The wrong shape
A gaggle of townsfolk and outlanders stands gawping around the bodies, laid there on the Platz in Leischport. The common knowledge is that these… things nearly succeeded in a raid on the town armory. That the fighting was hard, is evident from the slumped group of bone-weary town watch nearby, and the forlorn children asking mamas why daddy can’t come back. That they fought against things not entirely human, is evident from the odd-shaped feet, or knees the wrong way, or a tail glimpsed, or a lolling tongue much too long, among those corpses.
A majority of the onlookers are south-siders and the simple reason for that is that an open day has been declared by Earl Damose [DA-moh-shih]. Here in the well-groomed north side, where the height and breadth of the Great Temple and the Earl’s court seem to make them peer over every shoulder, poor folk and indigent wayfarers are making the most of open bridges.
Sweating under the baggage they perforce must carry – for lodgings even in the south expect at least a coin – two scouts and a defense mage are to be seen. And since they are the heroes of this tale let us meet them now.
The characters for this session:
Mir X, elf rogue, 5’8, lean, dirty blond hair, tan, brown eyes. His campaign gear is worn and in particular his bedroll needs replacing. Bundles of arrows bulk out his load but the shortswords at his belt have seen service. As a company scout, he excelled in not being seen.
Vir Onden, half-elf ranger, near 6′, hair-colored hair and clean-shaven at the moment, shabby equipment, and his backpack is split at the seams. Bundles of arrows bulk out his load, too. As a company scout he excelled in trail-blazing through forest.
Pais Ullman, human sorcerer, 6’3, thin with no real muscle tone, dark haired, very tan, startling blue eyes. He struggles under the weight of a near-useless backpack, crossbow and dagger. As a regimental defense mage he was known for close-quarters lightning-shock.
WIS and INT checks to give me some feedback on how aware the characters are. Mir does the best by quite some margin; Onden is aware of surroundings; Pais seems self-absorbed.
As Ullman muses what components might be garnered from the corpses, the two scouts tap him on the shoulder and reintroduce themselves.
“There’s bound to be coin here. Let’s ask and say, yer lads’re tired, what do ya want done?” – Mir, who has caught the magic words ‘and I don’t care how much it costs.’
The careless offer seems to have come from two stressed-loooking officials, one fussing over paperwork, the other probably in command. The three straggle over, trying not to move too fast in the oppressive heat.
The Earl offers 500 gold!
The official in charge is in fact, Earl Damose. He wants the remaining cultist caught and brought back dead or alive. Given how tired the watch is, and casualties, adventurers will do. He seems to know something about both soldiers – ‘my son served’ – and adventurers.
Apparently when things started to go wrong for the cultists fighting in the armory, a wagon drawn up nearby made off, north. Clearly, a getaway vehicle, for how else were they planning to get weapons away? It’s not immediately certain whether he drove the vehicle further or abandoned it.
“What exactly are we talking about then” – Onden
“Five hundred gold… dead or alive” – Earl
“And you don’t care which?” – Pais
“It would be ideal to bring back a live suspect with evidence of the real plan, but if needs be, dead.”
“And which way are we looking… and how much time have we to make up?” – Mir
“North. And you’ve lost hours, I’m sorry to say.”
The north gate
Onden attempts to gain a little more detail from the Earl’s amanuensis but he’s too flustered and busy. The ranger gets no more than “it’s a wagon, which means look on the road.”
To be certain, the three look carefully along the shrub-lined avenue north, then the turns into side-streets near the north gate, to be sure the wagon didn’t whip off into hiding. But they see nothing to suggest it, and arrive at the (now) well-guarded gate.
The town watch there is on long shifts and the original guard that was on duty last night is still on duty, sleeping standing up. Mir approaches him.
“Notsleepingsarge!” – watchman, rousing
He’s able to supply more confirmation than anything. There’s one driver, one dray and a big covered wagon. He passes on his own estimate of locations north – Schmitford is generally allowed as two days’ walk, Tallywood a little closer.
Mir passes all this back, and the three set off.
Heat of day
Along the north road through well-tended cropland they walk, then through less well-tended, then open wildlands.
One level of exhaustion
Onden observes the baked-hard road has not shown any trace of one particular wagon, but ahead in the distance is woodland, and the chance for shade and tracks.
[This does not count as forest, favored terrain for Onden, but he makes a fine roll and clears DC20]
As Mir and Pais rest wearily among the first few trees, Onden carefully paces alongside the trail, then cries with surprise and waves them to look.
He points at a line in the road. Little more than a scar among other ruts.
“It matches the time. We’re still on the trail.”
