Curse of the Black Pearls
This session marked another change in characters, as Glorkk departed and the new human bard Zan Roan entered the game instead. This marked a bit of a change because when designing encounters I needed to consider that the players had one less main front line character – but had gained a pretty versatile spellcaster instead. This was because Zan Roan has also got a level of Cleric, which gives even more versatility in how their attacks work and provides another source of healing (with life domain especially).
Naturally when one player departs and you have a new one enter there are some important questions that are now asked of you as the DM. The first and most obvious is how you introduce the new player. Do they just poof next to the party from nowhere as if they were always there? Are they just conveniently wandering along? Or do you find a more natural entry into the game? Then you have another important question, what do you do about the previous player character? Kill them off? Do they just wander away?
It actually becomes a pretty complicated decision depending on what you decide to go with, which in my case was a natural entry and giving Glorkk another way out. Ultimately the risk with introducing a new player naturally, is what if the players decide to avoid the encounter/situation or they spend a lot of time on something else first, so the new player misses playing for the majority of their first session (which is not a good initial impression!).
Initially the first thing to do this session was to introduce the characters to the real leader of the dragonborn of Ka’rhashan: A couatl. In Eberron these creatures are divine agents of good and often oppose the forces of evil. This particular one wanted to congratulate the party on their victory in the previous gladiatorial arena and also to discuss the situation in Q’Barra. Here I kept the exposition down – remembering I have a new player at the table to introduce – but did give a few hints as to what the true nature of the pearls was (calling them the “Tears of Khyber”) and again, emphasizing that Demogorgon had been summoned once before.
The couatl’s most important order of business was just “encouraging” the characters along their journey in defeating the demonic marilith general of the enemy army, Yigakari. Now the characters never needed to fight in that arena and winning was not a guaranteed prospect, so doing so was very impressive to both the dragonborn and the couatl. As a result he gave them a special boon and some advice: If they were to take on a creature like Yigakari, who is very hard to harm with non-magical weapons or spells, they would need magical items. In the previous war, many dragonborn heroes fell and some of them were interred in the Cliff of Tears burial ground. Their artifacts and magical weapons were also kept with their dead, should they be needed again.
Unfortunately the Yuan-ti and Lizardfolk overran the burial grounds very early on in the war, taking the defenders by surprise and trivially defeating them. This also means that the ancient relics of their people are in the hands and claws of the vile creatures, which makes retrieving them near impossible with every defender required to hold back the enemy at Ka’rhashan. Thankfully the player characters add an important wild card into the battle, being able to go up past the river around the besieging army, then to the cliffs and onto the Yuan-ti temple city where Yigakari will be recovering her strength before she marches forth herself.
An action that will certainly be the end of the dragonborn.
Grave-robbing is normally a crime that nobody encourages others to do, even adventurers (who let’s face it, do have it as an occupational description) but here I was encouraging the players to do so. For one thing, without magical items they will have a very hard time against Yigkari and the couatl also wanted to prevent these falling into the possession of the Yuan-ti. So he blessed the party, granting them a Heroic Action and effectively making them immune to the spiritual defenders of the tomb (which would have been an issue had they went there without said blessing…).
The Heroic Action is something I have been considering for a while, which is both a replacement for the inspiration system and to give players some interesting tactical decisions. For one, they can exchange it for another main action – essentially another attack – to redo a failed skill check, to regain half of their hit points instantly and a wide variety of other useful benefits. These points are only awarded for special actions, really interesting roleplaying and similar – so they don’t come very often so need to be used wisely.
After this it was time to get back into the game and move onwards! The first encounter almost did what I was afraid of: The players deliberately moving around it or avoiding it so I couldn’t introduce the new player’s character. WHOOPS! Thankfully they realized what I was trying to do and went to the encounter, but before I go any further: What if they had ignored it? Did I have a backup plan?
And yes, yes I did. What I would have done instead is have the player characters actually encounter Zan at the tomb instead (which is where I knew the players wanted to be). This encounter would have been different in that the few surviving sailors and Zan had moved away from the original wreck and came to the tomb. Instead of facing the Yuan-ti and lizardfolk in there, they would have discovered the crew in there, who accidentally activate the tombs defensive trap (which I will describe later). This would draw both tomb spirits (attacking those not blessed) and cause the demonic Herzou to come forth (a left over gift by the Yuan-ti).
