15. Dungeon of the Vampire Lord, Part One

Our heroes-- Jarmangle, Feer, Tyne, Robyn, Hanoonk, and Irving-- ventured into the dungeon beneath the merman prison. Discovering an illusory wall in the sleeping chamber of the mummies, they began working their way through a confusing labyrinth of traps and obstacles.

Along the way, they fought some more mummies-- Hanoonk, Irving, and Robyn contracted the dreaded mummy rot despite their best efforts-- and found themselves face-to-face with the Cult of the Cloth. Said cult appeared to be working for the vampire who the troll Ugblar said lived within the dungeon. They had kidnapped at least three virgins hailing from the Bell of Harvest, apparently to feed the vampire.

Our heroes eked out a slight victory over the cultists, and rescued one of the virgins, Leesa. Another they discovered already dead, and hooked up to a strange blood-draining machine, with pipes bearing the blood deeper into the labyrinth. Leesa said that the cultists took her sister to see "the mistress"-- likely the vampire.

Bruised and battered, our heroes returned to the surface, promising Leesa that they would venture back and rescue her sister from the vampire's clutches.

They rested that night in the abandoned fort. Irving managed to shrug off the mummy rot, and Feer, with her knowledge of the healing arts, was able to cure Robyn of hers. Poor Hanoonk, however, remained stricken with the disease.


14. The Goblin Boss

Our heroes awoke to discover a small party of goblins outside their fort. Said goblins had been instructed to bring Jarmangle & company to Ugblar, the Boss of All Goblins, who was none too happy to discover Jarmangle had made a claim to that title. The group reluctantly agrees to go with the goblins, except for Robyn, who was still recovering from her bout of mummy rot.

En route, the group is ambushed by hippogriff-riding eladrin, intent on taking Tralamin back east to face his death sentence. The group barely manages to defeat the eladrin. Feer attempts, somewhat successfully, to tame one of the hippogriffs. The question of what to do with their unconscious eladrin prisoners is a more difficult matter.

Irving suggests they find some ethical way to fake Tralamin's death, so that the brewmaster might continue his life and business under a new identity. Jarmangle and Tralamin suggest they "accidentally" smash one of the eladrin's faces in, then dress it in Tralamin's clothes. Irving says that this isn't exactly what he had in mind when he said "ethical".

In the end, they decide to take the prisoners with them, pressing on to the goblin encampment. There, they are searched by goblins to ensure they carry no fire or acid weaponry. Likewise, they make Irving promise not to use any sort of fire magic while in the encampment.

The reason for these precautions becomes clear when they meet Ugblar. The Goblin Boss is no goblin himself, but a very canny and surprisingly thoughtful troll. Taking over the goblin tribe in lean times (after all, there's not much civilization west of the Devil's Vulva for the goblins to rob), he's regulated their lives to ensure survival.

Jarmangle explains to Ugblar that he didn't say he was the boss of Ugblar's goblins, but rather an obscure tribe to the "south-west". Ugblar accepts this, and talk turns to the possibility of trade between Hodam and the goblins. Ugblar doesn't want much that Hodam has to offer-- the goblins have their own, much stronger, alcohol that renders Hodam Swill obsolete-- but is amenable to having the Hodamites expand out west; civilization means there'll be more for the goblins to leech off of.

Irving is a little trepeditious about this, but Ugblar assures him the goblins would only rob "within reason". Tralamin is interested in acquiring the secret of the goblin's brew for Hodam, and Ugblar agrees to give it up. However, they adventurers will have to harvest a particular kind of wheat that grows wild just to the north. The heroes agree on this course of action, reluctantly leaving their prisoners with Ugblar.

En route to the wheat field, they pass through a gnollish burial ground. The moustache Jarmangle stole from the fort's commandant starts to glow and itch; suddenly, the corpses rise from the dead, all of them targeting Jarmangle. This proves dangerous, as Jarmangle comes close to dying more than once. His sister manages to revive him each time. Surprisingly, Jarmangle proclaims his cursed moustache to be "cool". "I don't know if it's quite so cool," admonishes Irving.

