Pulled From the Flames

 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. -Galatians 6:2 (ESV)

If there is one thing the Cleric class in D&D is good at, it’s keeping bad things from happening. Clerics get spells that heal injury, provide nourishing food and clean water, cleanse the body of poisons and disease, and erect protective wards. They can do all of this while wearing armor and carrying a shield. That generally means that if saving is happening and Lambert (my cleric PC) is in the situation, he’s probably the one doing the saving of some other party from something. He’s probably spent far more time casting spells that create food and water than is anywhere near the norm for clerics in D&D games, but because he’s had the ability to do so, the colony has benefited enormously. As I discussed in the post about Horvu, having just a few adventurers has made a massive difference for the colony.

This last session, however, Lambert desperately needed someone to save him and the other PCs stepped up in a big way.

To understand the magnitude of what actually happened, we need to back up a bit, though.

A few sessions back, after we cleared out a mine filled with a troll, a bunch of gricks, some grells, and various nasty forms of fungus, we opened a box full of magic items we’d found and inside was a sword. Aster already had a magic sword, and Garm preferred to use axes, so Lambert took the sword, since thanks to a feat I took during character creation, he’s proficient with it. And that was that … except it wasn’t. Grant pulled me aside for a private conversation after the session and explained the sword was a cursed item. Specifically, it was a Sword of Vengeance. A Sword of Vengeance has two primary effects. The first is it basically forces the person with it to use it. Using any other weapon requires you to roll at disadvantage, and the person attuned to it will feel compelled to keep it on their person. The second is that it influences anyone wielding it to basically fight an enemy who damages them to the death. Getting rid of the curse is as simple as casting the Remove Curse spell. As cursed items go, it’s fairly simple in mechanical terms.

However, cursed items like this are more fun if you lean into the narrative potential of them rather than stripping them down to mechanics. Or rather, they are when you know you can trust your group. If you’re current on the podcast, this will probably sound familiar. That’s because we discussed this exact item and the stuff around it back in Episode 121 and Episode 122. In fact, that the events of this post could happen at all are a testament to how much less battered our group has gotten over time. In any case, as I’ve mentioned before, Lambert, for all of his kindness, patience, and compassion, has a bit of a vengeful streak. The “flaw” entry on his character sheet reads “When the lowly are oppressed, justice must be uncompromising. (Lambert essentially becomes LN in his attitude toward you if you’re oppressing people.)” That flaw has come up with the Grungs and Auntie Bloat in particular. He tends to lose it when he finds flagrant, ongoing cruelty in the world. And that was just the handhold an evil sword needed to start twisting his behavior.

The changes were small, at first. Lambert started to get less uncomfortable with potentially violent situations and then started to take on some of the traits of a violent zealot, suggesting “cutting their way” through the gnolls to Fort Formidable whenever it was located, which was jarring to not just the PCs, but Governor Warwick as well. At first, the other PCs (both Chaotic Neutral) were fine with this. Some jokes about the “new and improved Lambert” got thrown around. But as the situation progressed, things got creepier. I mentioned eerie whispers coming from somewhere and described Lambert’s twisted, vicious expressions of anger on a couple of occasions. This, as I’d hoped, unsettled the other PCs. They started to get an inkling of what was going on, but didn’t act on it … until a bunch of vicious seagull-person berserkers forced their hand.

It’s important to note something here: the party is level 6. We are not a bunch of lightweights at this point – and so eight CR 1/8 Gull Berserkers and a CR 3 Gull Warleader (see the stats to the right) should have been a walk in the park. The party has gone up against far more dangerous enemies and prevailed pretty handily. In particular, the troll was a much, much nastier foe on paper than the Gulls were. Although, as it turned out, not more horrifying. See, Grant’s setting has the New World largely populated by “animal people” races. So far we’ve run across Kenku (raven people), Tabaxi (cat people), Lizardfolk (iguana people), Minotaurs (cow people), Grungs (frog people), Sahuagin (shark people), and we know Gnolls (Hyena people) are also in the world, though we haven’t encountered any directly yet. So when we stumbled upon what looked like a white Kenku on a small island we ran across during our search for the other colony, we assumed that what we were looking at was some kind of exotic Kenku albino who had been living alone on the small island. Lambert cast Tongues and hailed the individual in greeting.

