Thursday, June 14, 2018

Shadow Post: NOVUM ACERVO, Episode 1: Greenest in Flames

Greetings, friends.

This is a continuation of an effort to rewrite the motivations behind HotDQ (and HotDQ) completely, having some impact on the early adventure, but completely changing the endgame in Rise of Tiamat.

Last time, I reconsidered Severin Silrajin as a hopefully more interesting villain with a huge personal stake in both releasing Tiamat from her prison and destroying her and elevated Tarbaw Nighthill from an early quest-giver to a major antagonist (antihero?) who works on the PC's side for virtually the entire course of the adventure, provided things go his (and therefore Severin's) way.

Now, how do these changes affect Greenest in Flames? Not much. The real affect this will have on the adventure is shaping the major NPC's (Rezmir, Tarbaw, Frulam) perceptions of the characters and accordingly how they react later.

The Cult, as it exists in the adventure, is still very much the same in motivation and operation. Only Severin, Tarbaw, and a very few others know about the actual destiny of the Cult after it summons Tiamat.

Severin and Tarbaw reason that by building the Cult up, they can attract a large amount of mercenaries and generally depraved peoples, who all deserve to die, which they can then kill after successfully summoning Tiamat. They've created this huge organization dedicated to zealotry, greed, and evil, while carefully introducing/maintaining schisms that will be leveraged to destroy the organization from the inside out after drawing it into the open with help from Tarbaw's and the PC's eventual army. Because of this, the Cult on nearly every level will operate with much the same motivation. Every average cultist believes they're serving Tiamat and that the world is destined to be ruled by living dragons after humanoid civilization is shattered. A substantial minority (mostly middle level and a few high-ranking cultists) are still attached to the idea of dracoliches, but they've been appeased by the promise of loot and power for now (and intimidated by a few suspicious deaths).

Severin Silrajin has talked to a god, and gained the distinction of being the few beings in history to successfully lie to one. Tiamat can still grant power and witness events (with great effort) in her prison, but lacks the capability to parse a lesser being both physically and mentally. In game terms, this means that by bribing her jailors heavily, she can cast scrying at a divine level (which is unblockable unless countered by an artifact or other deity), but cannot cast detect thoughts on a being not in her realm. Her prison ostensibly prevents her from communicating with her worshipers in any way, but it's weakening. She's intelligent enough to detect or ferret out a lie when she hears one, but arrogant (oh so arrogant) enough, desperate enough, and greedy enough to be manipulated.

Severin, as one of his three magic items, wears an special armband - his personal fusion of a amulet of proof against detection and location and a ring of mind shielding. It's always invisible.

Anyways, on to Greenest! When last we saw it, it was being looted by a loosely organized pack of raiders. What's up with them?

The adventure hook for this entire campaign has the PC's being paid to deliver supplies/guard a caravan to Greenest. Later, the supplies/caravan just....*disappear(s)*, from what I can tell. In my first runthrough of this adventure, my PC's attached rope fuses to the barrels of lantern oil in the resupply caravan and Animal Handled the oxen pulling the caravan into charging at a mob of cultists. After the PC's jumped off, the caravan slalomed on some mud into a wall and ruptured, spilling burning oil slicks everywhere. Group 1 (G1) splashed several cultists in oil and created a fun terrain feature.

I like the idea of the resupply caravan because it provides two motivations: deliver the supplies for money and/or deliver the supplies to help the villagers. It also acts as a narrative anchor: the PC's will have to abandon (or destroy) it to avoid attracting attention as they move through the war zone of a town, but if they want payment or to help others, they've gotta go back to fetch it.

I'm going to move through the book in the order that things are presented now and make my suggestions.

General Features:

Lighting:
I like the whole dim light aesthetic, of flickering, bouncing shadows, and sudden snaps and pops that go along with burning buildings. The disadvantage on perception that goes along with that reinforces the uncertain nature of every corner.  

Fires: 
Most fires will probably come from a few buildings. Up to 20 feet away from those buildings, the lighting can count as bright. Characters should take 1d4 fire damage for every turn they spend in a square right next to a large fire, and anyone that enters a square of fire, moves through one (including forced movement!), or spends a turn in one takes 1d6 fire damage. 

