Origin Story: Dorn

In this Origin Stories series, I’ll be discussing Dorn. Dorn was my second character I created for 5e D&D. As the first was for a short-lived campaign, I consider him the beginning of my 5e adventures in a way. He was a Lawful Neutral Oath of the Ancients Paladin; nothing at all like I usually play, which was great.

As always, part 1 is the backstory, and part 2 (next week) is the character creation mechanics.

Dorn grew up in a small village near Neverwinter, deep in the Mere of Dead Men. He worked his uncle’s tavern, helped keep the drunks in line, and always dreamed of something bigger. Dorn was not very intelligent, but was strong and gregarious. Most people liked him, although some grew irritable with his lack of attention and shallow thinking. Dorn’s chance for greatness came when a fiend was reported to be rampaging through the forest nearby, heading to the village. Dorn joined the militia, and headed out to stop it.

Unsurprisingly, a spawn of hell proved more powerful than a village militia. Everyone fell except Dorn, who still stood against the fiend, clutching his dead father’s longsword. At this moment, Mielikki—the goddess of forests—noticed his stand in defense of her realm, and granted Dorn her favor. Suddenly infused with holy fey power, Dorn defeated the fiend.

He returned to his village a hero, and used his new powers to defend his village, all the while continuing to brew his famous ale. Eventually, Mielikki wanted to collect on her investment in Dorn, and sent one of her Shadoweirs—paladins sworn to serve her—to Dorn’s village to recruit him to her cause. Dorn jumped at the chance to leave his village on an adventure, and followed the Shadoweir. He was soon sent to join the Order of the Gauntlet, to help defend good in the world in line with Mielikki’s teaching…

Out of the Abyss Walkthrough session 1, part 2

Last week I presented the first part of my walkthrough on our first session of D&D’s “Out of the Abyss.” The group escaped their drow prison in the midst of a demon attack and headed into the Underdark…

[I chose to narrate their travels through the Underdark with just a few random encounters to keep it moving along; the alternate was to roll twice a day. But I did have the group roll daily for foraging and navigation. I’ll roll for more random encounters in future travels].

The group stumbled through the tunnels under Shuushar’s lead. At one point they climbed down a cliff face thanks to a well-placed ladder—which they had Derendil tear down—and heard screams of terror in the distance down a side passage. They generally managed to find enough food and water thanks to occasional groves of fungus.

After a few days, they came to a narrow passage with two gas spores (fungal reanimations of Beholders) blocking their way. Brynn approached and cast burning hands on one. It promptly exploded, but the burst of spores it sent out knocked her unconscious and close to death. The rest of the group opened fire with their ranged weapons and killed the second spore. As they did, they all got a burst of memory; they saw a Beholder chasing some deep gnomes into a ruined elvish temple that had sunlight streaming in (gas spores sometimes release memories of their Beholder lives). Zenaella healed Brynn, including the disease she picked up from the spores, and they moved out.

The group continued on for a few more days without incident, although they struggled to find food and became exhausted [they gained one level of exhaustion]. Suddenly, a steam vent broke open and Navarre was hit with the steam, severely wounding him. He was still walking though, and they continued on.

As the group approached Slubbladoop, Shuushar became excited, but the group wanted him to go first and make sure they could enter peacefully. He told them he was not very welcome there—thanks to his pacifist teaching—and he’d prefer the group as backup. The group was a little uneasy–and irked, as Shuushar hadn’t mentioned this yet–but they continued.

After another hour they were surrounded by a kuo-toa raiding party. The group was wounded and exhausted, and found themselves overwhelmed as the kuo-toa attacked. Several of the group went down, and it looked like they were about to be captured, when a rain of spears came out of nowhere. Another group of kuo-toa killed the landing party and ran up to the group.

This group was led by the archpriest of the Deep Mother, the kuo-toa god. He said his daughter recently had a vision of the Deep Father. She denounced their ancient traditions, gathering followers of the Deep Father and conducting blood sacrifices. He asked the group for help. He would present them as fake offerings, and when his daughter was distracted, he would attack her with his followers.