And that was about the time we realized our error.

Kenku are based on corvids – and not to put too fine a point on it, but corvids are really cool birds. In my opinion, they are up there in the running with raptors for the coolest type of bird, in fact. They’re incredibly smart, to the point where you can actually befriend them, and they’ll do their best to reciprocate! The Kenku in Aua are no exception to this general rule. They’ve been good neighbors with the colony, they were allies against Auntie Bloat, and have just generally been nice to have around.

Click to enlarge

You can probably see where this is going. Seagulls are nasty, greedy, vicious, and nowhere near as smart as corvids are. And so one really couldn’t expect much better from humanoids based on them … which is good, because we didn’t get it. They came at us in a bloodthirsty, screeching mob determined to make the newly arrived organic matter into food. (Gulls, by the way, are a creation of Grant’s, at least on a flavor level. We found out after the session that they were just a re-skin and a few slight adjustments to the NPC foes in the back of the monster manual.)

Here’s how this sort of fight has typically gone down in the past: Aster (the rogue) runs off to one side and vanishes from sight, where she can start picking enemies off from the shadows with her sneak attacks. Garm (the fighter) pulls out his wand of Lightning Bolt and takes out any enemies that have been unfortunate enough to line up in some way, switching to his axe when they get close. And Lambert, depending on the strength of the opposition, starts by casting Bless, then possibly follows up with Spiritual Weapon and/or Spirit Guardians. (The latter will require him to drop Bless, but it makes up for it by doing automatic damage and slowing down enemies that get too close.) And then he generally casts healing spells whenever someone gets down to less than about half their hit points or so. The rest of the time, he uses a melee weapon and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Garm and tries to keep enemies off of Aster who has a lower armor class and fewer hit points. It’s a tactical template that has served the party well for many an encounter, especially since we don’t have an arcane caster or druid to do crowd control and damage magic.

That’s not how this combat went down, though. Oh, it started that way. Aster managed to get into some cover and Garm immediately took out three hostiles in one shot from the lightning wand. Then the Gull warleader managed to tag Lambert with a throwing axe, and Lambert failed the saving throw against the sword’s vengeful combat effect. At that point, he started trying to be a fighter, which did not work out at ALL. It didn’t help that I was rolling HORRIBLY during that session. I rolled dice 16 times over the course of the session, rolling a total of 18 dice.

Really? REALLY?

Out of those 18 dice, I rolled eight values of 1 or 2, and only got above 10 on d20 rolls twice. In fact, if you want to see just how badly I was rolling, I direct your attention to the log at the left. It really was pretty horrific – I don’t think I can remember a night where the dice were more unkind to me than this past session. As awful as it was to roll so poorly, it definitely contributed to the overall feeling of things having gone wrong, and being unable to do basically anything effectively definitely ratcheted up the tension and frustration, which was serendipitous, but appropriate.

Normally, rolling badly isn’t such a huge deal for Lambert. If he’s having trouble tagging an enemy in melee, he just leans on his spellcasting and that sees the party through nicely; the reason this works is that spells go off automatically and put the onus on the other side to start rolling well in the form of saving throws to reduce damage or avoid detrimental effects. But because Lambert was a frothing, violently-flailing ball of rage due to the sword, he couldn’t do that, and the Gulls were rolling with advantage due to swarming in and getting an extra 1d4 added onto their attack rolls because of the warleader … who Lambert was fixated on, to the exclusion of the Gull who slipped around behind him and was jabbing away at him with a spear for 5 damage a round.

If Lambert had been able to do anything except swing ineffectually at the Gull leader – even turning around to get the other one off of him – the fight might have gone differently. But it didn’t. Garm was rolling better than he was, but he was also getting whittled down gradually, and Aster was looking at the whole situation with mounting dread. By this point, Garm and Aster knew something was wrong, because on any other day, Lambert would have cast something by now. Probably several somethings.