The Stream: 
In the book, the stream is rarely more than 3 feet deep and has a gravel bottom. I recommend making it 5 feet deep with a 1 foot ford near the old tunnel that can be used to cross easily. The river requires a DC 10 Athletics check to ford, and characters in heavy or medium armor have disadvantage. An interesting point in the adventure with Group 2 (G2) was when they tried to throw a gnome paladin across. Even with the help action, they got a 5 total, and the gnome crit failed his swim check.
Anyone who fails the swim check is pulled 10 feet down the river, towards the center of Greenest. Anyone who crit fails the swim check starts drowning and must make death saves. Fording streams is serious shit, kiddos.

Important Characters:
Nighthill: Mentioned above and previously. Friendly for now.

Castellan Escobert (es-ko-BER) the Red: Droll dwarf who maintains the castle and who holds all the keys. He suspects something's up with Themberchaud and is going to die spectacularly because of this.

Frulam Mondath: Stays in the background and directs the raid. May or may not become vaguely aware of a group of adventurers depending on your players actions.

Langdedrosa Cyanwrath: Provides (as +Brandes Stoddard points out) a good emotional hook. will be connected with...

Lennithon: A dragon who serves as background furniture with a bite.

Linan Swift: A heroic commoner that may turn out to be an important ally. 

Random Encounter Table:

As the table currently stands, players have a 87.5% chance of encountering hostiles. The book says to roll for random encounters every 100 feet but never specifies how far it is to the keep; instead, it says the players have to move past 4 groups of raiders if they march forwards. 
The first encounter is not avoidable, and sets a group of 4 (the book assumes 4) players against 8 kobolds. The players get help from a named commoner (Linan Swift) with a spear, but have to protect 4 commoners (one for each player). The kobolds "assume the characters are cultists and ignore them to concentrate on killing the woman first, her family second." This "they're with us" mentality should only apply to other groups as long as the PC's don't let any kobolds escape to spread the word of the adventurers. If they do, cultists should attack them on sight and coordinate to ambush them. 

I think an opportunity is missed with Linan here. If she survives, I can easily see Tarbaw making her a local hero and raising her to a position of importance in his burgeoning counter-cult. I picture her as lady with dark skin and dark brown hair, average height, built like a brick. She has a quick wit, strong arms, can be occasionally snappish, and obsessively whittles.

