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- Unburdened Dwarf Fighter (Two-Hand Weapon) Cavalier Archetype, Pathfinder Hopeful
- Razortooth Goblin Rogue (Finesse) Goblin Renegade
- Cave Elf Wizard (Universalist) Osirionologist
- Versatile Human Cleric of Shelyn, Esoteric Order Scion
After updating their PC to the then-current Rules Update (1.4), the players dove straight into the adventure. The set-up worked well: everyone knew everyone, Keleri, and the stakes. I was able to read the boxed text, answer PC questions about the logistics of the adventure, and we were off.
The spellcasters were very key to getting the group where they had to go quickly. The Wizard cross-referenced the rules for overland travel, and told everyone that his Phantom Steed spell, if cast for everyone, could get the party the most mileage. The Fighter was upset, since she had specifically chosen the Cavalier Archetype to have a steed to move her faster than her base speed could go. However, with the countdown for the adventure and being unsure if her mount's slower land speed would be the difference between victory and defeat, she left her steed at the base camp.
The Cleric had a combo she wanted to try: Cast "Augury" to ascertain if it would be 'weal' or 'woe' to ask a certain question with "Read Omens". Since Augury could only look 30 minutes in the future, and Read Omens takes 10 minutes to cast, I ruled that this could be done. She then proceeded to do this five times: Augury a question, then ask it to Read Omens. I secretly rolled for Augury, but only one of them was 'Nothing'. They showed an interest in finding the gnomes, and with some intelligent guesses, were able to ascertain exactly which hex they could be found in, starting with the assumption they were in the forest, and eventually narrowing it down to their home hex.
(If you're thinking I was too lenient on the spellcasters... you may be right. The Wizard had Quick Preparation, so not-preparing-the-right-spells-today wasn't a big issue. And I could have been deliberately unhelpful when answering Read Omens. But I did veto them on other things. I told the Wizard that Locate RAW can only go as far as 500 feet, which is useless in a hexmap unless you're right ontop of it. Also, the Cleric wanted to use Read Omens to discern things about the release of the Mu Spore, but I explained to her that it also RAW can't be used for events further than a week away. And before she went full Diviner, I told her she had to wait a day at camp to change her spells. A GM who wasn't as on their game as I was might have let the spellcasters be OP by just assuming a spell does something it doesn't actually do.)
Using Phantom Steeds, they left the next day party managed to reach the gnomes' hex in one day's travel, and spent the night in a Rope Trick protected by an Alarm spell. The next day, the Rogue found the village with a lucky Perception check. They were told the threat posed to the Gnomes, and agreed to stop the Rocs for them. Spending the day there, the Wizard sent a "Sending" spell back to camp to inform Kelevri how the mission was going, and where they would be going. (Before going to bed, he burned through some Locate spells to see if there were any random valuables or monsters in the village).
Because I hadn't mentioned anything about Random Encounters, the Cleric had prepared a suite of combat spells that morning (in case Saruman and Wormwood were oppressing the Hobbits), but planned to prepare another suite of Augury + Read Omens since (she reasoned) the party wouldn't get caught on the road. Using those divinations, they ascertained the Rocs were in the northern mountains, but not exactly which hex they were in. The party camped at the base of the mountain (Rope Tricking, of course), and used spells to find where the Roc Aerie would be. They rolled a Nature check to see if they could tame the Rocs, and I told them "Maybe."
At the start of the day, the spellcasters prepped spells they felt would work well against fliers: Feather Fall, Fireball, Flame Strike, Fly, and Air Walk. Reasoning that the Rocs would likely not be in their Aerie if the PCs were to go there, I had the Rocs spot the party (which was easy to do) and attack them as they neared their home. The Rocs won initiative and the pair swooped in and picked up the two casters off of their steeds, flying away with them.
The Wizard asked for a clarification about Feather Fall, if he could use it twice in a round. I explained that it used a Reaction, which meant that if both PCs were dropped at the same time, only one could be Feather-Falled, and the falling rules as written resolve a fall immediately (no round where you start your turn in free-fall). The two spellcasters reasoned that they needed to spread their escapes out between two rounds. The Cleric tried to escape from the Roc's clutches, failing the first time, and critically failing the second time. She then tried to grapple the Roc, reasoning that she could hold on to it if it let go of her, but I told her that RAW she couldn't grapple a creature that large, and the Roc would be a good enough flier to shake her off if it wanted to. I let her take back that action (since it wouldn't make sense) and when she asked me if she could cast Air Walk (which she just remembered she had), I let her take back the second escape check, since her first check failed so badly, it would be reasonable for her PC to have not tried again. The Rocs spent their next 3 actions flying higher, and then released the PCs. The Cleric walked on air, and the Wizard Feather-Falled down to the ground.