The adventurers were skeptical, and pressed him for some assurance they would be safe (and actually receive a reward). He wasn’t very comforting, but they did get a sense he wasn’t lying. [this was a difficult encounter, because as far as I could tell there wasn’t much for the players to do but follow along, unless they really screwed up and attacked].

The kuo-toa led the group through their chaotic and filthy city. They passed the docks, where numerous sturdy ships were moored, and came to the priest’s quarters near the Deep Mother shrine. There they waited for a bit, managing to get a short rest, before they were summoned to appear before the Deep Father.

They were escorted out, and came to the shrine, a grotesque creation made up several dead aquatic features tied together, on a platform over the Darklake, with a blood-stained grate below it. The sacrifices occurred there, and their blood flowed into the Darklake below.

The priestess began the ritual when, suddenly, her father attacked. The entire area broke out in a chaotic melee. As the kuo-toa fought, the group saw the water foaming with blood, and realized a swarm of ixitxachitl (a kind of evil manta-ray piranha) were attacking some of the worshippers. In the chaos, one of the Deep Father worshippers grapped Turvy, stabbing her and throwing her into the water. Topsy rushed to help, but the group—realizing it was too late—grabbed him and ran off.

This horrible situation soon became worse, though. The group heard a deep rumbling that gradually grew in severity. Suddenly, the water near the city exploded in foam and out of it emerged a being seemingly spawned from their darkest nightmares; two-headed, tentacled, and roaring, Demogorgon was here!

The group recoiled in horror, and Brynn, Varys and Navarre became stricken with madness [bad roll on the madness check]. Brynn became enraged, trying to attack Barakus, although her lack of combat skills led to him not realizing he was under attack for a few rounds [a few natural 1s]. Varys and Navarre collapsed, weeping and laughing. Meanwhile, Derendil went crazy, attacking kuo-toa randomly.

The group ran towards the boat when they heard Ront scream from behind them and disappear into the crowd. They ignored this—as they weren’t very fond of him—and kept running, dragging Varys and Navarre along, while Barakus was held up behind them trying to fight Brynn and grapple her.

As they got to the boat they noticed Buppido run out of the crowd, wiping blood off his knife. They ignored this as well. They got aboard, with Varys and Navarre’s madness wearing off, and Barakus finally grappling the angry gnome wizard.

Once aboard they shoved off, rowing frantically to escape the city, which Demogorgon had begun to destroy. A near-miss of one of his tentacles threw Stool and Turvy overboard. The group got Stool back but had to row out into the depths with Turvy holding on by a rope when an ixitxachitl suddenly attacked Turvy, grabbing him in its mouth. Barakus and Zenaella both grabbed the rope, pulling Turvey and the evil fish aboard. They freed the deep gnome, and pushed the fish back into the water.

The group tried not to look back as they rowed away, trying not to be overwhelmed with terror by the realization that not only were they trapped in the Underdark, but they were trapped here with the prince of Demons…

And that was our first session of Out of the Abyss. It was a little chaotic (there’s a lot for the DM to remember}, but a lot of fun. It worked pretty well to have someone run the NPCs, although I should have given him a chance to read the campaign book first, as he was catching up as we went.

I was a little surprised and gratified the group moved so quickly to escape from the drow prison. When I ran as a player, the DM indicated we couldn’t break out of the chains, and we struggled for awhile to figure out what to do. This group also benefited from some lucky rolls to escape. But this is a definite sign of the importance of following your players’ lead, instead of trying to get them to use the cool encounters the DM came up with for their time in jail (the ones I had were pretty good).

I think it made sense to skip over a lot of random encounters between the drow outpost and the kuo-toa village, as I wanted to get into the heart of the story. But for our next sessions I’ll rely more on the random encounters to provide flavor and a sense of dread. I may follow the lead of some other blogs on this campaign and roll for the encounters first, so I can be prepared ahead of time.

So that’s that. We’ll be running our next session in early June, so I’ll be back with part 2 of Out of the Abyss then.