They reach the wheat field, which is guarded by two minotaur. Irving and Tralamin distract them, enabling Jarmangle to sneak in and grab some of the wheat. They're very nearly caught but manage to escape.

Once back at the goblin encampment, Tralamin goes into Ugblar's tent alone to learn the secrets of the brew. There, he tricks Tralamin-- "Hey, poke yourself with this shiny needle" "Okay"-- and the eladrin falls into a deep uncharacteristic slumber. He intends to use him as a bargaining chip, to get the adventurers to return to the dungeon beneath the merman prison, find the vampire lord who lives there, defeat her, and bring the troll her magic rings. It's not so much a betrayal, Ugblar insists-- he just knows they won't do it otherwise, as he is a troll.

"Actually, it's kinda what we do," says Jarmangle.

"Yeah," says Irving, "you could have just asked. We don't care if you're a troll."

Ugblar apologizes, and promises to take good care of Tralamin, who will be unconscious for at least a few days, while the others venture into the dungeon.


As the Kids Say, "Epic Fail".

In a recent adventure-- The Dark Spire, to be exact-- various threads and dice rolls came together to construct an "oh no" of frankly cosmic porportions.

To begin with:

  • Jarmangle, the tiefling lawman, is constantly asking NPCs to tag along on adventures. The NPCs usually demure, but because this adventure reintroduced the character's sister, Tyne, it made sense for her to come along. Tyne, like Jarmangle, is a rogue by class, but a mercenary by trade. Feeling that a DMPC has no place in my campaign, I decided to let Jarmangle make the rolls and combat decisions for Tyne, and that I would handle character-stuff, resolute that she would not take the initiative or spotlight away from the group.
  • Jarmangle has something of a running feud with the elfish bard, Robyn, stemming from when he accidently killed her horse with an owlbear trap, and then cooked the remains.
  • Jarmangle had recently taken the tiefling racial power, Demonic Transformation.
  • Jarmangle is also a bit of a pack-rat, carrying an impressive arsenal of weapons and magic items from the last ten adventures.
  • Irving, the wizard, scholar, and diplomat, had possessed a battleferret in a previous adventure, and his player was eager to transform his character permanently into some kind of furry critter, so that he could use his mage hand to float himself around. Wanting to oblige, I created a fountain within the dungeon whose waters would transform a character back-and-forth.
  • Said dungeon was built atop a Drow City; the drow are not only mortal enemies-as-usual with elfs and eladrin, but have a special hatred for the eladrin brewmaster (and party member) Tralamin Duskwalker.
  • Because the creatures they were encountering as of late had become more dangerous, the traps more deadly, the challenges more daunting, I instituted in the previous session The Mulligan-- basically one free re-roll to be used with the group's consent.
  • Because I wanted to capture more of an OD&D flavour, I told them beforehand that, at any time, if the going got too tough, they could hightail it and leave the dungeon. If they pressed on to the top of the Spire, however, there might be something worth the risk. That something, unknown to them, was One and Only One Wish.

So, here's how all the above came together:

Upon entering the Dark Spire, our heroes immediately found the fountain; both Irving and Jarmangle partook of its waters. Jarmangle seemed even more excited than Irving; he really wanted to see what would happen to his red-furred skunk body when he used that Demonic Transformation daily power.

He did not, however, want to be faffing about when Tralamin's life was on the line. So, as soon as the drow showed up, he drank from the fountain again to become a tiefling.

After the fight-- and perhaps hoping, meta-like, that the next skirmish would be less consequential-- he transformed himself into a skunk once more. Robyn offered to store Jarmangle's things in her bag of holding, but not trusting her, he gave all his gear and clothing to his sister.