Meanwhile on the ground, the Fighter made a Recall Lore check with Nature to determine that the two Rocs were a mating pair, and that they might have young in their aerie. The Martials tried looking for it, but I told them it was A) Probably not close to them and B) Probably very high up from the ground. The Wizard (who I ruled would have landed near the Martials since the Rocs ascended straight up) moved up to them to cast Fly on them. The Air Walk spell was definitely helping the Cleric avoid falling damage, but per the 45 degree ascension/descension rule, I told her that she couldn't just "jump off" her spot to get away from the Rocs.
Me: "There's nothing actually there, but your feet are creating a consistent reality of a slope you and you alone can walk on."
Cleric: "What am I, a mime?"
The Cleric attempted to heal herself up, but the Rocs tag-teamed her and dropped her to 0 HP. And as amusing as it would have been to portray her unconscious body rolling down an imaginary slope, I ruled that being unconscious allowed her body to fall straight down, since she didn't have control over it. (Looking back, I probably could have let her rolled down the 45 degree slope while conscious, although her landing would have been messy and out of Feather Fall Range. Alternatively, the spell does say you *can* walk on air, not that you can't fall. The specificity of the angle of walking might allow a PC to fall, but that opens up another can of worms of tripping someone who is Air Walking.)
The Wizard caught the Cleric with Feather Fall, and healed her with his Tourmaline Aeon Sphere. I ruled that the Rocs fly away, reasoning that the PCs are very unlike their regular prey, and not worth the effort. I didn't tell them that however, so the Wizard cast Rope Trick and everyone jumped into it to brainstorm. We took about an hour out-of-game going over the logistics of beating the Rocs.
- The Wizard reasoned he could use long-range spells like Fireball and Acid Arrow to strike the Rocs before they can reach them.
- The Fighter, using her Recall Lore check, suggested that they just need to kill one of the Rocs, reasoning that the other mate would leave the region to find a new mate.
- The Rogue pointed out his ability to Intimidate the Roc, but I told him that Intimidation would only last a day.
- The Fighter had Felling Strike, which she said could ground a Roc and take away its flight advantage.
- The Rogue suggested going back to the camp and hiring a Druid to "Speak with Animals" to the Rocs, and get them on their side.
Eventually, the Wizard convinced the party that beating the Rocs using his and the Cleric's long-range spells to take out one of the Rocs, with support from the Martials given flight to provide a barrier for the "artillery". He showed a number spread of expected damage from Fireballs and Flame Strikes, starting with a readied 5th level Fireball to hit the Rocs as soon as they enter range. Using Nature to ascertain a general range of expected HP, he was able to determine that the average roll of that many dice should kill one Roc, even if they non-critically succeed each save.
The Cleric asked them to give her a day to prepare some Divination spells to determine what was best to do. The next day, she asked about the best thing to do, including not fighting the Roc. As I was unsure that they could actually beat the Rocs with this plan, I hinted heavily that not facing the Rocs, and hinted strongly about magical treasure elsewhere in the mountains (Area K). The Cleric was able to convince the party to take a break from the Rocs, which no-one else was *that* eager to jump back into. I told them that attacking the Rocs wasn't time-sensitive (they wouldn't change their behaviours or gather allies to protect them), but the party may run into them if they stay in this area.
The party decided to travel through the mountains towards the mouth of the next river, and I secretly rolled if the Rocs would find them on their daily hunts.
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
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The party managed to reach Area K without encountering the Rocs. The PCs eventually found the abandoned treasure and I explained to them that they earned a Research Point. RAW, a "research point" only lasts a week, as I assume that the info becomes out-of-date over turn. However, this specific situation didn't seem right to put a week's timeline on it. You'd have to find the research one week before the attack, and based on how they died, the Rocs would have had to have killed them one week before, and the PCs find it between then and the attack. That seemed far too limited, so I ignored the time limits for this Research.
Travelling back to the Roc's area, the PCs plan to wait for the Rocs to leave in the morning, and wait for them in their aerie and attack them as they returned. They didn't rush into it. They spent a day searching for the aerie, rested in the Rope Trick, spent a day while the Rocs were out scouting the area for hiding places, retreat locations, and best way to climb to the aerie. This was supplemented by the Wizard's Locate spell. The PCs marked the general time the Rocs left and returned to their aerie.