Out of the Abyss walkthrough: Session 1, part 1

My D&D group recently started the excellent fifth edition campaign, “Out of the Abyss,” which came out in 2015. I ran through part of it as a player with an old group, so I was very excited to get started. As I did with previous walkthroughs, I will be summarizing what happened in narrative form, with points about game mechanics [in brackets]. I’ll break up the first session into two posts for easier readability.

The group consisted of:

  • Navarre, a half-elf rogue
  • Zenaella, a half-elf paladin
  • Varys, a half-drow ranger
  • Barakus, a tiefling monk
  • Brynn, a gnome wizard

As this adventure includes a group of NPCs who accompany the party throughout the adventure, we had an extra player (from the event’s wait-list) manage the NPCs, with direction from me. The NPCs were:

  • Prince Derendil, a quaggoth who thinks he’s an elf
  • Ront, an orc
  • Eldeth, a noble dwarf scout
  • Stool, a myconid sprout (a kind of walking fungus)
  • Shuushar the awakened, a pacific kua toa (a normally violent fish-person species)
  • Buppido, a derro (a kind of mad, evil dwarf)
  • Sarith, a renegade drow
  • Topsy and Turvy, deep gnome twins
  • Jimjar, another deep gnome

There are interesting backstories and twists for all these characters, but I’ll reveal them as the players discover them.

The session started with the group captured by the drow, locked in a cell and restrained with manacles and collars. They had been there a varying number of days, and some had managed to acquire useful objects, like an iron bar or a shard of flint. While they hadn’t met before the adventure, the surfacers in the group got to know each other (with the exception of Ront). They’d been put to work on menial but difficult tasks by the Drow priestess in charge of the outpost. They’d also managed to get a sense for the basic layout of the outpost, which was a series of caves connected by platforms 100 feet above pool on the floor of the cavern. [I thought I’d start them out with some familiarity, to move things along]

It was evening, and the group was recovering from their day of work. Suddenly, there was a commotion outside, and the Drow threw in Shuushar and Stool. Stool landed on Ront, who was about to beat him up when Barakus intervened. Ront backed down, and glowered in the corner [Barakus rolled well on intimidation]

The group discussed what to do. Navarre was able to use the shard of flint he found to free Varys and Barakus, but it broke when he tried to free himself. The two freed prisoners arranged their manacles so the drow wouldn’t notice, and they waited till morning.

In the morning, the drow woke them up with buckets of foul, cold water, and threw in some bowls of mushroom gruel. Ront tried to steal Topsy’s, but Barakus intimidated him again, and he gave it back [we started a running joke about how bad Ront was at being an orc after this]. The drow announced they’d be back in 20 minutes to divide the group up for the day’s labor.

The group sprung into action. The freed prisoners situated themselves so they could surprise the guards, and the others were told of the plan. When the four guards returned, Barakus hit one over the head with his iron bar, and combat began. The NPCs were not very helpful, and Zenaella and Brynn wasted several rounds until they discovered they were in an anti-magic field and their spells were useless. But Barakus killed one guard, and Navarre took his keys to free everyone else. It was a tough fight, and Barakus was knocked unconscious after the drow teamed up on him. But the group managed to overwhelm them. [I had a couple days of encounters planned for the group as they prepared to escape, but this was pretty fun too]

The group snuck out into the compound, and saw they had two paths—into a stalactite hollowed out to serve as a guard tower (not very desirable) or a platform to the north. They headed north, ducked into a cave…and ended up face to face with two quaggoth. The fight began, and was going badly for the players, when a horrible buzzing and howling broke out, and alarms sounded.

The quaggoth ran, and the group followed. The outpost was in chaos as a group of chasme and vrock demons battled in the air—occasionally swooping down on a drow—and the drow tried to defend themselves. The group took advantage of the chaos and ran into the guard post. One surprised drow was inside, and they quickly defeated him.

They found stores of arms and supplies, and stocked up when two drow ran in from outside [I set a timer, and every few minutes something would happen, to kind of approximate the chaotic feel]. The group had a tough fight, as they were still weak from the first battle, but won.

