesn’t leave the estate often, but will, if given permission, borrow large quantities of books from Catchbreeze’s extensive library. If asked, he will mention his parents, both of which serve Chauntea. He has two sisters, Geri and Amri, but is not in contact with them at this time.
Sur is the estate’s handyman. He fixes everything, and if the job is too big for him alone, he knows which craftsmen to bring in to get it done. He is exceptionally well-connected in the city and knows many people in Waterdeep’s various guilds. Due to his exacting nature and limited quantity of patience, he is known as a hard taskmaster. He works together with Petha to keep the estate’s books current and spends much of his free time teaching his niece those things he considers useful. Sur is not very talkative, except on the subject of his latest project, but he is very observant and can sometimes let his curiosity get the better of him. This has occasionally unnerved his employers, especially if they were on the other end of his pointed questions, but his intentions are good, even if his manner isn’t.
Yonica, while still young, is very capable. She serves as stable girl and takes care of the estate’s population of (fully licensed) rat terriers (Snap, Fang and Spotty, the latter of which she delivered and named herself). She is shy and reclusive and often feels embarrassed by her uncles and their various passions. This is likely a feature of her age and will lessen over time. When she is feeling particularly rebellious, she may attempt to sneak away and explore the city in disguise. No one knows quite where she goes when she does this.
The Hwemenocter estate, located in the Vault of Kings in Gauntlgrym is a fantastic piece of dwarven architecture, unique in its design and execution, since it was built specifically for the treasured human concubine of a historic dwarven hero. It takes into account certain aspects of design not common to such venerable dwarven residences, but that are prized highly by other races, for example: private washing facilities (rather than relying on public steams and baths) and stout doors to separate private dwelling space from communal areas. The dimensions of rooms are of course, generously scoped out to comfortable accommodate even the tallest non-giant races.
The estate is fronted by a small, but meticulously designed moss garden that provides excellent privacy despite its modest size. The original design of this refuge dates back to the time of high cubism but has also been influenced in later adjustments by the principles of new elaboratoria and second romantic minerology. These influences are especially visible in the addition of the hot-water fountains that house the colorful algae collections, and the use of wrought-iron trellises to guide the growths of caveberry and chalkblossom.
The ceilings of the estate, which reach a peak height of 120 feet in the dining room, once were part of a multi-bulb magma chamber filled with a particularly mineral-rich brew of molten rock. When the chamber was drained, a thin layer of ores and mineral stayed behind, causing the ceiling to glitter and glisten in swirling colors. Once the city of Gauntlgrym was built, and this parcel of the King’s Vault was developed, these magma chambers were then deepened, and interior walls constructed from the finest hand-hewn Gracklstugh basalt. The floors have been laid in with petrified zirkwood, which is not actually a wood, but the silicated stem of a rare giant mushroom.
Of note is also the use of oiled Yartar oak wood, from which the elaborate privacy screens for washing and dressing rooms in each suite have been lovingly carved. Use of wood in any dwarven dwelling is a symbol of utter luxury since it is fuel spared from the forges and fires that make up Gauntlgrym’s source of wealth and fame. Each room’s screen is themed according to a prized sky-side beast: badger, mole, rabbit, otter, fox, bear, groundhog and mouse.
For the comfort of its residents, triangular hearths are placed at regular intervals in the dwelling, and a network of sub-floor steam pipes create both a pleasant temperature, as well as easy access to bath water. We must, however, warn you not to drink this water, as it has not been filtered after its use for the cooling of the forges, and may still contain traces of dawn titan essence. Instead, make use of the generous storage facilities accessed behind the kitchen and find large quantities of stout, pokeberry wine and of course, forge whisky and firespit drop.
The estate comes with a modest share in the famous Gauntlgrym forges, which, while not providing its owners with much income, more than suffices to maintain the estate and pay for staff. Administration of income and upkeep of the estate will be done by the Gauntlgrym Abacial Council, of which a thrice-annual report of its calculations can be requested.
Hwemenocter does not have outbuildings, but stabling and kenneling services for animals and pets may be requested at the offices of the vault’s Quartermaster, and space for storing bulk and precious cargo can be arranged via the same.
Unlike most sky-side estates, this dwelling has no live-in staff, and no quarters are present for their stay. Instead, a large number of families share the care and maintenance of the various estates in the Vault (this being a part of all adult dwarves’ communal service requirement), meaning that there is often a rotation for who is present when. However, since humans and those of other races often prefer to see the same faces, an arrangement has been made to provide a limited complement of staff to facilitate the residents’ comfortable stay. We kindly point out that the concept of body servants is unknown to the dwarves, and such services will not be provided.
