Curse of the Black Pearls
When last we left I had given myself a bit of an issue. These play reports, even though there have been one a day for a while, are actually played in a weekly game. This means that when I left the game hanging mid combat a week ago my first task today was reassembling where everything was. I actually never really had a habit of taking photos of real life games before, as you’ve probably noticed by now I don’t usually take photos of my Trail of Cthulhu game, but it was a lifesaver this week. A quick check on my previous stuff and I was able to determine where the proper place for everything to go was.
Because there were Lizardfolk riding dinosaurs to slay and they weren’t going to do it themselves. The parties clerics player sadly was not present due to another conflict and I decided to run the player character myself. When DMing I often debate what to do with players who can’t attend a session and usually I have two principles. In a game like Trail where the entire group isn’t always essential for the survival of everyone or to progress – mostly due to multiple skills being useful for getting similar clues – I usually just remove the investigator entirely. DnD however is more like a team sport where you’re losing your best bowler, batsman, quarterback or your star hitter. You need that player around for the encounter to be balanced!
Hence my general philosophy has always been to either hand the character sheet to someone else or run that character myself. Generally speaking while I’m not a total expert on everything a players characters can do – I tend to design encounters somewhat agnostic approach and go for a “What makes this unique or interesting?” style – most of the time I can follow along enough to play someones character effectively. This is especially true if you have largely new players to roleplaying as I do in this game and the missing player has a more complicated set up, which basically always means a caster of some sort.
So any of the things that happened to Narvarie during this play report are totally my fault.
At the beginning of this session Narvarie had taken a bit of a beating and so lost her aura of spirits, so I had her retreat to the log (mostly to keep away from the T-Rex) and pelt the Shaman/T-Rex with bolts. Done with my fiddling with player characters for the round, the others quickly got to work in giving the T-Rex an impressively bad knee wound and then getting critically hit – guess who – as Kasswok was brutally entrapped by the monsters jaws. One would think having nearly 20 AC and 51 HP would help quite a lot, but apparently the dice I have completely disagree with this idea. Kasswok was well on his way to accumulating his third lasting wound, an injury mechanic picked up after going down to 0 HP more than twice in the same fight, in a row.
Eventually the player characters got full control as the escalation increased odds of hitting from “Dicey” to “Never miss” as intended, but there was one last curious aspect about this fight: Could the Blackscale Lizardfolk shaman manage to get away into the river as planned? Upon the slaying of the T-Rex by Glorkk, who was beginning to pick up critical hits left and right – possibly compensating for how many Kasswok managed to receive – the shaman made a bolt for it. Now let’s just make sure one thing is clear, in all my experience running roleplaying games players absolutely despise the idea that any monster can escape an encounter. That’s precisely what the shaman was about to do. With his steed nearly down he dismounted, got a running start and changed his shape into a crocodile at the last moment to head straight into the river. This river was pretty deep and fast flowing, but no issue for someone whose form was a crocodile.
At this point I gave the characters an entire round to finish off the T-Rex but also have a sporting chance at killing the chronically wounded shaman as he fled. With his generally high AC (magic) and depth under the water, I ruled that attacks had disadvantage against him. Sure enough a nervous hit later, which didn’t do *quite* enough damage and the shaman was away down the murky river and out of sight in no time. This meant that potential enemies ahead or where the player characters were going could be very well aware they were around and trying to snoop around in the jungle. The whole star wars “They will retreat for now, but only to return in greater numbers” canard.
At this point I remembered that Moira actually existed and had her pop back up, much to the player characters chagrin as they were unimpressed she didn’t take part in the fight. Generally speaking, having to control a player character meant that I changed how I used Moira a bit and more or less forgot to implement her (she was trying to sneak up around the other side of the combat). Either way, eventually the characters continued and they grilled Moira for a bit, who was forced to concede she had a hidden agenda. In reality, she was responsible for the Black Pearl the characters were looking for falling into the hands of a terrible and ancient demon of the jungle, a Marilith. The Marilith had been defeated many years ago and was thought to be long gone, but when Moira led a group calling themselves “Scholars” to the Dragonborn city of Ka’rhashan, she got more than she bargained for.
The scholars, who were actually Crimson Legionnaires in disguise, broke into the temple where the Dragonborn kept the relic – which they called the Tchulchican stone. Fleeing the city under pursuit by Moira and the Dragonborn defenders, they fled into the jungle and unfortunately lost the stone to some terror within. Before the Dragonborn could track them down the stone had been recovered and taken to an ancient city controlled by Yuan-ti and Blackscale Lizardfolk, where a profane ritual soon rose the Marilith from her prison in Khyber to wage war against all those who dare step foot in Q’Barra once again. Naturally this story did not impress the characters any, but they accepted her explanation and I decided to make Moira more useful in combat, though she does not have a tremendous amount of overall skill/firepower compared to a full character.