The group stopped to look around, and saw that below them was a layer of webs over a deep pool. They thought they could jump onto the webs, then into the pool, but Brynn wanted to find her spellbook first. So they headed south to explore the rest of the outpost.

They saw a large platform where most of the drow were gathered to fight the demons, and another stalactite off to the side. The group snuck in there, and found a shrine to Lolth, the drow’s demon goddess. They searched the room, and found a few valuables, including gems in a spider idol’s eyes, which Navarre stole without thinking through potential consequences…

The group continued down into the stalactite and found what looked like the priestess’s room, where they discovered more valuables, some potions of healing, and all their gear. They suited up, and Navarre hollowed out some pillows to serve as rucksacks. While they were doing this two drow guards stopped by to investigate.

Barakus heard the drow arrive in the level above them, so the group prepared to ambush them as they investigated. But the drow saw the group, and began firing their crossbows down into the lower chamber. This led to a few rounds of inconclusive exchanges of fire until Barakus leapt up the ladder, grabbed one of the drow and—in an impressive display of his monk skills [and great acrobatics rolls]—pulled the drow down to the floor. This shifted the balance in the group’s favor, and they won, albeit even more injured.

They decided to run. The group headed back to the platform above the pool and leapt into the webs. Navarre, Barakus, Varys and few of the NPCs managed to free themselves on landing, and they noticed three giant spiders approaching. Navarre, not the noblest of heroes, jumped down into the pool, and Barakus and Varys followed.

Eldeth remained to help her friends, freeing Brynn and Zenaella before the spiders arrived. Zenaella tried to stop the fighters while Eldeth and Brynn freed the other NPCs. They managed to get all but Jimjar, Ront and Shuushar out when Zenaella fell before the spider’s venomn. Eldeth, in a burst of heroism, told Brynn to try and stabilize Zenaella then run; she handed Brynn her warhammer and asked her to return it to her family in Gauntlgrym.

Eldeth threw herself at the spiders. Brynn managed to stabilize Zenaella with a lucky medicine roll and the two of them jumped as the spiders killed Eldeth. Ront and Shuushar managed to break out, but Jimjar remained stuck in the webs, and the spiders soon killed him.

The group was now  free, on the cavern floor while the drow battled the demons. They were rather guilty about leaving some friends to die, and Ront was pretty unhappy in return.

Shuushar urged them to go to his home city, Slubbladoop, as it was relatively close and they could find passage through the Darklake there. The group agreed and headed out, although they heard a cry of “the prisoners are escaping” from above.

They headed into the Underdark….tune in next week for the conclusion of our first session.

Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Restoring Charlemagne’s Empire, part 1

I ran my first session for the D&D 5e campaign “Out of the Abyss” this weekend. I’m working on a write-up, so while that’s in progress I thought I’d try something new. This is a walkthrough of a long computer game campaign I’m playing. If this isn’t your thing, bear with me, and I’ll be back with RPG discussions next week.

When I’m not playing D&D (or working, or spending time with my family) I play Crusader Kings 2, an excellent historical strategy computer game. In this game, you take control of a dynasty in 1066 (this is the default setting, it can change) and play them through 1453. For a certain type of person (like me) this is an incredibly engaging and exciting game.

After awhile, just trying to conquer land becomes boring, so players come up with harder challenges. One popular one is starting as the Count of Vermandois in 1066, who is the last descendant of Charlemagne, and attempting to restore the family’s empire. Here’s my attempt. I’ll be discussing the gameplay in narrative form, although I will include some interesting (or frustrating) mechanics that came up [in brackets].

Clotaire was a completely average man in every respect. No discernible skills, a steady church-goer…who also had a series of affairs. Ruler of a respectable but small piece of land, the County of Vermandois, in France. Married to the daughter of another weak count. But he had two things going for him—his great ambition, and his name- Karling, the last descendant of Charlemagne.

