Friday, February 11, 2022

Holgard Campaign Session 7 - The Steemham Crusades

SESSION 7 26/06/2021

The good guys are back! It felt good to witness some heroism overcoming depravity, rather than the reverse. Enter, the Crusade of Steemham, a very chilling, tense, and highly tactical session - my notes are mostly battle diagrams to comprehend what is going on (as we play theater of the mind - which, by the way, is awesome and I think provides a more entertaining and visual experience. Organic tactics are grafted onto the chaos of battle, while a battle-mat induced meta-game of hyper-calculations of distance and specific positions that are in no way plausible is eliminated.

Characters: Maethedir, Milton North, Sixtus Sunwalker, Merlon, Betanochin Wormington (H), Suthrimu (H), Brother Balor (H)

House rule - The Moorhawk Exchange in Underland, run by Boglin Chanovsky, charges a 5% cost on exchanging money (silver for gold etc.), and 10% per month for storing money.

Downtime Day 73 (7/06/21) - Day 92 (26/06/21)
Maethedir: Studied a book he got from Barbanikos in exchange for some ancient ruin rubbings of an alien cuneiform script. Called Mondusius' Folio - some researcher's ramblings but had some 'useful' information about bizarre and anomalous creatures.

Milton North the Warrior: Was donated some money by Sixtus Sunwalker and Maethedir to cover the 1500GP cost to level up to Fighter 2! He learned some shady fighting tactics from unsavory types in the city. One of our first level 2s! Rolled 7 extra HP, for a total of 12.

Sixtus Sunwalker the Keeper: Had enough to level up, with his donated income counting for training cost (my ruling) and is now a Paladin 2. Also visited Steemham to donate money for their temple to Tiw, to find "it is in shambles. Where once was a beautiful pasture by the Steemham Manor is a filthy and overpopulated pig pen - hundreds of snortling swines rolling about in mud and eating slop. The village has a shoddy timber/hay wall all around it, and makeshift gates at each road entrance. Dodgy and sickly looking men guard the entrances, and they brandish clubs and daggers at you, with crossbowmen on top of rough scaffolding aiming at you, "Yer not welcome ere anymore, preaching yer filthy practices and pollutin these good folks. Be gone from ere for yer own good."

You catch a glimpse of the villagers toiling the fields and pig pens, glancing at you, some with hope, others with resentment. All of them only briefly, before they return to their labours, backs hunched and faces gaunt.

Something is amiss in Steemham."

Merlon: Ad-blitz to hire henchmen, using the rules presented in the DMG. After a decent sum, and... bizarre... interview, ended up with Brother Balor, Cleric 1 of Diancecht, a strange but stalwart man prone to monologue and questionable aphorisms, also insists on being called Brother even though he isn't a monk. The other henchman is Suthrimu, an enigmatic Fighter 1 seemingly of a different time, that the other players met in one of the first sessions. I simply have to post the online exchange between me and Merlon's PC for hiring Balor:

"Merlon: Tell me about yourself, about your faith?
Brother Balor: the stoic, bearded man staring down at Merlon, his eyes shaded by what is likely a trick of the light "He who strikes first, lands the first blow. I am a holy man of Diancecht, the God of Healing. I seek to further The Holy One's cause by bringing vitality to the realm, and dispelling the darkness which lurks in the lost corners of the land."
Merlon: "You're in."
Brother Balor: Shakes his head sadly "And so I foresaw. This position, I cannot accept for the righteous omens are misaligned. My Lord granted me a vision of no less than what I determined via rigorous physical analysis of the vision to be 253 righteous gold pieces bequeathed upon me prior to mine own acceptance of this harrowing, but just, duty. Thus it simply is not to be, and I have misunderstood my intended fate. Thank you sir for your time, I am sorry the Lord is not blessing you with his healing touch on this day."
Merlon: ...
Brother Balor: Notices Merlon is not making any further action, and shakes his head as if hit by a missile "My Lord! Forgive me for my failings. It is clear my analysis was flawed - the dimensionality introduced by the Holy One's own presence in the vision hath led me to miscalculate the portentous sum. In such a dream realm, of much greater complication than our own, perspective can alter the appearance of what is perceived. It was actually 173 gold pieces, of this I am certain. And what is this coincidence? I see before me an offering of 125 gold pieces - the Lord favours multiples of 5!"
Merlon: Not impressed. Though he recognises the clerics use, he does not appreciate this act, and is skeptical at best about his god giving him visions of payment. "Good cleric, surely 125 gold and any future treasure is more than satisfactory to advance your lord's will"
Brother Balor: "Why my good son, it is the bull who lacks horns that is in fact a cow, and you have shown me such cunning and guile that there is nobody else for my humble soul to follow and serve, save the Lord Diancecht himself. I shall humbly accept your offering of immense generosity and wit."
Merlon: A little vexed, but ultimately satisfied with the acceptance, Merlon thanks the cleric and asks what equipment he needs:
Brother Balor: Provides a list of many items, luxurious 'new age' balms and ointments, incense, robes, and three weekly payments to an inconspicuous address on Harlot Lane. The only things that actually stand out as being useful for adventuring are a set of Chain Armour, a Flail, a medium shield, small helm, 3 vials of Holy Water and rations/waterskin - and a backpack of course.
Merlon: Hands him back the list, with all but the useful equipment crossed out. "I would love for you to join us good man, but I do ask you keep your requests reasonable"
Brother Balor:"And so it is as the ancient philosopher's say, poverty strengthens all but the impoverished. So I must acquiesce wholeheartedly to the dictums of my position, respecting the Lords Will that humility and squalor precede nobility and virtue. So I accept the conditions. I must ask, however, that the address on there remain confidential..."
Merlon:"Of course, so long as any tales from visits you make there remain the same""