Please also note that our staff members are not servants in the truest sense of the word. While Gauntlgrym has a monarch and we do observe certain social distinctions, we see our estate staff as valuable working professionals, not as chattel. When their treatment does not reflect their status, a complaint may be lodged with the Gauntlgrym Non-trade Workers’ Board.
Household Foredwarf –Ludgard Aurumfeldt, a male dwarf of dark complexion whose advancing age and decades spent in service have given him the patience and meticulousness required to make Hwemenocter run like a well-smeared machine. He has lost a lot of vision in one eye, and has gone somewhat hard of hearing and is sensitive about people noticing this. He is quite worldly and greatly likes to let his earlier travels and experiences with other cultures shine through in how he addresses people (messire, madame, etc) and how he organizes any chance for entertaining. He has a vast family of children and grandchildren (as well as great-grandchildren) of whom he rarely speaks. However, you may occasionally see him accompanied by a granddaughter or grandson, especially when he is not at work. He was approached for the position here at Hwemenocter by the chamberlain of His Majesty himself – having prior experience with the party, he felt that they would benefit from someone who knows the ins and outs of Gauntlgrym high society.
While his knowledge of sky-side is somewhat dated, he has a great number of friends and acquaintances throughout the city and one would be wise to ask him where to get help, counsel or services arranged.
Monitor Victualia – Kirge Veinfinder, is a youthful female dwarf whose age belies her experience as a cook for the finest and most prestigious clan halls in the Vault. For a time, she seemed poised to accept a position as Vice Monitor of bread and pastry at the court of His Majesty Bruenor Battlehammer himself, but she eventually refused due to a conflict of personality with the Monitor Victualia already established at court. When she heard that Hwemenocter would be once-more occupied, and learned who would take up residence in it, she petitioned the Chief Rosterminder for the position of Monitor. Due to her talents and insistence on taking the job, she was quickly affirmed.
She comes from the northernmost tribe of hill dwarves and has the associated reddish hair. Anyone who wants to keep on her good side, will not make jokes about her (supposedly also-fiery) temperament, no matter how tempting. She can be curt and is decidedly stubborn, but takes her work very seriously. When she is at the estate, no one will go hungry. Furthermore, she has a sense of humor that can be both dry and lewd, but is quick to defend those she considers vulnerable or in need of assistance. Her lifestyle is extremely sober since she sends most of her earnings home to support her mother and younger sister, since their father passed away in the mining of a risky passage through volcanic rock. The quickest way to earn her allegiance (and to find baked goods suddenly appearing in one’s room), is to display and explicitly value familial loyalty.
Chief Warden – Onk Rockbender, while he is a half-orc, we assure you that he is both capable and trustworthy, and comes with the highest references. He has a complement of guards dwarves under his command and will assign them to the estate as needed.
Onk is a deep-voiced, deep-minded, well-read man who has a great fondness for everything involving strategy and tactics. He is accomplished at dragon chess and will never refuse a bout. However, he abhors gambling, and will never place a bet. He has a talent for handling animals of all sorts, and can be trusted to take care of mounts, dogs and other animals, all of which will trust him immediately. His looks may be ferocious (he wears silver caps over his lower tusks to indicate his position of command) and his fighting style deadly to the extreme, he is, at heart, not a violent man. He is a teetotaler, and feels uncomfortable at events where much alcohol is consumed. Children, like animals, feel drawn to him immediately, and he will, when needs must, babysit the children of a few of his friends during his time off. He does not speak of his family, but will cheerily speak of his friends and companions of the present. In his free time, he likes to whittle, and a gift of a piece of sky-side wood will get you in his good books for a long time.
Craftsdwarves (on rotation)
(note: Should you struggle to tell them apart, Mal has a small scar just visible above his impressive moustache)
It has occasionally taken people several years to figure out that there actually are two Splitfault brothers, especially since twins are exceedingly rare among the dwarves. Like the others in their family, the Splitfaults are of that rare kind that can make anything their eyes see, not just in metal, but in wood, stone and other materials. It was their seven-times great-grandfather who designed and made the woodcarvings Hwemenocter is known for, and the family has maintained their patriarch’s handiwork ever since. They will often accept work at other dwellings and estates to round out their working days.
Mal is the more talkative and jocular of the two. Nic is often quieter, except when riled up by his brother, or when he’s seen occasion to partake of the spitfire drop. When at work they are serious and inspired, often finding ways to add a little flair or flourish to even the most mundane job (if one ever wonders why the nails on the claws of the clawfoot tubs are done in gold leaf…). However, once off-duty, they are some of the most extravagant partiers in Gauntlgrym and not every tavern will admit them. Never play cards with a Splitfault, unless your pockets are too heavy.
