Monday, May 19, 2014

DM's Log - Blackstone Campaign: the Hidden Shrine background and sessions 1&2

  If you have read my first two entries on my 2e campaign, found here and here, you might understand the next bit better than most.

  This is 'Group 2' in the campaign and the party is;
  My son J. plays a 2/3 Illusionist/Thief Gnome named... Steve, Or Bob. Or Tom. It varies.  My son A. plays a Half-elf 2/2 Fighter/magic-user named Drake  My son S. plays a Half-elf 2/3 Fighter/Thief named Sir Neun Hammerfist  My son N. plays a Human 4th level Fighter specialized in the falchion named Tellon  My wife plays a Human 4th level Cleric named Marigold
  Also with the party is Marigold's henchman, Kugel the Stern, a 1st level Dwarf cleric

  The players were approached by Master Merchant Ewin Silverhand with a proposal - retrieve an idol and be well paid. The players sailed to his outpost to learn more.
  The Fever Lands are the name for the central portion of the vast Southern Continent. A massive jungle that stretches far to the south from the equatorial coast it is bisected by a huge swamp. While rich in rare woods, spices, gems, ivory, and precious metals few venture into its interior because of the savage tribes, terrible monsters, and the ever-present parasites and fevers. Instead brave souls built heavily fortified outposts along the coast and attempt to trade with the local tribes.
  Ewin is the founder of one such outpost, built on the mouth of a river far east of the edges of the great swamp where 7 previous outposts had failed - 2 simply through lack of trade, 2 wiped out by plague, and three destroyed by attacks of the locals. Ewin had very carefully cultivated good relations with the natives and was becoming quite prosperous when trouble began about 2 years ago. Rumors drifted from the interior that some foul demon lord of the locals had returned; Xipe, lord of flayed skins. Since then there has been less and less trade and the friendly local tribes are under more and more pressure from the interior tribes to obey the terrible torture lord. Ewin talked with each of the friendly shamans and learned that only if he held the idol of Tlaloc could he prevent the spread of the cult of Xipe. Ewin called upon he cousin, a Bishop, who divined that the lost idol of Tlatloc was hidden somewhere in an abandoned temple days upriver from his outpost. Ewin's own people either returned from the trip exhausted and lost or simply never returned. Desperate, he sent a note to the party who had once helped a ship captain based in Ewin's outpost.
  The party arrived a month later, were told the broad strokes of the problem (but not about previous missions failing or vanishing) and set out on foot to follow the river upstream.
  After a few encounters with monkeys, jaguars, and such they ran into two groups of men in a fierce fight. Recognizing that the smaller group wore the face paint of a friendly tribe the party waded into the melee and killed the attackers. Then Marigold healed their injured, sealing their faith in the party. The 4 rescued tribesmen explained that the worshipers of Xipe were raiding for human sacrifices to their horrible demon master and preparing to conquer all the lands between the ancient ruins and the coast, driving out the traders.After a bit of negotiations the tribesmen agreed to guide the party to a place close to the city. Soon the party was in two dugout canoes traveling upstream.
  With the expert advice of their new guides the 4 days going upriver went relatively smoothly. Before the tribesmen left them 1/2 day's river journey from the city they warned them that: A) the jungle around the city for several days to the North was full of Xipe cultists who would gladly kill them; B), in this region the north and west banks of the river (it was in a mighty bend) belong to Xipe tribesmen but never, ever cross to the south or east banks because that was where the cannibal dwarves lived and they were much worse than the Xipe cultists; C) they had to finish and leave before the new moon in 6 days because on the new moon the winged apes searched for a sacrifice to their dark god; and D) stay away from the jade tower because it was maybe worse than the cultists, the dwarves, and the winged apes.