Betanochin Wormington: Started his strong-chin training at The Temple of Iron. Getting a name for himself among select Underland minorities. Some even avert their gaze in the presence of "The Chinless One". Sixtus bought him some gear and a premium, rich red tailored velvet shirt of supple texture and complimentary trim, which was promised to him in a previous session, for 10GP.

So yeah, playing the game properly with the rules in the book means a lot happens at the start of the session before any 'actual play' takes place, but it's all so interesting!

Day 92 (27/06/21)
Weather: Clear skies
The party, with a sick eagerness, listened intently as I informed them of the world events, particularly the consequences of their other characters actions in the city. The protests over the strange cult taking over the Mausoleum, combined with the explosion in the sewers 2 week ago, nearly led to riots. But over a few days the loudest voices seemingly disappeared, along with the cult, and the Duke employed a 'Man of Science' to educate the civilians about 'Land Quakes' - "a force that separates the very ground! There are no explosions to worry over, merely nature dealing us a cruel hand, but as a people united we will survive." (I have patrons who cannot play in regular sessions that control major NPCs in the world) Now the city is, somehow, in a state of equilibrium, though there are more frequent guard patrols and stations.

They heard from some rangers that the goblin clans of the Weald are mobilising, and that some priests on pilgrimage to Thunder Peak haven't returned - when they should have been back 2 weeks ago. However, the plight of Steemham that Sixtus heard of took precedence - the party would 'Stop by and sort out the village, then go help the dwarves of Khûn Kaldur'. They bought two horses for Suthrimu and Balor, with Betanochin still being light and bony enough to ride with Sixtus. Balor's horse is named Mary-Belle, after someone important to him... And probably a few other people in Underland.
They stop by Lake Athystra at about mid-day/afternoon on the way, sending in Merlon, Suthrimu, and Milton to try to approach peacefully. It doesn't go that way, and after being demanded for their belongings and then to leave, the trio leaves and reconvenes. The two elves, Merlon and Maethedir, go on a scouting mission at dusk to scope out the village. Maethedir hangs back by the road with the horses, and Merlon follows a river that trails north-east along the village, passing through a small marsh and Lord Steemham's personal woodland. He comes across a since-abandoned campsite and emerges from the woodland, observing the timber/hay wall stretching to the waterline, besides two buildings. However, a voice shouts out in his direction, and figures emerge from behind the buildings - then, unison, a horrid pig-like squeal erupts from many voices. Merlon flees, and is almost bisected at the marshlands, but makes it to the road - a decent mob with torches howling and pig-calling pursue, but eventually stop and return to the village. Merlon and Maethedir return, and it is mutually agreed that a crusade is in order. They rest, intending to head out prior to first-light, because 'all successful battles started at dawn'. During the short rest they had, Maethedir heard an alluring feminine call across the lake surface, but nothing came of it. It was a full moon.