This set of encounters features, on average, 7.5 (3d4) cultists and 18.5 (3d6+8 kobolds) against 4 "new" adventurers and Linan (if she survives) protecting at least 4 villagers. That's deadly, discounting all random encounters. It'll definitely teach the PC's that you can't fight through everything if it doesn't kill them, but the text doesn't offer ways or suggestions (not great considering this is marketed to people who've never DM'd or played before) to encourage non-stabby behavior. DM's, take note: remind players that Perception, Stealth, and Cha based checks exist. It'll save some meatgrinding and potential death/player boredom.
My suggestion is to reduce the number of kobolds in the initial encounter to 6: kobolds can take a hit before dropping, and the PC's resources won't be taxed as heavily. For the next encounters, I would scratch the 1d6 kobolds/1d4 cultists entirely and suggest a mix of not just enemies but enemy actions. The below table should be paired with the Encounters table, which I want to adopt for all random encounters in Greenest. 
1d10 Encounter Actions
  1. The enemy group is fighting over loot: any disparate groups in the encounter are battling each other. Kobolds versus cultists, cultists versus mercs (guards), acolytes and cultists versus mercs, kobolds versus mercs, or simply 3 v 3 for a group of 6 kobolds or cultists. Ambush drakes side with cultists over kobolds/mercs and acolytes over everyone else. The group should be scuffling but not fighting when the PC's hear them, but they will buddy up to kill PC's if attacked. PC's can also try to sneak around them or pose as cultists and pick a side, perhaps killing the losers or making some friends.
  2. Looting a house. Two enemies are keeping a lookout.
  3. The enemy group has spotted the PC's and presents itself at half strength. The visible half will hail the PC's and pretend like the PC's are also cultists while the other half circles behind the PC's for a surprise ranged attack, after which everyone closes for melee.
  4. Loud group that has the maximum number (i.e, 6 out of 1d6) in it and a lot of swag. Half are drunk on looted alcohol, which gives them disadvantage on Dex/Int saves, attack rolls, and Dex/Int checks. They're visibly burdened with bags, which they fight to protect.
  5. Wandering around, looking for loot.
  6. Group of enemies either torturing 1d6 townsfolk (if kobolds/mercs) or trying to convince them to join (if any cultists/acolytes). If the PC's do nothing/avoid the fight, the villagers will be taken as slaves by the mercs/kobolds or half of them will join the cultists/acolytes as new cultists, donning cultist armor and taking daggers. If the PC's attack, the mercs/kobolds hold half the townsfolk hostage while cultists/acolytes will try to persuade the townsfolk to attack the PC's. The PC's can of course try to persuade the townsfolk to join their side. 
  7. Looting dead villagers. One enemy keeping lookout.
  8. Group of raiders egging a newbie to kill a prisoner. Evens/odds to determine actions of newbie. If the new cultist kills the prisoner, the raiders give them a symbol of Tiamat and move off as a group. If the newbie won't, the raiders pin them down and execute both the prisoner and the inductee.
  9. Straight up looking for a fight. Small group ambushes, large group charges. Fights until 50% of the raiders are dead and then flees.
  10. Burning a house down with some commoners locked inside. Two raiders keeping lookout.
Encounters in the book:
1d8 Encounters
1: 6 kobolds 
2: 3 kobolds and 1 ambush drake (see appendix B) 
3: 6 cultists 
4: 4 cultists and 1 guards
5: 2 cultists and 1 acolyte* 
6: 3 guards and 1 acolyte* 
7: 1d6 townsfolk being hunted by raiders (roll a d6 to determine the raiding group) 
8: 1d6 townsfolk hiding 
* the acolytes have command prepared instead of sanctuary

Suggested alteration:
1d10 Encounters
  1. 1d8 kobolds 
  2. 4 kobolds and 2 ambush drakes (2 kobolds should ride an ambush drake!)
  3. 1d4 cultists and 1d4 newbies
  4. 1d4 cultists and 1 merc
  5. 1d4 newbies and 1 acolyte* 
  6. 1 mercs and 1d4 acolytes* 
  7. 1 ambush drake and 2 acolytes chasing 1d4 townsfolk
  8. 1d6 mercs fighting 1d6 townsfolk
  9. 1d6 townsfolk being hunted by raiders (roll a d8 to determine the raiding group) 
  10. 1d6 townsfolk hiding 
* the acolytes have command prepared instead of sanctuary

The book also introduces another interesting mechanic:
"Each time the characters retreat from an enemy group to avoid it, they run into 1d6 more townsfolk who are trying to reach the keep. For every four additional townsfolk in tow, the group must move past one more enemy group to reach the keep."

So if the players retreat from all 3 fights, they'll acquire an average of 10.5 people to protect, which means two more fights, which can add 7 more people, which means one more fight, which means another 3.5 people, for a total of 21 extra townsfolk in tow if the PC's manage to avoid every fight and 3 extra encounters for a total of 6 potential encounters (assuming average dice rolls) and 26 townsfolk (remember the family from the first encounter?) to keep safe. 

Holy balls, Batman. That's a lot of people. If the players make it through with no fights and bring in 26 people, the rules award 50 XP per NPC brought in safely. That's 1,300 XP: 433 per PC for a 4-person party (enough to level with minimal combat!), or 260 for a 5 person group. 

I would keep this mechanic, but remind the PC's that it'll be a Herculean effort to protect all these commoners even if they arm/armor all the ones capable of fighting. Try to suggest alternative solutions: hiding the commoners in a locked, barricaded house, have the commoners pretend to be cultists escorting the players as prisoners, etc. The PC's should still get the XP if they bring all those people back, it just doesn't have to be around the same time they're learning the controls/battling through the town.