Domesticants (on rotation)
Olv Kuypenmack, a dour old dwarf with a tarred and pleated beard who irons the bedsheets (his iron is actually just that: a giant hunk of shaped metal which he wields with tongs) after making the bed and cleans smudges off furniture by spitting on a handkerchief the size of a table cloth. Will call anyone younger than Methusalah ‘dear boy’ or ‘dear girl’, and will get this wrong with elves about 25% of the time. If engaged, he will relish telling of the two trips he’s even made to the surface, once to visit a small dwarven outpost for a wedding of his sister, and once to assist the city’s Wildlife Wrangler on a mission to reclaim several rothe, since he was the only one well enough to ride during the Great Flu that happened 87 years ago (even His Majesty himself was ill, just ask anyone!)
Hilde Alsesdottr, an adult female dwarf who, by the standards of her kind, looks ephemeral and elegant. Her hair and skin are both exceptionally pale, and her build is very light (there is some rumor her mother may have had a gnomish lover, but no one who values their lives will ever mention this to Alse, her husband Kef or Hilde herself). She is gregarious and quick to smile, and has a fondness for studying military history. She is mildly suspicious of magic, unless it has to do with the city’s forges, and is somewhat more dependent on her parents than could be expected of someone her age. If asked about romantic entanglements, she merely stutters (but sometimes she can be seen with a particular dwarf from the Gauntlgrym guard, whose name is Rafk Bellowforce). Her somewhat unusual last name (a matronymic) is a custom of a small subset of eastern mountain dwarves, from which she is descended.
Annekje Silverbeard, this young, dark-complexioned female dwarf is the newest addition to the ranks of service staff in the Vault of Kings. Not one to continue her education for longer than absolutely necessary, she has been assigned to Hwemenocter rosters as a young adult to gain experience and encounter people outside of her (large, deeply devout) family. As one of the few of her line not pursuing positions in the faith of Moradin, her parents and siblings eye her with suspicion, of which she is often not aware. She is chatty and easily distracted, but can be petty when she feels slighted (which is often). Luckily, she also forgives and forgets quickly. She feels more at ease with those who show some sign of having faith, and can occasionally overstep the bounds of professionalism when she thinks a lack of faith poses a danger to someone’s soul.
Ferg Hammerstruck, an exceptionally good-looking young male dwarf with brown hair, beard and eyes, who is particular about the niceties of service, especially when it comes to table settings and dinner service. This makes him a favorite of Ludgard when entertaining (and Ludgard sees himself as the mentor of the young man). Reads voraciously, especially in books of etiquette from all races and cultures. Likes the finer things in life and spends most of his wages on fine fabrics, and quality accessories. Is an accomplished huntsman, and not a bad cook, who will occasionally help Kirge during busy times. Can be a bit shy when approached, but quickly warms to people, especially if he finds they have good taste.
I was scanning through the 4e module Fair Barovia this morning, looking for the encounter at the base of Tser Falls to adapt into “my” Barovia for this evening’s game, when I came across this module’s version of the Tarokka reading again, here given by a grown-up Arabelle.
Powersore RPG has a fun lore deep-dive into past versions of Barovia that spends a fair amount of time on Fair Barovia and the various connections between the NPCs featured in both. Fair Barovia is interesting as it cannot be nailed down as a clear sequel or prequel— For example, Kolyan Indirovich, burgomaster of the Village of Barovia, has not yet found and adopted his daughter Ireena, while Arabelle is a grown woman and a gifted Vistani seer in her own right. Given the cyclical nature of time and generations in Barovia, I’m not sure it matters too much anyway. Best not to think about it too much.
Arabelle’s Tarokka reading offers a small boon (or curse!) in a specific location based on the suit and face of the card drawn. The module’s reading uses a handful of cards from a standard deck of cards, but can easily be adapted to the Tarokka deck we’ve grown to love. I’ll weigh our adapted list in favor of boons since I see this reading as a potential reward for saving Arabelle from the lake, but as with everything else in this wretched valley, there is still a certain amount of risk when playing with fate. For this reading, we’ll only use the low deck (1-10 of the four suits).
To start, we’ll identify the locations where the effects of the reading apply:
Coins: (Diamonds): Krezk / Monastery / Fidatov Estate
Swords (Spades): Argynvostholt
Stars (Clubs): Berez
Glyphs (Hearts): The Winery / Yester Hill
You could swap out any location, including Castle Ravenloft or the Amber Temple, but I chose these four as I expect the party will need their full faculties in the final two dungeons of the game.