The heroes came across a booby-trapped door near a strange, eldritch portal. Having not found the key, they decided to try picking the lock. Jarmangle, in skunk form, could not do it, and so he had Tyne do it.

He rolled a one. The trap shot a bolt of lightning into Tyne, sending her towards the portal.

"Make a saving throw to stop her from falling into the portal," I said.

Jarmangle's player, fearing his usual luck, demured. He handed the d20 to Robyn. "You have good luck, you do it."

She rolled a one. "Um, can I use my elven accuracy?"

"Probably not, but what the hell," I said. "Go ahead and roll again."

She rolled a one.

I grimaced.

That's when Jarmangle suggested they use The Mulligan. The group agreed. Feer volunteered to roll the dice.

She rolled a two.

Tyne fell into the pit, and the linked ring of telepathy still in skunk-mangle's possession went silent. They presumed that she was dead.

Jarmangle went back to the fountain and transformed himself into a tiefling once more. Now weaponless, armourless, and nude, he returned to the group and they pressed on to the top of the Spire, solving the various puzzles and hazards in their way.

The last of these was a cipher in nine lines. The trick was that the nine lines not only had to be translated, but then put into the proper order. Once they had done so, they read the resulting poem:

Dison wished for endless gold.
It rained down for seven hours
and crushed him dead.

Grayfield wished for endless love.
She shared his bed for seven nights
and drained him dry.

Nath thought himself a wiser man
And for seven years sought the perfect parse.
His shade seeks it still.

They soon realized that the top of the spire held someone that would grant them a wish, and that said wish would have to be phrased very carefully. Determined to bring Tyne back, they spent some time finding their own "perfect parse", eventually wishing that the portal, instead of killing her, would transport Tyne, complete and healthy, to this place and this time.

They made the wish, held their breath, and then: Tyne appeared, complete and healthy.

But only Tyne: none of her clothes or possessions came over with her, as they were not specified. Also unspecified: Jarmangle's possessions. His Sentient Sword of Blood-Drinking. His Boomerang of Stun. His Clawed Glove of Cling. His Radiant Cloak of Hearts. His Belt of Steadfasting. His Whip of Vampire-Killing. His +2 Magical Shuriken of Returningness. His Dragontooth Dagger-- so sharp, it always cuts, even on a miss. His money.

All gone, in a perfect storm.

If one of those things had been different-- if Jarmangle didn't want Tyne to come along, if he wasn't fighting with the bard and instead had stored his stuff in her bag of holding, if the skunk fountain wasn't there, if he hadn't taken Demonic Transformation a level previous-- then Tyne wouldn't have had all Jarmangle's stuff, wouldn't have tried to pick the lock because Jarmangle was a skunk, and wouldn't have been at the mercy of all those "1's".


Interesting to me, and me alone.

Fifty-one days have passed, in story, from the first adventure (played on August 15, 2010) to the thirteenth (January 30, 2011, 168 days real time).

Irving the Skunk

The human wizard Irving is now the skunk wizard Irving.

During the Merman Prison adventure, Irving's player possessed Feer's battleferret and used his mage-hand to float himself up the various towers in the now-waterless prison. Irving's player was visibly pleased; after the game, I asked him if he wanted to become a ferret full-time.

"Well, not a ferret, per se," he said. "But I wouldn't mind being something small enough to mage-hand, that was pretty cool. As long as it doesn't get in the way of any of your puzzles." He's very considerate that way, and has even fielded various rituals to make sure it didn't upset anything I had planned; always I say, don't worry about it.

And so, a couple of adventures later, I had my players come across a fountain that turned them into skunks and back again if they drank from it. Jarmangle drank from it, and as a result, lost all of his equipment and nearly killed his sister.

Irving drank and, as I expected, chose not to turn back into a human.