Day 93
Prior to first light the party sets out. Brother Balor, who was lacking his essential ointments and balms, required a vigorous back-massage from Maethedir. The party tethers the horses a ways back, and approaches in a rectangular formation, with the ranged members behind and a row of shields in front. The village 'gate' has a brazier-lit scaffold above it, with 4 crossbowman keeping guard. The party gets surprise and looses missiles at 3 times fire rate - in a disorienting flurry, two of the guards fell, the other two were hit but retreated over the edge. The party front-line advances! They approach cautiously, while the archers shoot beyond the 'gate' which is just a half-height timber wall in front of a separation in the wall. One of the players hits, and kills, a torchbearer in a rapidly growing mob of dodgy looking men with clubs and studded leather.

The PCs move off the one side of the gate, blocking the exit from it, and the Henchmen take the other. The space is about 3 abreast. The mob split off behind the village walls, and one of them calls out for the players to surrender. No compromise is reached, and the battle continues as 10 men charge out, 5 each side, to meet the players/henchmen. Among the player-group is a hulking man in plate with a bastard sword. The ensuing melee is a chaos, with randomly determined targets, pathetic rolls, and an appreciation for group initiative. Suthrimu and Balor both cut down two men, Balor a stoic crusader bashing skulls with his flail, Suthrimu deftly skewering the sickly men with his short sword. Beta contributes, sort of. The two dead are quickly replaced. This chaos continues, when Maethedir's sleep spell goes off. The area is so small. Every single enemy drops. The remaining thugs behind the wall flee into the manorial complex, closing the gate behind them. The party executes the sleeping derelicts, and rallies the villagers. Now they have a mob of 20 peasants with daggers and clubs, and an old battler named Bartholomew Barden who took up the bastard sword - it's grip familiar in his hands. His 4 sons, Bart Junior I, II, III, and IV respectively, take up crossbows.

They climb the wall and let everyone in, the mob storming the manor house... They bust their way inside. It's pretty sparsely furnished. They check out some nearby rooms, but they don't reveal much - however, underneath a rug behind a divider in Lord Steemham's personal quarters is a trapdoor. The players immediately send all the henchmen and villagers out in hunting parties to try and find if the Lord Steemham has escaped outside. The players then descend into a dreary, dark cobbled hall - it fits two abreast and they continue in staggered formation. To their left is a corridor into a lit room - there is a mob of those derelicts that jump them with surprise. Melee ensues! Sixtus and Maethedir in front, with Merlon and Milton behind just holding formation. Whenever a thug in the front line fell, another took his place. Coming down the corridor is a flanking group of 6, in double file. Sixtus is now fighting on two fronts, with Milton by his side facing the new attackers. Merlon casts 'Affect Normal Fires' on one of the torchbearers, nearly felling him with a crucifying blaze. Sixtus is cleaning up each new opponent that meets him - eventually the group in the corridor flee, and the ones in the room back up and surround the entrance. The party tactically backs away, felling the two that pursue them, and Milton/Merlon swap positions while Milton readies his crossbow. The party now enters the corridor leading to the room - but the mob has readied crossbows, and a ghastly woman tells them to leave, and not incur the wrath of 'Phlusegma'. They refuse, so she pours a vial of a sickly viscous fluid on the ground while chanting a curse. The party flees, feeling despondent from the spell, and the crossbowmen pepper some of their flanks, but they make it out.

The villagers and henchmen are recalled. They descend once more into the decadent tunnels of Lord Gunther Steemham. The large room is now empty - the mob checks out two side rooms - one appears to be a lightly furnished servant or guest quarter. The other is a fully furnished, luxurious and gaudy room of dark purples and deep reds. A curtained bed sits against one wall, beside it is a dirty, thin and frail naked woman hanging from chains. She is unconscious. The party, disgusted at the utter depravity of Gunther Steemham, free the woman, who is distraught, and tells them that they 'must stop what he is doing'. She informs them of a room where Lord Steemham took her for some 'playtime' that he is likely at. A few times now, the party has felt great earth-shakes in the tunnels, even from above. Merlon covers her with his cloak, and Brother Balor tends her while transferring her care to the peasants. Some peasants recognise her as the strange lady that was living in Steemham's personal woodland.