  The party found the city around 10 am the next morning in a bend of the river where it changed from flowing east to flowing north. The stone quay had been recently repaired and there was no large animal alive in the city. They ascended the mighty temple and began searching for a way in. While looking they realized they could see the Jade Tower a few miles away, south of the river.
  Before too long Steve and Neun had found a secret door that appeared to have not been used for centuries. They also, through very careful examination, determined it required blood from a living creature to actually open the door. Steve pulled goat from his Bag of Beans, used it to activate the door, and the party entered the shrine.
  Drake was not super-happy with the goat sacrifice, but they soldiered on.
  They found a secret room containing a statue holding a scepter. The statue had the face of Tellon! The party decided to disturb nothing and continue with their exploration.
  The party passed through a room with a mummified centaur which attacked them as they  left; it lightly wounded Drake but Drake and Neun made quick work of it.
  Soon they found a room with a type of fountain in it; as they entered a Water Weird began to form but Marigold (who made her obscure knowledge and arcane lore checks quite handily!) immediately cast Purify Water and defeated it before it could even attack. They noted that one of the faces carved in the wall looked just like Tellon.
  After a lot of searching they eventually found a secret door to a hidden tunnel. This tunnel led to the top of a a 'hill' in a room that resembled a little 'country'. The party stuck to the defined path and left the room safely. As they left they noted that one of the many small figurines on the room was identical to Tellon. Outside the room they did their habitual 'go to the left' and quickly found stairs further down, which they took. As they descended the stairs a dragon statues emerged from a hidden room and blasted the entire party with steam, injuring everyone, then the statue returned to its hidey hole. Marigold and Kugel used the last of their healing magic to heal the party to full. Looking around and finding they were in an empty corridor they party set up a watch and slept the night at the base of the sitars.
  [end of session 1]

  Session 2 began with the party taking stock of their light sources. They were very low on torches, but Marigold's shield could emit Light at will. Then there was a long discussion on whether Marigold should take Speak with Animals or not - she habitually memorizes it but was unsure since animals should be rare in the pyramid. Eventually she took it 'just in case'.
  At the end of the hall they entered a large room with high ceilings and a rubble-strewn floor. As they entered they noticed mandrills staring down at them; the mandrills immediately began shrieking and throwing feces and rocks. Marigold cast Speak with Animals and learned the mandrills feared and hated humans because they had started to come to the city and hunt the mandrills for food. Marigold explained the party was there to stop the 'bad eaty men' and the mandrills, who believed her, brought the party a load of fresh fruit and even some branches to be made into torches (the party had oil and rags). The party then started searching the room when - two giant snakes attack from a pile of rubble! Both attack Neun who is surprised (so far Neun has been surprised in every single encounter in this adventure). Both heads hit for a total of 5 points of damage. Neun rolls his saving throws; a 17 and an 6. Neun falls dead from poison.
  Tellon and Drake were already running up and kill the foul two-headed serpent in a single round. Marigold casts Slow Poison, reviving Neun, and then uses her magical herbalism kit and magical healing kit, makes her skill checks, and neutralizes the poison.
  This led to a discussion of the rather interesting ex post facto nature of the Slow Poison spell. Technically, for many poisons (especially in 1e) the moment you fail a save BAM!, you're dead. But Slow Poison states that it slows the effects of the poison so it hasn't taken effect quite yet. In effect the game mechanics of Slow Poison mean that a dead character isn't 'brought back to life' - instead, they were never dead to begin with. Very fun and could lead to some interesting twists.
  Oh, and their search only revealed another carved face that looked just like Tellon.
  The party then found a room with broken pottery and an ash-covered floor where images of the dead would form from the ashes. They carefully walked around the edges of the room to avoid disrespect and went on.
  Beyond was a large room full of stuffed cats, a wall carved to look like a jaguar's face, and a stone statue of a cat-headed man. There was also an altar.
  Side note: in my campaigns religion matters. A lot. Failure to do the right sort of things = no cleric spells. Failure to follow tenets of your religion =  Cures don't work anymore. Thus, religion drives a lot of actions.
  The party puts Tellon and Drake watching the statues, Neun and Steve watching the rest as Marigold and Kugel take holy water and make sure the pagan altar is no longer consecrated to the evil gods. As this happens the statue of a man transforms into flesh and blood - and a jaguar!, and leaps for Steve. Tellon, who was ready, immediately struck at the leaping figure and did maximum damage (his dice were hot that night) causing the figure to fall to the ground, critically wounded, return to human shape and then revert to statue form. The party learned the statue (of basalt) was too hard for them to shatter with the tools they had, so they left Tellon watching it while they searched the room.
  The party discovered a secret door and followed it into a room that was a model of the city in which the pyramid rests, looking as it did when new. There was also a normal-sized coffin in the room. The party was standing on a columned area not part of the model and saw another, similar, area nearby. They decided to investigate but as Tellon passed the columns he was separated from the party by a wall of amber-colored flame.
  In a quick solo session Tellon fought and killed a doppelganger who desired to replace him. It was a rather quick fight with Tellon the clear winner but as he was finishing off the doppleganger. So the party just saw one Tellon kill another Tellon while claiming he was the real one and the other was a duplicate.
  It took some time, but the party was soon confident that their friend was, yes, their friend. They learned the other area was a foul altar used for human sacrifice and consecrated it (ruining it for evil) and [for once!] looted the room.
  About this time Marigold noticed that the air in the deeper pyramid areas was old and a bit foul. She concluded that too much time in the deep levels could eventually weaken and kill a person.
  They returned to the jaguar room and saw that the cat-headed statues was once again upright, not laying down. The party carefully entered the next door clockwise. Beyond a short corridor they found a weird two-part room. In one end was a well and a wide air shaft that obviously eventually led outside. At the other was a horrible statue of some foul demon surrounded by hot, glowing coals. The walls in between were hung with relatively fresh, still-bloody human skins. The party didn't fully enter the area, but only scanned it and decided it wasn't part of their mission. As they left they heard a deep, booming, mocking laugh echo from behind the now-shut door.
  Returning to the jaguar room once more they noted the cat-headed statue was now looking at the door they had just used. The went on to the next clockwise door. Noting the passage of time and realizing they were in another relatively secure corridor they spiked the doors and began a watch cycle.
  end of the second session.