The Fidatov estate is the manor home featured in DDAL04-09: The Tempter, one of my favorite modules from the Curse of Strahd AL season. Check out this chapter of Fleshing out Curse of Strahd from the CoS subreddit for an idea on how to integrate the estate with Krezk, and I’ll try to write up a post on running the estate within a Curse of Strahd campaign as well— it was one of my favorite “side quest” sessions the last time I ran the campaign, as there is no better reward for a DM than dropping a cursed honeypot in front of a bunch of greedy PCs who will greedily snatch up piles of gold despite knowing it is 100% cursed and a bad idea.
I assume when I do this reading, the party will not have visited any of these locations, so we can look to the descriptions given for the treasure locations in Chapter One for ideas on how to describe the locations without explicitly naming them (Curse of Strahd, pp. 12-15).
Have each player draw a card (or Arabelle draws for them). The suit determines the location, while the value applies the affect from the list below. Have Arabelle read the italicized text when the card is drawn.
Advantage on initiative rolls Danger lurks around every corner, but your reflexes are heightened in this place, and your guard remains up where your companions may falter.
Disadvantage on initiative rolls Blades will be drawn when you least expect it.
Bonus 1d4 to health gained from second wind (Fighter), dark one’s blessing (Warlock, Fiend patron) and hit dice rolls Your blood will sustain you in this place.
Automatically roll 51 on Barovian nightmare d100 rolls. This does not affect haunting from a Night Hag if the party has made an enemy of Morgantha and her daughters.‡ Rest easy in this location, for the first time in too long, an easy, dreamless sleep comes to you.
Advantage on INT/WIS/CHA ability checks and saving throws Your soul is shielded from from evil in this place.
Disadvantage on INT/WIS/CHA ability checks and saving throws* Your soul is laid bare and vulnerable in this place.
Advantage on STR/DEX/CON ability checks and saving throws Strength courses through your veins, you draw newfound power from this place, finding yourself capable of new feats.
Disadvantage on STR/DEX/CON ability checks and saving throws* The place saps your life, atrophying your very being and wasting away as long as you remain.
Advantage on Concentration CON saving throws† The weave is closer in this place, your connection and concentration stronger for it.
Disadvantage on Concentration CON saving throws† The weave is thin and frayed in this place, your connection to your magic holding by a thread, easily broken.
* One of the Fair Barovia possibilities limits the curse to until the character is bloodied (a 4e term, reaching half hit points or below), and in the same light, the broad curses on checks and saves could end once the PC reached 0 HP for the first time in the chosen location. If you wish to do this, add “…but ebbing life sustains you.” to the prophecy.
† If you draw either of these for a non-spellcaster, quickly roll a d8 and use that result from the table instead.
‡ To add an unfortunate twist on this one, (or you’re not a sadist penalizing sleep as I do), when resting, the character falls into a deep slumber, and cannot be woken except by taking damage, after which they will gain no benefit from the long rest.
Credit where credit is due, some of the above lines (and of course the core idea) of the table above are adapted or lifted directly from Fair Barovia, by Claudio Pozas, published in Dungeon Magazine #207. The original reading can be found on page 47.
Vampire spawn are nothing to laugh at at level three. I’m once again finding I need to re-adjust my expectations for Barovia, and I’m beginning to understand how deadly this early campaign really can be. When we entered Barovia a year and a half ago with the players I’d gotten to known over two years of Out of the Abyss, they were packing some serious firepower. Between the fact that we were starting with six player characters, and the fact that most of them were fairly well optimized builds designed for packing a serious punch (Especially with our Sharpshooting Monster Slayer Ranger and the Scorlock blasting away, they had no issue burning through the undead’s hitpoints), those first few sessions of Curse of Strahd were a little less harrowing than all the stories had prepared me for.
I found I was not really challenging them until they found themselves in a place they had no business being just yet, and were met with the harsh reality of sandbox campaign books run by a DM still wet behind the ears— diving headlong into a region they had no business being at just yet, and losing two PCs as a result. One accepted the uncertain offer, the other did not. And once again, ss all of this happened before, all of this will happen again. This time, right out of the gate I’ve found myself with two dead PCs within two sessions.
Death House Lives Up To Its Name
It’s actually been three sessions since I updated on Curse of Strahd, two of which finished out Death House. I ran with the updated/alternative Death House I mentioned in my last post, and I think it worked really well. The updated story basically makes Walter (the infant son the nursemaid cares for upstairs) part of the shambling mound in the dungeon, giving the party a shortcut if they choose to fight the monster— when the shambling mound uses engulf, the restrained player has a chance to see Walter, and if they sever his connection to the mound, it collapses, and they no longer need to fight it.
