What Do I Know About My Campaign? Tales of the Old Margreve Campaign Journal #3
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In our previous session, we managed to finish the entire adventure of Hollowin our four-hour session. I wanted to make sure to use the “Time Flies” rule from the Midgard World Book, and it had been a month since we last met, so that means it had been 56 days since we last left our heroes.
The next adventure, The Fingers of Derende, is presented more as an encounter zone that the PCs could run into on their way to another adventure. There are three “Derende” adventures in the book, and they are new additions from the original Pathfinder version of the adventures. Depending on how you use them, they can serve as a loose framing device for the whole campaign, which is how I’m using them.
While The Fingers of Derendeis set up as more of an encounter zone than an emerging adventure, there are hooks for getting the PCs into the area. In this case, I used the hook which involved a woodsman from a nearby village coming to town looking for help as the Family Starless, who have moved into the Fingers, have kidnapped several locals.
This felt like a good hook to use, building on the fact that the PCs are already local heroes in Lovoca due to the events of Hollow.
Using the “Time Flies” rules, the party had some downtime to use up. Initially, since they are only 2nd level, no one really had any pressing ideas for downtime. Because I was requiring the group to spend their downtime or lose it, I didn’t want them to miss anything, so we took a few minutes to look through Xanathar’s Guide to Everything to see if there were any downtime categories that hadn’t occurred to them.
I asked the group if they wanted to spend the whole time in Levoca, and since they didn’t have anything else pressing to do, and no other real locations that they know in the Margreve, they stayed in the town. I let them know there would be caravans of Canton Dwarves and Kariv merchants travelling through, so they wouldn’t be limited to the resources of Levoca.
While our Gearforged Warlord was not attending, he did let me know he would spend his time in Levoca instructing them in how to improve their defenses, which seemed consistent with is personality, especially since he was planning on expounding on how great the defenses are that he is helping them install.
Our Halfling Warlock decided to do general “wise woman” work around town. I ruled that everyone automatically received a moderate lifestyle just from being hailed as heroes, and while she managed to have a few weeks of greater luxury in town, she never got any extra cash.
The Bearfolk Cleric and Bearfolk Barbarian decided to train with their downtime. The cleric learned to speak elvish, and the barbarian learned to use an herbalism kit. They interacted with Arkadi, the local nature priest, who is noted as being senile, so we briefly played out that the Bearfolk had to introduce themselves each day to Arkadi and remind him where he left off on his lessons.
The Bearfolk Warden wanted non-metal medium armor. I ruled that looking for this would be like locating a common magic item for sale. He spent his gold and time, and rolled well, so I ruled that some of the Kariv could find a suit of acorn mail armor (which just cost the usual amount for scale).
I rolled a complication for the Bearfolk Warden finding the acorn mail armor, and I have an idea what I want it to be, but I didn’t want to spring it as soon as it was rolled. I just need to make a note to drop this into a future session.
I never named the Kariv that the Bearfolk got his armor from, but I’m going to “back date” the Kariv as a trader named Shandor, a personable person that knows all kinds of supernatural beings around the Margreve to trade with, and I’m also adding Tsura as a woman in the same caravan that is able to sell potions and scrolls, so we have some recurring personalities for the group.
I specifically want both of them to be trustworthy merchants that don’t give the PCs any reason to doubt them. They may also end up being a source of information they can tap later on.
Running The Fingers of Derende
After selecting the hook and playing out downtime, I had Arnuff, the woodcutter come to town from another nearby village. He explained that the Family Starless, a strange coven of creatures ruled by fey creatures, had moved into the Fingers of Derende, and had kidnapped several people from town. Because we already established this, Arnuff heard that the Bearfolk were friendly forest spirits, and started calling them this.
Almost immediately, the PCs started asking Arnuff how wise it is to cut wood in the Margreve. He protested that it’s just wood from the edge of the forest. This became a running joke, as the PCs all saw it as obvious that the Margreve wouldn’t be well disposed to woodcutters, and Arnuff and the other villagers are sure that cutting trees on the edge of the forest is fine.
Because the original adventure is set up as an encounter site, there really isn’t much discussion of getting from one location to another. I decided that on foot, Levoca was about a week’s travel away. I decided to use the travel system that I outlined here:
This would be a short trip, so there would be one encounter on the way. I had already decided that rations are what you use actively when you want to take a long rest, so we aren’t worried about checking rations specifically. To see how the trip went, I had them roll a group wisdom (survival) check, and if they had failed, they would have picked up a level of exhaustion.