The logical question became, of course, what would happen to his stats? I decided that they would stay the same-- as a wizard, he had very low strength and constitution scores anyway, and there was no reason his intelligence or wisdom would have suffered-- but gave him a +2 bonus to his AC and a +1 to his reflex defense, on the assumption that, being smaller and mostly airborn, he would be harder to hit.

Some of you might be asking, why a skunk?

Well, I like skunks.

Creatures Are Not Puzzles.

My players are fairly creative, and one thing I like to do is come up with a puzzle or obstacle without providing the tools needed to overcome it. It's a special joy to see them comb through their inventory of rituals and items and improvise some way to cross a gorge without a bridge or gain access to the now-waterless towers in the merman prison.

A couple times, though, they didn't rise to the challenge the way I thought they would. I confronted them with an owlbear-- a beast that was obviously too tough for them to take on-- figuring that they'd find some way to distract it or sneak by it. But all of them seemed quite ready to just up and fight the thing, even Irving, who sometimes seems hellbent on talking his way out of physical conflict.

I had them come face-to-face with a ravenous plant with vine tentacles. They just backed up and set it on fire until it burned into ashes.

Recently, I blocked their path with a gelatinous cube. They just backed up until it got stuck in a door and started hammering it with magic missiles and arrows and the like. I had to fudge a bit-- something I don't like doing-- to get them to put on their puzzle-solving hats, and felt lousy about it afterwards.

What's become apparent to me is that while my method of puzzle construction-- here's the challenge, now think of something-- does work most of the time, it does so only when the puzzle doesn't involve a living (and thus killable, combatable) creature.

+2 Short Sword of Meal Detecting

Sword detects meals-- but not lone food-stuffs-- in the area by glowing and humming.

Water Pressure

In a recent adventure, my players donned primitive diving suits and braved the depths so that they might confront the villainous merman Seldak. D&D has some very simple rules for underwater combat and movement, but on the whole I didn't find those rules particularly dangerous. So, here's what my players had to contend with.

First of all, at the beginning of every turn, they had to make two checks. One was an Equipment Check, to make sure their diving suit and breathing apparatus didn't malfunction. The second was an endurance check against water pressure damage.

The DC for these checks changed depending on what "level" of water their character occupied; at the very bottom, the checks were very tough, while closer to the surface, they were easier.

If the endurance check failed, they took water pressure damage-- said damage, again, increased with the depth of water they occupied, ranging from 1d6 to 2d12. If the first equipment check failed, the endurance checks became harder. If the second failed, they took that level of pressure damage. The third equipment failure gave them no air to breathe; then they started making endurance checks against drowning, as per the standard rules.

If you fail a swim check by a certain amount in the vanilla D&D 4E rules, your character not only forfeits their movement but sinks a square. With my water pressure rules, you also instantly take that level of water pressure damage.

Players can swim freely up or down, but if they move more than one level up or down at a time, they get the bends-- double the water pressure damage followed by ongoing standard water pressure damage each turn, save ends.

This probably all sounds a little extreme, and, well, it was. It made for a much more dangerous and memorable encounter, one they got through just barely.

I wouldn't recommend these sort of rules for everyone-- it slowed the combat down a bit and could be pretty unforgiving.

13. Sphere of Destiny

Our group returns to Hodam, but just briefly; Sherrif Feer finds a group of eladrin waiting for her, seeking her assistance in arresting Tralamin. Melany supplies them with horses, and the group, including Jarmangle's sister Tyne, sneaks out of town and heads west.

They find the body of their friend Uncle and, after Tralamin has stolen the lint from his pockets, he is cremated.

They arrive at the Merman Prison and stash the dormant sphere of annihilation in Seldak's tower, locking the door.

They head down into the dungeon beneath the prison. This ancient dungeon contains many traps-- some still active, some long-ago-disabled-- and the bodies of many would-be adventurers. They loot freely from the bodies, as well as from secret treasure rooms. Our heroes encounter a group of goblins-- one of whom, Hanoonk, is adopted by Jarmangle as a sort of pet-- and a mummy, which Tralamin insists is just trying to be friends. Tralamin even attacks Robyn when the latter tries to defend herself from the mummy.

