Hearts of Stone, Episode 4: Dragonbreath

Posted: 12 October 2016 in Hearts of Stone
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New readers begin here…

The party has pursued the drow who kidnapped their companion, Casila, to an old tomb complex. As they hack their way through the inhabitants, the drow leader teleports away with Casila, unfortunately landing just outside the entrance where she is shot by Ssh’ta and shield-bashed prone by Hayes Agar. Dave pulls Casila free of the dogpile, but the drow grabs Casila’s ankle…

Now read on…

The drow patrol leader teleports away with Casila, and Hayes collapses into the mud, cursing. Kowalski hacks at the spider in front of him as more spiders the size of horses erupt from the southern passage into the entrance chamber; his target is shaken. Hayes leaps up and slides under the abdomens of two giant spiders blocking his way deeper into the complex, rolls to his feet, and charges into the guardroom, using the bench where the drow were sitting to launch himself into the air. Dave the dark elf drops another spider with a well-place arrow. X7-09 swipes at a spider, misses, and the two chitter at each other, presumably exchanging insults. The Fox runs back across the hall of skeletons and stabs the remaining spider in that area, inflicting prodigious amounts of damage on it.

A hitherto-unseen spider barrels out of the south passage from the entrance hall and barges past everyone there, moving at top speed towards the injured drow. Ssh’ta repeats Hayes’ manoeuvre coming from the other direction, ending up outside the complex, and shoots at the drow leader’s spider; his arrow is deflecting by thick chitin and does nothing. The drow swings herself onto its back as arrows from Ssh’ta and Dave fly around her, and the pair scuttle off into the forest out of sight. Casila runs back towards Dave, as she has no idea what else is out there in the dark, and she knows both the elves can see in the dark.

(Can you say “recurring villain”? I knew you could, and it looks like this drow, now called Karanlek, will be one. The dice love her.)

X7-09 misses his spider again, and it returns the favour with its web attack, which I have finally remembered they have – this is probably because Ssh’ta is barging past it at the time. Soreth tries to bite the throat out of one of the two spiders in melee with her, but fails – possibly because they don’t really have throats. Ssh’ta shoots a spider but fails to hurt it. A spider lands an impressive bite on Soreth, but its poisonous fangs (yes, I’ve remembered they have those too) fail to penetrate her armour and scaly skin.

X7-09 misses his spider yet again and chitters at it. It sits, then shakes its head, to the bemusement of the rest of the party – at least, those who can see what is going on. Inspired by this, Dave shouts “Sit!” in drow at the spiders, and some of them do so. Soreth misses her spider again as well, or more accurately fails to penetrate the thick chitin with her claws. Kowalski taunts his opponent (by gesture) so well that it rocks back on its legs, bemused. The two spiders facing Soreth miss her, one with a web and one with a bite, and Ssh’ta takes advantage of this to race up behind one and punch it, killing it.

X7-09 makes soothing noises at his spider – then brains it with a surprise axe attack. Soreth loses patience with her lack of progress, and it is at this point the party learns she has a breath weapon, as she breathes fire at the spider she has been trying to hit for ages. The spider dodges aside, leaving the burst of fire barreling out of the entrance room – fortunately, there are no walls to block its path and reflect it back at Soreth. The danger zone contains X7-09, who has just produced his pet chamaeleon, Pascal, and offered it some choice morsels of spider; Dave the dark elf, who is playing happily with her new spider friend; and Kowalski. All of them dodge aside, as does Casila – who is actually outside the danger zone, but doesn’t know that and doesn’t want to find out where it is the hard way.

Kowalski moves over to Casila and says “So ye’re what all the fuss is aboot, are ye?” (He has developed a Scots accent, as dwarves often do since The Lord of the Rings movies.)

Back inside, the Fox and Hayes note that the skeletons’ shields are emblazoned with the sigil of the Lich King, and that they keep looking at the backs of their shields. The Fox sidles up next to one and finds writing on the backs of the shields, which he doesn’t understand. Hayes is charging through the hall of skeletons at full tilt, glancing into the exits as he passes them. Along the north wall he spies a bunkroom, a storeroom and a room with a fountain in it; on the south, what looks like a private room at an inn, a blood-spattered room containing a pit full of bones, bodies, and giant spiders; and a red-lit room containing some sort of dark idol. The Fox notes that the skeletons are all human, equipped in the fashion of some five centuries previously.