Everyone continues into the dark tunnels, and make a left turn down a side-passage to a wooden door. Merlon and Sixtus are in front, and Merlon opens the door - immediately 4 crossbowmen beyond surprise them and shoot at three times the rate into their ranks. Merlon's elite level player remembered this rule but chose to not bring it up, but thankfully I remembered, since they themselves employed it! A stray bolt hits Maethedir and he falls to 0HP, unconscious! There is a bit of a fright here, but the players decide there is nothing to do but charge, for this a holy quest, and they can hear and feel a horrifying process taking place within the complex. Sixtus, Merlon, and Balor charge into the room, with Milton running in behind and throwing his lantern into the center of the mass. The players then see another rank of crossbowmen at the back and everyone feels like they are going to die. It is total chaos - blows are being traded, Maethedir is stabilised by the peasants, Milton's lantern shatters on a cultists head, killing him, and Maethedir's player takes over Suthrimu, attacking from the second rank with his spear. The party is trying to carve a path into the room - at some point, Sixtus Sunwalker falls to 0HP and is unconscious too! Betanochin Wormington is furious, but The Chinless One remains stoic due to the love for his father and brother figures, cutting down one of the dirty men. Bart saunters into the room with the bastard sword on his shoulder and just lets it fall onto one of the thugs heads, splitting it down the centre, before kicking his body off and pulling it out, "Ah, I remember the feeling."

Somehow everyone is surviving (aside from Sixtus who is counting down his HP each round) and more purchase is gained into the room. There is a gap down the middle, Milton and Merlon close with the row of crossbowmen at the back! It is simultaneous initiative, the crossbowmen loose and some people are hit. These rounds are taking so long because I am calculating ratios and chances for bolts to stray off and hit an ally, or someone else, making sure I apply relevant weapons vs AC modifiers, etc. and nobody wants it any other way, for it is thus a fair and impartial outcome as far as the rules are concerned - nobody will feel cheated by me hand-waving some calculation for brevity. We have not had a combat this large before, but it was still way too small to scale it up in a mass-combat approach.

Once some space clears up, the Bart Juniors enter and start firing bolts too! One hitting Milton, the others hitting a few enemies. Balor and Suthrimu finish off an opponent at the same time that Betanochin and Bart do so. Milton cuts down one of the crossbowmen. Then, the rest surrender. They are tied up by the villagers. Sixtus is stabilised by Brother Balor. The party hears a horrific squealing and chanting from beyond a door in the room - it is a bizarre stone-door with cryptic symbols engraved around a maddening carving of a swine-like monstrosity, with deep black eye-sockets, and a fleshy, bulbous mass of fat where its legs ought to be. It bears a crown upon its head. The door doesn't open at a touch, and Suthrimu feels a presence when he touches it. Anen then enters the room, with some peasant robes on now and Merlon's cloak. She warns them that the door requires blood. Suthrimu uses a nearby body to fuel this ritual, and it opens.

Milton, Suthrimu, and Betanochin enter the room with Balor in the rear. It is an black, bare-walled room of very specific yet discordant dimensions. In the center is a stone altar with a harsh symbolic circle around it on the ground. Before the altar is a stone archway of unsettling geometry. Lord Gunther Steemham, a rotund, rosy-cheeked, pig-nosed and beady eyes man in nobles robes has his lands locked the woman in banded mail who cast the curse. Their wrists are cut and bleeding into the altar basin, while both have closed eyes and are chanting in a guttural and disturbing tongue, with pig squeals emanating from somewhere in the space. The two depraved individuals ward the players away, that something far worse will come if they interrupt. Nobody listens and they charge - Betanochin (now played by Sixtus' character) cuts Gunthers hamstrings (everyone laughed at this) causing his legs to give out and drop to his knees, but he is maintaining his determined ritual with iron will. Milton stands before this depraved man, and in a moment of severe tension and suspense, instead of saying something cool, says 'noight noight' and lops off his head. It lands in the basin and blood pools. Everybody is suss. Suthrimu stabbed the woman under the arm for little effect except one of her arms dropping limp, but she pulls a dagger from her hip and stabs her own throat and falls. There is a rumble. Between the archway a queer fabric begins to weave and knit together from both sides. Brother Balor, being played by Merlon (who remained outside the room due to being low health) elects to smash the altar. Everyone starts hitting in, and in one final, telling blow, which was preceded by a very poorly placed monologue about a similar situation he found himself in, Brother Balor smashes down the altar and it crumbles. For an instant, the fabric unified, and everyone witnessed beyond it a vicious hell-scape of swine-men and other monstrosities squealing in some twisted cacophony of anger, lust, and agony, then it dissipated and silence was in the room.