Tralamin and Robyn both contract mummy rot, but later manage to overcome it during an extended rest. The group fends off a bullette, discovers an underwater lake, and steals two jeweled eyes from an idol to a dark god.

Barely alive, and feeling they have explored the dungeon thoroughly, they head back up to the surface and make camp at the fort they had freed from the undead curse.

12. The Dark Spire

Tyne explains that she first ventured into the Dark Spire alone after Tallybrooke fled Bloodpurse Isle. There, she met a group of drow, and barely escaped with her life. Tralamin is not eager to meet his dark elf brethren and tries to persuade his friends not to venture within.

Inside, they find many strange and wondrous things, such as a door that gets farther away the closer you come to it and a fountain that transforms those who drink its waters into a skunk. Irving transforms himself into a skunk and seems quite happy about it.

And, of course, they find drow-- drow who recognize Tralamin, and explain to his horrified friends that Tralamin betrayed the eladrin to the drow and the drow to the eladrin, and had become the sworn enemy of both. Perhaps against their better judgment, the group fights off the vicious drow to perserve Tralamin's life.

Jarmangle transforms himself into a skunk, eager to see what happens when his tiefling demonic transformation ability is triggered in skunk form; he gives all his gear into his sister's keeping. Faced with a boobytrapped locked door in a room with a strange portal, it is Tyne who must attempt to pick the lock-- and Tyne who fails. She is blasted into the portal, and the Linked Ring of Telepathy she shares with her brother goes dark. They fear she is dead.

They find Tallybrooke, who has been driven insane by the tower's weird magicks. He had come to seek out a djinn at the top of the spire, who might grant him a wish.

Making their way up the tower and solving its fiendish puzzles, our heroes find the djinn. They carefully parse their words so that they can bring Tyne back to them safely. They forget, however, to specify that she should have her clothes and possessions with her, including Jarmangle's equipment. Everything-- his demonic sword, his money, his tools, his clothing-- is gone.

Everything save the strange orb he found within the paperweight they stole from Firepalm. It is discovered that the orb is a dormant sphere of annihilation. Wishing to stash it somewhere where it will not do any harm, our heroes resolve to return to the Merman Prison and put it there. Perhaps, also, they will explore the dungeon beneath it, and Jarmangle might start to replace some of his lost possessions.

11. The Fury of Seldak

Our quintet stops by Hodam en route to their ship, The Eve of Destruction, which they will use to travel to Bloodpurse Isle and the neighboring Merman City, so that they might stop Seldak from wreaking havok there. In town, Irving and Jarmangle consult a private detective, Vernjack, to try and dig up some dirt on Tralamin. It turns out Tralamin is wanted by the eladrin, and is considered to be a notorious criminal. Unaware of this, Tralamin talks with Melany and establishes a formal business partnership, giving both of them shared ownership of the brewery, as well as all the inns, pubs, and brothels in town. Hearing that they'll be travelling to Bloodpurse Isle, Melany suggests they try to firm up a trade agreement with Jarmangle's father, Captain Bergris.

They sail down the river, and as their ship approaches Bloodpurse Isle, they rescue a young merman. He is the Prince of the Merman City, and he is fleeing for his life; his parents have already been murdered by Seldak. They head to Bergris's palace, hoping he'll provide much needed aid, in keeping with his treaty with the mermen.

Bergris is not alone; Seldak is with him, and the pirate lord has agreed not to interfere, acting he feels in the best interest of his island. The discussion that follows soon leads to blows; Seldak animates the owlbear rug that Tralamin has been wearing and manages to escape. Bergris crosses swords with his son but lets him live; he warns them not to interfere, or else the trade agreement between Bloodpurse and Hodam will be forfeit. He also intimates that Tyne's life will be in danger.