Incidentally, if you do decide to add an NPC who participates in a combat like this at most give them abilities that support or do a little bit of damage here and there. NPCs that overshadow what the characters are doing can be far more annoying than anything else and if too complicated has that issue of “Playing chess against yourself”, which I was already experiencing a bit as I took over Narvaries character for the evening. Hence I decided to give Moira purely support spells after the session and a simple hand crossbow/short sword combo so she can chip into a fight. Unlike characters, she also doesn’t benefit from escalation to further demonstrate that characters are exceptional compared to most other people in the world.
After this the characters started to notice that the jungle was rotting, becoming blackened, bark was twisting and foul water was leeching through the ground. Large portions of the jungle were slowly descending into a kind of hellish mangrove swamp crossed with a really dark forest kind of trope. Reebu rose to the task of analyzing the magic and found that it radiated from a familiar – but horrifying – source: A black pearl was behind the increasing swampification of the reason. Further they sound came across a Dragonborn Hunting camp, only to find its defenders slaughtered and large snake like tracks lining the ground everywhere. Evidence of Yuan-ti operating in the area and also to give the characters an indication of what they were dealing with.
Moira at this point mentioned that she feared the Dragonborn were going to kill her for the treason she enabled the Legion to carry out. She did calm the characters nerves a bit by informing them that the Dragonborn were not inherently homicidal to all outsiders, so they would probably listen to the characters at the very least. She also reiterated her pledge to lead the characters safely to the city, regardless of what consequences she should face from the Dragonborn once she arrived.
The next encounter of the night was a kind of goofy one but did sell the idea of “This thing is twisting and poisoning the entire jungle terribly”. I decided to take inspiration from a goofy 3.5 edition monster called the Orcwort, essentially a large tree with a gaping maw and black pods within its branches. The neat gimmick with this monster is that it has these little wortlings that it spawns from the pods, which basically rove around murdering things and then sticking them around the orcwort to feed it. Naturally a murderous tree monster seemed like a fabulous idea and so I built an encounter around them!
To make the Orcwort, I basically used many of the basic stats and concepts from the roper, such as destructible tendrils, it could curl in tendrils to bring characters to its mouth and it had a long reach (20ft in this case). Wortlings were very weak cannon fodder, designed only to rush characters, crab them with their claws and use their bonus drag action to carry the character back to the orcwort that created it. I ruled that the players suspicions about the pods and caution meant that they didn’t blunder straight into the Orcworts at first, but saw them spawning their creatures early enough to react in an even fight.
Initially the orcworts were able to send their spawn straight to the characters without much incident, latching onto some and drawing them a bit closer. For the most part this resulted in a very static fight – we barely used 1/10th of the map here – partly because of the orcworts and wortlings ability to restrain enemies. Naturally Kasswork got smacked a lot and drawn towards one of the plants and so did the wizard Reebu, who took a bit of a first turn mauling. Most of the other characters escaped unscathed until the second orcwort sprang to life and sent its wortlings forth to battle the characters.
At this point lots of plant monsters and trees must be a good time for a fireball, right?
Yep. The Orcworts writhed with veiny planty terror (or at least the closest approximate of it) as the fireball instantly disintegrated almost every plant in the encounter in one destructive blow. A total of about 85 damage, with a save for half, did in much of the HP of the normally very resilient Orcworts and easily cleared the board of every Wortling in range. This moment was especially great for Reebu, who other than being knocked unconscious by it, had a truly terrible night of rolling. In the previous encounter he got a 1, 3 and a 2 on consecutive turns, so I was feeling a bit bad for him until he just wrecked the entire encounter in one spell! After that I felt he should be most satisfied!
The Orcworts posed no significant opposition, including for the first time being unable to critically hit or indeed, even being able to hit Kasswok at all despite having advantage on most attacks (grabbed characters are restrained). In some ways this is the kind of encounter where players “Karma” or “Luck” just feels like it evens out for them. Here they were able to find a note from a former Crimson Legion expedition who fell afoul of these things, which was to inform the characters that the legion was still actively hunting for the pearl here. They also acquired a suit of plate, a +1 suit of studded leather and a magical battleaxe. Cannily though, the characters decided to identify the axe first rather than attune it, figuring out that the axe was an axe of berserking, a powerful but risky weapon to be using.
Although they decided not to use it, due to the whole potential of Glorkk chasing everyone down with his axe mercilessly should he fail the wrong roll, I did make a note that they knew something important about powerful demons: They tended to be immune to non-magical weapons (or at least very hard to hurt). Glorkk currently doesn’t have a magical weapon and his battleaxe is mundane, so possibly it might be a choice they have to make. Either way, they were finally coming upon the city at last but there was still one significant pitfall to cross before then!