During this, the tension in the room was palpable. After, a great release was felt. But it was not over. Bart reminded them all that his daughter, among other villagers, were still missing. They had to see this whole thing through, and continued into the tunnels. They came to a coliseum-like room, with stone benches around a bloodied and muddy pit, with corpses of some villagers, animals, and grotesque pig-like men. From the pit, they found another tunnel into a 'pen', a large, dirty room filled with cages. Two villagers, Cynthia Barden, Barts daughter, and Orbal Pier, a farmer. There are more of the grotesque animal-like creatures, barely alive, which the party puts down out of mercy. Shackled to the walls are some half pig-half man constructions, who are aggressively snorting and whimpering, which the party also puts down. They leave through a door to the north and find themselves back in the main tunnel, but there is another passage to the right. The smell of pork is strong here. They enter a large domed room with a massive bonfire in the center being tended by a hunched over man. Above it, suspended by chains, is a colander-like pot from which the sickening and heartbreaking squeals of living pigs and piglets emanates. The man is Balgo Rowe, innkeeper of Steemham Inn. The party approaches and sees he is a shell of a man - the once cheery and friendly Balgo now a gaunt and vacant husk, barely coherent. The party tells him he is free, but he breaks down and says he will never be free, before passing out. They free the pigs, presumably giving the most damaged a merciful end, and vow never to eat pork again. The villagers are frightened and vomiting, crying. Bart licks his lips in a nervous gesture and turns away.

So comes an end to the Steemham Crusades. The party emerges from the depraved arcades of the twisted Gunther Steemham into cleansing sunlight. They discuss the implications of this venture with Bart, who is elected as new Lord, at least insofar as the villagers are concerned. Bart insists that they get a fair share of the Lord Steemhams personal valuables. And so it is that, into the villagers own folklore, a special date is remembered - Day 93 - the Crusade of Steemham, and the rise of Sunland, a better, warmer place, named in honour of Sixtus Sunwalker, whose righteous motives instigated the liberation of a silently, and cruelly, oppressed people.

The Ballad of Victor Bravo - Eve of Day 93, the Crusade of Steemham
Milton North's player composed a ballad of the crusade, which was delivered by his character's countryman, the Skald Victor Bravo, who, by some cosmic directive, happened upon the hallowed hamlet on the eve of Day 93. He is known for a drinking song in his town of Fourex.

Day 94
The villagers have investigated and cleared out Manor Steemham and the other buildings in the complex - it was evident from the ill-equipped derelicts in the Lord's employ that he was not a rich, or at least, not a generous man. In his own quarters were many items of exuberance - rugs, curtains, candelabra, and other gaudy furnishings. Such things that are cumbersome and must be pawned off over time for any profit. However, also within the Lord's underground quarters, was a footlocker.

Within this container, a tattered, worn, and stained map. Beside it, a fist-sized platinum disc inlaid with gemstones, in the shape of an eye with a queer cast and feel to it. There was also a sum of 300 gold pieces. On top of this and free accomodation and hospitality, the villages found other equipment salvaged from bodies or recovered from buildings that they have presented to you for your free taking:
10 flasks of oil
4 hooded lanterns
1 set of plate mail, man sized
120 bolts, 20 arrows
1 set of banded mail, man sized
1 footman's mace
2 large shields
30 suits of studded leather armour, man sized
15 daggers
15 clubs
12 light crossbows

The cultists who surrendered also revealed (after a 'conversation' with Bart Barden) what appeared to be a laboratory of some sort in the complex underneath, equipped with flasks, alembics, scales, and other alchemical equipment. A store room connected to it revealed mundane and exotic herbs and fungal matter, unsettling concoctions, preserved organs and organisms, some humanoid in shape, though very small and undeveloped. Another room connected to the laboratory was full of 'mannequins' and suspended bodies of man and pig, some a sickening grafting of the twine upon each other. All inanimate, save one, which was lightly wheezing and moaning, it's porcine face locked in a rictus of agony and torment. Bart swiftly put it out of its misery and the bodies were burnt on a pyre.

Experience Points
150 XP each, 75XP for Henchmen
(Yes, seriously! Those dirty cultists weren't worth much in life, or death. Hilarious) I am allowing sold items to count for XP, since it will constitute a mission to sell them. But only the listed items, and not if they are used before being sold.

Character Role & Alignment Performance Ratings
In terms of alignment, everyone, being a form of good, received Excellent ratings for their virtue and selflessness in aiding the villagers. This is in conjunction with their class roles - this session, it really felt like everyone settled into their roles and characters. I had no qualms with any character behaviours. The characters all contributed, all pulled their weight, and for the party as a whole, there was great cohesion (when it mattered).

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