Tuesday, 28 April 2009

4E State of Play 1: Splat!

So the new game has been out for (counts fingers) nine months, and a lot has happened. Many flames have been flung, and continue to burn online. D&D players around the globe have arranged themselves into their appropriate corners and now eye each-other uncomfortably across the edition gap. I, personally, have DM'd (counts) almost a hundred hours of 4th Edition, and played in the odd game too. How has the game moved on since it was released? What has changed? Is it any better now? What lessons have been learned?

While it was being previewed I liked what I saw of 4E, and when it actually came out, I loved what I saw. Part of this was exhaustion with the previous edition, part of it was a general readiness for something new, and part of it was that I wanted to start a regular group, and 4E seemed like a perfect opportunity to do it. I could get a weekly game going, and look forward to enjoying the very early stages of a new edition and all the supplements and excitement that came with that, all in the company of new friends.

Getting that new group together was a simple combination of patience and luck, and while the dreaded Player Conveyer has seen a lot of action in the last couple of months, it seems like every time someone has to leave, someone else is waiting in the wings to take their place. The group is now six players strong, and everyone seems to be having a blast. Certainly, 4E doesn't seem to have put anyone off, and everyone got to grips with the rules very quickly.

Which is not to say, over the months, that their quirks haven't become apparent. I remain unconvinced by Skill Challenges, still. I've tried a couple of permutations, and the errata certainly helped to clear some stuff up, but it remains very hard to build an abstract SC into the flow of the game without arresting it into some weird gamey twilight zone where the trick is to guess what the DM wants, rather than where the roleplaying is taking you. Admittedly, the feedback on my SC's has been generally positive, but that's more because I haven't put myself in a situation where the problem manifests rather than the problem actually having been solved.

Others have embraced this as a feature, and it's something I might do myself in the future, but for the moment I much prefer SC's to merge seamlessly with the game and consider my job to be successfully complete only at the point one of the players looks up and says, "XP? Oh, was that a Skill Challenge?". The jury is still out, really.

Speaking of errata, there's been a steady flow of it. On the one hand, you have to ask whether such updates should be necessary, on the other, being in the business I'm in, I know the kind of errors that can creep into large, complex projects contributed to by many people over long periods, so it doesn't bother me unless the error is egregious. Instances of this are light (the Skill DC table being completely revised a few weeks after release being one example), so I take it as positive that Wizards continue to update the game as they do, and honestly, only the really major changes require any application at the table at all.

As you might expect, splat books have come thick and fast, usually at the rate of one a month. Nine months into the edition, we're already seeing Player's Handbook 2 and Monster Manual 2 coming out of the gate, which include exactly the kind of core expansions that Wizards talked about back in August last year. For the most part, the player-oriented splats have been excellent, crunchier than a McVities Hobnob and bulging with options. The extreme dissociation between options for player and options for DM's this time around means that you shouldn't be going to books like the PHB2, Arcane Power or Martial Power if you're looking for inspiration on character background or flavour, though; take what you can get from the class concepts themselves and the general thrust of their Powers, and do the rest yourself. Those babies are all business.

One artefact of this player/DM split is that I don't find myself paying much attention to the player's side of the screen. The various Power books and the PHB2 make great browse material, but I don't have to know them like I had to know the options from their 3E equivalents, because those were the building blocks I would be using for future NPC's and villains. This can be fun when someone unleashes a Power I know nothing about, but can also cause delays when I'm asked to adjudicate on some weird exception or corner case, but overall I think has a positive effect on the game. It frees me, the DM, to focus on stuff I really should be worrying about, and importantly, gives the players a niche they can call their own. Result? Smug grins and glinting eyes on both sides of the screen.

For the DM, we've had the likes of Open Grave, Manual of the Planes, and Draconomicon. I have found all of these books to be excellent value, especially MotP which has inspired whole tracts of my campaign's upcoming Paragon and Epic tiers. The 4E Points of Light concept, and the implied setting Wizards have built around it, is turning out to be pretty fertile ground for the game developers, and by building a campaign world which is sympathetic to those ideas, I've been able to meld published material with my own work very successfully. This is partly a function of necessity, I admit (like most DM's, I don't have as much time as I'd like to prep the game), but mostly because, well, I like what they're doing.