The three bethink them of resting up. Mir – strongly of the opinion than someone staying out of the action must have been a boss – things he’ll be very tired, and it’s worth pushing on. And then he notices an oddly regular shape in a great tree to the north, nearly invisible among the canopy and other lesser trees.
“How about we drop off the road and bring stretch along with us?” – Mir, to Onden
The three make a show of camping on the verge, and Mir manages to lose the last usefulness of his bedroll. He shrugs:
“I can meditate in the woods” – Mir
“You can get arrested for that… oh – meditate!” – Pais
Onden leads the awkward scramble, through the blue-tinged leaves of trees right of trail, across the grain of the land. Though dry now, many small courses make this surprisingly rolling. Mir presses his elven ear to one such course and decides water could be dug, not far down.
At length their “loop around under cover” gains them earshot of the Coach, a lone inn at the trail-fork, where one arm heads north to Tallywood and another east to Schmitford. Grundle the dwarf smith is singing a dwarf song while tinkering with a pan. Then Delb the landlord has food ready, the dinner-gong is sounded, and the very small staff gather in the common room.
By that time the three adventurers have crept close enough to work out:
There’s an inn built around the base of a huge tree, but part of the structure – maybe a room – is right up high in the tree, below the canopy.
The present company:
- Delb Mattockblade, sour-faced landlord, worried about his missing son Randall
- Grundle Fitz the dwarf, sour on life in general
- Lawrence Ames, hostler, guilty over his part in Randall’s fate
The occupants all know about the wagon – someone abandoned it here around dawn. The dray is in the stable now. Neither wagon nor beast supplies any more detail. [Though they aren’t thoroughly investigated, to be fair.]
Lawrence and Mir know each other from army days and perhaps because of it, Mir fails to catch the reek of guilt from his fine-featured friend. Lawrence shouts them all three a drink, and they spend a silver piece each on an expensive meal. They soon know as much as anyone is telling them, of Randall’s disappearance a few nights back.
[The meal and drink counts as a short rest and exhaustion is removed. Pais is down to 1cp funds, the other two have some silver]
Delb is willing to put them up free if they search for his son. “An if he has fetched out fer Schmitford ya have my permisson ter kick his ass all th’ way back.”
But, money talks, and besides, Kestrel Blueleaf, a ranger who seems to have been around some months (“seems like a year or longer” according to Grundle) has agreed to look, as a favor to Lawrence. She’s actually on the trail of other prey, some weird hag.
[Kestrel is a friendly rival of Onden’s]
“If it’s coin you’re needing, there’s a job going in Tallywood” – Lawrence, pointing to a noticeboard
Schalk, forester at Tallywood is offering “a reward” for destroying whatever is killing livestock up that way. Apply to him for details.
“A solder or two passing through looked at it and said, ‘we’re going to need a ranger,’ so that reminded me of it. I’ll mention you’re perhaps needing some muscle if more come through” – Lawrence
A trail into the Cyanwood, and a trail to a curse
Quartering the ground around the intersection Onden, with Mir’s help, pinpoints where one individual – with an odd gait – did push off the road, north into the Cyanwood, as that section of forest is known. There’s a more obvious trail east into the Azurewood where Lawrence and Randall went to admire the night sky, more than once, despite Delb’s dire warnings of what happens to “folk as wander inter th’ woods”.
As far as they can gather from Lawrence’s retailing of Delb’s yarns, the family Mattockblade has owned the inn for generations, ever since some curse befell the founder and that in turn is tied up to a cursed tower known as Lightwatch, east in the Azurewood.
“Well, pass on what we found, then let’s get north.”
They fill canteens with fresh, good water from the Coach and set out.
Disaster in the Cyanwood
The trees aren’t close-set, but the ground betwixt is close-grown with wiry bushes. Were it not for Onden and Mir’s expertise Pais would be stumbling and exhausted in no time. As they reach what could be called a clearing, where the gilded sky stares down, Mir calls warning.
“Something’s in the trees!”
Initiatives: Mir, Pais, Onden/baboons
Round 1: Mir’s first arrow is a good one and with a horrid screech an ape is pinned as it drops to the clearing. The rogue stays near his comrades. Pais, walking ahead of Mir, attempts land a crossbow bolt on another but the ape, keenly aware of danger, drops to another branch before leaping to the ground. Onden, in the lead, pulls and looses his longbow and though it is a strong shot the baboon dodges. But at the same time two apes leap in, and one manages to sink its fangs into Pais’ arm!
