Campaign Report 4: Into The Witch’s House

Hey, folks. Grant again, and … what’s this? A bonus play report? Delicious! My recap from a few days ago was pretty negative—and rightly so, because I screwed up hard. In these last two sessions, though, I think we collectively made up for that. Character development, problem solving without violence, some great roleplaying, and a couple of nasty combats. Oh, and the rogue set a needle blight on fire and robbed a witch. Good times.

(A personal note: This blog post was supposed to go up last Friday. However, between a nasty head cold and some other issues, that didn’t happen. I apologize for not getting this out in a timely manner.)

Session 6

I’m going to try something a little different for this post. Since these two sessions were pretty action-packed, I’m going to recap each session and then immediately talk about it from a GM’s perspective, rather than packing all the GM notes at the bottom.

Recap

Kenku WitchI left the party on a cliffhanger: Rishi (the wacky old kenku loremaster) was juuuuust about to tell the party something they could do to earn the trust of Kondou (head of the kenku village) and the other kenku. (I’m going to talk about that cliffhanger in the “GM’s Notes” section below.) Well, Rishi’s task was simple, on the face of it. He wanted them to retrieve a stone tablet, about 8″x12″x1″, with a kenku carved into it. It had “gone missing”, he said, and he’d just learned where it went: It was in Auntie Bloat’s house.

“Auntie Bloat”, it turned out, was an ancient kenku witch—much older even than Rishi—who lurked in a bog at the far western end of the island, living in a fish’s skull. She and Rishi apparently were in a bit of a standoff, and the PCs offered the opportunity to shake things up. So the next morning—after waking up to the sound of Rishi shouting a story off his balcony to passing kenku—the party set off to find Auntie Bloat.

The kenku village was just a bit uphill of the small lake the party had spotted the day before, and the witch’s swamp was (naturally) at the end of the small river flowing out of that lake. Finding her was therefore just a matter of traveling down-river. This occasioned an interesting debate, however: Aster (the scrappy, urban rogue with a … limited … grasp of the concept of personal property) was strongly in favor of taking a fishing boat, even if there wasn’t anyone around to ask about that. (Her player—my wife—invoked her “It’s not stealing if I need it more” flaw, and earned an Inspiration point for doing so.) The party argued this for a bit, and eventually nixed the idea on both moral and practical grounds, but it was a good (and 100% player-created) moment.

The trip down-river was uneventful, and generally skipped over aside from a general geographic description. However, I did make sure to describe a point—which the party reached right about sundown—where the terrain rather suddenly and drastically changed. The players could practically see a line in the trees where things went crooked and dark, and the trees became twisted.

A little further in, while it was still twilight, the party found what appeared to be an old campground. Aster decided to scout ahead while the other two set up camp. This turned out to be a mistake—as soon as Aster was out of sight, two twig blights and two needle blights ambushed Lambert (the cleric) and Garm (the fighter). Thankfully, Aster circled back quickly and, well-hidden by the darkness, started laying waste as only a rogue with advantage on all her rolls can. The party took practically no damage in this fight, and Aster wrapped it up by using the lamp oil in her kit to light the needle blights on fire (and managed to stay hidden in the process thanks to some great rolls.)

The fight did cause the party to proceed more carefully, however, and that let them discover and avoid the dangers of a stretch of quicksand I’d put into the swamp. Just at the point where they could see and hear the ocean through the trees—about a mile away from where they’d entered—they found one last feature of the swamp: An arc of scarecrows, set in a line around the mouth of the river. These would feature prominently in the next session! About this time, I started adding more sensory detail: A stench of rotten fish and seaweed, a slick slime on everything, and so forth. I did my best to convey rot and decay, and specifically the sort you find at the ocean.

Finally, the party spotted the witch’s house, and it definitely shocked the players and characters alike. Rishi had warned them that Auntie Bloat lived in “a fish skull”, but the two-story tall, jagged, prehistoric skull of a deep-sea horror was certainly unexpected. The bone stairs leading up a glistening, sickly-white hill standing on a rocky outcropping jutting out into the sea; the flickering light leaking out of the skull-house’s gaping eyes and between its clenched teeth; the slime and rot coating everything—all of it worked to put a genuine scare into the party, and that reveal ended up being a great moment for everyone.

As they watched from their hiding-place, the moon began to rise over the ocean. At that moment, the jaw-door creaked open and a hunched, kenku-shaped shadow lurched down the stairs, turning at the bottom and walking straight into the ocean. Looks like they’d arrived just in time…

GM’s Notes

Given my errors last time, I was trying very hard to let the players take the lead in this session. I think I was successful in that, at least.