Adventures have turned out to be a different matter, with some disappointingly uninteresting offerings. Keep on the Shadowfell was an unashamedly C+ Must Try Harder effort; Thunderspire Labyrinth, while inexplicably having the reputation of a roleplay-rich-environment, was nothing more than a couple of linked dungeons, albeit with some cool encounters; Pyramid of Shadows is more of same, yet another dungeon crawl even if the villain is quite imaginatively villanous. As for the Paragon and Epic adventures, I have yet to do more than browse them, so I guess I'll comment on those some other time.

I'm an unashamed fan of the new format, which is unusual and stands out from the crowd even if the two-book idea is hit-and-miss, but unless P1 through E3 take a drastically different approach to adventure design, I'll be doing little more than I am now: mining them for material but completely re-writing the plot framework. (Note: this still makes them value for money, but I would at least like the option of not having to do any work!)

So up until now it's been all about consolidation. This is not surprising, as the books we're reading today have probably been in development since the time of the first PHB. Old favourites like the gnome, the half-orc, the bard, and the druid are now all present and accounted for. Wizards can have familiars again. The vague pencil outlines of the implied setting have been filled in. My 4E shelf is now acceptably saggy in the middle. The system has not turned out to be hopelessly broken. Unlike previous editions though, what Wizards have printed is only half the story...

Next: the DDI.

Monday, 27 April 2009

4ed Campaign -- Session 22 -- 26th April 2009

In which many doors are bashed in, many heads are broken, and the best course of action is just to stroll in the front door...
Azurami - Eladrin Wizard 4
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 4
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 4
Finial - Half-elf Paladin 4
Jonas - Human Ranger 4
Xavier - Dragonborn Warlord 4

Two hobgoblins remain standing, and neither of them seems to have the stomach for a continued fight. Under heavy attack, one of them falls, while the other barges through the company to attempt an escape down an unexplored corridor to the north. He finds -- not much to his surprise by the looks of it -- that the door at the end is locked. With half the party, led by Finial, on his tail, he hammers desperately on the door, but no-one on the other side comes to his aid.

Meanwhile, three goblins emerge from the south only to walk straight into an ambush laid by Jonas and Xavier. The ground underfoot flash-freezes and the air in their lungs turns to ice as the wizards unleash their attacks, while Jonas applies multiple arrows to the cause. One of the goblins, spurred on by his mates, is killed within seconds, while the other two make use of the distraction to flee back whence they came. Doors slam as they make good their escape.

To the north, Finial dispatches the remaining hobgoblin, but is dismayed to hear the sounds of armour being donned behind the door. Trying to take advantage of this opportunity, both he and Elumai batter their way through it to find themselves face-to-face with two armoured, grey-skinned and red-bearded dwarves... duergar!

Their opponents were clearly waiting for them, whipping their heads around and unleashing a flurry of razor-sharp spines from their beards straight at Finial. The attacks draw blood, and he feels cold poison seep into his muscles, but being resolute of body he soon shakes it off. Alarmingly, the dwarves then burst into flame, molten fire pouring from their warhammers and the roaring fireplace nearby flaring up in sympathy. Elumai keeps it partially in check with a simple cantrip, but as the imminent battle goes on, tongues of flame begin to lick out from the fireplace and creep across the floor.

Elsewhere, the others set about securing the area. The goblins appear to have disappeared behind some solid metal doors, similar to the ones they saw outside. From within, a voice is heard shouting orders in Common -- "Lobkorr'll see 'em away, into position you rats!" -- along with other sounds of a defense being prepared. Azurami does her best to tie off the doors to give them some time to decide what to do, and Xavier briefly lends his considerable body-weight to the task as well.

The battle with the duergar gradually attracts the rest of the party, and soon the dwarves find themselves facing a whole company of well-equipped adventurers. One of them is able to successfully beat a hasty retreat, sprinting down another easterly corridor and behind yet another door, but the other is cornered and, despite being able to use the flames in the fireplace to regenerate his wounds, is brought down.

On his person, they find a few gold pieces, and a note written in Deep Speech. Fortunately, Finial is able to read it. It appears to be almost a shopping list of sorts, not for goods, but for people!

