January 23, 2012

Exploring the Lich-Queen's Beloved, Part 3

This post continues to document the journey through The Palace of Whispers, as started here.

This post will actually be recapping two week's worth of play. I always like to have some new, usable content for my readers with every post. Being as I posted the baseline conversion of the whole adveture already, I'm really looking to the additions and alterations I've made. These come mostly in the form of deadlier enemies and added deathtraps, so not every single week is entirely appropriate. This past week has been so; have at thee!

Warning: This is a long-ass post.

When you last checked in on my group, they had defeated the half-orc/half-arkhosian Lich Barbarian named Yusht (in the original adventure: Xam'kras) and his cadre of Apostles of the Apocrypha at the base of The Willgrinder. Yusht, through clever spellcraft, had planned an escape route and nursed his wounds while the dungeoneers risked another extended rest. I say risked, because taking an extended rest in The Iron Palace Susurrus is a dangerous affair, and can lead to very detrimental results.

Attack (fear): +26 vs. Will
Hit: The target cannot use powers outside of its turn (opportunity attacks, etc.) until it reaches 3 milestones.
Effect: The target takes a permanent -1 penalty to its healing surge value

After having run this adventure for a few weeks now, you may have seen that I've upped the ante. Instead of the healing surge value loss being tied to a successful hit, it is now an effect that happens at every single rest. This is the capstone of my entire campaign, and I want this to feel like an epic struggle for survival. Previously, this effect was a minor inconvenience. One or two points to surge value doesn't affect the dungeoneers much, but now they will all be feeling the pain pretty sharply. The loss of powers outside of your turn I have found to be perfectly punishing. It's a very harsh penalty that really bones certain characters, but allows everyone to keep the "meat and potatoes" of their character. The group has also been blasting through their dwindling reserves of cash with remove affliction rituals to try and negate this penalty.

Adventure Updates
While running this adventure, I have been continually tweaking and updating the rooms to match what I have learned works and doesn't work, as well as adding some Fourthcore flourishes as we progress. If you've been reading these long posts, then you're probably interested in the full details of what I've been doing. As such, I'll be updating the adventure periodically and posting the results when I do.
You can find the updated adventure here.

Room 3. Deathlords' Quarters
The group set off and found Room 3 curiously empty, except for some open Rejuvenation Coffins. At this point, by the way, the dungeoneers are still distrustful of the coffins and refuse to use them for fear of being transmuted into an undead being.

Room 4. Deathlords' Quarters
Here the group finds and quickly defeats Yusht and a pack of four Fiendish Dragonborn Deathlords, gathered from this Room and Room 3. The dungeoneers have been using the narrow corridors of the dungeon to their advantage, with the party wizard shutting down the enemy almost completely via his Wall of ... spells. Inside the room they find a mysterious first clue to the Bell Puzzle: a granite sundial that always sheds its shadow on 12:00.

Room 11. Scrying Mirror
Running out of visible doors, the group tackles this small niche near The Willgrinder. Later, there will be speculation about using The Willgrinder as a source of resurrection, but that will not yet be explored. Inside they find a shining silver mirror with arches formed of twisted goristro spines. The only thing in this bare room, the dungeoneers investigate and find that it is enchanted with teleportation magic and tied to a command word. Through excellent inspection and great dice-rolling, I allowed an ad hoc clue: a small wisp of white cloth (later revealed to be from a wedding gown) has been caught on one of the goristo spines spiked vertebrae. Immediately, the players begin spewing out any wedding-themed phrase they can in an effort to activate the mirror. The Elven Avenger finally utters "I do", opening a tiny pocket dimension containing the Iron Lich's Wedding Band, and possibly sealing his marital fate. From here on out, there is now a running joke/dread that the Elf has formally wedded himself to the Lich for all of eternity.

The Iron Lich's Wedding Band
inspired by Revenge of the Iron Lich
This silver ring is set with a glimmering ruby, the gem holding the power to change reality.
Wish + Consumable
Standard Action
Effect: The dungeoneer makes a wish and gains one of the following benefits:
+ One dungeoneer learns an encounter power from their class equal to their level or lower.
+ Conjure any common magic item equal to their level or lower.
+ One dungeoneer gains a permanent +2 bonus to saving throws.
+ One dungeoneer gains a permanent +5 bonus to a skill of their choice.
+ Casts any ritual equal to the dungeoneer’s level or lower, with a check result of 40.

Frustrated and feeling a bit like rats in a cage, the dungeoneers begin to experiment with their environment as best they can. They have a rumor about flying in this dungeon, and with few options, they give it a whirl to discover a unique and pervasive terrain power:

Power of the Mind
Terrain Power
The Whispering Palace is a place where the laws of the universe act in strange ways. Using your powerful mind, you are able to contort reality to suit your whim. At-Will
Move Action
Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma DC 30; or expend one psionic power point.
Success: You fly up to your Speed.