Round 2: More beasts run along branches as Mir drops his bow, produces shortswords, and shifting closer to Pais, impales a second baboon. Another makes a snatch at Mir’s belt but Pais can’t see what that might have been. The sorcerer beams a ray of frost up into the tree but his intended victim drops clear. Onden, like Mir, drops his bow in favour of shortswords but they evade easily. It snatches a dagger out of his belt. Another grabs Pais’ component pouch as he’s knocked flat, possibly dying. Both Mir and Onden receive severe bites!
Round 3: Mir vaults the nearest baboon and leaves at a run, Onden helps Pais [who nat 20s the death roll] up and they both run after the elf as fast as they can, given Pais’ lack of skill and the slower pace of both. The baboons pursue both along the ground and through trees, but more in show than in earnest – just as long as the intruders keep running!
Solace at the Coach
“Why would anyone go into that fucking wood? It’s lethal!” – Mir
“Why would anyone spend time training fucking baboons?” – Pais
“Well, that’s a turnip for the books!” – Delb, seeing them come back worse for wear
Broth provided and rest permitted, Mir updates his friend.
“OK Lawrence, that was less than successful. We got chased out by ferocious baboons.”
“I don’t blame you. They have huge teeth, right?”
“And their bottoms were even more frightening!”
“That’s so like you, Mir. Laughing in the face of terror. Except for that one time…”
“Yes, when terror was in the face of terror.”
The three discuss options. Kiting seems a good possibility, picking off a few baboons at a time. On the other hand Delb’s offer to lodge them for free is now pressing. What to do? They promise Delb but the Earl and his gold has priority.
[Mainly on a random luck chance Mir finally picks up on Lawrence’s guilt. And corners him into explaining what really happened.]
Lawrence and Randall, lured by a wandering bard’s story of Lightwatch and its romantic history, visited the Azurewood and Lightwatch Tower a number of times. Then one night they were attacked by hideous undead – Lawrence is vague on this point – and Randall bravely stood them off while Lawrence fled.
The bard was looking for some document or other but dallied here to look for some “hot grandmother” or something.
Mir puts this to his comrades. At first they still see this as second priority. Best to stay on top of the trail. But Mir points out that this is a short march – just an hour in. It can all be sorted out tomorrow then they have lodging, and can work on the baboons.
Reluctantly they agree that the Earl’s gold will wait, and take a much-needed night’s rest.
Early next day, fully restored, the three set off into the Azurewood.
Some five trees in, an arrow slams into a tree, next to Onden’s head, and a woman’s voice calls from above:
“Tag! You’re it!”
Onden races off after Kestrel. The other two agree he’ll catch them up, and push on. Perhaps 50 more trees later they come in sight of a tower-top and begin cautiously checking the area.
By this time, in between sporting in the woods, Onden has piqued Kestrel’s curiosity or sense of rivalry and she follows him back to rejoin his comrades.
The tower and chapel
Lightwatch Tower has an attendant building of substance annexed to it. Pais’ opinion [DC15 on religion] is, probably a chapel or shrine. Both are long neglected, but still sturdy.
Kestrel agrees there are at least three ways in. There’s straight into the chapel, or up and through a high tower window, or there’s the rear escape tunnel from Hag Yazol’s lair.
They work their way round, to view the tunnel. Mir spots a gleam of gold… something, up in the tower. A guard, he guesses.
“They are shiny skeletons,” Kestrel warns, “guarding the buildings. Yazol’s lair is roughly underneath it all.”
What’s happened to Orlin Swift?
“I was chased out by spiders and I’m sure she’ll have laid all kinds of traps there now, but I did pinch some shit she stashed there” – Kestrel
Kestrel produces a lute and a notebook. Pais recognizes them as his friend Orlin’s. The letter he got matches the notebook.
“Shit, this is the woman he said he was looking for. He wrote me, ‘can a fiend-saint be as attractive as she sounds?’ And Mir: I don’t know what the document was that your friend Lawrence mentioned. We may never know. Orlin! Idiot! You always did think with your dick!” – Pais, half-angrily
A fourth approach
Knotting the two lengths of rope they have, Mir and Onden prepare for an ascent.
“What’s my job – sniper?” – Kestrel
“Yes, seems right. We both lost our bows in the baboon fight” – Onden
“^&%^!! &^%&%^!! baboons!” – Pais
The four run over the plan.