2 x human captives1500gp
1 x elven female800gp
1 x necrotech coffin2500gp

This causes a bit of a stir with Elumai, who recalls late-night ghost stories of the 'Necrotech Surgeon General' who would visit innocent children and... modify them in ghastly ways. She had dismissed the tale, and a hundred others like it, as nothing but superstition, but now both she and her friends are forced to reconsider the possibility.

Further, quiet investigation of the complex reveals a mess hall, kitchen, and store rooms to the south, and a couple of innocuous-looking doorways which they leave unexplored in the corridors to the north. The party eventually decides that they're going to have to assault the large central room to make any progress, but they decide on a two-pronged attack, Elumai and Jonas entering from the north, through the door which the duergar used to escape, while the others rush the double-doors at the front.

Inside, they find what looks like a prison pen. Six cages are recessed into the floor such that one could walk straight over them without missing a step, with pulleys like meathooks suspended on runners above. Steps on either side ascend ten feet to a walkway and an upper balcony, where a statue of Torog, in his now-familiar guise as a disembodied hobgoblin head with multiple, tentacle-like legs, leers down over the scene. A dire wolf feasts on the remains of what looks like the body of a Kingsblade, while two hobgoblins use spears to toy with the animal from above, angering it even more. Other hobgoblins stand poised with longbows, and the duergar who escaped them before also lies in wait.

In the center of the room, a massive seven-foot human with a grimy, half-naked and muscular form, close and haphazardly-shorn hair, and a scarred wasteland for a face, stands ready for them. He wears a spiked gauntlet on his left hand, and carries a long chain in the other, one end coiled around his fore-arm.

"Fresh meat, eh? Walking straight into a Bloodreaver slave pit? Brave or stupid, your fate is the same!" - Lobkorr the Strangler.

The company does not shy from the battle. Berend and Finial leap forward to attack their enemy, dodging spears thrown from the hobgoblins above, while Elumai and Jonas enter from the upper door. Lobkorr quickly shows how he got his nickname, by lashing out with the chain and lassooing Finial around the neck -- "You're Lobkorr's little doggie now!" -- catching the paladin in a grip which slowly crushes his windpipe. Berend charges past with the full fury of his axe, and it's a massive blow, carving a great slice of flesh from Lobkorr's shoulder... but the huge barbarian, although staggered, still has the energy to laugh as he pulls the choke-chain ever tighter around his new pet's neck...

Thursday, 23 April 2009

4ed Campaign -- Session 21 -- 19th April 2009

In which making new friends is easy while everyone wants the same thing, the dubious fate of a wayward halfling comes into focus, and several offending eyeballs are indeed pluck'd out...
Azurami - Eladrin Wizard 4
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 4
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 4
Finial - Half-elf Paladin 4
Jonas - Human Ranger 4
Xavier - Dragonborn Warlord 4
Corrash - Dragonborn Warlock (Fey-Pact) 4
Mord - Dwarven Fighter 4
Romto - Halfling Cleric (of Pelor) 4

Elumai decides to make the acquaintance of Orontor, a thin, somewhat dishevelled and stringy-haired gentleman, who has been quietly observing them. After closing the door to the Customs House behind him he does reveal that he might have some work to throw their way, and offers to meet them in a couple of hours at the Halfmoon. The company agrees.

In the meantime, they decide to take a look around. Jonas determines to investigate the east side of the Hall -- and the Mages’ teleportation circle in particular -- while Berend and the others prefer the prospect of a shopping trip to lighten their moods (and purses).

Jonas crosses the river to investigate the magic circle. It is inscribed onto the rocky surface of a raised plinth of rock, a complicated pattern in the shape of several concentric circles of carved runes which surround the form of a bronze minotaur. It is somewhat different in style than the statues at the entrance (more heroic and stylized), and squats amidst the runes at the centre of the plinth with arms wide. It is smooth and featureless, but obviously old, the relic of a bygone era.

Traffic through the hall doesn’t seem to pay the circle of runes any more respect than they would anything else; several people step up onto the plinth and cross below the gaze of the statue as Jonas observes. Soon however, three more unusual individuals approach. Hooded, their features obscured, and dressed in woollen robes the colour of bleached bone, they slowly ascend to the plinth before arranging a selection of offerings at the foot of the statue. The gifts seem mundane in the extreme -- a strip of salted beef, a dusty bottle of what is presumably a spirit or wine, a string necklace – but they are placed with reverence and as the three supplicants withdraw, they bow in quiet veneration of the statue.