They passed with flying colors, so I rolled for an encounter from the immediate area, which is a chart included in the adventure. They ran into an owlbear. The encounter specifically called for an owlbear rooting around some remains, which also contained a giant centipede (more on that later).
Our owlbear friend took out their guide and did a respectable amount of damage to the rest of the group. The Warden had to use their ability to burn spell levels to reduce damage to stay in the fight. Because they were concerned about the Margreve getting upset with them, they decided to not kill the owlbear when they dropped it to 0 hit points, and they stabilized the woodcutter.
The halfling decided to check out the remains that the owlbear was rooting through, and ended up getting bitten by the centipede. I had it scurry off, because I didn’t really think it was worth having a whole second combat with a giant centipede at this point, and the party had to carry the now paralyzed halfling.
I was using the default assumption that in a dangerous area, encounters would be checked on the hour, and trigger on a 17-20. The owlbear encounter happened at a crossroads, with an hour to the Fingers of Derende, and an hour to the village. With a now paralyzed halfling, the party opted to go to the village, and they didn’t trigger an encounter on the way there.
I don’t have any rangers in my party currently, but I do have two characters with backgrounds that let them scavenge for several people to keep them fed. If I had a ranger in the group, and forest had been their favored terrain, I would have moved the length of the trip down one, effectively (in this case, no checks or encounter).
If they had failed their survival checks, I would have asked if anyone had anything that mitigated the effects of hard travel. In the forest, I would allow for the foraging ability to mitigate this, but I might not if I were using this system, for example, in a desert. In the forest, they aren’t likely to suffer much from this, but narratively, I want to let the party know when their background feature is helping them, versus when they could have just survived on their own.
Once the PCs arrived, I wanted to reinforce that the village had heard of the Bearfolk as benevolent nature spirits, and I also wanted to reinforce that this area of the forest is “wrong.” I had just recent read about vulture bees online (bees that make their honey from rotting meat), and I thought this was a good fit for the creepy tone. They offered the Bearfolk “meat honey” from the local vulture bees (side note: in the real world, vulture bees don’t produce enough extra honey for it to be collected like regular bees, and it’s probably not good to eat, but we’re going for creepy fantasy with just a touch of realism, so vulture bees in the Margreve make enough meat honey to be shared).
The town also gave me a chance to “offload” Arnuff. He could be the point of contact character, but the party isn’t carrying around a non-adventurer any longer. The Bearfolk ate their meat honey, and the halfling, once she wasn’t paralyzed, decided to do some investigation about the Fingers of Derende.
She found a woman that lived on the edge of town, named Svetla. Svetla was happy to have a visitor, but she also had strange eyes and a root growing out of the back of her head, into her spine. I wanted to foreshadow something that could come up later in the adventure site. I had Svetla explain that camping in the Fingers sometimes allows people to learn things, but that she also found a book that taught her secrets about the forest. She stayed there too long, and heard a voice whispering in a strange language.
I had her speak it, and hearing it kind of made the halfling a little sick, and I let her know that it was Void speech, something MORTALS ARE NOT MEANT TO KNOW. I also wanted to foreshadow that Derende is about more than just the creepy magic of the forest.
The village isn’t detailed in the adventure, it’s only briefly mentioned in the adventure hooks, so I wanted to give it some details. I liked having Svetla as a living reminder of the weirdness near the Fingers of Derende, and I had the other villagers kind of oblivious as to the degree to which they were tempting fate (harvesting the vulture bees, not worrying about cutting the trees because it’s on the edge of the forest). This gave the village a different feel from Levoca, which is a lot more focused on following ancient traditions, even if they don’t fully understand them.
After resting up and enjoying the hospitality of the villagers, the group set out for the Fingers of Derende. Since the trip would take an hour, I rolled an encounter, and it came up as a troll. That’s a rough encounter for 2nd level characters, but overall, they handled it well, but drained some resources, enough that they were worried about continuing to the Fingers. They were concerned that they would keep triggering more wandering monsters if they didn’t press on, so they kept going.
I described the trees as being huge, with the weird fingernail like leaves, slightly moving more than a tree that size should move. I described the crosswalks and entrances to the various trees, and the huge patch of moss in the center of the clearing. And I used the three giant goats as the guards in the center of camp.
