Last Friday night was the second of our Post Tenebras Lux sessions, the continuation of the campaign that started as a Scales of War adventure path. In it, our heroes arrived at Witchcross, met a few of the locals, took in some of the sights, and headed off into the Witchwood in order to find the barrow they’ve come in search of.
And promptly ran into trouble.
In designing this adventure, I did my best to depart from the standard dungeon crawls that this particular group has been playing through for the most part. I wanted different feeling adventure areas, more chances for interaction with NPCs and the environment, more choices that mattered, and so on. To that end, I designed a number of establishments in Witchcross, created a few local sites that might be of interest, and put together a more detailed backstory for the barrow and the ancient druidic folk that used to live in the area.
A lot of that got pretty much ignored in this session; the group is very mission-focused. This really came to mind when I explained that the engraving on the menhir in the middle of the village, marking it as the site where Terriath Ahmond first formed his pact with the Folk of the Stone, and then told them they knew nothing about those names or the incident it may describe*. Instead of interpreting it as local colour or an interesting detail, they said, “Red herring,” and went about trying to find the barrow.
I brought them into town on the afternoon before the full moon, so they have a day and a half to find the spot where the barrow appears. I also decided to do the cinematic full moon thing – giving each month three nights when the moon is considered to be full. That takes some of the time pressure off the party, and gives them the leisure time to explore and interact with the world without feeling they need to rush and push with no time for anything else.
I’ve set the hunt for the barrow up as a sort of modified skill challenge, with a number of nodes laid out in a matrix representing the woods around Witchcross. Every hour, the party makes a roll, choosing a skill from a list of about five, to find their way closer to the barrow. If everyone succeeds, I move them directly towards the barrow on the matrix. If most of them succeed, they get to choose a direction, and I move them that way on the matrix. If most of them fail, I move them away from the barrow, and preferably into something dangerous. If they all fail, I move them away from the barrow, and they each lose a healing surge from the hazards and exertions of their search.
Each node of the matrix has a scene tied to it. This may be a combat encounter, an NPC, an interesting site in the woods, or anything else I’ve thought of, but it’s some point where they can interact with the world and may get a benefit or a penalty for their search. When they make it through the matrix, they’ll arrive at the site of the barrow.
I felt this was a good compromise between mapping the woods out as a dungeon and just having a list of encounters that they have to fight their way through to get to the barrow. It puts choices back into their hands, and gives more of a feeling of decision, while still keeping the actual movement from site to site abstract and easily managed. It also allows the outdoorsy skills of the ranger to have some impact on the group and their quest.
Sor far, it seems to be working fairly well, though the group has walked into two combat encounters, and have started asking how the villagers manage to survive when they go looking for firewood**.
The first combat was an owlbear and two fey panthers***. The owlbear is another monster, like the carrion crawler, that I’ve always wanted to use, but never seem to get the chance. As I recall from previous editions, they’re pretty nasty. Well, the 4e owlbear takes the cake, in my opinion. It dropped the dragonborn paladin on the first turn****, which caused everyone to pause and take a breath. This is what I wanted: I never try to kill the characters, but I love the moment in the game when the players realize that they may lose a character in a fight. With the fey panthers harrassing the party from different angles, they couldn’t gang up on the owlbear at first, and that meant that it got to bat PCs around with impunity. The healing abilities of the party made sure they never lost anyone, but it scared them.
The next combat was a group of gnomes: 2 skulks, 2 arcanists, 2 iron defenders, and a pseudodragon*****. This fight was a blast to run, with the gnomes up in the trees sniping and messing with the party, the iron defenders chewing on legs, and the pseudodragon doing fly-bys with its tail sting. In the end, one of the arcanists and the pseudodragon escaped, and the party was beat up enough that they just let them go and hobbled back to town, planning to start again in the morning.
All in all, a pretty good session. I’m anxious for the next one, because some of the things they did in the last one will have got around town. I’m planning on updating the Witchcross entry in the wiki, but I’m going to hold off until the players discover more of the information in game, so as not to spoil anything.
Should be fun.
*I want a lot of the history of the ancient druidic folk to be a closed book, with just a jumble of confusing monuments and oral traditions remaining. I like the idea of the mystery in the past.
**The answer to this question is different for each of the two encounters. For the first one, the villagers know better than to go into the owlbear’s hunting ground. For the second, the Keepers of Eth in the village have a relationship with the gnomes, and don’t get attacked from hiding.
***1050 xp total, a level 4 encounter for 6 PCs.
****I had to use the owlbear’s action point to get in the bite attack, but it was worth it.
*****1000 xp total, a level 4 encounter for 6 PCs.