Departing, Jonas spies an emblem embroidered into the backs of their robes, barely visible -- the image of a shattered skull – and something else as well. Getting a better look at the face of one of the men, he is shocked to see that where his left eye should be, there is only a gaping red hole. His interest piqued, he slips into the crowd and follows the trio to the south-western corner of the Hall, where they meet up with eight more of their number, all with shaved heads and the same desecration of flesh, standing in a circle and chanting a murmured hymn.

Getting as close as he dares, he overhears various whispered fragments of their conversation – “The offering has not been taken… our patron has gone silent…” – before they catch on to him and move on in irritation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group descends on the Deepgem Company, run by the old smith Ulthand Deepgem. The shop is lit only with the simmering red glow of the forge at the rear, and Ulthand himself, a leathery-skinned, grey-haired old dwarf with a beard like a thick grey scarf down to his lap, sits rocking in his favourite recliner while his apprentice tends to business out back. Berend browses the shelves of weapons and armour, and chooses a fine set of spiked gauntlets to accessorize his scale, before taking the opportunity to get Ulthand’s opinion on his sample of flurock.

As with seemingly everyone else, the dwarf is repulsed by the material, not just for its apparent stink (which is still undetectable to the adventurers), but also because of its uselessness. Ulthand dons a greasy, elbow-length leather glove and takes the fist-sized piece of rock off Berend, banging it on the ground where a sizable fragment crumbles away. “Whatever it is, lad, it’s no good to a dwarf,” he concludes in disgust.

Next on their agenda is Gendar’s Curios, run by a drow merchant who has given his name to the shop. It’s a welcoming affair, built of large stone bricks and a slate roof, and it even has a window of sorts, in which is displayed various salves, powders, herbs, and bottles of ambiguous intent. Elumai, in particular, senses an opportunity for the spending of her money, and engages the whispery-voiced, one-eyed elf (although he wears a patch over his left eye) in barter for any Rituals he might be able to offer. At first, he seems reluctant, more interested in what the company can do for him in return for the exotic goods he provides, but the gleam of the party’s money proves too enticing, and he sells Elumai a ritual book containing the Ritual of Enchant Magic Item.

At this point Jonas rejoins them and relates his encounter. The emblem of the shattered skull is quickly identified by his companions as a symbol of Vecna, ascended lich and God of Secrets, and it seems clear that these acolytes have removed their eye in veneration of that most evil of deities (and perhaps their hand as well? Jonas did not see one way or the other). This raises the question of what they’re doing here, why they’re offering such apparently worthless tributes, and why their “patron” is quieter than he or she should be.

They return to the inn to contemplate these matters and await Orontor. As the bell signifying the end of trading hours rings out across the Seven-Pillared Hall (despite the fact that no bell is to be seen), he emerges from upstairs, with two strangers – a dragonborn, and an eladrin – in tow. He seems very pleased to see the company, and tells them that his two “guests” may have interests which “align with our own”. As he says this, the dragonborn circles the table, sizing up the party and receiving a frosty glance from Jonas in the process, but he eventually sits and introduces himself as Xavier. His companion, whose cloth raiment and the orb she carries at her waist suggest she is in the same line of work as Elumai, introduces herself as Azurami.

TODO: physical descriptions

Orontor describes the work he has in mind, becoming increasingly more incoherent and paranoid in the process. He reveals he is one of the Mages of Saruun, but by his language it appears he is a low-ranking and put-upon member of the organization, given the jobs no-one else wants (watching over Brugg, for instance), frustrated with being marginalised from the greater works of the Mages, and feeling like his talents are being overlooked. Paldemar, the head of the Mages, is a particular focus of Orontor’s ire, and its Paldemar’s apparent links to the Bloodreavers – who, Orontor claims, have made various clandestine deals with the Mages – that he wants to use to his advantage, sending the company into the Bloodreavers’ lair to do as much damage as they can, and if possible, kill their leader (who they already know is a hobgoblin named Krand).