Thankfully the backup plan wasn’t needed and I could go with plan A, which had Zan the last defender against a group of Lizardfolk and a Yuan-ti abomination (the same one from before in fact!). This was for two purposes, one because I wanted the players to have the opportunity for revenge against this enemy and second because it gave them clear motivation to attack. Sneaking up, the party was able to get some advantage on the initial Yuan-ti defenders, except for the Paladin who clanked up instead (but quite deliberately).
The ship ended up grounded here while going up the river to try and gain some valuable Siberys shards, but the river is full of monsters, low tides and worse causing their ship to fail and crash on the embankment. The repairs being halted or hampered due to continual harassment from Lizardfolk and their Yuan-ti overlords. Zan was the last able bodied defender who could really oppose them, but it wasn’t looking good until the PCs arrived on the scene. This fight progressed pretty well overall and helped introduce the new character, who eventually was revealed as a Bard (remembering that the last bard betrayed the party to the villain and tried to have them all killed). Overall it was straight forward but even so, the Abomination took major chunks out of Glorkk and some of the other members of the party – but it was hardly as dramatic as the first encounter. Kasswok did use his heroic action to try to get extra attacks to finish off a fireballed Blackscale Lizardfolk, but whiffed on 2/4 attacks that turn to only *just* kill him.
After this I sat back and let the new player and the others roleplay out their initial interactions instead of trying to force the plot. Narvarie was very suspicious of the bard, having remembered what Amaund did and was slow to trust her. Oddly enough, Narvarie decided not to heal herself, staying on 20 HP (Out of 50ish) instead. So she went into the next encounter at the Tomb on 20 HP. This will become important in a bit. At this point the second part of my ingenious plan came into play. I remembered from previous discussions with Glorkks player that his character always wanted a ship. Here was a ship, albeit in need of repair, with a crew and no captain now (he had been eaten by Yuan-ti). This was the perfect in character excuse and reason to have Glorkk leave the game in a way that made sense.
You’ll notice that I didn’t really go with the “Just kill off the former character” option, which I’ve actually never really approved of that much (Amaund dying during the betrayal felt fitting however, given the circumstances). This also means if I decide to I can bring Glorkk back as an NPC or maybe even the other player as a special guest for a session or so later down the track. I don’t like killing characters if there isn’t a compelling reason to do so and I can always use an NPC the party is very familiar with in future. Especially one that now has his own ship and crew, assuming the Lizardfolk don’t finish them off before they can repair it (but this is Glorkk’s problem now).
In any event the party continued to the tombs, which are based on a series of high cliffs where a river flows over down below. Large stone heads have been built under these natural waterfalls, so it seems they are constantly crying: Hence the “Cliff of Tears” name. Unfortunately the characters could tell that the tomb was occupied, given the doors had been blasted off their hinges by magic and there was something inside. Upon arriving, they quickly encountered the lizardfolk, including the previous shaman they hadn’t defeated and a Yuan-ti inside of the main room. A statue of a dragonborn hero in the center had also been defiled and turned into one of the Marilith.
Here the Yuan-ti had made a bit of a magical trap for any would be attackers. Upon a sacrifice on their altar set up in the top of the room, blood would drain into a channel cut around the statue in the room. As the blood advanced it would highlight demonic summoning runes, eventually bringing forth a Herzou demon for a limited time, which would emerge out of the statue. In this combat, the players instantly got that the blood was important and definitely wanted to do something about it, even as the Paladin moved in and straight up engaged the Shaman (who he had a bit of grudge against). Unfortunately for Narvarie, who wanted to try freezing or impeding the blood straight off (a very good idea) she got critically hit from the Yuan-ti Malison’s bow. For exactly 20 HP.
This disrupted their plan to slow down the blood (and hence the summoning of the Herzou) and meant that eventually the demon was able to crash forth from the statue! Even with the Shaman felled and the blackscale lizardfolk in melee tied up a bit at the entrance, it meant that the characters had a suddenly very precarious situation to navigate. Of course, questions were asked like “Why is there a die with a number on the demon?” and so on, but as the night was getting late I decided to end the session there for now.
How this combat ends should be most intriguing.