As soon as he gained his father’s lands in 1066, Clotaire got to work restoring his family to greatness. He attracted skilled councilors from around Christendom to begin developing the country. Under the direction of his steward, he established a trade route to bring the riches of the east to his territory. And thanks to the work of his chancellor he developed close ties with the young King Philippe.

Clotaire tried to increase his power and prestige through two means. First, he tried to get close to those who already had power and prestige. Using his good relations with the King, he married his eldest son to one of the King’s sisters and managed to become the King’s Marshal (despite having no discernible military skills). He also developed a close friendship with the Duke of Berry while serving on the council. And when the King found himself with extra territory thanks to his holy wars (more on that below), he granted Clotaire the county of Orleans.

Clotaire also tried to expand his power more directly, primarily through his wife’s family lands. He first attempted to convince his wife and father-in-law to have the lands pass to her (instead of her elder brother), to no avail. Clotaire then dispatched his chancellor to fabricate a claim to the land. It was rather convoluted, and no one really believed it, but it was enough. Clotaire declared war, and—in an early sign of the continued power of his name—soldiers rallied to his side to support Charlemagne’s heir. Clotaire seized the land, dispossessed his wife’s family (ending any lingering good feelings between the two) and now ruled a significant portion of the Duchy of Valois.

Things became more complicated, however. This partly had to do with succession. Clotaire’s eldest son was a brilliant administrator, who soon became his steward. And his eldest grandson was a brilliant diplomat, who became his chancellor when the old chancellor died. Clotaire was reassured his line would continue strongly for several generations. But his son was killed by an angry mob of peasants while collecting taxes, and his grandson died mysteriously shortly after being sent on his first mission as chancellor (likely an assassination plot).

His second son became the heir. Raymond was a capable diplomat, and likely would be a good ruler, but he had married the daughter of the Holy Roman Empire (who inherited the Duchy of Franconia on his death), and had thus been absent for some time. Additionally, both France and the Empire had complicated inheritance rules, portending some troubles when Raymond’s son inherited Franconia from his mother.

The troubles also had to do with France itself. As mentioned, King Philippe launched a series of holy wars against the Muslims in Spain, seizing a good portion of Aragon. The acclaim he received for this went to his head and he soon turned against the Pope, adopting the Fratricelli heresy. This divided France, and a series of Catholic lords launched rebellions against the King as Muslim states to the south attempted to retake Aragon. The King succeeded in defeating the rebellious lords, although he lost some of his Spanish territory and, most disastrously, lost Flanders after the Holy Roman Empire invaded. By the end of these conflicts, Philippe was so weakened he was easily overthrown by the Duke of Berry, the son of Clotaire’s old friend, who started the Bourges dynasty.

Clotaire stayed out of these fights. While he remained a Roman Catholic he did not join any of the rebels, and tried to remain on good relations with the Fratricelli rulers. After the new King came to the throne, he granted Clotaire the Duchy of Valois and county of Paris—seized from Philippe—possibly out of respect for his father’s good friend.

Clotaire died at 72, after living a long and successful life. He managed to put the Karling family on the path towards regaining some of its glory, and his son, Raymond, ascended to his titles expectantly…

“A shadow in the woods” walkthrough, part 3

Over the last two weeks I presented a walkthrough of “A shadow in the woods,” my D&D 5e home-brew adventure. And in an earlier post I discussed some takeaways from DM-ing my first home-brew. So this week I thought I’d write about the creative and technical process behind this adventure.

It was inspired by reading through Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a D&D sourcebook that came out last year. It includes background on monster cultures and playable races, as well as several new and interesting monsters. One of these was the Banderhob; as soon as I read its description I knew this would make for a great adventure. This adventure was basically a linear story—defeat the monster—but organized around a series of dungeon settings and set encounters.

The Banderhob is summoned by a hag to kill a target. I thought it’d be fun if the group bumped into one, and then got sucked into its mission. Simply going and warning its target wouldn’t make for much of an adventure, so I had to come up with some way for the target to be missing or hidden. Then I had to think about the motivations behind this.