Flying around the tall ceilings of the dungeon, the players call upon the delving skills they first developed in middle school and searched for secret doors, finding success. Something that has been really striking with this run of the adventure is the feel of playing Dungeons & Dragons like when I was 14. The ruleset is so much smoother now, back then we were in 2nd Edition, but I feel like I've really captured the nostalgia of that time in my life by means of this adventure.

It's wonderful.

Room 12. Yusht's Quarters
Yusht's personal quarters, inside the dungeoneers find a candle-encircled blade and a small ceramic holder of sorts. Later, they will retrieve two small statuettes depicting two Tieflings, a man and woman, that fit here and reveal a hidden entryway to Room 13 when the statuettes are aligned so that they are shown to be holding hands. The implied backstory is having an impact here. The players are already familiar with Abilene the Iron Lich's former husband, Hadriel, as he was an NPC in their employ once upon a time. The scenes they are uncovering tell a touching story of happier times now lost to bitterness. The story, though, is all merely implied through context. The players are connecting the dots and filling in the real details themselves, sometimes making connections I didn't even see. They're investing themselves in this narrative and, because they have discovered the clues and filled in the blanks themselves, they feel attached to the story and actually care about the plot. (A great contrast to this will be coming up in Room 18.) When's the last time your player's gave a shit about your campaign's story?

Rooms 8 & 9. Unholy Apostles Quarters
In these rooms, the dungeoneers find some treasure hidden away in trapped containers, including the silver statuettes needed to access Room 13, as well as a crumbling limestone statue depicting one of the dungeoneers (Gith Artificer, Warforged Fighter). The players are again drawing their own conclusions about the mysteries of this dungeon and are convinced that the statues are akin to voodoo dolls and that Abilene is drawing the dungeoneers’ life force out of them. I just thought it would be a weird mystery that there were statues of adventurers scattered throughout the dungeon.

The dungeoneers find more and more rejuvenation coffins, and are tempted to use one, but do not. Out of fear.

Room 13. Yusht's Hidden Lair
The puzzle solved, the dungeoneers enter Yusht's Hidden Lair. Inside, they find some treasure (a very welcome sight at this point), a few nods to Yusht's past as an adventurer, and the first piece of astral driftmetal needed to unlock Abilene's True Sarcophagus (Room 49). The Astral Driftmetal was handed to the group as a full color printed card, so they knew it was important, yet they had no real idea as to how or why. This has created another layer of mystery that I suspect will have a very rewarding payoff when al four pieces are assembled.

Room 17. Deathlords' Quarters
Entering this room, the adventurers are surrounded by nine, yes nine, Dragonborn Deathlords. The deathlords hit hard, teleporting at-will to get the flank, and it is a hard-won fight in the cramped and twisting corridors. A lot of failed death saves were had, forcing the group to dare another extended rest.

In the aftermath, they explore. The room has a false demilich and grim haruspex (from Dr. Davy Jones) setup in conjunction with a puzzle that is solved by means of discovering Hadriel's and Abilene's birthstones. After much frustration, the puzzle is solved, but not before at least one random attempt at solving the puzzle which led to a seemingly dead dungeoneer. This was a great roleplaying scene, as the ever-practical Deva Wizard immediately broke out the daggers and was ready to make the best of the situation and sacrifice the unconscious Shardmind Invoker. Something sounded fishy to a few in the group, and they decided (wisely) to instead use the opportunity to test out the Rejuvenation Coffins. They never did find out the coffins' true powers (see below), however they did find out that the Shardmind Invoker was never really dead. There was some playful taunts "I heard you the whole time! You wanted to kill me!" at the table, as the group realized how close they were to defeating themselves with this devious little trap.

The puzzle was solved and the group was recovering its wealth and equipping themselves with some useful potions of mental power, held onto tightly for an anticipated emergency ectoplasmic door opening.

Rejuvenation Coffin: Creatures taking an extended rest in this coffin start their next combat encounter with 20 temporary hit points.

Potion of Mental Power
Magic Potion
The liquid burns down your throat like firewater, opening both your natural senses and your latent psychic potential. Minor Action + Consumable
Effect: Gain 1 psionic power point. Until you take a rest, you gain a +5 power bonus to Perception and the following psionic augmentation:
Psionic Lash (psychic) + Consumable
Trigger: You hit with an At-Will Attack power.
Effect: Lose 1 psionic power point. The target takes ongoing 20 psychic damage (save ends) and you gain a +4 power bonus to Will until the end of the encounter.

The bright blue mini is Shardmind Invoker. He is on his side, unconscious, as his "friends" contemplate murdering him. Karl, wearing the jersey, is de facto group cartographer as you can see the little map of the dungeon he has going on to his left.

