Tuesday, 1 September 2009

4ed Campaign - Session 32 - 23rd August 2009

In which a dwarf's unwanted destiny is revealed, the contrivances of his friends save him from himself, and the technology of the strange almost costs him his life...

Roster (Party Level 5th)
Azurami - Eladrin Wizard
Berend - Dwarven Fighter
Elumai - Eladrin Wizard
Finial - Half-elf Paladin
Jonas - Human Rogue/Ranger
Xavier - Dragonborn Warlord

"Hrafnkell!"

The word has a dramatic impact on Berend. He asks a simple question, "Where are they?", but without waiting for an answer, he jumps into the pit and begins beating on the injured duergar. The grey-skinned dwarf has no strength for a fight, and as Berend's fists pound on his face, it seems the only defense he can muster is to laugh at his own plight.

Jonas eventually interposes himself between the two of them. The duergar lies bloodied and on the verge of unconsciousness on the stone floor, while Berend retreats from the pit in silent rage and stalks from the room. Elumai and Finial move after him.

As a potentially crucial source of information, the injured dwarf is force-fed one of the company's precious few healing potions, and helped from the pit only to be threatened with death by Jonas and Xavier unless he is forthcoming. Spitting blood down his chin, the under-dweller chortles at the irony, that a Hrafnkell should arrive at the Horned Hold now, of all times, when the spawn of Yeenoghu have breached the seal to the Well of Demons. Neither of the adventurers know what a "Hrafnkell" is, causing no end of (somewhat painful) mirth to the duergar. "Travelled with the dwarf into the pits of the underdark, and you don't even know his name?" Other than that, he insists that he'll only answer questions put to him by Berend.

Outside, Elumai and Finial find Berend in a rage-filled fugue, attempting to loft his grappling hook across the gap to the blazing watchtower on the other side. He shrugs off their questions -- "They're here somewhere, dead or dying! I have to find them!" -- and Elumai, afraid for her friend's life if he ventures across the gap into the inferno, has no choice but to surreptitiously thwart his rope-craft with subtle use of her mage-hand. This ploy buys them the time they need to calm the dwarf down, and lead him back to the rest of the party.

The duergar prisoner, who introduces himself as Proxim, is rousedby Berend's return. "Odirin, is it?" he asks excitedly. "Or Kreverok?" Neither name gets a response from the dwarf, and Proxim thinks for a second... "Ah, of course. Berend!"

The interrogation of the duergar is a long and difficult process. Proxim's only way of reconciling the contempt he feels for Berend (and his friends) with the fact that a Hrafnkell will apparently be the salvation of the duergar in its hour of need is to find every question asked of him infinitely amusing. Eventually though a few apparent facts trickle out of the proceedings.

The gnolls, servants of the Demon Lord Yeenoghu, attacked the Horned Hold from below and used some kind of device to drain the life essence of its inhabitants, leaving only a few prisoners with their senses intact. They then broke the seal of the portal to the Well of Demons, something the duergar have failed to do in decades of trying, and took a few select prisoners -- the Kingsblade woman among them -- through to the Well.

"They must not be allowed to consecrate the Well for their demon-father! Save your Kingsblade friend if you must, but do it in the God Tyrant's name! You are chosen for great things!"
-- Proxim to Berend in the Horned Hold

Berend has heard enough by this point, and a look of resignation falls over Proxim's face. He knows he won't escape this room alive, and asks at least for a sword with which to defend himself. The justice of the company is swift and merciless, and within seconds the duergar lies dead at their feet.

Also at this point, Berend reveals what has been affecting him so strangely since they entered the Hold. Pulling off his gauntlets, he shows them strange lesions like old burn scars on the backs of both of his hands. Upon examination, they're revealed to be somewhat akin to the most common sygil of the evil god Asmodeus, patron of the duergar: three triangles arranged in a pyramidal shape. But on Berend, the triangles are inverted. He also admits that he has been hearing the voices of "The Lost" in his head, people from his clan who have been missing for years and whose fate is a mystery even to the upper echelons of his family.

By now, the adventurers know they only have once choice left: to assault the room where the duergar population is being held dead or dying. Having scouted the area before and noted the presence of several demonic foes and their gnoll masters, they know it will be a difficult and bloody fight, not least because of the added presence of Berend, whose normally implacable defense of the party might well be cut short by the very technology which has been used to destroy their enemies.

The fight does not disappoint. The initial tactical foray is betrayed by a rare (and noisy) mis-step from Jonas which gets the attention of a nearby gnoll with matted, loam-caked fur and a loathsome grin. The creature mutters a few indecipherable words, and a swarm of biting, stinging insects pours out of the fireplace like an avalanche, engulfing the Rogue. The attack gives the game up for the rest of the party, and they're forced to engage.