- Mir will climb first, with the first length of rope. It can be made fast up top, probably through bars of a tower window near the chapel top
- Onden can either climb up next or tie the second rope on, depending how much play there is, then join Mir
- The two are sure to be able to help heave up Pais
- They all have good sturdy clubs, whittled from branches, which will be of some use against skeletons
- Kestrel covers the climb then plays it by ear
Kestrel’s fancy shooting
As Mir gains the top of the chapel roof – low-pitched, and lead-covered – there’s a smart metallic crack above him as a shaft from Kestrel hits the guard skeleton. Mir studies the climb up from here: it’s formidable. He ties off the first length, around the stone bar of the first, reachable window, and throws the tail down for Onden.
He next eases a short sword out from where he has it tucked and starts levering lead up. A crossbow bolt slams down next to his work-site, but then there’s another metallic crack, a cry of “gottim” and a ringing hollow bouncing noise as the skeleton’s skull bounces off and down the full height of the tower.
Down below, Onden has climbed up enough to grab the knotted rope, tie off his length to it, and continue climbing to the roof.
Mir keeps a weather eye open above, and sure enough another skeleton does present its crossbow. He wiggles back hard against the tower, so it has an impossible angle for a shot. Pais can see it, but it’s a little outside his range, on the angle. Mir wraps his cloak around a club, waves it forward into line of sight of the tower window. The crossbow looses and at the same moment Kestrel’s third arrow takes that skeleton’s skull off. Another hollow bouncing sequence.
[Bit of ‘hey, is critting undead a thing?’ from Pais’ player but it’s more treating a crit as bypassing the skeleton’s resistance to piercing damage, as the arrow hits a weak spot.]
Third up and long-delayed, but now safe, Pais uses knots and a loop to hold on, while the two scouts haul him up.
Ceiling full o’ spiders
More lead, and lathes supporting it, are levered away. The cavity beyond is full of thick, dark web.
“Well it’s a good thing we have torches” – Pais
As the annoyed, large, spiders swarm, the three flame them back. The damage just needs to scare them enough to persuade not to attack.
“Am I still sniping? What’s the plan?” – Kestrel calling
“Yes join us” – Onden
“Throw down the rope end then”
With Kestrel swiftly across and up, she briefs them as much as she can. These are flying spiders – they float on spun web – not the big ones guarding the lair – and they’ll swarm you when you get down.
More torch-themed ideas are enlarged upon, and with flaming torch circle and torch-on-rope a good circle is cleared. It seems intensely dark within, even to elven eyes. But as the area of burning webbing expands, two more gilded-seeming skeletons drop down out of the webbing.
The darkness lifts – a little
Pais wiggles free a chunk of lead roofing and casts Light on it, and drops it through. He can pick out gilt gleams, while the others see the two skeletons clearly, in monochrome.
Kestrel immediately drops one as it starts assembling, but the next couple of tries are fruitless.
“That one’s dodging” – Kestrel
“Dodge this” – Pais, using Ray of Frost to slow it
“Nice!” Kestrel, immediately scoring another nat 20 and taking its skull off
Both skeletons appear to have been using a club of some sort.
Mir and Onden clamber down to the circle of torches. A circle of visible chapel surrounds them: the darkness presses in otherwise. Mir hefts one of the skeleton’s maces and tests its balance. Then he leans in closer.
The bones of that skeleton are gilded. He tries a test scrape. Yes, gilded.
A boss skeleton?
Examining what they can see, one definite entrance into the tower can be seen. Pais wiggles round and begins descending…
[DEX check not good!]
As he joins the ruins of his backpack, which has preceded him, Pais realizes that just on the furthest fringe of the darkness, opposite the tower entrance, a gilt figure is visible.
It steps forward further into the half-light. In its forehead glint the facets of a gem.
Mir weighs the mace again, judging if a throw is justified.
The skeleton raises its long-bladed sword, and its other open hand palm up, and a dreadful screech comes from its mouth!
And the session ends…
Not as bad as I’d feared nor as good as I’d hoped. I have a lot to learn about 5e, even after playing in the I [heart] Dread campaign, and listening to a year’s worth of Critical Role. On the bright side, I did prep a side-mission off the character connections with people that may turn up at the Coach, and that worked in well, much more convincing to have Kestrel more interested in her own prey than bailing out the guys in a neighboring forest. On the bad side I mishandled the baboons pretty comprehensively.
I have no idea if I handled the fleeing cultist as the writer may have had in mind. The adventure falls into the common trap – among fantasy material – of making every location very distant without justification or logic. Imagine if in a modern heist game someone fled inner London. You’d be surprised if the next report of them was the Grunewald, and not, say, Staines or Reading. I came up with the compromise solution of a wagon, that would have been needed for the heist, being traceable, and that in turn either linking to Tallywood, or the cultist being trackable with a Hard check.