“Why is this tomb so well-lit?” muses Hayes. “More importantly, why has it got a drow outpost inside it – one the skeletons tolerate?”

Hayes slows to a halt at the end of the hall, where he can see a crowned skeletal figure on a throne, in ancient chainmail with a longsword across its lap. It inclines its head at Hayes, who is smiling and approaching in a non-threatening manner, and beckons him closer. Hayes warns the others not to approach, and the Fox mentally adds this warning to the screams and explosion noises coming from near the entrance, and charges dramatically back towards the guardroom, where Soreth and the spiders (good name for a rock band, that) are still flailing ineffectually at each other. Kowalski walks in from the entrance hall and calls: “D’ye want some help wi’ that, Red?”

“No!” calls the dragonborn. “I’ve got this!” Soreth misses again, and the Fox charges onto the scene yelling “For the Archmage!” and killing the larger spider, missing it once with a rapier but connecting fatally with the second stab.

Outside, Dave asks his new pet spider if it would like to be called “Chitter Chitter Fang Fang”, and takes its movements as an affirmative. He feeds it some choice pieces of dead spider, that being what there is to hand.

“Hey,” says the Fox, to no-one in particular, “There’s a statue back there that looks just like Kowalski.”

Meanwhile, deep inside the tomb, Hayes and the skeleton king, whose name turns out to be Iskelet, are deep in conversation…

REFLECTIONS

One of the interesting facets of playing in Roll20 is that I can track time spent. So far we have spent a little over nine hours in actual play, and I have spent 25 hours in prep time beyond that; so a bit less than 3 hours of prep time per hour of play. I expect this ratio will reduce as time goes on and we improve our understanding. However, in that nine hours the group has managed four encounters, so they are moving at roughly half the expected pace. The D&D 4th Edition yardstick of 30 minutes to settle in, one hour per encounter, and 30 minutes to wind down and pack away still looks valid – I have suspected for some time that this is more about the players than the game system. Since I award experience per session, the group is advancing at roughly twice the normal rate – I know this will not cause issues, since I have two other groups where the players get a steady 5 experience and one advance per session. However, it means I may have to adjust the campaign pacing. I will keep an eye on that as things move forwards.

Something that is slowing us down is the group’s penchant for secrets. I’m spending roughly as much time responding to secret whispered chats with individual players as I do running the main game, and they consistently split the party to further their secret agendas; I also need to be more circumspect than I am used to in session writeups, which as they are shared with everyone should only contain news known to everyone. If and when I run another campaign with this group, I will have to give them some unifying mission and team structure – a ship’s crew perhaps, or a Tsolyani clan. I hope I can shape them into better teamwork than they currently display, but their icon relationships are a bit diverse and that may be a challenge. What I can do is start taking some of the whispered chats offline and handle them by email between sessions; Kowalski and Dave are outside talking to Casila, and Hayes is conversing with Iskelet, all of them basically ignoring the melee happening a few yards away from them.

The players have come up with some pretty good stuff for their icon relationship dice, and at least two have already used a die; I have briefed them that icon dice recharge every third session, so that this at least keeps pace with the rules as written. Most of the ideas so far are for recurring benefits that can be used in multiple sessions, so they are more like extra Uniques than icon dice as 13th Age would wish to use them; I’ll also watch how that plays out.

The skeletons reading the backs of their shields is something I used to do in dungeons long ago; skeletons in my games tend to be really, really dim, and need written instructions for anything complex – in effect, they are programmed, and the programme is written on their shield backs. The purpose of telegraphing this is to encourage finesse; if, like this group, the players realise what is going on, they will understand that so long as they don’t trigger one of the conditions for combat, the skellies will leave them alone – and if they want to trigger one of those conditions, they can do so at a time of their choosing, having had time to prepare for it. What are the conditions? Ah, well, that would be telling…

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