The next day, the PCs used Fly and Air Walk to get up on the Aerie and waited for the Rocs. They were somewhat disappointed that the pair didn't have any young or eggs. As an extra precaution, the Wizard cast Rope Trick up there as a fall-back. I rolled to see if the Rocs returned near sunset, which might affect the PCs' ability to see the Rocs returning from the west (they returned before that). The Wizard, having held the same reaction for hours, unleashed his first 5th level Fireball.
I kept the Rocs coming (more motivated to protect their own home), and the Wizard kept unleashing Fireballs, using Arcane Drain to keep the best Fireballs coming. While he was doing that, the Cleric cast Air Walk on the Martials, and they moved forward to slow them down. Then the Cleric got her Flame Strike ready to hit the injured Roc, but the Fireball damage was so high, I had the injured Roc break-off to hide while its mate kept flying towards the PC. Not having a giant map of the area, I rolled to see if there was an area where the Roc could get total cover from the PCs in the aerie, and I got a positive response. The Roc they've been working over had escaped, and the other one was still coming!
The Cleric climbed up the Rope Trick, the Wizard cast Invisibility on himself and Feather-Falled to the ground, and the Martials went after the wounded Roc. In the heat of play, I played a lot looser with the Air Walk spell, allowing the Fighter to move directly down to reach the Roc, and the Rogue using Catfall to freefall the remaining distance needed to get into melee with it. The two of them finished off the Roc thanks to a successful attack of opportunity. Meanwhile, the healthy Roc tried to claw at the rope on the Rope Trick, but decided it wouldn't understand how Rope Trick worked, and would have it chase after the Martials. Using the fall-back plans they prepared for, the PCs disappeared into caves and hiding holes to avoid the seeking Roc.
The PCs eventually regrouped, but had to wait a few days to confirm they were successful. I rolled a d4 to see how many days the Roc would mourn before leaving this region. The Wizard sent a Sending spell to the Mayor of Korlabablin to let them know they were successful. They returned to the Gnomes to great applause. During the celebration, the Wizard and Rogue performed a re-telling of the great history of Ancient Osirion (although the Goblin added a bit more slapstick to the epic tales). The Fighter was sad that the gnomes weren't as enthusiastic about her tales of Magnimar.
To Be Continued
(Sorry for the delays.)
The Cleric once again used the Augury/Read Omens combo, using information given to them by the Gnomes and Keleri to find their next best target. They investigated the rumours of the dragon and lake monster, but I highly discouraged that with "Woe" results from Augury and with Read Omens results (since the party's spellcasters relied too heavily on fire spells for their offense). When they asked about the Fey in the Forest, I painted a big fat 'X' for the dryad with the divination results.
A few days later, the party was wandering through the right hexmap and encounter Tulaeth. The Rogue and the Cleric took turns trying to persuade the dryad, taking different tracks. The Cleric attempted to sweet talk the Dryad, telling her that they came to her because she is the rightful ruler of the Thicketfell, and that she should be told of the danger coming. The Rogue talked about the danger of the cultists, and how she would lose her forest if she didn't march her people against them.
The DCs being so high, there was a lot of back-and-forth in the status of the Dryad's attitude toward the PCs. The Rogue brought her up to Friendly, then the Cleric rolled a '1' and sent it back to indifferent. Rogue also rolled a '1' to make her unfriendly. Cleric (with aid from Wizard) got it back up to indifferent. Rogue got a Diplomacy check that beat the Dryad's Will Defense by 10, finally getting her up to helpful. I ruled that soliciting aid from the Dryad was a reasonable request, and based on how the battle would be fought, wouldn't result in an expense of quality of life (quite the opposite, if the Mu Spore never reaches the forest).
With the high DCs and high stakes in the adventure so far, the party was quite keen on doing as little adventuring as possible. Thus, once they secured the Dryad's assistance, they used their divinations to ask if it was enough. Or in game:
"Should we ask about marching on the Cultists with the Gnomes and Fey?"
"Should we ask about asking Keleri if the Gnomes and Fey are enough?"
"Read Omens, we want to return to Keleri and tell her about our alliances, and request a march on the cultists."
"The Mercenaries would be willing to march with the gnomes and fey, and such a group could be considered an army, if they are assigned roles that compliment each other."
The Wizard sent a Sending to the Gnomes to tell them where to go, and led Tulaeth back with them, who gave word to her Treants to prepare for war.