It took me two solid weeks to come up with whatever Rishi was going to ask the party to do. I’m really glad one of our players canceled on us, because I desperately needed that time. I knew I was going to introduce “Auntie Bloat” sometime soon, but I wasn’t sure what Rishi could ask of the party that he (a) couldn’t do himself, and (b) would make sense in this setting. I ended up paging through the Dungeon Master’s Guide the night before the game looking for a macguffin, and finally spotted sending stones. Those solved a lot of problems: One of the pair would be worthless to the players (but important to the kenku); it’d be something Auntie Bloat would happily trade for just to spite Rishi and hurt the kenku; and it served an important role in the setting (which you’ll read about next.) Tough one!

One thing my wife called me out on after this session: Distances. I’ve been deliberately vague with distances, since I’m not good at drawing terrain maps and I just don’t have every feature of this island sorted out in my head yet. I’ve tried to describe distances as “a day’s travel” or “about an hour away” or the like, and that’s worked. However, apparently I’m not doing that consistently, and that makes it harder for everyone to understand where they’re going, what they’re experiencing in-character, etc., and thus what to do. Something to work on.

Not much to say about the fight with needle blights and twig blights, except that the players definitely thought it set the tone for the “evil swamp” area nicely. It wasn’t designed to be especially hard, and there were a few fun, creative moments, so that went well.

Auntie Bloat’s house was the highlight of this session. It was creepy, the scene description involved multiple senses, and there was a real sense of wonder—”what do you mean, a two story tall fish skull?!”—mixed with danger. We wrapped up with a real sense of anticipation for the next session, and I need to try to do that more.

Session 7

Right—back to our story!

Recap

With the witch apparently gone, the party now had to figure out how to get into the witch’s house. Fortunately, Aster (experienced thief that she is) had little trouble climbing the bone plate wall of the witch’s house, especially with a boost from Garm. She peeked through the knuckle-bone curtains (another ‘eww’ moment for the players) and determined that the upstairs of the house seemed empty. Once again the immovable rod came in handy, anchoring a length of rope for the rest of the party to climb up. (Aster smartly coiled up the rope and laid it on the ledge inside, so it wouldn’t show from the outside.) Then the party crept into the witch’s hut and began searching for the tablet.

The upstairs was disturbing, but distinctly lacking in carved tablets. A stove with a cauldron; a table with various foul ingredients for concoctions spread out over it; a blood-stained stone block and ritual knife; a few bookshelves (with books in some sort of unreadable language that hurt the eye); and various trophies, ranging from surprisingly mundane to surprisingly gory, filled the driftwood floor. (A stuffed sahuagin head stood out among these trophies.) A rickety staircase led downward to a cellar filled with mud, bloody cages, barrels of rotting fish and other sea life, crates of collected items, drawers full of junk and detritus—a grotesque mockery of a normal, junk-filled basement or attic. A search here turned up a few items: Potions, a Quall’s feather token (anchor), a few gems and a fair amount of gold squirreled away in various places, a pair of magic arrows (which Aster discovered and immediately squirreled away without telling the party), and, at the bottom of a particularly foul barrel, the tablet Rishi had sent them after.

Right as they turned to leave, however, a shrill, buzzing voice whined “I’m telling…!”

A pair of mud mephits, indistinguishable from the mud around them until they moved, began complaining that they’d seen everything and were going to tell the witch about the party. (I made sure to use whiny, dissatisfied, childish voices for them, which quickly turned the whole situation comical.) They were avaricious, beggarly little creatures, and obviously not a combat threat to the party—but they also couldn’t be permitted to tell Auntie Bloat who’d been there, or that she’d been robbed. Aster bribed them with seven gold coins apiece—from the witch’s own stashes of gold, no less—and they greedily accepted, stashing the gold away in a rafter and a rat’s nest. Then they fell to squabbling about who had more gold, at which point the party left.

Two other actions, in no particular order. First, Lambert (who is proficient in the Herbalism skill, and a neutral good cleric to boot) took a few minutes to ruin as many of Auntie Bloat’s potions and poisons as he could without just smashing up the place. Second, Aster searched about until she found a musical instrument—an ocarina, as it happened—and stole it. Her player refused to explain why she’d done this until later, when she handed it to Garm without a word. (Garm, you may recall, is a gifted but very shy and secretive musician.) That ended up being a clever little roleplaying aside, and was met with broad approval.

5th Edition D&D Monster Manual ScarecrowThe party left the way they’d come, taking their rope and immovable rod down as they left and hoping to slip out undetected. Unfortunately, something had apparently noticed them. Remember that arc of scarecrows I’d described before? All facing out, away from the witch’s house, as if keeping an eye out? That ring had turned inward, looking at them.

This completely freaked the players out. They froze in hiding, debating what to do for a while, before Aster (with another amazing Stealth roll) slipped up behind one of the scarecrows and checked it out. It wasn’t moving, though I made sure to describe it in such a way that it was clear it could move—it wasn’t just clothes on a pole. Then Aster had the bright idea to blindfold that scarecrow with a strip of something.