Session two covered the rest of the house (basically level three and attic, plus part of the basement), including some fun RP when our fighter was possessed by the bossy twelve-year-old ghost girl. Between sessions two and three, we found our fourth player, and we rounded out the party with a monk. The player asked if she could be from Barovia, and I said there wasn’t really a great fit for her in Barovia, but we dove into some of the 2e and 3/3.5e Ravenloft source books, and dropped her monastery in Darkon. I gave her some vague references to van Richten and Ezmerelda I’ll hook into later (she doesn’t know either by name), and she gave me 2.5 pages of backstory to work with, including a love-interest NPC she’s looking for who has some vague history with Barovia and/or Strahd too. I’m still figuring out exactly what I’ll do with her, but I’ll figure something out.
I gave her a variation on “creeping mists” once again, another of the dreams I’d used in the past, but this time she woke up in the father’s (otherwise empty) coffin of Death House’s family crypt. The rest of the party heard her pounding and shouting, and introductions were made. Eventually, they made their way through he rest of the catacombs, refused to sacrifice anyone on the bloody alter, and shambling Walter attacked.
Once the shambling mound was defeated, the party still had to get out, and since they skipped out on the room with the trap door, took the long way all the way back to attic of the House. I’ve seen a lot of DMs complain about the last act of Death House, the house coming to life and trying to kill everyone with noxious fumes and slashing scythe blades, but I love it, especially as the shambling mound feels like it should be the “end of dungeon boss and now we get treasure” moment, and instead everything goes to hell. By the time they reached the front porch, three we unconscious and rolling death saves. The rogue landed a natural 20 and popped back up gasping for breath, and was able to stabilize her companion. The monk was not so lucky.
Death’s Dark Vignettes
The DM’s Guide for Curse of Strahd’s Adventurer League season includes an alternative to faction charity resurrection for Ravenloft— a deal with the dark powers where the character gets to return to life— at a cost. I used these last time I ran, and it was the craziest, most exciting thing to happen in the early game, when Sumu, the poor cleric, took a lighting bolt between the shoulder blades at Yester Hill (aforementioned “victim of the sandbox” session). She was dead and gone, until she wasn’t. Sumu awoke with a second face on the back of her head, a malevolent Edward Mordakewhispering horrible things to her and the rest of the party ad nausium. The DM’s guide has a few options (I think four or six on the table) but there’s an additional full d20 list to work from too.
Last year I came across this excellent Reddit thread with options and ideas for presenting this offer to the player. I’ve used the scenario presented by the original author twice, and sketched out a couple more inspired by the scenarios given as well as my own ideas. Here, the monk took the offer, and returned with a humpback— and disadvantage on DEX ability checks and saving throws. I’m not going to lie, I felt a little bad about that at first (since it’s a core attribute of being a monk in the first place), but I’m really excited to see where this goes for the character since it happened so early on.
Ismark and Ireena
Getting on to this week’s session, the party found an abandoned house to crawl into and tend their wounds (oh, did I mention we’re rolling with the DMG’s Lingering Injuries table?), spent the night, and set out in the morning again. I think I might need to readjust my dreams and nightmare d100 list, if only because I’m no longer trying to keep the small army that was last year’s campaign at full strength all the time. They made it to the Blood of the Vine Inn, learned they were in Barovia (whatever that means), and met Ismark and the Vistani bar owners.
I won’t detail everything with meeting Ismark and Ireena (I should be posting session by session if I want to dive into moment to moment recaps), but I want to move on to the church, so suffice to say, the party met them, who A. needed help transporting and burying their dead father, and B. need someone to travel with them on the road if they are to go to Vallaki. Now the party doesn’t know where Vallaki is, but they are headed east to fine Madam Eva, so they agreed.
What They Did In the Shadows…
Which leads us to the church basement and the party’s first encounter with a vampire (spawn) in Ravenloft. The party had just hit level three upon surviving (well, technically) Death House. Hit points! Class Archetypes! Second level spells! And now they were thrown against a single, very hungry vampire spawn in the basement, the son of the village priest.
This was the instance that cemented for me that this trip through Barovia is going to be a very different experience than the last time I ran it. I find I’m entering scenarios with the confidence of having dealt with it once before, but I need to keep that in check as well— this is still brand new for everyone else at the table, and what was a fairly straightforward (if long) fight for one party ended up being a different story this time around.
One major mistake on my part that ended up working in the party’s favor was that I completely forgot to consider weapon resistance for the Vampire Spawn. Their weapon attacks should have been dealing half as much damage, which would have been killer when you account for the vampire’s regeneration, as the monk and fighter were the only ones dealing any significant damage. What was already a bit of a drawn-out slugfest could have easily turned south if the Vampire had twice as many chances to draw blood.
There’s always a dangerous game of what-if I play post-session when looking at how everything played out. I’m curious if I’d kept the resistance, would they have given up and fled faster (seeing how futile their attacks were), would they have come up with other tactics? If we hadn’t jumped into combat at the end of the night, would they have made different choices with more time to the combat (I was fairly pushy about making choices and keeping combat moving since I knew we had pushed passed time). And finally, most importantly— should I have ended combat the way I did?