Returning to the camp for the first time, I reminded the players that they could purchase items or do activities similar to what they could do in town. The Wizard wanted to scribe some "Fireball" scrolls. I was confused for a while, thinking he needed Craft skill to make scrolls, but then the Wizard player reminded me he could use Arcana to make it. We all had a heck of a time finding the exact DC for crafting a scroll. With the help of Ageless Patience, the Wizard managed to make (4) Fireball scrolls, which didn't take up too much time given how long the gnomes took to reach the camp. When they got there, the Wizard asked to share arcane spells with the gnomes. Due to their prohibition against fire, all he could get was "Earthbind".
Using their divination and knowledge from the locals, the PCs discovered where the Moonmere was, and started marching on it. Using the Phantom Steed spell, the PCs moved in earlier to scout the area. The players didn't like the lack of random encounters when they performed their first overland journey, and doing a march into enemy territory with an unwieldy army with no consequences didn't feel right to them. Getting there early, they made Perception checks to scout the area out. With such high DCs, only the Fighter made it, and only because I allowed her to use Stonecunning as part of it (since the Tower had underground components).
With 4 Ally Points and 2 Research Points, the PCs wouldn't have to worry about the Giants, and the pre-combat spells were reduced by 1 minute before engagement. Before the session, I check through the spell list to see which ones would be useless... and the answer was "darn near all of them." For the PCs, everything except for "Status". For the enemies, the only ones they could use were Heroism, See Invisibility, and Humanoid Form.
Before combat, the Cleric cast Heightened Status on the other PCs, the top 3 mercenaries, the top 3 gnomes, and 1 treant. The hope was that knowing their location and condition of the leaders would give the party an idea of how the battle was going (and help find each other if they got separated). One of the most memorable moments in this adventure was when I had the Brain Collector use Humanoid Form on itself in order to be a legal target for Heroism (humanoid only). Since Humanoid Form doesn't grant clothes, and neither the Brain Collector or its allies seemed sane enough to care for decorum, the PCs encountered the mummy, two cultists... and a naked man.
The Rogue declared that he would be stealthing through the battlefield, shadowing the rest of the party (who would know where he was, thanks to the Cleric's Status). Before rolling for Initiative, I realized that Hidimi had better Stealth than Perception, and that it would make sense for the BBEG to be hiding from the conflict rather than being in the open. Hidimi rolled higher than everyone else, followed by the Perception-based PCs, followed by the other enemies, followed by the Rogue (who everyone basically saw despite trying to hide).
I wanted to use this high Stealth Initiative to determine how the battlemap was set up. Since the PCs got better Perception than the cultists and brain collector, I allowed them to get within 30 ft. of them, then have Hidimi ambush them from behind. That was a bit more difficult due to her stench aura, so I had to place her in an out-of-the-way-cranny 30 ft. away from the path the PCs entered, so her "ambush" was very ineffective, given that she needed to spend two move actions to get in range of the PCs.
In the first round of combat, the Brain Collector cast Phantasmal Killer on the Rogue, who unexpectedly failed all his saving throws and died before taking one action. His player was not pleased. The rest of the players were happy that Aberrant Whispers bolstered targets against itself, as it was a very strong effect against spellcasters.
The Fighter, seeing the Cleric getting worked over by Hidimi, decided to focus fire on the Mummy. That kind of attention got Hidimi to unleash her Sandstorm, not only on the PCs, but on her allies as well! The Wizard critically failed his saving throw and was brought down from full health to 6 HP! On his turn, he cast Dimension Door and hid amidst the rubble of the battle (Stealth 28). Looking at death, the Cleric and Fighter pressed on to kill Hidimi, hoping that her death would at least make some impact on the ritual. They weren't able to kill her on their turn, so I had Hidimi move towards her allies, who stepped up to create a physcial line against the PCs.
Unfortunately for them, the Wizard's turn came up, and had Fireball ready. Hidimi died from that, and the previous Sandstorm meant that most of the enemies were close to death themselves. Each cultist cast "Blindness" on a PC respectively, and moved with the Brain Collector to close the gap with the Wizard. The Fighter critically failed, and was permanently blinded! The Cleric charged after the cultists, with the Fighter blindly leaping towards the Wizard's location (reasoning that being blind made the ground difficult terrain, but didn't stop him from jumping). The enemies couldn't close the gap in one round, so the Wizard dropped another Fireball, killing a cultist and bringing the remaining enemies near death.