And the night is still young!

G2 skipped the first "required" encounter and instead dumped the goods wagon outside the camp. Their biggest challenge was A) finding a good spot to cross and B) not dying. I threw a straight up fight at them for their first combat and an ambush (where they had to detect where the cultists were and flush them out) for their second. Their largest challenge was crossing the river on their way back. They snuck around the outside of the tower, slept a sentry, and created a dramatic fog cloud at the castle gates to enter through that almost got them shot.

A few notes on the book's map from the official errata: area 3 (bottom left corner) is the mill, while area 4 (bottom right) is the sanctuary. This cleared up a lot for me.

I have the stream running towards the mill going right to left (and the players entering from the right of the map), and the town being attacked from the top area because it has the most houses. I'd advise portraying the area behind the keep as "safer" when the cultists are really stalking the long grass, looking for easy pickings while attempting to prevent people from getting to the keep/avoiding determined resistance.

Escobert becomes a questgiver along with Tarbaw but doesn't even really have much of anything besides a nickname based on his hueg beard. I want him to have an expanded role. Over the night, if the PC's act like decent people, he should confide in them.

Right before the attack, Proctor Themberchaud, while making the rounds of the small towns under his jurisdiction, went up to the top of the tower with Tarbaw and several of Themberchaud's guards when Lennithon announced the raid with a breath weapon sally. Themberchaud ostensibly died in the very first strafe. However, Escobert went up to inspect the damage, and discovered an inconsistency in the stories he heard about the attack. In a version told by one of Themberchaud's guards (the one with straw-colored hair), that Escobert overheard as the guards put on battle armor in the guest chambers, straw-hair dived in front of Themberchaud and the lightning scorched his clothes. In a version told by Tarbaw to Escobert, Tarbaw dived in front of Themberchaud. Both of them have the burns to prove it, but neither mentions the other.

Have Escobert tell the PC's about this after their third outing, and give them a bit of time (maybe two outings) to investigate the guard. Escobert says he last saw the guard out on the walls fending off the dragon. If the PC's wait too long, they find the guard's body among the dead. Maybe he's dying. Anyway, if they get to him before he dies, he tells them that the initial lightning strike blinded the group. When his eyes cleared, Themberchaud was dead and Tarbaw was fine.

Tarbaw, who knew this was coming, shielded his eyes. The initial strike missed Themberchaud completely, so Tarbaw killed him with a firebolt. If the guard is asked to recall details or suspicious behavior, he recounts the following:

- Tarbaw was constantly looking around
- Another guard straw-hair didn't like had his visor down
- Visor-down and another guard stepped away from Themberchaud right before the attack hit
- The lightning scorch mark didn't really line up with Themberchaud's body

If the other guards are asked about this, if they're still alive, they corroborate straw-hair's story. Tarbaw invents excuses "I was on edge about the recent attacks.", "I couldn't see the lightning but it must've killed Themberchaud. I'd hate to contemplate the possibility that another person did it." "I'm beginning to wonder if we have any traitors in our midst..."

Before the night ends, Escobert will call the PC's to a room to tell them that he found something important. He has; it's a key that unlocks a closet hidden away behind a bookcase in the small library in which Tarbaw keeps a locked chest. This is insignificant, the fact that there's an icon of Tiamat on the lock is. The room Escobert leads the PC's to is an old extension that would have been a passage between the keep and the larger castle it was designed to be part of. It has hastily plugged up murder holes in the ceiling, one of which Tarbaw will stealthily uncover and then use to cast Crown of Madness on Escobert.

Shit goes down. Escobert may or may not be killed, and regardless of who survives the party may or may not go to Tarbaw, who's planted a cult symbol on any person in the keep the party earlier designated as suspicious to him. He'll suggest interrogating them ''and they'll have no reason to protest if they're innocent."

Lennithon will lackadaisically avoid blasting Tarbaw.

Next up is my take on the missions the party is more or less forced to go on if you run by-the-book.