And Another One Down…
We were a half hour past our usual cut off time. DC Metro does not run all night, and people needed to get going. The cleric had gone down and was rolling death saves, but the vampire was on his last legs. I finally said “Ok, you’re able to finally kill the Vampire, Charrick [the cleric], go ahead and roll three death saves to see how this plays out.” Already at one success and one failure, it was a close one— and when the dice landed, Charrick had expired. I don’t think the player himself was upset, but the rest of the party was beating themselves up knowing the could or should have tried to stabilize him before this all happened. We called it a night, and I followed up by email the next day.
I sent Charrick’s player another offer from the dark powers (once again inspired by the vignettes link above), but he ultimately decided against it. This cleric wouldn’t take the offer, and we spent the rest of the week discussing where we’ll go from here. I’m looking forward to his next character (I’ll have to write up this party at some point soon), and he’ll play Ismark and Ireena until I find the time and place to introduce our latest victim of the mists. I’m also looking forward to when the PC’s see their companion spirit rise from the graveyard in the March of the Dead, the nightly procession of Adventurers who fell victim to Ravenloft, as they spend the night at the church.
I’m not sure I have any particular conclusion for final point to follow up on the last 1700 words or so, other than every game for us is another chance to learn from past mistakes, as well as make new ones. This is D&D, PCs Die. Ravenloft is an especially deadly place, but also a really exciting setting where Death truly doesn’t need to be the end, and as this latest group will eventually learn, might not even be the worst outcome…
All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again…
Battlestar Galactica (but apparently also Peter Pan)
This week I returned to Curse of Strahd (yes the only thing I’ve been writing about, but at this point, I’m at “write what you know”). It was towards the end of my last run of the campaign last spring that I started following (and very occasionally contributing to) the Curse of Strahd DM’s subreddit and Facebook group. Now I’m excited to revisit Barovia with all of the lessons I learned running the first time, as well as the amazing ideas I’ve come across to steal from the Internet DM hivemind.
I introduced the party with the same hook I’d used before: individual dreams and a variation on the “Cry For Help” hook. I like the Daggerford/Mysterious Visitors hook as it doesn’t immediately vilify the Vistani and gets the party to Madam Eva immediately, but I think it only works if you’re starting the party at third level, which I didn’t want to do here as one players was relatively new to D&D, and another brand new to 5E.
We’re starting with only three PCs this time (which I’m equally excited and terrified about!). The initial meeting went well enough, but none were sold on following a strange man’s invitation through strange woods, and instead decided the continue on to the nearest city. The following night, the mists hugged their campsite close, and when they awoke, nothing looked the same.
We made it it Death House by way of my favorite image in the book, the gates of Barovia. For the second time I pulled off a D&D “jump scare”— Rolling initiative against the wolves in the den/parlor in Death House, then revealing the characters were frightened by a bunch of stuffed wolves.
Jumping at Shadows
When the PC opens the door to the den on the first floor, describe the light of their lantern or torch catching the reflection of glowing red eyes, glistening teeth dripping with saliva. I didn’t mention any sound, but perhaps they might imagine a low, menacing growl. Ask to roll initiative, roll your die for the wolves— no matter what’s on the die, the wolves roll a 1, ending up at the the bottom of the initiative order. If you really want to sell it, start flipping through your Monster Manual. This will probably be the first initiative of the campaign, so everyone will be amped up. The PCs will be up first, and describe the first blow— an axe coming down, a gout of flame, a arrow finding it’s target in the wolf— and how there is a burst of sawdust and fur, and they all realize that <PC Who Attacked First> panicked and attacked a piece of particularly high-quality taxidermy. The tension is broken, initiative is broken, and they can explore the rest of the den at their leisure.
I think I stole this from somebody’s blog or reddit post, and attribution means a lot to me, so please, if anybody recognizes the source of this little tidbit, please drop me a message and I would love to give credit where it is due!
Onwards and Upwards
We made it through the first and second floors without much incident (although the delightfully creepy reliefs and wallpapers kept everyone on edge). None of the PCs were interested in the library, which ended up being a relief for me, as I realized I forgot to print out the letter! This is fantastic, though, as I was later reminded of another DM’s writeup on Reddit on streamlining Death House, cutting or changing many of the fights, and rewriting the narrative a bit to make Lady Durst the true villain. I don’t think anything that happened in this first session will affect any of those changes (and I probably won’t be running off that guide line-by-line either), so I’m looking forward to reviewing all of those changes again and putting it all into action next week.