At that point, I decided that the cultists would retreat. I had them cast Invisibility on themselves and flee, each one moving in an opposite direction. We checked the rules for Perception, and I told the Wizard he was too far away to Seek them. The Fighter and Cleric are closer, and attempt to search for them, to no avail. Worried about the Rogue's body, they move back towards his corpse. The Wizard moves closer to the action, and makes two Seek actions, one to his left, and one to his right. He located two beings who weren't visible. The Fighter is useless here, but the Cleric tracks the cultist, following the fleeing cultist, and "catching" him in a cone, which was wide enough for the Wizard to drop a Fireball to kill him off.
No sign of the naked man was found (which flew away while invisible). In past campaigns, my players have joked that my high-level enemies wear less armour and use less weapons than lower-level enemies, and that the less clothes they have, the more powerful they are. So the Rogue being killed off by a naked man (the transformed Brain Collector) who went invisible and was untrackable really played into their suspicion that he was someone very important: Ramlock, the mastermind behind the cult, or the final boss. This interest was the best part of the adventure, so I didn't stifle it. It was ironic, given that these players had already fought a Brain Collector in DDD, but because the Brain Collector from "Affair at Sombrefell Hall" had a different array of spell-like abilities, the players didn't recognize the transformed Brain Collector for what it was. Ruling that the Brain Collector wouldn't have the initiative or wherewithal to complete the ritual, the PCs had prevented the ritual from occurring (and added another Rogue Brain Collector out there).
My thoughts on the adventure: I didn't like it. At all. It was two incredible difficult encounters scaffolded by a lot of rolling against high DCs to find anything to do. Spells were absolutely necessary to finish this adventure (the players did it in 27 days), and it was one of the few occasions that I wish we had 8 people at the table with different classes. A Druid could have ended the Roc encounter without bloodshed, a Bard/Sorcerer could have convinced Tuleath to join them without going through nearly every stage of disposition beforehand, and casters with more varied spells would have been decent enough to take on the dragon.
I'll admit that my playstyle influenced how the players took in this adventure. I don't like throwing PCs into unwinnable situations, but if they're there, I will play a monster to its hilt. Fliers like Rocs have an amazing advantage of not only being able to fly away from melee PCs, but using falling damage as their attack (each move action upwards deals another 30 damage from falling damage). And I wasn't interested in letting the PCs win the final encounter just because they were PCs. They stepped up to my challenges, and acted admirably. However, some of them had more effect on the adventure.
Wizard: Did everything a mid-level magic-user with unlimited time to prepare can do. Even with a limited amount of arcane spells, his diverse spellbook, his use of Quick Preparation (which was still a class feat when we played), ability to make scrolls, and Drain Arcane Focus with Focus Conservation made him the MVP. He got the party moving faster with Phantom Steed, used Sending to communicate over far distances, used Fireball to reach enemies before they got too close to him, and used Fly and Feather Fall to save people's lives against the Rocs. Creative timing with Drain Arcane Focus would allow the Wizard to chain certain combos (recast a 5th level Fireball, then re-cast a spent Invisibility the next turn). Pretty much anything useful the party did in the adventure, the Wizard was a part of it. Quite a different story than his early defeat at the end of "The Lost Star".
Cleric: A close second for MVP, since her divination combos helped the party get where they needed to. The one encounter per day situation of this module meant that in-combat healing didn't need to be as plentiful as most adventures would need it to be. But her use of Augury and Read Omens is the reason the party wasn't wandering in the middle of nowhere when the Mu Spore was unleashed.
Fighter: Third place, only because he actually did things, just not of great consequence. He dealt the killing blow to the Roc, and got some good shots on Hidimi, but getting blinded in the final battle (failing a Fort Save) didn't feel right for a Fighter to have happen to him. He didn't contribute much to the adventure. Being a shield did barely anything to an enemy who just flew over him, and then flew out of his reach. Leaving behind the mount he took a feat for was fairly demoralizing as well.
Rogue: Might as well not have been there at all. Took turns talking to Tulaeth because they had similar Diplomacy bonuses, but wasn't necessary. The only thing he did was find the gnome settlement, and damage the Roc a bit. I don't think there was anything in this module where a Rogue was useful. I'm surprised that scouting Ramlock's Tower didn't give players an opportunity to infiltrate or sneak around the cultists, or give them a chance to open a locked chest, somewhere. If he didn't die from the Phantasmal killer, he might have avoided all the reflex save spells, and dealt some damage. But overall, wasn't able to use any of his skill feats or skill training.