The moment when the scarecrow reached up and pulled the blindfold off might have been the highlight of the night. Everyone flipped out—in character and out of character—and panicked. The resulting fight with two scarecrows was very tough (I’ll talk more about it below), and Aster ended up using both of those magical arrows she’d found (+2 arrows, as it turned out) while Garm and Lambert both nearly went down. Scarecrows take half damage from non-magical weapons, and their fear and paralysis abilities really hampered everyone’s ability to put out damage. Lambert’s bless spell saved the day, helping Garm and Aster hit more consistently (Garm’s player was rolling very badly) and providing a big boost on saving throws against those status effects. After six long rounds of combat, the party barely scraped by with a few hitpoints apiece and extra kindling.

After that, the party did their best to move carefully through the swamp, keeping an eye out for more dangers (and thus avoiding quicksand on the way back.) Once they were clear of the swamp, though, they made all possible speed back upriver towards the kenku village. They arrived near dawn, exhausted, filthy, hungry, and successful.

Rishi was delighted, of course, and revealed what the tablet was: Half of a pair of sending stones. The other half was kept in another kenku village on a distant island, and was their only regular means of communicating with them. Rishi had “lost” it (implying he’d traded it away to Auntie Bloat, either foolishly, or as a very dear price for something else he’d needed more at the time) nearly twenty years ago, and the village had been unable to communicate with its counterpart since then. Naturally, when the party woke up that evening the kenku were celebrating the tablet’s return, and Kondou agreed that this service was proof of the party’s friendship with the kenku. He asked that the party take word to the colony that the kenku would deal with them as friends, and added only one condition—that his son’s bones be returned from the old monastery the colony had settled in.

The next morning, the party traveled back to the colony, where they were debriefed by Governor Warwick and one of the colony’s other Council members, a bookish gnome named Bas Holst. The latter wondered if Auntie Bloat might not have been a hag—a twisted sort of fey creature—and Lambert determined to ask the naiad in the monastery about that. The Governor ordered that news of the kenku and the witch (or hag, if she was indeed a hag) be kept secret, but that everyone be warned about the wyvern. She also told the party that a small group of lumberjacks, who had gone a bit far afield of the colony on the northern shore, had been ambushed by sahuagin storming up out of the waves. Two were dead, and two more hurt. Lambert rushed off to tend to the injured colonists, while Garm and Aster sought out dinner—and that’s where we wrapped up.

The party hit level 3 at the end of this session. Aster officially took the ‘Thief’ sub-class; and Garm took the “Eldritch Knight” subclass (which I’ll talk about a lot in my next post, since the next session ended up being a lot of roleplay involving that choice.)

GM’s Notes

The whole time the party was in Auntie Bloat’s domain, in or near her house, I did my best to play up the gore and horror of the area. My group doesn’t have much problem with that, but the rather wanton use of it definitely played up the grotesque Black Forest / Slavic fairy-tale witch vibe I wanted. (As it happens, it’s also the sort of thing hags do, according to the Monster Manual.) Lovecraftian horror permeates our group at times, and this was actually sort of a refreshing change.

The encounter with the mud mephits went very well. It definitely wasn’t a combat encounter—though if the player characters had waited around to ambush Auntie Bloat when she returned, the mud mephits would’ve been part of a rather complex combat I had in my back pocket. Without that, though, the mephits posed an odd sort of question: What do you do when evil isn’t gloating or nefarious, but rather whiny and childish? It was fun, it set the tone a bit and introduced mephits into the setting (which I’ve only otherwise encountered, in any form, through Bioware’s D&D computer games!) The party’s solution was also fine.

Aster’s little moment, where she snagged a musical instrument, is part of a complex and evolving relationship she and Garm have. Aster technically owns Garm and can (and does) order him about. She’s also very curious about him, and wants him to be a relatively normal person instead of the emotionally-stunted killing machine the arena turned him into. Silently giving him that ocarina was a signal that (a) despite Garm’s best efforts, Aster knew about his musical talent; (b) it was totally fine with her; and (c) she was going to keep it secret from everyone else, at least for the time being. Lots of subtext in a single action—and excellent roleplaying.

I need to talk about, and apologize to my players for, the scarecrow encounter. Turns out two CR 2 monsters is a really tough fight for three second-level PCs, especially when they take half damage from almost everything! I didn’t do the encounter math ahead of time; if I had, this wouldn’t have been nearly so hard a fight. Having said that, though, this was also the only time I think the party has really felt challenged in combat. Since we’re not really doing dungeon crawls much, where long chains of less-difficult encounters can wear a party down, I may have to put more difficult fights in—when appropriate, of course.

 

And with that, I think I’m done recapping! I’ve got more to write about still—we wrapped up session #8 this past weekend, and it went extremely well. At this rate, I may never catch up with our fast-moving game… how awesome would that be?

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