I wrapped up the session with the Animated Armor beaten down (although not before it got a few good blows in too), and the weirdness of this house will begin to ramp up next week…
I’ve been excited about The Expanse’s RPG kickstarter for a while now. Sometime late last year I saw mention of it, but for a while the only information I could find was a press release from Green Ronin saying it was coming August 2018 alongside Gencon. I would keep my eye on Twitter and Reddit as the excitement of The Expanse’s cancellation and new contract with Amazon came and went, but there was frustratingly little to find on the game. Finally the kickstarter launched, and blew through its funding goal within an hour. I downloaded the quickstart, and was quickly impressed with the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) mechanics, but it took a few more weeks to get it on the table and give the quickstart a go. A friend mailed me a copy of the quickstart paperback from Gencon, and we got a group together on Hangouts this Wednesday. What follows will be a combination of reflections on the mechanics themselves (at least how I understand them from the parsed-down basics), the scenario Cupbearers, as well as help filling in the minor details and holes that cropped up teaching and playing the game in a “here, learn from my mistakes” kind of explanation.
** The following contain plenty of spoilers for the quickstart adventure, Cupbearers **
Getting to know the characters
I’ve not played any of the other AGE RPGs, but I loved how simple this was to pick up and teach. 3d6 + ability score + focus bonus if you have it— give me the total and the value of the drama die. Easy and done. After the second or third test, almost everybody knew what they were doing and where on the character sheet they were looking. We played with four of the pre-generated PCs, and they got going pretty quickly. It was very helpful to have the focuses and abilities defined and explained on the character sheet— no need to flip back and forth between the character sheet and rules when everyone is still getting their feet under them. The first version of the quickstart did have a number of typos on the character sheets and NPC stat blocks, but many of those were fixed in version 1.2 of the PDF, which is what is linked from the Kickstarter/Green Ronin. Unfortunately version 1.0 is what made it to print, so I had to doctor my rule book when it first arrived. Most of the errors were in the calculated attack bonus and damage rolls, the rest were minor spelling or formatting typos. The few I’ve caught that are still in the 1.2 PDF Are:
Izzy’s pistol attack bonus should be +3, not +2 (accuracy)
Ade’s pistol damage should be 2d6 +3 (perception)
Pinkwater Security’s speed should not be 0 (I assumed 11, like the Tough or Wendell)
Orn’s unarmed damage should be 1d6+2 (Like Casey, he has the Striking Style talent)
Wait, where is that explained?
There were also a few features or conditioned that were not well explained in the course of the rules or the adventure. The trap on page 18 points you to the Conditions section (p 7) to learn what “Exhausted” means, but that’s not actually listed as a possible condition— instead it’s in the explanation of Wounded: “their Speed halved and [are] unable to take the Run action”.
There are also two pieces of the NPC stats blocks that bear no explanation in the rest of the document: penetrating damage (Pinkwater Security + Wendell), and Wendell’s Pinpoint Accuracy talent. Fortunately, the community that has grown up around this Kickstarter already had my back. Posting to the Facebook group for help, I got the following from someone with the Modern AGE rules on hand:
Penetrating damage ignores most armor and comes from special weapons, hazards, and abilities, such as raging open flames or the Called Shot stunt. Very few things reduce penetrating damage. Page 39.
Page 61 Modern Age. Pinpoint Attack
Requirements: Accuracy or Fighting 1 or higher, and Dexterity 1 or higher If you can see it, you can hit it. Hard.
Novice: You can strike where it hurts the most. Once per round, you can add 1d6 to the damage of a successful attack if your Dexterity is greater than your target’s.
Other than that, the rest was pretty much the learning curve of running a brand-new system with brand-new players all around— there were bound to be mistakes on all sides.
Mistakes on all Sides
When we got into combat for the first time, I think I was forgetting pieces a lot more than the players were. I was happy to see little of the Analysis Paralysis I’d seen in first-time D&D players facing a pair of dead horses and a couple of goblins with short bows for the first time. A short list of major and minor actions and as much description as you can muster for flavor. The first time around I often forgot the NPC’s minor actions on their turns— if they weren’t moving they would take a shot, but I’d forget to let them aim and get the +1 bonus. I also forgot to use the injured/wounded rolls— when they ran out of hit points fortune, they dropped. Oops! So all that to say, things went fairly well for the players their first combat round. I also could or should have played the NPCs a bit smarter— in the final fight they should have given up Kai after their leader went down (per the scenario description, and common sense), but I had the last two toughs keep firing.
It also took me a few tests and checks to get better about using the drama die to explain their “success level” and how easily they accomplished their various tasks. I was surprised how often doubles actually came up during the game. I haven’t really done the math on the probability of rolling any set of doubles across 3d6 but after a bit of play, it’s clearly lower than I thought. The stunts are a great mechanic, and I hope/expect there are more options that come with the full rules, or perhaps come into play at higher levels.
