Monday, 23 March 2015

Return to Neverwinter: Year of the Ageless One 15 - Restart Session 6, Part Two (Recovering the Bones of the Thunderbeast)

This continues on from <part one>. I've had to break the session report into two parts because there seems to be a size limit for posts. I'm also abbreviating the encounter write-ups in this post because it can take a while to get all the hit points and other specifics down and matching up with "reality".

Recovering (?) the Bones of the Thunderbeast

After that epic battle, the most of the PCs were in need of serious healing but, before they started to work out if they could use the Chalice of Eldath again to counteract the effects of the Dread Ring, I had Griemolt roll a Nature check which was a success.

From this he learnt that if the PCs were to simply enter the Bones of the Thunderbeast as if it was a vehicle, the primal magic in the Bones would allow them to ignore the Dread Ring's ability to halve healing effects. And that's they did, taking a short rest to recover encounter powers and spend healing surges to restore everyone to full hit points.

It was then time to examine the Bones of the Thunderbeast and determine how to get them out of the Dread Ring. This was handled via a skill challenge.

Skill Challenge: Freeing the Bones of the Thunderbeast
Level 12
DCs 14/20/28
Complexity 5: 12 successes before 3 failures
Primary Skills: Arcana, Nature, Religion
Secondary Skills: Endurance, Insight

(Yes, it really was level 12. The Aspect of the Thunderbeast that the PCs will be fighting later was a level 12 monster so I decided to keep that consistent. Plus I wanted them to fail. Of course, there was a still a chance to succeed - and their skill checks are normally so high it's not funny - but failure was going to suit my plans for later campaign events so much better....)

Griemolt began by making a successful DC 28 Nature check to communicate with the Bones and receive guidance as to what to do next. He then also made a successful DC 20 Insight check to better understand what was required.

(2 successes, 0 failures)

I explained that there were three basic components to freeing the Bones from the power of the Dread Ring matching the skills of Arcana, Nature, and Religion. Arcana was needed to sever the ties to the bones of the black dragon that represent a focus of the ritual that has been taking place. Nature represents tapping into the primal power of the Bones so that, to put it crudely, they could "drive" the Bones out of the Dread Ring. Religion was then needed to break the link to the necrotic energies of the Dread Ring. And those making these checks would also need to pass a group Endurance check to avoid losing healing surges due to the power involved.

Griemolt went again making a DC 28 Nature check to control the Bones. They/it would let him "drive". 

(3 successes, 0 failures)

The Arcana-specialist Baelval then flubbed a DC 28 Arcana check: the Bones remained linked to the evil power remaining in the black dragon's bones.

(3 successes, 1 failure)

Baelval tried again and again he failed (rolls of 4 and 3, respectively). 

(3 successes, 2 failures)

Griemolt succeeded at a DC 20 Insight check that did not count toward successes to try and determine what precisely went wrong and how it could be fixed. The problem was determined to be some sort of latent power within the black dragon's bones - probably the soul of the dragon - seeking to hold on to the Bones of the Thunderbeast. If the Dread Ring could instead be "rewired" to the black dragon's bones instead of the Bones of the Thunderbeast then this problem would be largely solved and the DCs for the skill checks would drop markedly (from DC 28 to DC 20).

Baelval's player then remembered an item he had found very early in the campaign, a ring of unknown power known as the Ring of Myrkul which was currently secreted away in a tiny box of lead-lined silver. (The link for the Ring of Myrkul leads to the description of the death twist ring in the D&D Compendium. Going forward, this could prove to be a very useful item for Baelval.)

Opening the box he then made a successful DC 20 Arcana check (not part of the SC) to determine if it could be used in the way that Griemolt had determined and, in simple terms, it could. With the Ring of Myrkul as his focus, Baelval succeeded at a DC 20 Arcana check that breaks the power of the black dragon's soul from the Bones of the Thunderbeast but there is a side effect: the Dread Ring starts to "charge" that soul but the PCs are not yet aware of this.

(4 successes, 2 failures)

We'll be seeing you again!
With the required DC for the skill checks now so much lower, the PCs have no trouble succeeding at the next eight consecutive skill checks, including the group Endurance check.

(12 successes, 2 failures)


But is it really? As the Bones begin to move with the PCs inside, they notice that the bones of the black dragon and remnants of its scales and necrotic slough from the Dread Ring itself start to form into a Gargantuan zombie-like black dragon which unleashes a dirge-like howl as it flies into the shadowy sky. The Bones of the Thunderbeast are free but what exactly did the PCs unleash when Baelval uses the power of the Ring of Myrkul?