And then Aster did one of the most selfless and gutsy things she’s done all campaign long. She charged into the melee with Lambert and Garm, grabbed Lambert by the shoulders and screamed “Lambert! Healing!” at him. He broke out of the berserk fugue state (that’s the 12 above – he has a pretty insane Wisdom save modifier at +8), fired off a healing spell that can be cast as a bonus action … and was promptly cut down where he stood. It’s also worth noting that Krissi (Aster’s player) resorted to the grab-and-scream tactic after Grant informed her that Aster couldn’t throw herself in the path of a spear meant for Lambert. Aster is not particularly disposed toward acts of heroism. As I mentioned in a previous post, she comes from a world where she really didn’t have that luxury.

At this point, I thought I was going to be rolling up a new PC. Fortunately, the 5e rules aren’t quite as brutal as I thought at the time. You actually have to fail three death saves to actually die when you get cut down like that. But Lambert was out of the fight. Aster and Garm ultimately prevailed against the Gulls – Garm decided to stop messing around and blasted the gull leader with the lightning wand at point-blank range for 10d6 damage, and they were able to mop up pretty quickly after that. They both went into save-the-cleric mode and managed to get Lambert back to consciousness and 1 hit point, which he responded to by casting his most powerful healing spell – twice. And rolled poorly on that, too. (See entries 14 and 15 of the rolling log.) At that point Aster heard more Gulls off in the distance and decided it was time to go. The party swam back to the boat, but not so quickly that they didn’t see more gulls dragging their own fallen off to be eaten. Have I mentioned how terrible those things were?

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. -Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)

That was the end of the encounter, but not of the session.

Back on the ship, Aster and Garm, who had figured out what was going on by now, waited for Lambert to fall asleep and promptly stuffed the offending sword in Aster’s Bag of Holding. When he woke up, they staged an intervention, and Aster guilted him by informing him that not only had he almost died, Garm almost had as well. That was enough for Lambert to get ahold of himself, and he used one of this daily spell slots to cast Remove Curse after which the sword went right back in the bag. When the party levels up to level 7, Lambert will gain access to the Banishment spell which will be able to “fix” the sword, driving the vengeful spirit out of it. Even so, after what happened with the sword, there’s a good chance they still won’t keep it. The colony owes 1/5th of all the magic items they find back to the mainland as taxes. I think that sword may be part of the first tax collection. Magic can make something safe to use again, but it won’t wash away bad memories.

More importantly, that wasn’t where things ended. Lambert was understandably pretty shaken up by the events that led to the breaking of the sword’s curse, and spent the better part of the day just staring out at the sea. Aster broke her normal rule about keeping people at arm’s length and briefly went up next to him and laid her head on his shoulder, which was the first time she’d done something like that. Both she and Garm kept others on the boat from bothering Lambert while he processed what had happened. Eventually he composed himself enough to thank them – they had, after all, saved him twice in one day. The events of this session will probably inform the PCs’ relationships with one another for the rest of the game.

I’m pretty consistently on the record as someone who requires good alignments from PCs when I’m in the GM’s chair. A lot of the time, even neutral PCs will do awful stuff that I don’t want to put up with. However, I’m also on the record that if I really trust you, the player, that rule has some wiggle room. The members of our current gaming group have earned that wiggle room.

A lot of the time, Chaotic Neutral is the “table troublemaker” alignment. People who want to troll the GM or other players, want to be able to act impulsively without justifying their actions or the damage they cause, and folks who want to steal from other party members and otherwise just mess with the experience of the game will often take Chaotic Neutral as their alignment. That has consistently not been a problem in this game, because both Aster and Garm are played by decent, mature human beings. We’ve also made the genuine friendship and respect among the party members something of a running theme in the game. They may not always agree on how to do things, but they are genuinely loyal to one another. In a lot of other games, the two CN characters would have left the NG cleric to die and been glad to be rid of the nuisance. But that’s not who Aster and Garm are.

When the chips were down, instead of running away, they ran through (metaphorical) fire to pull their friend from the flames.

 

Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash

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