In the adventure, the moss, in a switch from what you might expect, rustles and crunches, making it harder to use stealth. Rather than have the PCs find this out on their own, I decided that having several nature oriented characters and natives of the forest, I would let them roll their wisdom (nature) checks to identify the moss, which the Warden did.
What’s kind of interesting is that once the players hear that something hampers stealth, they want to use it. They decided to sneak around the outer edge of the camp, and then climb up one of the trees to the entrance.
They all managed to make this stealth check. This began to set up the paradigm that the giant goats were bad watch animals (we’ll come back to this).
I had the party roll to see which tree the supernatural book with information on the forest was in, and then had them roll to see if the Family Starless was conducting the sacrifice of the villagers yet. No ongoing sacrifice, and a set location for the book.
The adventurers found the villagers, guarded by two of the family members. Even though I had read the adventure beforehand, it never struck me how widely the power of the Family members varied. The two Roachling brothers are . . . not powerhouses, and way less powerful than some of the random encounters and guardians of the site. The PCs took them out very quickly, but while the rest of the group was freeing the villagers, the Bearfolk Warden tossed a Roachling’s body off the tree (the goats didn’t notice).
That was when the leader of the family, the fairy Aridni, attacked from invisibility, and put the warden to sleep. This fight was a lot more challenging than the Roachlings, especially since Aridni could use invisibility at will. In many cases, I wasn’t trying to get her to hide so much as to give her advantage on her shots with her bow when she came out of invisibility. I was also varying which effect her bow was using each time.
Eventually the Warden used one of his spells that grabs a target and brings them closer. Aridni had been flying out of reach away from the tree, and this brought her back to melee range. After she got brought closer, the barbarian decided to jump, grapple her with her teeth, and dive down 20 feet to the ground, taking damage, but also doing damage to Aridni as well. Since Aridni had already taken some damage, the spectacular tackle did her in, but left the barbarian away and functioning. The goats did not notice.
The halfling discovered some treasure, as well as the oven filled with live rabbits, which convinced the party that the Family Starless was pretty out there, and that it was more important to get the villagers out than to explore further.
I had the party make a group stealth check on the way out, and I only rolled once for the villagers (I didn’t want seven extra rolls, and honestly, I didn’t want any more complications while rescuing the villagers). The goats continued not to notice, and everyone made their way back to the village.
The party had largely completed their mission by rescuing the villagers, but the idea that the Family Starless was stealing villagers and was so close meant that it still felt like a looming threat. The PCs wondered about this a little but wanted to get a rest after the fight with the troll and Aridni. I wanted to reinforce that the Family was still a threat, even with their leader and two members dead, so I decided to have the Family Starless berserker show up with a friend to make some demands.
As written, the berserker is a half-orc, but I decided to change that to Trollkin. A lot of Kobold Press adventures are written “half-in, half-out” of Midgard, and orcs aren’t that common in Midgard, so I wanted to keep the flavor of the setting. Originally I was going to have the Trollkin show up with the worgs that hang out with the family, but instead of multiple worgs, I decided to just have the Trollkin accompanied by a Fang of the Great Wolf from the Creature Codex (a worg that is a bit tougher, and can change size).
The Trollkin called out the adventurers, demanding a new “mother” for the Family Starless, now that the party had killed the previous Mother. Our Bearfolk Barbarian tried to strike a deal that she would become the mother if the Trollkin could beat her in one on one combat. Then the Trollkin demanded sacrifices as well, and the deal was off. This is where we put things on hold for the night.
- I liked having the more open-ended encounter zone to hang my own developing stories on
- I like having my players roll their own random encounter dice
- The Warden’s spell list has some fun toys on it if they don’t burn all their spells mitigating damage
- I enjoy finding places in the story to reinforce the overall theme of the adventure
- I love it when the end of a “boss fight” is epic, like a flying grapple takedown off a tree
- Downtime can help generate interesting side details further down the road, but it might be better not to try to push it as soon as complications or details come up
I really like that the downtime gave me the idea to create a few ongoing NPCs, even if I didn’t do anything with them yet in this adventure. I liked being able to use the NPCs and just the hint of Void Speech to lean into the theme running through the adventure. Just playing off the logical progression of what happened in the adventure gave me an idea that will play into the resolution of this adventure, namely that there is division in the Family Starless.
Looking forward to more adventure in the Old Margreve soon.