(As I alluded to at the beginning of this section, I had always planned on some sort of failure here but this worked out so much better with Baelval being responsible. And why did I want the undead dragon to be freed? It's simple. I want the end of the Neverwinter campaign to be with one last battle against this dragon on the battlements of Castle Never. After all, it's the cover art for the Neverwinter Campaign Setting!)
Vision Quest
aka It's a Montage!

In both the movie The Time Machine with Guy Pearce and Lucy with Scarlett Johansen there are montage scenes involving time travel where the protagonist of the respective movies moves through time witnessing, inter alia, significant geographical changes while otherwise remaining stationary. The descriptions I gave me players as the Bones took them west some 40 miles to the Starmetal Hills were largely informed by watching those movies, something we all had in common.

It was if the PCs were slipping in and out of reality. They were clearly travelling west in the present day and then they would find themselves cast back an unknown period backwards in time so that they could witness the significant changes in the area between the Neverwinter Wood and their destination of the Starmetal Hills. As of yet they did not know why the Bones of the Thunderbeast was taking them west but Griemolt intuitively knew - and explained - that this was an Uthgardt vision quest.

Near the end of their journey, they found themselves far enough back in time that what is now the Neverwinter Wood was a hot, swampy jungle filled with apatosauruses and other dinosaurs/behemoths but also serpentfolk hunters and general serpentine/demonic weirdness but there was more to come. They then found themselves in a time before the Days of Thunder when the primordials were free and they witness/experienced the binding of some of those primordials by the primal spirits - such as the Thunderbeast - now associated with Uthgar and the Uthgardt barbarians.

This was not the end for there was one more vision to come and that is more fully related <here>. The TL;DR version of that post was that the PCs experienced what it meant for Uthgar to defeat/master the Thunderbeast as a mortal in the location where they now found themselves: a small valley in the Starmetal Hills beneath Berun's Hill.

It was also now morning of the next day. What should have been a journey of about 5 hours judging by the speed of the Bones became a journey of some 12 hours no doubt as a result of the Bones walking the world of dreams. (And, yes, that also affected the unsleeping eladrin... which is why I called it a vision quest rather than a dream quest.....)

The PCs are now level 9.

Hills Mean Hill Giants, Right?
aka The First Battle of Berun's Hill
Date: 5 Kythorn 1479 DR

(For those who might be interested, there is more information about Starmetal Hills and Berun's Hill <here>. While I did not use the ideas there, this was the source of my descriptions of the locations to the players.)

The Bones had stopped allowing the PCs to get their bearings in the Starmetal Hills and to properly examine Berun's Hill which was before them. They noticed some wyverns (successful Perception check) riding the thermals nearby but, only a few hundred feet away they spied a wooden steading of the sort preferred by hill giants (as related by both Kurgan and Griemolt).

Griemolt intuitively knew that their destiny, in a sense, lay on top of Berun's Hill but before he could persuade the other PCs to follow him on, Kurgan's player argued that his character would want to deal with the hill giants and others agreed. Griemolt was able to "direct" the Bones to "hide" by entering a narrow defile and then Aelar agreed to assume rat form and scout out the steading so the PCs could prepare their plan of attack.

Using rat form for the first time since probably the second session of the campaign, Aelar managed to climb the structure and then explore the place from the roof beams. He memorised a basic layout and noted that the most important area was the throne room where what must be the hill giant chief and some of his warriors had gathered together with a female ettin (yes, this was the hill giant's bride, aka Bridezilla) for some "sport".

And that "sport" was going to make Kurgan very mad.

The giants had captured five dwarves who were stripped of their armour and had had their legs and ankles crushed, clearly by the stomping of the giants. Hobbled as they were, they clear were not in a condition to escape. 

Two of the five were already dead and were lying on top of the firepit roasting. The she-ettin casually pulled two cooked arms out of their sockets and then set about messily devouring her dwarf-kebabs. But the other three dwarves were being hurled from one end of the Great Hall to the other in a display of strength by the participants... and clearly the chieftain was winning.

Aelar's quick assessment was that they would all be dead in a few minutes so he hurriedly climbed through a gap in the wooden roof and then used his staggering note at-will and an Arcana check to improvise a thunder keyword-powered yell to have the other PCs come running to save the dwarves. Three cheers for the bard's bravery!