Orontor’s jittery manner and the self-serving nature of the commission doesn’t sit well with the adventurers, but newcomer Xavier, detecting their reluctance, has more to add, recounting the chain of events that brought him to the Seven-Pillared Hall. Three days ago, he was travelling the Plain to the south of the Gash, when he came upon a caravan that had been attacked and destroyed. Amongst the dead bodies, a soldier, with his dying breath, implored Xavier to seek justice and rescue his kidnapped captain, Matorna-Reevash, as well as recover the cargo they were escorting. What that cargo was, he did not say, but it was apparently the property of the Court of Cloaks.

Orontor, detecting a surprising lack of enthusiasm from the party at the prospect of being compensated for committing bloody violence (well, with the exception of Berend), latches onto this lifeline, promising that the hostage Xavier spoke of was surely being subjected to egregious tortures every minute that they sat in comfort debating whether or not to even attempt a rescue.

Still, this does not seem to be enough, and Elumai, sensing an opportunity, demands that as part of the payment, he arranges an audience for them with the Mages. Orontor is incredulous, reminding her that this is an unsanctioned commission designed in fact to strengthen his position within the order… but the tenacious eladrin insists (despite Berend’s protestations), and Orontor has no option but to acquiesce, wondering aloud how he will pull off such a feat without raising suspicion. The deal is struck, however, and he takes his leave.

After donning their armour and, in the case of Xavier, meditating on the upcoming fight, they heave open the Dragon Door and set forth into the labyrinthine tunnels of Saruun Khel. They quickly pick up halfling tracks on the other side, but remembering Rendil’s earlier advice to simply “stay right”, advice which he also apparently followed, they push on through the dark until eventually they come to a rectangular arch. Built into the stone lintel are five carved eyes, staring out at them, and an investigation of the doorway reveals neglected and long-since seized-up machinery, perhaps designed to change the configuration of the eyes by lowering recessed stone ‘eyelids’ hidden in the carving. In any case, the mechanism is useless, and the archway doesn’t seem dangerous, so they move on.

The tunnel on the other side opens into a large chamber like an audience room, with a balcony at one end, and a metallic double-door leading to the east, on which is carved the image of a single, staring eye with multiple eye-stalks. Rendil’s tracks lead directly to this door, and there are muffled voices speaking goblin on the other side, so the party decides to make use of the balcony. Xavier takes the opportunity to unfold his wings – unusual for a dragonborn -- and springs to the upper level in impressive style while the others clamber up with varying degrees of skill. A single door also leading east appears to be unlocked, and Berend barges through... much to the consternation of his new dragonborn companion, who has counselled a cautious and meticulous approach to the task at hand thus far.

On the other side, two goblins sit at a table, lazily sharpening their axes, while two larger goblinoids – hobgoblins, by the look – lie snoring on filthy beds. Taking them completely by surprise, the party rushes the room, and battle is joined. The quarters are confined and movement is difficult without attracting the opportunistic blades of their foes, but soon all-but one of the creatures has fallen to a barrage of magic and steel, and the last hobgoblin, until now forced to improvise by smashing a brazier of smouldering coals over Jonas’ head, finds himself facing a full complement of experienced adventurers.

Quite a racket has been raised by the melee, however, and the attention of the party is no doubt diverted by two other entrances to the chamber, leading to who-knows-what...

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

4ed Campaign -- Session 20 -- 5th April 2009

In which a halfling is saved, a wonderful smell is discovered, and it's amazing what you know about minotaurs when you put your mind to it...
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 4
Corrash - Dragonborn Warlock (Fey-Pact) 4 (shadowy insubstantial NPC 1)
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 4
Finial - Half-elf Paladin 4
Jonas - Human Ranger 4
Mord - Dwarven Fighter 4 (shadowy insubstantial NPC 2)
Romto - Halfling Cleric (of Pelor) 4

The party pushes east along the circular tunnel (they realise after a while that the strange surface gives them unusual traction on the rock), and traffic gradually increases in both directions. Traders and travellers of all shape and size pass to and fro, and eventually, as the tunnel narrows and begins to fracture into smaller off-shoots, more people start emerging from side-tunnels and even chutes in the floor and ceiling. Accosting one lost-looking half-elf, they confirm that they are en-route to the Seven-Pillared Hall.