NOTE: PLAYERS IN MY CAMPAIGN SHOULD SKIP THE NEXT SECTION.

  I love the old classic Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and always intended to have it in this campaign world. But since it has to fit into the world and 2e I modified some of the contents to reflect the backstory of my campaign.
  The background of the city and shrine are now that this was a stronghold of the necromancer cultists who obey She Who Waits and that Tamoachan was the center of the uprising that threw down the Jade Empire and led to the first of the seals that imprison She Who Waits to be broken. After the great civil war that ended the Jade Empire Tamoachan was abandoned due to both the great loss of life of that war and the departure of the Necromancer Priests that had built and ruled it.
  The Shrine itself, however, remained a lethal pit full of traps and worse. It was discovered by the archmage Malakar over 8 centuries before the time of the campaign and he learned a great deal from the inscribed jade plates he found within (and took with him). Another member of his mage house later backtracked its location from Malakar's journal and perished attempting to penetrate its lower levels. Eventually during the interregnum between the Ruby Empire and the Emerald Empire a powerful mage re-discovered the shrine, learned that its lower room was protected against all forms of divination, and hid a pagan idol that he had enchanted with a powerful effect there, in the innermost room of an abandoned and forgotten temple so that it might never be found. This idol is the one mentioned below.
  [note - in my campaign no level of anti-divination magic can fully stop the Commune spell or similar high-level holy magic. It may take a while, but that is one way holy magic is different]
  After many centuries a group of evil mages and foul clerics fled into the jungle, seeking a refuge. While at first they attempted to settle in the city of Tamoachan itself this proved far too dangerous. An ogre mage had moved into the temple and assumed the appearance and such of the demon-lord of torture and slaughter [the section of the module with an airshaft to the outside and hot coals] and had incited the worship of two groups - the degraded shamans of the southern tribes as well as a local tribe of tobelit, the fearsome winged carnivorous apes of the Fever Lands! The ogre mage is using the shamans to stir up the southern tribes into an all out war on the trading outposts along the coast. He hopes to call more of his people from the East to then rule a kingdom in the jungle as gods.
  The cabal of evil used the reanimated bodies of the dead city dwellers to build a citadel on the south bank of the river on which Tamoachan sits. This mighty building, made of a greenish stone, is now called the Jade Tower and although 2 miles away allows the inhabitants to watch the city and the shrine. Since it was completed no one has been seen to enter or leave.
  I modified essentially every encounter to be a little tougher, removed some traps, made the remaining traps deadlier, added some magic items and spells, and reduced the treasure. I also greatly reduced the effects of the poison because my time limit is imposed from outside the shrine itself.

  The original goal of the Shrine was to delay and distract the party so that the poisons killed them. For that end there are a lot of interesting rooms, puzzles, etc. as well as just old-fashioned confusing layouts, secret doors, etc. to slow them down. I am fascinated by how the party is staying tightly focused on their goal (finding the deepest room and retrieving the idol) so that they have completely bypassed several areas of the map!. Indeed, their focus led them to ignore Xipe, a decision that could come back to haunt them.