Kurgan's anger was inflamed knowing that dwarves were in danger and it was quickly decided that, seeing as the Bones of the Thunderbeast was basically a giant magical, medieval tank, they would simply "drive" it straight into the steading and smash it to pieces on the way through.

Yeah, I liked what happened next. The Bones came smashing into the steading as the PCs planned and the whole thing shook. What followed was a really enjoyable combat between the PCs and the NPCs/monsters that Aelar had already spotted plus a cave bear which I neglected to mention above.

The hill giant chief, Nosnra, was a level 8 elite skirmisher (leader) while the normal hill giants were level 8 brutes. Like a marilith, he can move and attack and, in doing so, he slides enemies out of the spaces he needs to enter. If he cannot slide them, his movement ends but he gains a frustration bonus to damage. Every time he misses, he gains a cumulative +5 damage bonus to his next successful attack. This bonus resets to 0 after he hits and deals damage. His leader ability is that he shares this bonus with those in his leader aura. That proved to be very effective especially when he was locked down by Kurgan and unable to hit. But, ultimately, with Aelar up in the rafters "directing traffic", the eladrin wizard controlling the battlefield, and the two heavy-hitters doing what they do best, it was only a matter of time before Nosnra et al fell. Sadly, the dwarves all died but Kurgan made sure they had a proper burial.

Oh, and while that combat was taking place, the Bones went on a rampage ensuring there were no reinforcements and, ultimately, that there was no trace of the steading once it had stomped it into the ground. However, the PCs made sure to recover quite a lot of treasure (nothing magical) before the steading was no more.

The Second Battle of Berun's Hill

By this point, it was clear that the players' blood was pumping - and that translates to the PCs also being ready for some more violence - so we quickly proceeded to the actual top of Berun's Hill where reality and Uthgardt visions merged once more as described above. But before the visions happened, the Bones of the Thunderbeast sank into the earth without trace....

This time, however, it was clear that Griemolt was Uthgar in the vision related <here> and the other PCs were also human barbarians in their appearance - Aelar was a skald, Baelval was a shaman, and Kurgan was a taller Kurgan - and it was now plain that they would be facing the same challenge of the Thunderbeast that Uthgar had once faced.

Oh Yeah, That Stat Block...

I must admit, I am not a really big fan of solo monsters. Frankly, I find them far too dangerous particularly post-Monster Manual 3 which is, of course, what they are supposed to be. They're even more dangerous when they're 3 levels higher than the party and can dish out as much damage as the beastie to the right can dish out (and it was worse before I revised it as I originally had it as a brute...).

... and the Battle Begins

And it was carnage.
Both Aelar and Baelval would have been dropped to 0 hit points in the first round and before they had even acted from a couple of critical hits which they were fortunately able to ignore by activating a couple of daily item powers from the alternative reward granted to them by Sel√Ľne. Realising they were in deep trouble, the players decided to read the story of the Bones of the Thunderbeast in full. (I may have hinted there were some clues there.)
In short, they realised the key to victory was getting on the back of the creature which they quickly did. Baelval's fey step and Iliyanbruen Guardian character theme-granted ability to teleport himself and another even ensure that the eladrin and Aelar got on their without too much trouble . After that, with a close call after Aelar missed an Acrobatics check and fell off, it was only another round before the beast went down and the PCs returned to reality to find that none of their wounds were real and none of their resources expended. 

More importantly, they then watched the Bones of the Thunderbeast rise up from the earth in front of them but it was clear that now they were free of corruption and nothing was missing. Griemolt clearly felt Uthgar's gratitude and pride in his achievement. (And this DM was beginning to regret that we wouldn't be taking this campaign to the Epic tier....)

Now that was an EPIC session and the perfect way to kick off our first 4E session of the year. Hopefully there is much more to come, and more regularly.

I think upgrading the bladesinger to a proper wizard has also made an enormous difference. It is definitely an upgrade despite how effective the bladesinger has been for much of the campaign. I don't think these players will avoid having a proper controller in their future parties.

So, join us in our next episode when our heroes journey in the equivalent of a magical, medieval tank to Morgur's Mound where they will restore the Bones of the Thunderbeast to their rightful place after first defeating the wraith of Gurt, Lord of the Pale Giants and then racing against time to stop the awakening of the tarrasque....