In time, the tunnel contracts to a mere thirty-or-so feet across, and it changes in character to something much more akin to other passages the company has travelled, a rough thoroughfare carved by the sweat of men and women into the rock. As they approach the Hall, they notice a half-open doorway in a nearby alcove, from which gruff raised voices can be heard. Most everyone else is giving the door a wide berth, but a potential break from the monotony of the long walk is too tempting for them to pass up.

"Come on out little fish, we'll get a good 10 gold for you!"

Inside they find a store-room, with several barrels lining the inner wall. Piles of crates, some of which lie smashed on the floor, reveal it as such, and four hobgoblins dressed in ad-hoc armour seem to be making sport with a halfling cowering in one corner. As Berend kicks the door in, one of them turns and orders him back out, stepping forward to shove him back through the entrance, but Finial is having none of that, grabbing the creature before it can do much more than lay a hand on the dwarf, and thusly battle is joined.

It's a straightforward affair, with the party's practised opening salvo's doing their job, until one of the piles of crates in a far corner is pushed over by a robed hobgoblin who appears to have emerged from a secret passageway. Spitting curses at them for disturbing the legitimate work of the Bloodreavers (a name familiar to the PC's), he unleashes a whip-like finger of crackling energy on Berend, who finds himself painfully engulfed by the magic and pulled off his feet to the back of the room, where the hobgoblins he has been dealing with attempt to engulf him. Another electrical attack from the warcaster's staff deals him more damage, but supporting from his friends soon turns the tide and all but one of the hobgoblins is killed.

The last one, a snivelling creature called Krawg, throws himself on the party's mercy with no expectation of being spared. Under interrogation he reveals that he answers to Krand, the leader of the Bloodreavers, and if the company has any particular grief he should take it up with them. He is also coerced into revealing that the route to the Bloodreavers' hide-out is through what he calls the 'Dragon Gate', something the company will know when they see.

Eventually, he is released, but Finial discreetly arranges with the rescued halfling, one Rendil Halfmoon, to follow the creature and report back to them. Rendil eagerly agrees to the task as partial payment for his rescue, and tells the party to meet him later at the inn owned by his mother and named after the family.

Neither the room nor the dead hobgoblins are of further interest, although the secret door opens onto a short tunnel which opens out, via another hidden hatchway at the other end, into a stinking refuse pit in what the company assume is the Seven-Pillared Hall. They stop short at climbing out of the pit in full view of everyone to find out, however, and retreat back to the main tunnel after stashing the dead hobgoblins in the garbage.

Soon they reach the Seven-Pillared Hall within the underground catacomb known as Saruun Khel. The cavern is huge, several hundred metres across, festively illuminated by flickering multi-coloured baubles strung from the buildings and walls, and teeming with traders, travellers, beggars, places of business, and other passing traffic.

The doorway itself is guarded by two gigantic minotaur statues, dozens of metres high and looking sternly down on the entrance. Channeling a distant history lesson, Elumai informs the others that the minotaurs are dressed in the garb of arbiters, high-status followers of ancient, honor-bound traditions within the minotaur culture.

The most obvious first port of call is the Customs House, an imposing building directly opposite the main entrance. There is a queue of people within, who, when their turn is called, are handing over various amounts of cash to a pale, grizzly-looking man with stringy black hair, who then marks a ledger before seeing to the next in line. Hovering menacingly in one corner, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and a mean expression on his face, is a massive ogre.

As the party pushes through the line to get some information, the creature steps forward and accosts them, demanding to know what trouble they're thinking of starting. Berend cannot resist a stand-off with the ogre -- whose name they discover is Brugg -- but in the ensuing face-off they discover that this is a clearing-house for the 10% tax imposed on all trade by the Mages of Saruun, Brugg being the thuggish enforcer who ensures that all payments are made. The man taking the traders' money is the current mage on duty, Orontor. Amazingly, they leave the customs-house without causing any trouble.

The next port of call is the Halfmoon Inn, a sturdy brick-and-mortar affair with a pleasant atmosphere. Erra Halfmoon is incensed to hear about the danger her son Rendil has got himself into, and grateful to the company for saving his bacon, and soon, room and board is arranged. They engage the talkative woman and learn a few more things.

The cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Seven-Pillared Hall, with its diverse races and unusual calm, is entirely down to the mages, who rule through their enforcer Brugg and the enigmatic Ordinator Arcanis, one of their number who appears irregularly to pass judgement on disagreements which can't be resolved peacefully. When asked about local trade she recommends the Deepgem Company, run by Ulthand, although she suggests they should tread carefully because he has apparently suffered a recent bereavement. Of the feral creatures that led them here, Erra knows little except their name, something she heard Brugg say in annoyance once ('shadow tacks'), and of the florock ore, she knows nothing.

Unable to uncover any more information on the strange ore, other than re-confirming their hunch that the feral couriers must be working for the mages, the party returns to the statues. Upon close inspection, they discover a worn-away inscription in a forgotten language that Elumai is forced to employ ritual magic to decipher:

"The Crown of Kvorn's Glory
Baphomet in Shadow"

Plumbing the depths of their knowledge, Elumai and Jonas identify Syosik Kvorn as a long-dead minotaur emperor, while most of the party recognise Baphomet as a demon prince of some repute, but what the inscription actually means remains a mystery for now. Also on the plinths, two circular indentations facing each-other across the entranceway raise the party's interest... Berend theorises that something is designed to be slotted in between them. (And all the while, Elumai notices Orontor, the mage from the customs house, observing them with casual interest from the doorway of the building.)

Monday, 6 April 2009

4ed Campaign -- Session 19 -- 21st March 2009

In which an unexpected double-cross pays dividends, and the company discovers something is afoot deep in the Underdark beneath Cradle Plain.
Berend - Dwarven Fighter 4
Corrash - Dragonborn Warlock (Fey-Pact) 4
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard 4
Finial - Half-elf Paladin 4
Jonas - Human Ranger 4
Mord - Dwarven Fighter 4
Romto - Halfling Cleric (of Pelor) 4

After returning Penelo to the warehouse and sealing the entrance, the party turns their attention to interrogating him and finding out what he knows. Penelo is pragmatic in the face of coersion and quickly admits that he handles the logistics of a secret smuggling operation which is exporting many tons of the strange ore to various locations across the plain... although for what purpose, he doesn't know. He also assures them that he knows little of the creatures chased by Jonas, other than that they are acting as middle-men for the biggest buyer of the rainbow florock, a mysterious client about whom he is similarly ignorant. Neither he nor Azimuth Royt have any interest in who is buying the material or what they are doing with it, as long as the money keeps flowing and they receive their cut.

At this point the party reveals that it was in fact Royt who hired them to spy on Penelo. Realisation seems to dawn on the half-elf as he suddenly understands that he has been set up to take the fall for an operation which is by the day getting harder to keep hidden. He decides to tell them the rest of what he knows in return for some measure of protection, but this doesn't turn out to be much: the feline creatures take one delivery of florock a week down to Goffer's Ledge, an abandoned mine-working on the north-west wall of the Gash. If the company is interested in finding out what the stuff is and where it's going, that would be a good place to start.

Penelo is secreted at the mansion as a special favour, and the party descends carefully to Goffer's Ledge. The mine is old and boarded up, but through previous disuse betrays the regular passage of the creatures they're following, allowing the party to delve into the darkness after them. Almost a full day of difficult descent ensues, as the mine opens into a sprawling Underdark catacomb. Bottomless fissures, freezing waterfalls, and a web-encrusted underground lake are just some of the hazards overcome in the pursuit, and although the party eventually loses track of the creatures, they do eventually find themselves on what appears to be a path marked with iron stakes deep int he darkness.

Following it, they emerge into a huge cylindrical tunnel whose surface glistens strangely in warm azure light emitted from sconces hammered into the walls. Approaching footfalls from the west turn out to be a group of finely-dressed drow, strolling with purpose down the tunnel but snootily ignoring any attempts made to address them. The party decides to follow, and soon encounter another stranger travelling in the opposite direction: a halfling, pulling a wheel-barrow full of multi-coloured mushrooms.

Questioning the friendly fellow (and discovering that his wares are somewhat... mind altering), he informs them that he has just come from the Seven-Pillared Hall of Saruun Khel, an underground trading post where creatures of the dark can trade in neutral territory under the protection of the Mages of Saruun.

Saruun. The name is familiar, not a person but a place, the destination for whatever artefacts were removed from the burial site outside Winterhaven, and it seems, at the heart of the current mystery as well...