But our heroes have no intention of being cowed. They agree to help the merman prince reclaim his kingdom, and he mentions a strange "metal whale" that a surface-man once used to visit them. The whale is kept in a small pond deep within the Gnollish Woods.

They sail up to the mouth of the woods in their ship, and then travel on foot. Jarmangle finds some berries and feeds them to his dire falcon; the falcon nearly dies, for they are poisonous. Feer saves it, but Jarmangle-- for reasons never quite made clear-- kills it with his sword. He tosses it in the air, and Irving sets it on fire.

They find the metal whale, and use it to travel to the Merman City. Wanting to avoid a direct confrontation, they bake some of the poisonous berries into a Merman delicacy, and send Tralamin to present it to Seldak as a peace offering. Seldak is suspicious, and Tralamin basically admits that it is a transparent attempt to poison him.

Seldak suggests that Tralamin join forces with him, and gives the eladrin an explosive device to take back to his friends. Tralamin takes the bomb back to the metal whale, and then tells his friends precisely what happened. They jettison the explosive, and engage Seldak in a final, climactic battle. Jarmangle nearly perishes from the crushing water pressure, but our heroes manage to triumph, ending Seldak's reign of terror and restoring the Merman Prince to the throne.

Our heroes discover that Bergris has destroyed The Eve of Destruction, and that Tyne has escaped his clutches, heading to the Dark Spire on the nearby penninsula-- the last place where Tallybrooke was seen alive. The group agrees to join her on her exploration of the bizarre tower.

10. Two-In-One

Our remaining heroes-- Jarmangle, Tralamin, Feer, Robyn, and Irving-- blockade the fort's entrance and reinstall a couple of traps they had disarmed. The zombie gnolls rush in and, after a long and tense battle, they are defeated and the curse on the fort lifted. Exhausted, our heroes make camp for the night.

As they slumber, they each of them have a strange dream, which imparts to each a different, cryptic message. (Tralamin, who does not sleep, recieves his message jumbled-up during his meditations.) Our heroes share their experiences with one another, but cannot quite make sense of it.

Come morning, they head for the coral palace in the dried up lake just southwest of the fort. They discover that, when the lake was filled with water, it served as a prison for the most notorious of mermen.

They learn that merman culture prizes mathematics above all else-- for them it is magic, religion, culture, and law. Mermen are also biologically immortal-- the gift of Seldak, who is also considered their greatest criminal because he solved "the forbidden proof". There are several towers that, in the past, one could have swimmed up. Irving possesses Feer's battleferret, and uses his magehand to float himself up the various towers, taking note of the corpses of the various mer-criminals, who died without water to breathe.

One tower, which houses Seldak, is inaccessible: a door, armed with powerful and deadly magic, blocks its path. But examining the door, our heroes soon realize that their strange dreams provided each of them with a key to the puzzle. Putting their information together, they are able to open the door without incurring its wrath.

The tower on the other side is still filled with water; indeed, the water does not rush out of now-opened door but stays there by some strange sort of magic. Jarmangle swims up the tower, but runs afoul of several explosive balls that were placed there decades ago. His life is saved thanks to the intervention of Seldak-- still alive, and desperate for vengeance against the mermen who branded him a heretic.

Jarmangle is quickly dominated by the psionic merman, and Tralamin seems eager to help him achieve his goal, much to Irving's chagrin. The wizard is hesitant to interfere in the mermen's affairs, but he, Feer, and Robyn decide that it is best to stop him.

Seldak, infuriated, uses his forbidden proof to create living beings out of thin air, and battle is soon joined. He proves a formidable opponent, opening portals to redirect their attacks and place himself out of harm's way. He manages to escape, using linked portals and his personal water-bubble.

During the battle, the floor collapses, revealing a sprawling ancient dungeon beneath the prison. It will, however, have to wait; they must stop Seldak!