For the setting, I decided to go with a Twin Peaks-esque surreal horror (with hints of humor). The adventurers went to a small provincial town full of difficult personalities and devious intrigue. It may or may not be based on my hometown.

A political fight within the town seemed a good motivation, although I went with a bumbling villain—the local guy who wanted to stop his cousin’s land sale—for some comedic effect. I fleshed this out with locations that may or may not have been near my own hometown, including a swampy area, barren hills, and some rich farmland. I added random encounter tables for the day and night to flesh out the creepiness of the town.

I had a setting—the hometown—and some basic plot ideas: the characters stumble on a Banderhob hunting a woman, and need to help her and figure out who summoned it. I filled in the details with fantasy/sci-fi writing conveniences. The Banderhob dropped a locket belonging to the woman, which confused it about her location. And the Banderhob was summoned in a specific ritual that required the group to close the summoning portal.

I also added a well-known character (at least to me): the town sage, Fonken. Fonken was a character I ran for Curse of Strahd, a Dale Cooper-esque gnome wizard (from Twin Peaks); one of my friends also compared him to Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters. We never finished that adventure, so I thought it might be fun to have him retire to a small town and help out adventurers that pass through.

So I had my plot: the group had to protect the woman and return the Banderhob through the portal. I first needed triggers to get through each stage of the adventure. I ended up kind of simplifying this. The townsfolk quickly tell the group the Banderhob’s target was captured by bandits, to give them some direction early on. And after the group was in town for a bit the Banderhob attacked and Fonken saved them; this gave him a chance to  give them the information about the monster. When the group rescued the monster’s target, the people responsible for these events show up to explain and kind of apologize. I guess I could have had my group do more investigation, but I didn’t want to get too bogged down.

Now I needed the set pieces for the two main events: finding and protecting the Banderhob’s target, and defeating the Banderhob. For the former, it was the lair of a bandit group that had “kidnapped” the woman (she was just visiting the bandits, in my lame attempt at humor). For the latter, it was the dungeon of a hag that had summoned the Banderhob.

For both of these, I basically used the random dungeon tables in the DMs guide (although I re-rolled results that didn’t make sense). One thing that came up for the bandit lair was a dungeon buried in a series of hills; this sounded appropriate to the setting so I went with that. And I populated it using the tables, although I figured out the basic “flow” of the dungeon first; all corridors converged on the circular “throne room” of the bandit leader. I re-rolled till I got dangerous but light-hearted obstacles in the dungeon, like a reverse gravity pantry or a talking tapestry.

For the hag’s lair, I rolled a castle submerged in a swamp. This sounded nice too, and I adapted it to make it submerged sideways and twisted. I went with more sinister sounding rolls for the dungeon itself, as that fit the atmosphere better. And for both dungeons I used appropriate wilderness encounters (forest or swamp) to populate the group’s trip there.

Then there was the boss battle. I decided to make it a multi-stage battle (although that didn’t completely work out, as I discussed in my earlier post). The first stage was relatively easy—a straight-up battle with the Banderhob and some ghouls. That ended quickly, and I was kind of going for the end of Ghostbusters—when they defeated the villain but a sense of dread was still there, growing. The second stage had the Banderhob reappear through the portal with some darkmantles attacking as well. This is where the group defeated the Banderhob, but the third stage would have had everyone take on an effect of Shadowfell (its home plane) and fight the Banderhob as well as the hag.

Finally, there was the ending. I loved the old video games where defeating the boss wasn’t enough; you also had to escape. So I went for that, with the sinking castle. In the end, I made it a little too easy. It may have made for a good dramatic ending if one character fell, just as they thought they’d won.  To be honest, I was kind of worried about upsetting the players (as we are a relatively new group).

And then I wanted an anti-climactic ending back at the town. I love old Westerns where the hero saves the day, but the villagers don’t want him around anymore. And that was kind of what happened to my group; the town was appreciative, but just wanted them to leave.

So that was how I put this adventure together. As I’ve said, it wasn’t perfect, but I had a lot of fun (and my players did too). I hope this can be of some help to others thinking through their own home-brew adventures.