Stumbling over the dead or dying duergar, many of them clutching feebly at the adventurers as they step past them (and impeding them in the process!), the company moves to engage the gnoll overlord, a towering creature with bone jewelry and other accoutrements strung from its fur. Its demonic guardians, tall columns of yellow goo from which a single eye stares out, and a hulking ape-like beast made of what appears to be transluscent glass, move to intercept, holding them near the center of the room and allowing the gnoll archers towards the rear of the hall the freedom they need to do injury to the party.

"Chosen are you? Marked for death then! Demons, clear the way!"
-- Gnoll shaman Absin Yugleth to Berend in the Hall of the Red Vein.

Soon a critical juncture is reached as Berend breaks through the defense and charges towards the gnoll overlord. At this cue, two of the columns of goo literally explode, entrapping his comrades in a sticky morass and leaving him exposed. This is all the time the shaman needs to step forward, plant his palm on Berend's chest, and invoke the power of Yeenoghu. Berend's skin goes ashen grey, his eyes roll up into their sockets, and he collapses, brought down by the insidious device.

Things turn desperate at this point. The party fights to survive long enough to bring Berend back to the land of the living. The archers are brought down one by one as both the ruin-touched beastcaller and its shaman commander struggle to re-energise their magic, and with a gargantuan effort, the company prevails... barely. Berend has set at least one foot within the ghostly halls of his ancestors before the party can bring magical healing to bear on him. The battle has truly taxed them to their limits.

The shaman is immediately searched for signs of the magic which allowed it to attack Berend so mercilessly. The device is quickly found: a strange, chitinous glove, hidden beneath a leather gauntlet, made of what look like interlocking beetle-shells. Above it, the shaman's arm is hairless and discoloured a sickly green, and several fleshy, cartilaginous pipes and wires extend out of the glove into its flesh. In the palm of the glove, something else of interest: a glass vial is affixed there, no more than an inch across and two inches in length. Inside, suspended in a transluscent red liquid, dozens of tiny pin-pricks of light jostle for position.

As they investigate the glove, there is a stomach-turning squelch as, seemingly with a life of its own, it retracts its probes and feeder tubes from the gnoll, clenches its fist around the vial, and drops to the ground, trailing viscous fluids in its wake. In this state, the look of the device unequivocally reminds them of the Necrotech coffin they have hidden in the room next door...

1 comment:

Wedge said...

This turned out to be the final session for Xavier and Azurami, and a fitting send-off it was too, with an absolutely epic fight.

In the end, a little bit of luck (neither of the most powerful gnolls could roll to recharge their big-hitting powers to save their lives... they beat the odds consistently over the course of seven or eight rounds), a little tiny bit of punch-pulling on the part of the DM (I de-activated an aura), and some tight strategy on their behalf saw them through, but it looked dicey there for a moment.

I will take this point to proclaim my continued and undying love for Healing Surges, which are turning into the ultimate universal tool for the DM to do interesting things to the party. In this case, the gnoll's life-draining device hit Berend squarely between the jaw, attacking his Fortitude and doing damage equal to the number of Surges it drained from him. I maxed out the d4, and after a few rounds of punishment from other quarters, suddenly the Defender was making Death Saves. Very edge of the seat stuff.

One other realisation I had while playing out this fight was that, unlike most of my experience in 3rd Edition, I can make tactical decisions on behalf of the bad guys which actually seem to work out. For example, Absin wanted nothing more than to suck the life out of Berend with his Necrotech device, but he needed to get the dwarf away from his allies to do it. Enter exploding Rupture Demon, and a Readied action. Worked a treat.

In the previous edition, I quickly learned to avoid interesting tactical thinking because it would almost invariably fail due to the layered defenses of the party, and the high rolls needed to hit anything other than the wizard. The only time I could really threaten the party was in the first couple of rounds, when distance allowed the powerful spell-casters to unleash the nuclear option before they were variously grappled/silenced/paralyzed/teleported into impotence, and the fog of war meant that the meat-shield fighter wasn't entirely sure -- yet -- which opponent to take down first.

In 4E, and of course I can only speak for myself here, the bad guys' powers give me enough options that actual *strategy* comes into play. I'm not talking about round-by-round tactical thinking, but a combat-wide perspective where the roles and abilities of the creatures under my control allow a certain game-plan to emerge. They have enough hit points, and enough variety, and enough chance of actually bloody hitting the PC's, that this is possible where, for me at least, it didn't seem possible before. Just one of the many things I love this about the current edition.