Another mechanic that got a little rocky for us (or at least me) was shifting the attitudes of the NPCs towards the characters. The rules and suggestions in the book are fairly straightforward, but it was really the first real moment of gameplay for us, and I’m not sure I explained particularly well what they were supposed to do or how interacting with the people in the brothel really worked mechanically. All the same, they won over a bartender soon enough and got the introduction they needed. Next time, I would probably be more explicit in asking whats expected of them, especially with new players, since this is literally the first place they end up after arrival.
Advanced Tests and the Locked Room
One of my favorite mechanics in Expanse AGE is the “advanced test”, skills checks across multiple rounds to reach a running total. Since my first reading of the rules I’ve already been thinking about how to run something like that in D&D (my brother and I already had a lengthy Telegram conversation about it). In practice, I was actually surprised and a little disappointing in how it went. It was over quickly— I can’t fault them for rolling well, they noticed the dropping oxygen quickly, got two successes on their technology rolls, with a 5 and a 6 on the drama dice. I was considering that on another pass I’d probably bump the running total up a bit, but things could just as easily go badly for the group with the dice landing slightly differently.
The part I found more frustrating was that I didn’t have much else for anyone else to do— Each test takes one minute out of the five they have before they’re in a vacuum, and only one character performs the check. I played around with an “assist” mechanic, but I never really settled on anything I liked well enough that I put into play— If Naomi is trying to hack a computer system, the last thing she would want is Prax elbowing in and trying to help Two Idiots One Keyboard with her. There needed to be a cost, or at least a danger, alongside the benefit of someone helping. I kept the rest of the team involved and asked what they were doing elsewhere in the room, and one of their alternative solutions might have gotten them somewhere (or bought time) if the hacking player had failed or taken more time, but it ultimately ended up not mattering.
The scenario I see this option really shining is someone trying to do something mid-combat— The rest of the party holding off waves of security over a series of rounds while one person tries to hack the communications array and get tight-beam message out.
The players never actually talked to Orn Aquilo directly about Kai, instead opting to make a bit of money selling the location of the stolen luxury goods in exchange for some good old-fashioned cash.
I’ve no idea what did or didn’t get pieced together on their end without all the pieces, but they never really got a straight answer about why Kai was fleeing Ganymede or why Moneta had him in the first place (other than Orn told them he thought she was going to ransom something “particularly valuable” of his. When they DID get to Kai and he found out the crew was taking him back to Titan, he tried to book it out of there, at which point Casey knocked him out and fireman-carried him to the ship in a good old-fashioned black bag kidnapping.
Clearly they got enough story (and had fun with it), but I’m sometimes left with the feeling that I’ll leave players more confused than they probably actually are.
So I’m Injured, Now What?
This fortunately never came up, but it’s a likely one— how can we help an injured Player Character? The rules tell us First Aid can be used to stabilize a dying character, but offers nothing on healing an injury or wound. Can these only be helped with proper treatment in a medical bay? Is there any sort of battlefield medicine option to help? We already don’t have hit points, instead just our fortune, so anybody with an injury or wound is clearly already in dire straits. I assume we’ll have to wait for the rest of the rulebook to figure this out.
Misc: Open-Ended Thoughts and Questions I’m Looking Forward To Getting Answers to
Do Stunt Die stack if they take the Lighting Attack stunt and roll doubles again? Do they get to take another round of stunts immediately? Could that include a second Lighting Attack, or are they disqualified from stunts they’ve taken this turn?
How else is fortune used? Clearly there are options other than “avoid damage”, but none are detailed in the quickstart. I tried to implement a “luck roll” kind of mechanic using an over/under based on the PCs fortune, a la Call of Cthulhu, but it wasn’t particularly well thought out. I assume there will be an option to use fortune to succeed when a test would otherwise fail.
When circumstances, player choices, or just particularly good roleplaying call for a + or – on a test, is it better to give the bonus to the player to calculate with, or adjust the Target Number behind the scenes? I used a mix of both, and will likely continue to do so, I’d just love to hear opinions.
How does leveling up and interlude time work? Would they have hit “level two” after a scenario like this?
Assuming this merry band of misfits comes together again, what can they do with decently large sum of cash they scored from Orn? They already had their ship paid off per their agreement with Daddy Dardanus. Perhaps a minor upgrade to one of their ship’s systems? A (very) nice coffee machine in the galley?
I didn’t use any of the mechanics Green Ronin has been teasing out during the Kickstarter (although I think The Churn is the only one really applicable/usable with the quickstart at the moment), but I’m really looking forward to the ship combat released today and the various Interlude/Downtime options to fill time between chapters and scenarios.