Room 16. Chapel of the Dragon Queen
Here the adventurers find a trap. They see a statue of tiamat, its eyes made of gems of immense value. Should they go after these gems, however, they will unleash a deadly hazard. The hazard can be mitigated, however, by taking those gems and arranging them in the order of the constellation of tiamat, one of the first things seen in this dungeon. The dungeoneers, a little tired of puzzles, opt to leave this room alone.

Tiamat Altar
Level 24 Elite Obstacle
Trap (XP 12,100)
A dungeoneer touches the Altar of Tiamat.
The doors slam shut and are barred from the outside. Characters standing adjacent to a doorway when the doors close can choose which side of the door they end up on. Swinging pendulum blades cross the area, and magic rays shoot from the mouths of the dragons depicted on the altar.
Electrified Doors
All doors automatically shut and lock, and become electrified. A dungeoneer who touches, attacks with melee or attempts the Thievery skill on the doors triggers a magical lightning trap (+25 vs. Reflex,  3d10+22 lightning damage, miss half). The lightning trap can be nullified for 1 round with a successful DC 28 Arcana or Thievery check, or deactivated with a DC 37 Arcana or Thievery check.
Swinging Pendulum Blades
Creatures starting their turn standing in the room are attacked by swinging pendulum blades.
Attack: +27 vs. AC
Hit: 2d12+19 damage.
Magic Eye Rays
Creatures starting their turn in the room are attacked by magic eye rays.
Attack: Ranged 10; +25 vs. Will
Hit: The target takes ongoing 15 acid damage and is polymorphed into a harmless puddle of slime (save ends both). While polymorphed, the target can take no actions other than moving.
Each Failed Save: The target fails a death saving throw.
+ Puzzle: If enough gems are removed from the altar and placed to form the Constellations of Tiamat, the trap stops and the doors retract.
+ Athletics DC 41: A character who makes a successful check as a standard action can break open a locked door.
+ Dealing 500 hit points of damage to the door damages it enough to break it open.

Room 15. Deathlords' Quarters
More rejuvenation coffins, and a gruesome scene of a woman turned to stone and then dropped from the soaring 40 ft. ceiling to be shattered on the floor. A keepsake, a broken pocket watch, lies amongst the rubble. The dungeoneers ask, "Who is she and whom did she piss off royally?"

Room 14. Apostles' Quarters
Similar to Room 8, this has a trapped chest with some other wealth and a Scroll of Crushing Despair. The dungeoneers strategize about possible uses of this seemingly harmful ritual, including using it in conjunction with the Warforged Fighter's stance that already slows him.

Crushing Despair
Ritual Scroll
As your foes draw near, the burden of their task weighs heavily upon them indeed.
Casting Time: 10 minutes (standard action if scroll is consumed)
Duration: 1 day
Component Cost: 10 gp
You ward the room you are in with a supernatural infusion of hopeless emotions. For the duration of the ritual, all creatures in the room are slowed.

Room 18. Cell
Inside this room, the dungeoneers find the long-lost father of the Gith Artificer. The dungeoneer's backstory had him perfecting his mechanical craftwork while growing up completely isolated and alone on a drifting astral vessel after his people were all destroyed following an Illithid attack ... in space! Here, the story is revealed. The character's father is chained up and left to live an eternity imprisoned, his reward for collaborating with the Illithids and the Iron Lich. The exposition is explained by a Henchmen Gith Assassin sent to kill The Father. The setup here is a glorious opportunity for roleplaying, one would think, as the Gith Artificer must now grapple with the decision of what to do. Accept his father's penitence? Condemn the only family he has left? But see, this scene was force-fed to the player. The Dungeon Master setup everything and spelled it all out. The dungeoneer shrugs, grabs The Father, and murders his character's only living family, his own father, on the Grim Haruspex to learn the location of Abilene's phylactery (Answer: Not in this dungeon, loser!).

The Gith Assassin joins the group as an expendable minion, sure to meet his final fate testing out a deadly trap/puzzle.

Without putting in the work of creating the connections, with everything being handed to him on a platter as it were, the player has no investment. He just read my short story and killed off my character, not one of his characters, despite this NPC being absolutely central to Gith Artificer's story.

Room 20. Dreadnaught Hall
Thems a lot of Dragonborn ... about to be crushed under an Astral Dreadnought.
A long slog of a fight, made a bit more expedient by the dungeoneers literally getting the drop on the Dragonborn Deathlords and unleashing the bloated corpse of an Astral Dreadnaught onto their ritual casting party by melting the chains holding the beast aloft (ad hoc: 6d10 falling damage and restrained until escape). Once the tide of battle started to shift in their favor, they immediately began making preparations for the D&D experience outside of combat. The Deva Wizard let loose an upgraded Sleep spell, Slumber of the Winter Court or some such fairy sounding name, and were able to take 4 prisoners back to the Grim Haruspex to be sacrificed. The False Demilich cracks and is turned to dust by such repeat use of its magic.

Next week: The players bring to the Dungeon Master four questions about the dungeon to be answered!

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